Interview: Randy Newman on 'Harps and Angels' and Hurricane Katrina

Randy Newman returns to Carnegie Hall next Friday, September 19. Tickets on sale here.


photo by Pamela Springsteen

Before our hellos are complete, Randy Newman has tagged my Southern accent. His father attended the University of Alabama. And he offers that his mother maintained a regional twang all her life, bemoaning that "people are losing it now, like it's something bad."

Though Newman is most often identified with Southern California thanks to his second biggest mid-career hit "I Love L.A." and nearly 30 years' worth of composing for movies and television (one win from 17 Academy Award nominations for not even close to his best song and four wins out of 12 nominations at the Grammys), he has consistently revisited his Southern roots, most notably with Good Old Boys. That 1974 release includes "Louisiana 1927," a song now permanently connected with Hurricane Katrina thanks to the immediacy of its empathetic chorus, "They're trying to wash us away."

Newman's latest album, Harps and Angels (his first non-soundtrack in nine years, and just his second in the past 19), is drawing critical raves. So we used it as the core of our songwriting discussion, taking sidetrips through the South and one of the most shameful moments in the history of the federal government on our way home. -- Rob Trucks

Tell me one thing you've never ever done before in your life.

I've never jumped out of a plane in a parachute.

Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.

Jesus Christ. I was staying with a girl in a house, and I didn't know where the hell I was and I went to the bathroom and I got in bed with her roommate.

Okay. Tell me the name of a book that you've read at least twice.

I read The Memoirs of [Hector] Berlioz twice.

A movie that you've seen at least three times.

42nd Street.

And where do you keep your Oscar?

On a shelf in the den.

All right, so let's get to the stuff that counts. I've heard you say many times that songwriting is painful. Certainly a weekend on the wrong side of the fence at Guantanamo Bay or an unanaesthetized root canal has to be worse, but where is it relatively? Is it really that kind of drag your feet, "I don't want to go in there" kind of pain?

It's not as bad as it used to be. I mean, it used to be 'I don't want to go in there,' and then when I'm out I'm thinking, 'Why aren't I in there?' Like I'm happy watching television or, you know, watching a ballgame. I don't get any peace of mind. I don't get any peace of mind any other way either, but it was on my mind a lot and I didn't understand why the hell I wasn't going in there and doing it. I can explain it intellectually, but I can't explain it any other way.

Do you do it because you feel guilty if you don't?

Yeah. One time I ran out of money, my wife told me, and I had to do it.

We all get motivation from different places.

I've done enough of it, you know. I feel like I'm not as bad as I used to be about that. I mean I will go in there when I don't have anything necessarily else to do and work on it. The one thing about it, when you start doing movies and you're a motion picture composer, it adds to it in that you have to work every day for long hours until the job's done. So when you don't have to do anything you kind of don't want to have to do it. John Williams [New York-born composer of Star Wars, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtracks] writes every day of his life. When he's not doing a picture he'll be writing a piece, and there are guys who have that habit and I don't.

Critics are once again gushing over your new album. Have there been times when the critical reception was something more akin to disappointment or even a good, old-fashioned raking over the coals?

You know, I'll tell you the truth, I don't . . . I will say, very seldom read them. If they're bad I don't want to see it, and if they're good . . . it just isn't going to do me much good.

Every once in a while someone will show me one, or Disney was complaining about the thing I did for Rolling Stone, slightly, because I mentioned, in a flippant way, the alligator or something like that [Newman, while walking a RS reporter through his home, referred to a piece of sheet music for the upcoming Disney feature The Princess and the Frog by saying, "This is a song I had to write for a goddamn alligator."). And it was just being out of shape for interviews, because I'm smart enough not to do that usually. And I don't feel like I'm doing lower work.

So are you completely dependent on just yourself to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the not as good as it should be?

Well, I am. With the movies, I have bosses.

But with your own records―Harps and Angels, Bad Love, Good Old Boys―yeah, you've got bosses at the record company but they don't get to play around in the process. They only get to hear the material after it's finished.

That's right. Occasionally . . . with songs no one's ever much told me anything. They'll say something about an arrangement, a producer will, but I've been left alone, and was very fortunate early on that we were allowed to fail―[Ry] Cooder, me, Bonnie [Raitt], Lowell [George] with Little Feat. And we did. But nowadays I don't think [modern songwriters] get the same chances.

It's been nine years since Bad Love, so not all of these songs on Harps and Angels are newborns.

[laughs]

And I know that you bring out new songs when you play live. Are you ever test-driving material? Do you ever let audience reaction affect your own opinion of your work?

No, not my own opinion, but whether I play it or not sometimes. I will play "Red Bandana," for instance, whether an audience particularly likes it or not. But I like it. I don't play "Old Man," which on paper is one of my best songs, but it's so depressing I can't get the audience back for a while.

You've been playing "In Defense of Our Country" for a few years now.

Yeah. And will have another year or so to play it maybe.

But the audience response doesn't help you decide whether or not it's going to go on a record, for example.

No. I mean, I knew that one. If I've got it and I like it enough to play it for an audience, and have courage enough to play it . . . For instance, I added something to the Supreme Court verse in that song. I said, 'I defy you to find anywhere in the world two Italians like the two Italians we've got.' I added 'two Italians as tight-assed as we've got,' and they laughed. And so . . . I was going to do it anyway, but because they laughed at it . . . made me keep it there.

It was validation of something you'd already decided.

Yeah.

So then what's the newest song on the album?

The ones I finished in the last week . . . I wasn't going to do "Harps and Angels."

Really?

I didn't have two of the angels things. I didn't have an ending, really. It just wasn't enough to do it. That and "Only a Girl" I finished a couple of days before I recorded them. "Only a Girl" has still got things like I should've gotten better, but I couldn't.


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