Randy Newman never considered himself a rock star. He's had his hits like, "I Love LA" and "Short People," but may be better known for his work in TV show themes and film scores. His unmistakable voice has graced the soundtracks of dozens of films, including the Toy Story films, A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc.
When the singer and composer got a call saying he'd be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was shocked. He told Rolling Stone, "I really thought maybe I'd have to die first."
Newman talks with NPR's Neal Conan about his career, his writing process and the stories behind his most well-known songs.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Randy Newman never considered himself a rock star. He's had his hits - "I love L.A.," "Short People" - but he may be better known for his work in TV and movies and in film scores. In 2001, he won an Academy Award for best original song for this tune from "Monsters Inc."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I DIDN'T HAVE YOU")
RANDY NEWMAN: (Singing) If I were a rich man with a million or two. I'd live in a penthouse in a room with a view. And if I were handsome - it could happen - because dreams do come true. I wouldn't have nothing if I didn't have you. Wouldn't have nothing if I didn't have. Wouldn't have nothing if I didn't have. Wouldn't have nothing.
CONAN: Randy Newman also owns a flock of Grammys and Emmys among his many awards. A couple of months ago, he got a call saying he'd be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was shocked. He told Rolling Stone: I really thought maybe I'd have to die first. Happily, he's alive and in our studio at NPR West in Culver City. We have an email challenge that expires in five minutes. Tell us your favorite Randy Newman song and why, we'll play the top vote getter at the end of the show. 800-989-8 - oh no, the address is email@example.com or you can tweet your nominee, @TOTN. And Randy Newman, congratulations.
NEWMAN: Well, thank you very much, Neal. I'm happy to be on the show. I like it very much.
CONAN: Oh, thanks very much. You don't have a favorite of your songs, do you?
NEWMAN: No, not really. There's ones I like particularly but I change my mind occasionally. I don't look back too much but there's things I like. I usually like recent things, you know, just to reassure myself I'm not detained too badly.
CONAN: We always here from poets about how they go back and revise and revise and revise even after it's published it's never set. Do you ever go back and tinker?
NEWMAN: No. But occasionally, I'll try and fix something. But usually if they're broken they stay broken.
NEWMAN: I don't succeed. Sometimes you can ruin things by revising. I'm not so sure that I'm a deep thinker, you know? I mean, there are things that I'll work very hard on but a lot of the things that I write are flashes, you know? I'll sit there for hours but things will come very quickly sometimes in a - when I'm relaxed or not thinking about it. I know there's research on the brain now that's showing that you do better if you get away from things that if you don't grind - and there may be some truth in that. I'm not even - I'd like to mention my name in the same sentence with Beethoven for a moment.
NEWMAN: I'm not even sure with Beethoven who was famous for going over things and fixing and changing things, that some of that stuff that's really strange stuff in the late quartets and stuff, that that isn't just flashes of sort of brilliance rather than figuring it out what he was going to do. It just doesn't seem. I think a lot of creativity maybe come like that.
CONAN: You say flashes, it's once you've had that idea, the rest of it's just, I assume hard work to sit down and actually set it out.
NEWMAN: Sometimes. Yeah. Sometimes you just - sometimes you can see the end of things right at the beginning. And then there are thing that don't work and then you have to fix it right. But sometimes revision can hurt things a little bit. I've been doing it too much lately in this movie I just did. I was doing things four or five different ways until I had no time to do that.
CONAN: Deadlines are good that way, yeah.
NEWMAN: Yeah. And there was a lot less stuff being thrown away. And the first one, a lot of the times, is just as good as what I did the fourth time.
CONAN: I wanted to ask you about that movie stuff. Of course, your uncle famously scored about half the movies in Hollywood in their day.
NEWMAN: He did a lot of them.
CONAN: Yeah. And you've gone into the family business. Is that what you intended to do?
NEWMAN: When I was a kid, I thought maybe I'd do that. It didn't look easy, by any stretch of the imagination, and it's not. But it looked like a job that someone was doing. I could see it. You know, I knew I wasn't going to be a doctor like my father. And I had some talent for music as a kid, they told me, and so I thought that maybe I would do that. And so, ultimately, I did. I studied, you know, to do it. And there are great things about it.
There are things about it. Having a boss the way you do in that field, is a little alien to my upbringing and the way I, you know, grew up writing songs. No one told me what to do in making records and no one told me what to do. And then you get - do a movie and there are people telling you what to do, and sometimes they're the film editor's wife, you know, so it can be difficult.
