Only half an hour separates the exclusive Pacific Palisades locale from the bustle of West Hollywood. But on a typically sunny Friday morning, it seems like another world. Traffic noise has been replaced by the faint hiss of lawn sprinklers. Nearby, a food van sates the appetites of workers who tend the gardens of those who live here. The gates of Randy Newman’s huge bay-fronted house open to let you in, and – if only for its title – your internal jukebox cues up Newman’s My Life Is Good. In that song, our protagonist happens upon Bruce Springsteen in a hotel and is told, “Hey Rand. I’m tired. How would you like to be the boss for a while?” To anyone familiar with Newman’s acerbic character studies and often unpalatable truths about the American psyche, it’s hard to think of an artist more ill-suited to Boss-like gestures of fist-pumping sincerity. And he knows it. “I’ve never felt completely like I’ve been part of something,” he smiles, “Sure, I’m American, but a feeling remains that they could turn on me at any moment.”
Yet, somewhere along the way, Newman became an unlikely national treasure here. His recent triumph at the Oscars for We Belong Together, the song he wrote and performed for Toy Story 3, sealed his status. Grabbing a bright red energy drink from his fridge, the ursine 67 year-old – his shaggy brown mane long since tamed into something short and silver – leads me into the garden. Beside us, Newman’s dog drinks from a bowl that has a canine water cooler attached to it. “Did I know I was going to win?” he ponders, “Well, let’s put it this way. Some years, you know when you haven’t won. Which is just as well, because I’d been nominated 15 times before I won my first Oscar [for If I Didn’t Have You from Monsters Inc]. So your nerves would be shot if you were primed every single time.”
To many Americans, this is what Newman does best of all. Since putting words and chords to the love that bonds boy to toy on You’ve Got A Friend In Me, Newman has been the go-to guy when Pixar and Disney need their narratives to burst into song. There’s a certain irony here that hasn’t escaped him. Anyone looking to alight on the difference between Randy Newman the film composer and the Randy Newman who pleases himself, it can perhaps be summed up in the aside he uttered at a show a few years ago, after you played You’ve Got A Friend In Me: “It’s a fucking lie, but what do you expect? It’s a cartoon.”
Before Toy Story though, Newman’s only crossover moment happened way back in 1977, when he landed himself a massive hit with Short People, it should have been cause for celebration. But Newman found to his cost that when you cross over when a song whose chorus goes, “Don’t want no short people round here”, success brings with it certain complications. No matter that his intentions had been merely to satirise the arbitrary nature of prejudice – by the time Newman’s song reached the top of the American charts, any satirical intent seemed to have long evaporated from it. “I’m not dumb. It became pretty obvious to me that – no matter how lofty my aims – what I had was a novelty. It was essentially [Lonnie Donegan’s only US hit] Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight. It was one of those hit records that actually makes you less popular.” Not for nothing does Newman refer to Short People as “the worst kind of hit anyone could have.” When Little Criminals – the album that accompanied Short People – came out, he announced a tour, only to receive death threats from vertically-challenged minorities.
“You never forget your first death threat!” he declares in an accent part inherited from his Louisiana-born mother. “It was in Memphis. My manager at the time had been tour-managing The Carpenters and he said they got death threats all the time. I said, ‘All the time? Really?’ He said that if they refused to come on every time they had a death threat, there would never be a show. So I just went on and did it. Later, I learned the truth. The Carpenters had never had a death threat. But there it was. I survived.”
In fact, you can trace a line of incorrigible contrarianism than runs through the whole of Newman’s career. His earliest years, spent in New Orleans have exerted a huge influence on his piano style. He was born into a family of gifted musicians. Though his father became a doctor, he continued to write songs throughout his whole life – whilst his uncle Alfred Newman amassed a total of nine Oscars for his own soundtrack work. As a songwriter-for-hire, the young Newman penned I Think It’s Going To Rain Today. Once again, if there was any irony intended in this gentle lampoon of the oversensitive young folksinger, it was lost by the time the likes of Judy Collins and Neil Diamond adopted it as their own.
