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Acting just like Randy Newman

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Autumn de WildeSinger, songwriter and pianist Randy Newman plays a solo show Saturday, March 7 at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN – On a live recording I heard recently, from a 1994 London concert, Randy Newman announces his intermission by saying he would be back after a costume change. The line got a laugh, and presumably the singer, songwriter and pianist didn’t actually return in a different wardrobe. But the idea of taking on a new role with each song feels real to Newman, who says that he feels more and more like an actor these days.

It’s easy to see why. Newman’s music requires an enormous range of expression: from broad comedy to sharp political commentary, from sweet sentimentality to dark lamentations, from sexy come-ons to historical re-creations. His fallback position is comedy: There is something about his staccato piano playing and his voice that oozes irony, and his songs tend to be tight ” sometimes less than two minutes ” that make them feel like one-liners. But Newman is also capable of writing, and then getting inside, the impossibly warm “Feels Like Home,” the closing tune from his recent album, “Harps and Angels.” And his compassionate, fact-based “Louisiana 1927,” to no one’s surprise, became an emotional anchor in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Newman spent a few early years in New Orleans, and frequently visited his mother’s family there. That history is evident in Newman’s piano style.)

“Lately it can be like an acting job to bring it off,” Newman said of working all the facets of his music. “It requires kind of a performance art.”



At 65, Newman seems to be adding more balls to that juggling act. “Harps and Angels,” released in August, is often a contemplation of death, and Newman, especially on the title track, mixes sorrow and humor, directness and sarcasm more vigorously than ever.

“That’s where it feels like a tightrope walk,” said Newman, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. “That’s tough to do. But it should feel easy.”




Among the broad public, Newman is best known for two roles: as the creator of the novelty-like hits “Short People,” from 1978, and “I Love L.A.,” from 1983; and more recently as a movie-music machine, churning out scores and songs for a slew of films. His specialty is animated films, composing music and writing songs for “Cars,” the “Toy Story” movies and “A Bug’s Life.” (Newman tied the record for most Academy Award nominations without a win ” 15 ” before breaking that streak by taking a Best Original Song Oscar for “If I Didn’t Have You,” from 2002’s “Monsters, Inc.”)

Newman has accepted those roles, though he doesn’t exactly embrace them. Talking about getting into movies ” which began in earnest with the score and a song from 1982’s “Ragtime” ” it sounds as if he reluctantly went into the family business. Several uncles and cousins composed music for films.

“There must be something genetic. We’re like a bad Bach family,” he quipped.

Creatively, working in the movies has been a double-edged sword. After writing with no constraints ” and performing customarily as an unaccompanied act ” he found it enjoyable to collaborate with others, and work within the confines of a story.

“Movie music is something subordinate to what’s going on in the picture. You make an album, you’re the center of attention. I like getting these assignments where I’ve had to subjugate my ego to the job.”

Technical advances, however, have made it possible for a film director to practically re-write a score. That seems to be more collaboration than Newman is comfortable with. “That makes it a little more difficult,” he said.

As for his occasional and unexpected moments of widespread fame, Newman is equally ambivalent. “Short People” got him on the radio. It also got him accused of being bigoted from those who took the chorus ” “Short people got no reason to live” ” at face value, rather than his typically cockeyed commentary, this time on societal standards. (A bill was introduced in Maryland to ban the song from radio; it was never passed.) Perhaps worse, “Short People” led people to see Newman as primarily a writer of novelty songs.

“It’s attention you don’t want,” said Newman of getting his biggest measure of fame for his “most blatantly, crazy song.” “It’s funny the things you get known for,” he added, noting that his latest mainstream exposure came from being made fun of on “Family Guy.”

“But I was grateful to get a hit. I’m glad they know me at all.”

Newman is reconsidering his career priorities, and has decided the role he wants to play more is that of singer-songwriter. “Harps and Angels,” which ranked No. 13 on the list of best-reviewed CDs of 2008 by the website Metacritic, was his first album of new songs in nine years. “Ridiculous,” is Newman’s own assessment of that fact. “Needless to say, I can’t do that again.” Then, apologetically: “I have bad work habits. I’ll get back to it sooner. I’ll concentrate more on it this time. It would be better to do two albums than five pictures.”

Newman is at his funniest and most politically pointed on “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” which praises the recently departed leadership of the U.S. by noting that Hitler and Stalin were way worse. The title track is mordantly funny and, for a song about near-death, most comforting. Newman gives his twisted take on social inequality, American-style on “A Piece of the Pie”: “Jesus Christ it stinks here high and low/ The rich are getting richer … And no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne.”

As rich as the lyrics are, Newman is most taken with the music. Newman brought in two top producers, Mitchell Froom and Lenny Waronker, to create layers of strings, choir and horns that amplify both the comedy and the drama of “Harps and Angels.” But Newman did the arrangements himself, and is convinced he made his best orchestrated, and most ambitiously orchestrated album yet.

“If I thought I was getting appreciably worse, I wouldn’t do it,” said Newman, who performs a solo concert tonight at the Wheeler Opera House. “There’s a lot of evidence that people in this business do their best work before they’re 30. But I’m getting better at some parts ” arranging, singing to an extent. So I’ll do it again and see where I stand.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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