CONAN: We're talking with Randy Newman. And our email challenge, well, the deadline has expired. Were going to count the votes, and at the end of this segment we'll play the favorite voted by our listeners. And here's...
NEWMAN: Well, I bet it'll be "You've Got a Friend."
CONAN: Well, maybe. It could...
NEWMAN: Maybe your listeners - maybe it'll be different, I don't know.
CONAN: I don't know. I don't know.
NEWMAN: A lot of children listening?
CONAN: We'll find out. I would have voted for "Political Science" myself but...
NEWMAN: Yeah. I voted for "Harps and Angels."
CONAN: Here's an email from Dean: It's hard to pick my favorite Randy Newman song. If forced to, I'd have to pick "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." Powerful lyrics, a haunting melody, covered by almost a hundred top artists. I think my favorite versions are Judy Collins and Randy himself. Even Leonard Nimoy covered it.
NEWMAN: Oh that's nice.
CONAN: I think that's the first of your songs I was ever aware of in the Judy Collins version.
NEWMAN: Yeah. I think a lot - that is the first - the song that people were widely aware of, I think. She did a very nice job on it too.
CONAN: And was that one those that came in a flash? Or do you remember?
NEWMAN: I don't remember. It's sort of an atypical song for me. It's sort of a - more abstract than I usually write. I'm always a little depressed when I'm writing, and it sort of came out in that song. A lot of them are - I think a lot of the songs that I like are meant to cheer me up. They're comedic, much more than most people who write songs in this, you know, rock 'n' roll songs. They're mostly fairly serious.
Mine are, you know, 70 percent of them are meant to get a laugh, easy 70 percent, and that one is fairly - is a young man's song, you know, a young man, kind of, depression somehow. Don't ask me to explain that. I don't think I can.
CONAN: Here's one of those funny ones, at least I think so. I've been a Randy Newman fan for 69 years, and my tall daughter insisted that the father-daughter dance at her wedding be to Randy's "Short People." I've never heard what his inspiration for that was.
NEWMAN: I needed an up song for the album. And I was playing and that's what I did, and that's what came out. There was no, you know, eventually it was played in places that usually I wasn't played, you know, Top 40 radio. So they would ask me, and they'd say it's about prejudice, isn't it? And I'd say, yeah. Yeah, it is. But it wasn't. It was - the guy I was nuts. He had some kind of an odd sort of mania that I didn't think anyone had; and they don't, basically.
But I didn't know how sensitive some people were about it. I'm not sorry that I wrote it, but I wasn't as sensitive to the fact that people were fairly sensitive about that subject. And I - really, I did think if I were in junior high school and people - oh, here's your song, here's your song, it would hurt, maybe, a little bit. But, you know?
CONAN: There's a fair number of your songs that are like that where you put yourself in the head of some nut and, you know, "You Can Leave Your Hat On," that sort of thing.
NEWMAN: Yeah, "You Could Leave Your Hat On," the guy is just - I always thought of him as a fairly weak fellow. It sounded like - and to me, I would've thought the girl could break him in half. He's not asking much. You know, Joe Cocker and Tom Jones had hits with it, and they did it, you know, about higher than I did and louder, as if it were a real sexual kind of thing. I could have done it. I just didn't think of it. But I thought of it as, you know, as not very.
CONAN: Here's a tweet from CTconcord(ph): I discovered Randy Newman when I heard "Great Nations of Europe" as bumper music on NPR. And now I own every record.
NEWMAN: Wow. That's nice to hear.
CONAN: I didn't say he bought every record.
NEWMAN: No, that's all right. I mean, no one buys anything now.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Donna in Rochester: Anything in the "Toy Story" movie is beautifully written and performed, sentimental, not sappy. Perfect to stand alone or to compliment the movies. Awesome.
NEWMAN: That's nice.
CONAN: And do you write differently when you're writing a song for a movie?
NEWMAN: Yes. It's as close as I get to the middle of the road 'cause, I mean, I'm writing for, you know, I would never write "You've Got a Friend in Me." That was what it was supposed to be. You know, they wanted to emphasize the friendship between Woody and Andy, and so you got a friend, you got a friend, you got a friend in me. And there it was. I mean, I would sound like a used car salesman if I wrote that for myself.
And I would write it for a used car salesman, maybe, with that in mind. But I'm glad that I get a chance to get out of my usual style to write things like that. They're not the things that interest me most necessarily, but that's probably the - will be the most popular song I write. Michael Buble just did it, you know, so, I mean, that's just close as I get to the mainstream.
