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

But obviously "Harps and Angels" matters a great deal. I mean, it's not the title song just because it's a catchy title. It's the opening track. There are thematic concerns, and obviously some pride and pleasure with that song. When that song comes to you so close to the deadline, do ever start believing in gifts?

Yeah, I get them all the time. I mean, I got more when I was younger. But sometimes when you're writing, as you sound like you know, things fall on you. But it falls on you because you've been sitting there working at it.

Oh yeah. The harder you work the luckier you get.

That's right. You've got to show up to have it happen. But I was working at it. And another thing that made me very happy was the arrangement in the "Potholes" [he hums the part]. That I thought of kind of late, and it made the song so much more interesting for me.

Don't get me wrong. Some of the best things that happened to me happened in the studio, when I get an idea that I like. But it almost has to be comedic or something. I like comedy so much better in general. It's so much often easier to make me laugh than it is to move me with a drama that I tend write more of it than other composers do.

So do songs like "I Miss You" and "Marie" go through a stricter editing process to make sure that you're comfortable. . .

I'm perfectly comfortable with it.

I mean, I think as an exercise I'm going to write just some straight love songs to see if I can do it. I know I can, actually. So I will. But "Marie" has an idea. With "Marie" a guy's drunk and he's able to tell her these things, and he recognizes that. It's a simple, kind of humble thing but, you know, honest. Things he'd never say. "Losing You" has an idea that at a certain age you reach a point where you don't get over stuff that happens. You don't live long enough to do it. And "Miss You" is about giving up on a first wife, and it's about writing. It's about saying, 'I know all the harm this is doing, but I'd sell my soul, your soul and my soul, for a song.' And I would. Almost. That's kind of writerly bravura. You know, I'd dig up my mother for a song. I believe that it's true of me, that it's important enough to me that I would sacrifice quite a bit for it.

But songs like "Miss You" seem like they almost have to take more out of you effort-wise, more out of you personally than, as you say, writing a comedy.

No. Sometimes performing it, I'll think about what I'm saying, and it'll get to me. But it doesn't take more out of me to write them, no. I mean, "The World Isn't Fair" was hard to write. "Harps and Angels" turned out to be very hard to write.

Okay. So this is the only other movie question I'm going to ask. What's your relationship with Disney movies that don't come with a Randy Newman soundtrack? Because "Laugh and Be Happy" seems like it could've easily been inspired by one of those great Phil Harris songs from Jungle Book.

Yeah, I love those. It probably was, but I wrote it for Cats Don't Dance many years ago. That may be the oldest. But I wrote that for the animators because they were having such a hard time. They kept changing . . . not the director so much, but the producers kept changing the idea of the movie. And it started at the same time as James and the Giant Peach and Toy Story did, and it looked the most promising to me. You know, it's a veiled allegory about African-Americans in motion pictures. And so I wrote it for them. And it goes a lot of places harmonically I wouldn't go ordinarily.

It's a rare occurrence, but Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" came back around when Princess Diana died, and of course "Louisiana 1927" is pretty much the unofficial anthem one of the most shameful moments in our government's history. Are there mixed emotions?

No.

What's it like to have that song adopted, to have that song mean so much to people, giving them empathy but at the same time having it come out of such a tragic event?

Yeah. Me too. My emotion is that I can't . . . You know, even people who are doing it, they're not smiling. They're doing it . . . You know, in that song, there was a disconnect between Washington and the South and what kind of care they took of it, in the days of Hoover. But that's also that little bit of Southern paranoia, that all evil comes from the North and the federal government. That's bullshit. The federal government's done okay by them at times. But they sure as hell didn't this time. And with that flood, you know, the guys who ran the Mardi Gras, the bosses in New Orleans decided the course of that flood. You know, they cut a hole in the levee and it flooded the cotton fields. So it isn't like I wrote about it, though I think some of it did get down to Plaquemine, but not to New Orleans.

Obviously it's two different situations, two different causes of tragedy . . .

It's the same thing, though. It's the same kind of devastation.

But the line "They're trying to wash us away" holds true for both. That line is a bell. It rings and it rings. It's like a church bell in an empty town. It stays with you long after the song is gone.

It's more true . . . I don't know exactly. I don't know what the federal government did about '27. The Army Corps of Engineers fucked up the River so completely they turned it into, you know, like a ramp. But in any case, I don't know what kind of error it was, but this one was certainly federal.

Absolutely.

If you've ever been in Louisiana . . . and you don't have to be there a minute and a half . . . I realized this state was dysfunctional. Are you kidding? Of course it's dysfunctional.

But I'm glad, you know, most of the time. And the city. Are you kidding? You can't get anything done there. The federal government had to be there. It was too big. You put it . . . The most shameful moment of the federal government. Yeah. You know, if attacking someone who didn't attack us isn't, that is.

You mentioned being proud of the song "Old Man," but not playing it live because it's too hard to get the audience back.

That's what I thought. I mean, I played it four or five times and I couldn't get anyone to laugh at anything for a while.

But you've got such an extensive catalog. And there are so many people who are going to come to a Randy Newman show and have their own particular favorites that are more than likely different from the person sitting next to us. I love "Wedding in Cherokee County," for example. And I doubt that's the number one choice of . . .

They like it, though. You know, I've got things that are funny, but sometimes the vulgarity of it, and having no background, no interesting music behind it, facilitates against me doing it.

With so many songs to choose from, and a certain segment of songs, like "Short People," that you probably have to play in order to get to the parking lot safely.

But that's fine with me to play that, though.

Do you imagine that you will be playing "Louisiana, 1927" at every show you play until you retire?

I wouldn't have, because it's the same tune as "Sail Away" and it's not quite as good a song maybe. But yeah, I do. I figure I'll be playing it now because people want to hear it.

And you're okay with that.

I'm okay with it. The song feels good. I mean, the arrangement of it was very good. I mean, it just happened to work out. It was in the right part of the orchestra by accident. I was surprised at how well it worked, with the organ and the triangle and everything.

Last question. Carnegie Hall has often been equated with making the majors as a baseball player. I know you've played there before and I know you're going to play there again, but is it still a special thing, where you're thinking, 'My goodness, I might actually be good at this because I'm playing Carnegie Hall in New York.'

That doesn't happen because, you know, Carnegie Hall isn't like 100 percent. And nothing else is either. But I know where I am. You know, Rachmaninoff played there. Serious people have played there. New York always makes me a little more nervous just because of the attention you get.

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