Among those who loved the song were Frank Sinatra. In 1969, having seen My Way struggled to a pitiful number 27, Sinatra looked to Newman to deliver his next standard. When they met in a Los Angeles studio, Newman played him Lonely At The Top. Cutting straight to the vacuum beneath the Sinatra persona, the young songwriter, sang, “I’ve been around the world/Had my pick of any girl/You’d think I’d be happy/But I’m not.” Sinatra walked out. Any regrets? Now 12 years older than Sinatra was at this briefest of encounters, Newman concedes a laconic shrug, “I noticed that it was a big deal. But what can I say? It wasn’t like I thought I was in the presence of the god. There’s something about being in the presence of the very famous. Nicole Kidman, yes. Helena Bonham-Carter at the Oscars, sure. But Sinatra… not so much, actually. I didn’t feel like I was under his spell.”
One way for Newman to ensure his songs were performed as he envisaged them was to sing them himself. Aged 25 and expecting a child with his wife Roswitha, Newman scored a hatful of sublime baroque pop arrangements for his self-titled debut, which featured atheist showstopper I Think He’s Hiding and the Davy The Fat Boy – a song whose protagonist persuades the subject’s dying parents to let him look after him, only to hand him over to a circus freak show. Initial sales were poor, however. Newman’s low rasping timbre was deemed a hard sell – an issue his label attempted to address with music press adverts that read, “Once you get used to it, his voice is really something.” Newman doesn’t need too much prompting at the mention of those ads. “Isn’t that shitty?” he laughs, “I hated that. Who the hell is going to buy anything on the promise that they’ll get used to the shittiness of his voice?’”
Newman’s twisted orchestral showtunes were out of step in a Los Angeles which saw fellow inhabitants The Doors, Love and The Seeds setting the countercultural agenda. That’s not to say he wasn’t relying on some of the same stimulants as his peers. “I remember falling asleep with the pencil in my hand putting those songs together. God knows what drugs I was on.” Momentarily, he pauses to remember what drugs he was on. I took amphetamines for a while.”
In his father, Newman had an unlikely drug counsellor. “Some of his patients were composers, so he knew what they were taking. He didn’t want them to have a competitive edge on me. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to anyone outside family – but, yeah, that was the rationale.”
Newman adds that, despite how it might seem now, it wasn’t so perverse to be making ornately fashioned pop in L.A. in the late-60s. Alongside Van Dyke Parks, Ry Cooder and – “to a certain extent extent, Harry Nilsson” – he regards himself as part of a coterie of singer-songwriters who “attempted to carry on as though we’d never heard of the Rolling Stones. Looking back we were like a race of homosapiens that died out. We were like homoerectus!”
Ensuing albums saw Newman further finesse the art of writing songs that aren’t all they seem on first inspection. Heading up 1972’s Sail Away, the album’s title track was written from the perspective of an American slave trader, attempting to lure indigenous Africans onto his ship. On 1974’s Good Old Boys – an album which saw Newman assume the guise of various characters from the Deep South – he sang Rednecks. “We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground,” went the chorus. In fact, the song sought to address northern Americans who felt themselves superior despite living in cities that housed sprawling black ghettos.
Sometimes it seems as though Randy Newman has gone out of his way to be misunderstood. Part of it is quite simply to do with his sense of humour. As he readily admits, “If a laugh’s big enough, I’ll do it – I’ll dig up my mother.” His mistrust of the everyman role may be down to the fact that those alpha male qualities elude him. Some artists, he observes, have to work harder for the adulation that just seems to naturally find other artists: “People love Springsteen. They really do. Whereas someone like Billy Joel – people don’t love him exactly. Once every three or four years, he’d have to reinvent himself to have another hit for that kind of audience.”