CONAN: Is your process different writing those? Is it that same fact?
NEWMAN: No. It's a lot easier for me.
NEWMAN: Because, you know, the lyric set up what I have to say. It's no picked out of the air. It's an assignment, and I can do that more easily.
CONAN: We're talking with Randy Newman after his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this is another one of our voters. This is Eric: I think Randy Newman's best song is "You've Got a Friend in Me." I'm 22. I first heard Randy Newman on "Toy Story." I think that song is now famous with my generation. Congrats. And thank you, NPR, for having such a great guest. Well, thank you very much for that.
This is from Paula in Jacksonville: "Louisiana," they're trying to wash us away. I wasn't there during Katrina, but I was there during Andrew, which had been going to make a beeline for Lake Charles when I and my family were living there. My husband was working for KTLC, and everybody had to stay overnight because we're expecting this hurricane.
As we all know, he trashed the tip of Florida and did a pretty good number on New Orleans and Baton Rouge. My daughter who had just moved into her freshman room at SLU sat in the dark and listened to the howling winds for hours, then SLU canceled classes for the next week. And a week after I'd settled into her dorm room, I had to drive to Baton Rouge and bring her home.
By the time Katrina came I was in Florida. My daughter got her PhD, from Pitt but she had lots of friends in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, which gotten nailed by Rita. And she was worried sick about how they were doing. And that again, a song where you're addressing a specific idea. And did that come into a flash?
NEWMAN: That came out - I read a biography of Huey Long. I had an aunt who worked for Long and they talked about - my mother is from New Orleans. Her family is still there - what - but it - what's left of her family is still there or - quite a bit really, the number of them are still around, still in New Orleans. And my cousin lost her - ended up losing house in Katrina.
And the - I wrote about that they talked about the flood in 1927. And I read a book about that flood too. And it was a big deal. I mean, it sort of ended the cotton business for a while, completely, and the workers migrated north, tremendous amounts. It was a giant historical event.
And I wanted to write a song about North and South again. I've written a number of them, about the guy in the song, sort of, complains about the whole treatment, you know, not quite trusting the president coming down. And, you know, and it kind of blat that, you know, I have the clouds coming in from the north, which they really never do. I mean, as if the North had sent these clouds down.
CONAN: I see. Yes, yeah.
NEWMAN: They never come that way.
CONAN: Yankee clouds, yeah.
NEWMAN: Yeah. They're Yankee clouds and they come from - the president comes through the North - little fat guy, right? And that it's that - I mean, you know, it's been there forever and it's still there. It's not quite a separate country but its close sometimes.
CONAN: Here's an email. This from Blake: "Sail Away" is his favorite. This is a beautiful song, a soulful song, a deeply thoughtful song that remains one of the most incisive commentaries on race and society in the United States.
NEWMAN: Well, it's really nice. Thank you.
CONAN: And "Short People" wasn't about that, this one was?
NEWMAN: This one - well, it is. I wrote about slave trade from the view of the recruiter fro the slave trade. He is taking, you know, come to America and then talks about using that and I didn't another way to do it. I mean, you could say the salve trade is bad, horrendous or a great crime of the nation, but I chose to do differently.
CONAN: Yeah. In America every man is free to stay home with his wife and his family.
NEWMAN: Yeah. Run - you don't have to run for through the jungle and scuff up your feet, you know, he's telling him how great it's going to be.
CONAN: Well, we have the results of our balloting. At number five, "Friend in Me." Number four was, "Red..."
CONAN: "Rednecks," yes. Number three, "You Can Leave Your Hat On." Number two was "Short People" in a tie with "Louisiana." But the number one winner was "Political Science." I swear I didn't stuff the ballot box.
NEWMAN: Well, Washington, D.C., there you go. All right.
CONAN: Well, we - as promised, I'm going to play a pretty good chunk of it. Randy Newman, congratulations, again, on your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do you - are you going to visit there and see your - would they have a bus or something?
NEWMAN: Yeah. My daughter goes to school in there, so I certainly will. Yeah.
CONAN: Well, thanks again for being with us.
NEWMAN: Well, thank you, Neal. It's a great pleasure. Like I said, I enjoy the show very much.
CONAN: Thank you very much for that.
CONAN: The induction ceremony airs on HBO on May 18th. Randy Newman joined us today from our bureau in Culver City. Tomorrow, Buzz Aldrin is here and we leave you with this Randy Newman favorite. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLITICAL SCIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.