Randy Newman: “America is taking backwards steps”

Songwriter Randy Newman on the break-up of his marriage, Donald Trump – and why peer approval means more to him than winning Oscars

I was already writing songs from the time I was 16. I was going down to Hollywood and to the publishing company and doing my songs. I played cards every week. I had a girlfriend when I was 18, I think. But nothing much. Some drugs, some alcohol – but I guess music is what I was interested in then.

I didn’t know it but apparently the new decade was bringing in an exciting time, especially in the field I was in, music. In the latter part of the 1960s, singer-songwriters became almost the norm. I never thought performing would be my career. Never. I did it and I liked it. I liked it better than writing. You are there, people are applauding and they are laughing if you say something funny – and then you are gone. It is not like a recording where you go back and work on it. Some people like that better, the hermetically sealed contemplative style.

Randy Newman in 1979

I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence so I needed to be pushed with everything. My friend Lenny Waronker was responsible for me starting songwriting. I would always play him things first. And even when I would fall out with the tune and say it was no good – and I would really mean it – he would tell me it was really good. He started me off, and for years he was my courage.

I would give my younger self the advice I give kids who ask me for advice now. You have to show up for it every day. Do it. I haven’t gotten many ideas when I wasn’t trying to have an idea. It doesn’t come to me when I am driving or in the shower like it does for some people.

I didn’t ever have this deep-seated confidence that I would make it

Most of the kids don’t have the problem I had. They are a hell of a lot more confident than I ever was, unless they are putting it on. I didn’t ever have this deep-seated confidence that I would make it. I always felt a lot of weight on me. I would tell my younger self to enjoy the process. I don’t know whether my younger self would listen.

I’m surprised a song like I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, which is at least 50 years old, is still around. It never felt like it would last. I was very excited when Ray Charles did Sail Away and Joe Cocker and Tom Jones did You Can Leave Your Hat On. The best of them though, to me, is Etta James doing God’s Song. It took some real courage for her to do that. She did a number of my songs. I wish I had met her.

Oscars

I’m proud of the Oscar nominations [Randy Newman has been nominated for 20 Oscars, winning twice] but less so than the respect of the musicians. That is the biggest thing for me – the fact that they like my stuff. It probably means an inord-inate amount because when I was about five years old in New Orleans I would be at the sound stage next to the horn players, some of the best in the world, and there they were – I respected them so much. And the fact that now the people doing that think I am good means a lot to me.

I was trying to write a song for Frank Sinatra Jr when I came up with Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear – and that provoked a change in my songwriting. I wrote it in 1964, and I was trying to come up with rhymes for “Suzie”, and it was like “Suzie, doozy”, it had a lyric like, with a girl’s name in the title. I couldn’t take it! I thought of “coat to wear” and then “bear” came in to my mind and it set me off to the style that I still write in today. There are songs I could have written in 1965 or 2015. It is the same guy, clearly, for a long time.

Randy Newman with Oscar Award

I was a political person from pretty early on. And I don’t know that my views have changed much. I was always aware, since I was a little boy, of racism. I saw it in New Orleans – “colored” and “whites” written on ice-cream
wagons and at drinking fountains. I don’t mean to give myself any nobility that I don’t actually have but I didn’t like it as a really little boy. I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t. My father was a difficult man in a lot of ways but he didn’t have a trace of bigotry in him. Nothing. He hated everybody!

Having adult children – there is no way you can countenance that if you are 16. You can’t imagine it. I find myself saying things that my father said that I didn’t like at the time. As a parent I try to be a little different. I try not to impose my taste or aesthetic or lifestyle choices on them. Some parents will say, this is Led Zeppelin, this is good; or this is The Beatles and this is good. I never did, I let them find that stuff themselves, which they did. They found both Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. But not much applies. My kids are very different from me.

I would like to have one last conversation with my mother

I learnt stuff from my father and mother but I can’t articulate what it might have been. I am having trouble with that idea. I think my dad wasn’t too bad at listening and I have always been fairly good at it. I would like to have one last conversation with my mother. It seems as if, in the house she was in with my brother, me and my father, she didn’t get the chance to express herself the way she might have done. When I did talk to her she had a lot to say but she was quite squashed. I would like to take a shot – it would be interesting to see what she had to say, where my brother and I come from. I wouldn’t mind talking to my mother again.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

I would just tell my younger self that everything is going to be all right. I’m not sure I would specify what real difficulties will lie ahead. Drugs never hit me too bad but probably took some time away from me. I might warn him about that. I could warn that the break-up of my first marriage, when that broke up and the beginning of my second marriage – that was a
difficult time. I don’t know what I could tell him to avoid it. There is no way of avoiding it.

To my younger self the idea of Donald Trump being president would be shocking. I have been railing against people like him forever. A song like Rednecks, it sort of works now, mentioning all those ghettoes, but it isn’t as true that the north assumes an attitude of moral superiority. Everyone knows that it is bad everywhere. Things are a little better, I think, than they were. But not by much. We are taking backwards steps. No funding for public television? Such an odd sort of thing to do. And they will go backwards on civil rights. That is terrible. We thought we’d won those battles.

Randy Newman’s new album Dark Matter is out now