A LIFE IN SONG

Af­ter six decades in the in­dus­try, Randy New­man still finds no short­age of in­spi­ra­tion — hu­mor­ous or oth­er­wise — for his mu­sic, writes, Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

Randy New­man takes his hu­mour se­ri­ously. “Some­times I’ll write a song and the last joke is in the mid­dle of it,” says the 73-year-old singer and com­poser. “That’s not right.” Cer­tainly there’s an abun­dance of hu­mour — much of it satir­i­cal — on his lat­est work, the al­bum Dark Mat­ter, his first stu­dio re­lease since 2008’s Harps and An­gels, which is re­leased next Fri­day.

“It’s a funny thing,” he says with no hint of irony, “how much com­edy I do. I’ve been think­ing about that. When I was young the fam­ily would sit and watch com­edy on tele­vi­sion. My father liked it and my mother liked it and I liked it too. There’s no­body, apart from ‘ Weird Al’ Yankovic, who has more com­edy in their stuff than I do. I don’t know if the medium is good for it, but I like it, so I do it.”

It’s hard not to smile at the lyri­cal thrust of Putin, for ex­am­ple, a song from Dark Mat­ter he re­leased just be­fore the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion last year, which, with New­man’s tongue firmly in cheek, ex­tols the virtues of the Rus­sian leader, shirt­less and oth­er­wise.

“He can drive his gi­ant trac­tor / across the Trans-Siberian plain / he can power a nu­clear re­ac­tor / with the left side of his brain / and when he takes his shirt off / he drives the ladies crazy / when he takes his shirt off / makes me wanna be a lady.”

On the song Sonny Boy, blues­man Sonny Boy Williamson be­moans, from heaven, his place be­ing taken at a con­cert by an im­per­son­ator. Then there’s the nine-minute open­ing track, The Great De­bate, in which New­man’s song­writ­ing and film com­poser chops go head to head in a genre-hop­ping epic based around the peren­nial ar­gu­ment of sci­ence ver­sus re­li­gion, with an as­sort­ment of char­ac­ters voic­ing nu­mer­ous points of view.

“That was re­ally hard to do,” he says. “I won­dered whether it was pos­si­ble, whether it would be clear enough for it to be in­ter­est­ing to peo­ple and whether it would be in­ter­est­ing enough to jus­tify its length.”

New­man, who across his six decades as a pro­fes­sional tune­smith has writ­ten mu­sic for film, tele­vi­sion and mu­si­cal theatre as well as pop mu­sic for him­self and others, has earned the right to in­dulge him­self. Hu­mour is one as­pect of what he does, yet to sug­gest that his schtick is merely to raise a laugh would do him a great dis­ser­vice. Much of his craft as a song­writer has been in the guise of cul­tural ob­server, dig­ging around in the un­der­belly of Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal and so­cial malaise and meld­ing his thoughts, in rhyme, to ex­quis­ite melodies. He’s a ro­man­tic, too, as bal­lads such as She Chose Me and Wan­der­ing Boy from Dark Mat­ter demon­strate.

The Los An­ge­les-based mu­si­cian has been craft­ing hit songs since he was 17. One of his best-known ones, I Think It’s Go­ing to Rain To­day, which ap­peared on his 1968 self-ti­tled de­but al­bum, has been recorded by at least 50

Randy New­man has won three Em­mys and six Gram­mys

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