Randy Newman: 'I would never not play You've Got a Friend in Me'

The singer is back with his first album in nine years, complete with songs about Putin and medical research. But he still plays the Toy Story tear-jerkers too

Hello Randy. Where are you?

I’m in Reno, Nevada. I played here last night. It was fun. Nice people.

Are your fans generally nice people?

Well, I would probably think so.

We last spoke nine years ago, when you released Harps and Angels. You are averaging a decade between albums. How long do they actually take to make?

In concentrated working time, my new one (1) probably took a year and a half. The real challenge is committing to the time. Writing is something I’ve never particularly liked doing, but I’m better than I used to be.

Lots of older artists pretend they’re retiring to juice ticket sales. Now’s your chance.

Yeah! A “Last Chance to See” kind of tour. But no, I don’t see that happening. I’ve wondered all my working life why people don’t retire in showbusiness, and it’s fairly simple. There’s nobody applauding at home, so we keep going.

You often write songs about politics but they’re never overt protest songs that tell the listener what to think.

Well, I have real respect for the intelligence of the audience. Ambiguity interests me because things aren’t black and white. I’ve always hated people who were sure they were right, on either side. I have to take sides, though. In a song like My Life is Good, I want people to notice that the guy is an asshole.

Talking of which, how did you find a way to write a pop song about Putin? (2)

I was inspired by an old gospel song called Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’, and by the odd shirt-off stuff that works in his country. He’s not only the richest man in the world and the most powerful, but he wants to be Tom Cruise at the same time.

It’s very topical. He’s in the news every day now …

He is, more so than ever because he may well be one of the most powerful people in our country.

You wrote a song about Trump, too. (3) Why did you drop it?

It was just too vulgar. There’s no point in adding to the general vulgarity. He’s almost too much; too easy a target. But I wish I’d kept my mouth shut about having written the song if I was going to bury it.

He appeals to an ugly part of the American psyche. Did you always know it was there?

I didn’t know it was there to that extent. A lot of the people who voted for him are angry at the 21st century, I think. They don’t want to see naked people on their television, the music coming out of cars real loud. He captured that kind of cultural rebellion – people who want to go back in time, imagining wrongly that it was better.

Would the narrator of Rednecks (4) like Trump?

Yeah, he probably would. The south voted for him. In some ways the civil war never really ended. There’s often a resentment that they’re being told what to do and they just can’t stand that.

Is it a difficult song to play now because of the N-word?

Yes. You have to have a really, really good reason – and it may not be a good enough reason – to use that word. I’ve played it, but it has a whole boring preamble that I am required, and want, to give. You have to justify somehow the fact that that word is in there.

You often adopt a character in song. Would you have made a good actor?

No. I’d be too self-conscious. I did a skit on a TV show one time and I was terrible.

Have you been offered cameo roles?

Yeah, but I turned them down. Some of them were fairly big films, actually. (5)

It’s been 22 years since the first Toy Story movie. Do you now have adult fans who discovered you that way and then got into, say, In Germany Before the War?

I don’t know if they’ve gotten that far but certainly the first time they heard me was You’ve Got a Friend in Me. I would never not play it now. It’s too big a deal to some people.

When She Loved Me, from Toy Story 2 (6), must have made more people cry than any other song you have written. Was it based on personal experience or is it literally just about a girl and a toy?

For me, it’s about the girl and the toy, but of course I have to find my way to it. Inevitably some of my own experience seeps in there.

Is it true you wrote Baltimore without ever going to Baltimore?

Yeah, I did. I had been through it in a train and I saw this story about it in National Geographic. I didn’t feel good about that. [Laughs] I think people in Baltimore who objected to that song (7) had a real good case because I didn’t know anything about it.

What’s the best cover version of one of your songs?

Etta James’s version of God’s Song. The fact that she did that was a hell of a thing. It’s not easy doing the song, period, but it’s way easier for me. You can imagine it for her.

Your songs are often very funny. Who’s the funniest musician you’ve ever known?

Y’know, I can’t think of anyone funnier than my uncle Lionel. (8) Fred Astaire said he was the funniest man he ever met.

Do people ever laugh in the wrong places at your shows?

There are no wrong places. But, yes, they do.

See you again in nine years?

Oh, man, that’s a little long to wait now. [Laughs] I hope not. I always hope not.


(1) Dark Matter, Newman’s 11th studio album, includes songs about Vladimir Putin, the Bay of Pigs, embryonic stem cell research and love.

(2) The song Putin begins: “Putin puttin’ his pants on / One leg at a time.”

(3) Newman has said he wrote a song about Trump’s penis. The chorus was: “What a dick!”

(4) His chewy 1974 anti-racist satire narrated by a resentful southerner.

(5) Out of respect for the people who took the roles, he won’t name the movies. You’ll have to guess.

(6) AKA Jessie’s Song, the greatest breakup song for kids ever written.

(7) “The city’s dyin’ and they don’t know why.” Quite harsh.

(8) Lionel Newman was a composer who won an Oscar for Hello, Dolly! Randy’s got two, but Lionel’s older brother, the film composer Alfred, won the Newman family Oscar race with nine. Nine!


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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