Randy Newman: ‘I've written a song about Trump and Ivanka – but it needs a little work’

The great songwriter talks about politics, Toy Story and the Smiths – and why he’s never enjoyed the writing process

The prospect of lunch with Randy Newman straddles the line between exciting and scary. He’s one of the great American songwriters, no question, but from a distance he seems intimidating. His work is brainy and funny, but can also be brutal. Famously, he offended an entire subset of the human race in his most commercially successful song, Short People, which railed against their “little noses”, “tiny little teeth” and the “platform shoes on their nasty little feet”.

As any Newman-ologist (and the man himself) will tell you, the kerfuffle over those particular lyrics was rooted in a misunderstanding about the nature of his songwriting. While most members of the craft approach it from the first-person perspective, Newman usually writes in the voice of a narrator, often a person only their mother could love. It’s a simple, liberating device but it has caused endless confusion.

This is all very unfair but still, here I am, walking through the door of Locanda Portofino, an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, far from the tourist hustle of the Californian beach and the Third Street Promenade. I am 15 minutes early and nervous. The surroundings are cosy but hardly grand, the welcome is noticeably warm.

“I’m meeting Randy Newman,’’ I say.

The waiter’s friendliness broadens into a full-blown smile. “Ah, Mr Newman!” Suddenly, the prospect of lunch grows a little less intimidating.

Right on cue, Newman arrives. He is hobbling just a little. Having just finished the US leg of a tour to promote his latest album, Dark Matter, all that travel has taken a toll and he hopes to schedule a knee replacement operation before his forthcoming European tour, which includes shows in Edinburgh, Gateshead, Dublin and London. (Since this interview took place, the knee condition has forced Newman to cancel the tour.)

He sits down and smiles. “I live nearby and it’s a friendly place,’’ he says when I ask him why he picked this particular restaurant. “And the food is really good.”

I start with a question about money, prompted by my young son’s suggestion that writing songs for Toy Story must have made Newman “really, really rich”. Indeed, one Canadian website estimated his wealth at $100 million. He laughs. “That’s way out, trust me. I’ve no idea where they got that one from. Might have been someone who wanted to get me into trouble with the taxman.”

He’s been working on the soundtrack for Toy Story 4, so it’s safe to assume he’s doing pretty well? “When I look at the [royalty] statement it doesn’t seemed to have dropped that much from two or three years ago or even four or five years ago,’’ he says. “I’ll probably get paid more for Toy Story 4 than Toy Story 1, but maybe a bit less than I did for two and three. That’s just the way the industry has gone.”

We spend some time discussing the impact streaming services such as Spotify have had on musicians’ income, as well as commiserating about the late Leonard Cohen, who went back on tour at the age of 77 after being left virtually penniless by a former manager whom he successfully sued for stealing $5 million. Newman is hitting the road by choice. “There’s people out there applauding and I like it,’’ he says.

Food and drink at Locanda Portofino
They ate: Shared Burrata con prosciutto San Daniele ($22) Randy Bucatini alla carbonara con punte di asparagi ($26) Lawrence Penne alla vodka ($22). They Drank: Shared Water.
Locanda Portofino, 1110 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90403; 00 1 310 394 2070
Photograph: Melissa Lyttle/The Observer

He is accompanied on the road by his manager. There’s no band on stage, just Newman and a piano: “I don’t have the same connection with the audience. When I’m playing by myself I can hear people rustling over here or coughing over there. If I’m playing ballads and they are shuffling around, I won’t play as many ballads.”

We order – burrata prosciutto to share, carbonara with white truffle for Newman and for me, on his recommendation, penne vodka (pasta, cream, tomatoes and a generous amount of vodka).

While we are waiting for the food to arrive, the conversation turns to all things British. He has a passable knowledge of Scottish football. “Celtic and Rangers, right? It’s kind of crazy, I believe.”

“Occasionally,” I tell him.

He’s also a huge fan of the Smiths and the kitchen-sink dramas of the 1960s that inspired the band’s aesthetic – Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The L-Shaped Room, This Sporting Life. Like most Smiths fans, he’s distressed to hear that Morrissey’s political views appear to have taken a rightward turn. “Shame. He’s one of the great lyricists.”

High praise from someone who writes with a wit and intelligence that few others have matched. Newman is a skilled musician, the scion of a Hollywood musical dynasty – his uncle and childhood mentor Alfred Newman scored more than 200 movies during Hollywood’s golden age, winning nine Oscars – but he sides with those who argue he is a better lyricist than tunesmith.

“My lyrics are definitely more distinctly different,’’ he says, breaking out a verse from 2012’s I’m Dreaming of a White President, his sarcastic retort to the racist, anti-Obama birther movement:

“I’m dreaming of a white President
Just like the ones we’ve always had
A real live white man
Who knows the score
How to handle money or start a war
Wouldn’t even have to tell me what we were fighting for
He’d be the right man
If he were a white man”

(It’s quite something to have Randy Newman sing you one of his own songs over lunch.)

Newman ends the serenade with a shrug. “Pretty strong, huh,’’ he says. “I think I get it from my dad, who was a doctor but wrote songs his whole life. They were old-fashioned songs, even for the 1940s and 50s, but he wrote good lyrics. He was real good but he was born too late.”

Songwriting was a hobby for Newman senior but it’s been a 50-year career for his son, even if it hasn’t always been a labour of love. He only releases an album, on average, around every eight and a half years, in part because he finds the songwriting process to be a form of torture against which his only protection is a strict work schedule.

“Eight till five if I’m doing a movie, eight till noon if I’m writing songs,’’ he says. “When they cared if an artist released a record a year they would have someone sit at the door so I would stay in the room. I’m just sitting at the piano, trying to find something I can get a ride on. You tell yourself, get in there and put in four hours, just hang in. What else you got to do? If nothing happens, nothing happens. But it is a long four hours when nothing happens.

“Even after all the things I’ve done in terms of quantity I don’t have confidence I could do more, and I always have a really good excuse why it is going to be a disaster. I never liked the process and I am 74, so I’m not so sure I will continue to do it.”

It is hard to imagine Newman abandoning his craft, not least because he is an artist whose creative urges appeared to have intensified with the age. He is an avid consumer of news – “I go to bed with political podcasts. It drives my wife crazy” – and in this age of American madness, his country needs him at least to offer satirical relief amid the craziness.

He did write a song about Trump before the election but left it off Dark Matter because he concluded it was just too vulgar. “But I’ve got this other idea, one with a girl protagonist, let’s call her Ivanka, and she could be singing, ‘Dear Daddy … but I have been wondering lately if you know what’s real, I sometimes think … da-de-da … do you know that you are fucking crazy?’

“I don’t know. Something like that. I need to do a little work on it.”

He does. And the smart money says he will.

Dark Matter is out now on Nonesuch


Lawrence Donegan

The GuardianTramp

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