Street Songs

Q&A with ACL Music Fest headliner Randy Newman

Street Songs

The Chronicle's Austin City Limits Music Festival supplement starts circulating today, will be online by the end of the afternoon, and gets inserted into this Thursday's paper. Excerpted for those purposes, the complete Q&A with Sunday headliner Randy Newman is here.

Geezerville: You were just in Australia. How did that go?

Randy Newman: It went real well. I played with orchestras there, which is different than what I’m doing in Austin. The orchestras were good and the audiences were great. I hadn’t been there in 28 years. I don’t know what I was doing in between. Waiting for an offer I suppose.

G: Was there a lot of preparation to playing with an orchestra?

RN: There’s some rehearsals. I have the scores from some arrangements that I’ve done, putting suites together for the movies. There’s about 20 songs all together. I’ve done something similar in the States. I’ve played Houston and Fort Worth fairly recently. I don’t know if there’s anything coming up but I do it occasionally.

G: I heard that you recorded 50 songs for The Songbook 2. How did you go about whittling those down to the 16 on the album?

RN: It was almost entirely a matter of sequence and what sounded good – mood a little bit. Mitchell Froom did it really. We agreed on the sequence when he put together. It wasn’t necessarily quality or the era they were written. It was just like the old days when we worried about the sequence of a record.

G: The album and the idea of listening to a set of songs put together as an album has pretty much gone out the window these days.

RN: It really has. I remember how much time we would spend on it and how nuts people would get, staying up 24 hours. The mechanism for doing it now on the computer is so much quicker. I think people still sit down and do it, but you don’t expect people to sit down and listen to an album as much.

G: It’s the age of the iPod.

RN: Absolutely. Have you heard anything good lately?

G: I’m surprised you asked me that.

RN: I ask because I’ve got to pay attention.

G: I was going to ask you the same thing. I’m here in Austin so that’s really my focus. My favorite right now is Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears.

RN: I don’t know them.

G: They do a soul and blues thing that reminds me of Otis Redding. I’m also a big fan of Grupo Fantasma.

RN: That I’ve heard of. I’ll listen to them.

G: What’s more challenging, songwriting or sitting down and composing for a movie? Or is there a difference at all?

RN: There’s a big difference. I think the hardest thing is to write a song for myself. Starting on a movie is difficult and it’s every day – when you don’t know what you’re going to do. I’ve always found writing difficult.

G: When you write for a movie you’re given some parameters, so you have some sort of goal.

RN: That’s right. You know basically when you’re in the ball park. But you get to move around a lot. Your given precise timing and a deadline.

G: As if it wasn’t difficult enough.

RN: One of the problems when I’m writing songs for myself is that there are no deadlines. If there aren’t, I find it difficult to do anything.

G: Is there a process you employ?

RN: I like to write in the morning. It’s like a job that I have to go to every day for a few hours. If I’m working on a movie it can be all day, but for myself, unless it’s a small thing or it’s nothing, a lick or a couple of words can be a big step.

G: Your advice to aspiring songwriters is to do it every day. I found that interesting because I tell people that ask me about writing the same thing. If you want to be a writer, you have to write as much as you can.

RN: You have to clear your mind really good. I don’t mind working if there’s noise, but it’s best to not take phone calls. Just get at it and work it. Do you run into people who love writing?

G: I think the people that approach me are looking more for career advice. I tell them that when you’re done writing and you see you’ve created something it’s such a special feeling.

RN: That nails it. Having written something is the greatest feeling in the world.

G: Any new songs you’re working on?

RN: Let me look. [Pauses] No! I’m a fraud, I don’t have to look. I’ve been on the road for most of the year and there’s a musical here and there that I might do. They’re going to make a musical out of the movie Tootsie and I’ve been working on that. It’s a bad idea, so we’ll see.

G: What have you been listening to?

RN: My daughter often points me at stuff. Now she’s listening to Townes Van Zandt. I don’t know how she got there.

G: It can be depressing.

RN: And you can’t make fun of it either.

G: What’s the last thing you put on your iPod?

RN: Rick James' Street Songs. I love that album. Or maybe it was Nicki Minaj. I saw her on Saturday Night Live. That was some really fancy stuff she did.

G: Do you find it difficult to discover new things these days?

RN: People send me stuff and I find that people are getting really good at being in the studio. The thing is there’s a lot of good stuff. Every once in awhile I listen to SiriusXM and there’s no doubt there’s some talented people out there. I really liked that record by Edward Sharpe. It sounded like the Sixties, like “Downtown” by Petula Clark. But it wasn’t that as much as there was a definite talent for music on the record.

G: Is the first thing to grab when you hear something new the production?

RN: I don’t look for lyrics much. It just isn’t there, so if something sounds good to me, I’m fine with it. Eminem writes lyrics of some interest.

G: I think there are times when his beats and the production overwhelm what he’s trying to say.

RN: There’s no doubt he’s a bright guy. He’s got something to say. I enjoy his humor when he uses it, although he can be very angry now.

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Randy Newman, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Grupo Fantasma, Townes Van Zandt, Eminen

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