If Newman can’t help but speak from the perspective of an outsider, that’s probably no accident. From his altogether more confessional 1988 album Land of Dreams, Four Eyes is a tart memoir of a childhood blighted by the fact that he was born with crossed eyes. This is where we are invited to imagine the infant writer in his Roy Rogers outfit being taunted by his classmates for his “They said ‘Four Eyes!/Look like you’re still sleeping!” In the song, his father stands on the sidelines reluctant to get involved on the pretext that this is what the real world is like.
Even new, several operations later, Newman still suffers from 20/20 vision. It might also explain why he has crashed so many cars. “I had about 15 accidents in the first few years of driving. In fact, the very first time I drove a car, I caught the bumper on the hook of the garage and brought the whole thing down. That was the very first foot I drove.” On a speakeasy shuffle called Potholes, from Newman’s 2008 album Harps & Angels, the ghost of his father resurfaces, deriving amusement from a harrowing childhood baseball game which saw Newman walk off in tears after pitching unsuccessfully to 14 consecutive batsmen. “I never wrote a truer song than that one,” he laughs. “Within minutes of meeting [his current wife] Gretchen, my father told her that story. Of all the stories, he could have told her about me, this was the first piece of information he volunteered! I mean, where is the punchline to a story like that?!”
If pressed, Newman will tell you that the last time he cried was the first time he watched Toy Story 3; before that it would have been the death of Ray Charles. But left to his own devices, this most urbane of hosts comes alive when wringing the comic content from any story. His favourite sit-com, perhaps surprisingly, is Graham Linehan’s nerd-com The I.T. Crowd. However, in recent years Newman has felt emboldened enough to foreground the pathos in the relationships he writes about. On 1999’s Bad Love, he wrote a song for his ex-wife – I Miss You – something he never got around to while he was still married to her. His new album Randy Newman’s Songbook, Vol 2 (the first appeared in 2003) further emphasizes that shift. Written from the perspective of someone who realizes they don’t have enough years left to get over the death of a loved one, Losing You is one of his most affecting songs. His newly sparse reading of Same Girl – in which a pimp attempts to persuade a prostitute that she’s just as beautiful as she was before he met her – is improbably moving.
Newman waves a dismissive hand at the notion that he might have needed therapy to get over some of his childhood adversities – and, on this, you believe him. Is he any warmer to his than his father was to him? “Oh, I think so. I mean, if you’re around babies, it’s not hard is it? They got all kinds of tricks. They smell good, little bastards.” He warms to the theme. “I once got a letter from my daughter saying that she wouldn’t want a regular dad who fixes things and all that stuff. It was more like a dad who knows who Morrissey is; who plays Devendra Banhart.”
Which, presumably, he does? “Oh yeah! Are you kidding? I love The Smiths. Morrissey knows he’s funny. It’s not like he’s doing comedy and he doesn’t know it. In my head, I imagine Johnny Marr meticulously arranging these backing tracks so that you have this pristine ready-made hit, then Morrissey comes in and… ” – Newman slips into a surreal approximation of the Morrissey timbre – ‘Punctured bicycle/On a hillside desolate.’ It’s irresistible!”
When all is said and done, does he think posterity will reduce or magnify his achievements? “Oh, I’m under no illusions,” he says, “The first two lines of the obituary will mention the Oscars and the Grammys. They’ll refer to me as the composer of Short People. And they’ll probably mention Family Guy.”
Ah yes. The episode of Family Guy which takes a gentle pot-shot at Newman for his conversational songwriting style. In the wake of the apocalypse, the Griffin family drive of in search of food. They find a house with an apple tree beside it. The only problem is that Newman is sitting there “all night and say, singing about what he sees.”
“I thought it was sorta funny,” he says, aware of how unconvincing he sounds, “When it came on… I was like, ‘I’m not like that! I don’t write about everything I see so specifically. Then I caught my kids looking at me in that way only your kids can look at you.” Randy Newman examines the dregs of his energy drink and ponders the occupational hazards of being a national treasure. “But hey, at least I’ll get an obituary,” he laughs. “Small mercies.”