LOS ANGELES — So, finally, at 73, Randy Newman has written a straightforward, autobiographical love song, right? “She Chose Me,” a ballad on “Dark Matter,” his first album in nine years, opens with lush strings, a torch-song piano and the soulful, gumbo-ish croon that’s distinctively his own.
This had to be for your wife, he’s told. Gretchen is inside the beautiful house they built together. Newman is sitting out back on a clear Pacific Palisades morning. He’s joined by an old friend, the legendary record producer Lenny Waronker.
“Probably,” he says. “Since I wrote one [1999’s “I Miss You”] to my first wife, this one’s for her.”
That would be a perfect way to leave it, the master songwriter with the short-distance dedication. But Newman chews on his answer like a chunk of overcooked flank steak.
“Even though I didn’t know her when I wrote it, I don’t think,” he continues. “I wrote it . . . I hope this doesn’t affect me getting the Academy Award for this one, but I wrote it for “Cop Rock.”
That would be the musical police drama that lasted for a single season on ABC in 1990. It’s actually possible he wrote “She Chose Me” for both. “Cop Rock” premiered in September of that year. He and Gretchen were married a month later.
“I just wrote it,” Newman says finally, and laughs. “I’m a professional songwriter. I don’t need a wife.”
Fair enough. In the almost 50 years he’s been recording, Newman has been able to create a stunning body of work by staying in character. His first-person portraits of the heartbroken, heartbreaking and misunderstood, and his political satires, have earned him a loyal fan base, the admiration of his peers and the occasional oddball controversy. His lone top-10 hit, 1977’s “Short People,” confused enough people, who didn’t get the mock attack, to inspire protests and an attempt in the Maryland legislature to ban it.
This month, in classically Newmanesque style, he made headlines for a song that he decided was too vulgar to record for “Dark Matter,” his new album. The demo is called “What a Dick.”
“Randy Newman writes comic song about Donald Trump’s penis,” the London Guardian proclaimed.
Spin.com reprinted the lyrics.
“Dark Matter,” which arrives Aug. 4, is only Newman’s fifth album since the Carter administration. It’s worth the wait. “Matter” includes arrangements that could carry one of Frank Sinatra’s Nelson Riddle records, narratives told in the voices of the Kennedys, long-gone bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson and Vladimir Putin, and a closer, “Wandering Boy,” that’s achingly sad.
There is also the album’s lead-off track, an epic called “The Great Debate.” It is what it sounds like: Scientists on one side, true believers on the other, arguments over global warming, evolution and religion. Mention is also made of a manipulative writer named “Mr. Newman.”
“It’s a crazy way to start a record, an eight-minute song that goes to all these places,” says Mitchell Froom, the album’s co-producer. “But it’s stunning.”
In the old days, the golden era of pop craftsmanship, the record company grunts would be hounding him, nagging Newman for the next record. These days, he’s on his own clock. He works in a broken industry, in which even an artist’s dream label such as Nonesuch has its limits. On “Dark Matter,” Newman kicked in about $20,000 to help pay for the recording.
“It is important to serve the songs as best I can,” he says. “And if I think I need a few more guys, and they won’t pay for it, I do. If it needs it, it needs it.”
Ask Newman about legacy, about his place in music, and you’ll hear a mix of modesty, frustration and pride. He takes pride in his approach, to listen to and watch the behavior of others. He’s always found other people’s stories more interesting.
Newman watched segregationist (and then Georgia governor) Lester Maddox on “The Dick Cavett Show” before writing 1974’s “Rednecks,” sung from the point of view of a Southerner with a scathing view of Northern racism. The n-word is the chorus.
Waronker remembers being struck by Newman’s curiosity from the start.
“Once,” Waronker says, “we were in New York. I was working there, and Randy came back to see me. Randy was 19. I must have been 22, or even younger. And one night he said, ‘I’m going out.’ And he comes back around midnight or a little later. And I said ‘Where did you go?’ And he said, ‘I just took a cab ride.’ And I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ And he said, ‘I just liked talking to the cabdriver.’ It is a small thing and I might have blown it up over the years, but it’s these things — not only does he see the interesting part of different people coming from different places, but he is able to understand them and become them. Now that is hard.”
“I remember that cabdriver,” Newman cuts in and laughs. “I remember what he had to say. It was terrible stuff about women, mostly. . . . He kept going and going and going, and, uh, actually I wanted to get out, but I couldn’t exactly get out where I was.”
Amos Newman, his oldest son and the product of his first marriage, to Roswitha Boss, thinks that his father’s songs are often deeply personal, even if they’re in the voice of someone else.
“There’s a song called ‘Memo to My Son,’ which is, ostensibly, about me,” he says. “At the time, I might have been the only child. Then there’s ‘The World Isn’t Fair’ and ‘My Life Is Good.’ Which is clearly not him, but it’s his perspective. There’s a thing on there about taking his kids to private school. And he sees the mothers there. The mothers dressed up ready for the night. Diamond pearls, whatever it was. There clearly are things that are from his own observations and his own experiences.”
Newman is clearly at peace with his place in music.
At a recent concert in Lowell, Mass., he sat at the piano and dutifully played the song that’s most popular with the millennials, “Toy Story’s” “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” But he also delivered one of his toughest and best songs, “Sail Away,” a cheerfully delivered tale told from the perspective of a slave trader. With good humor, Newman also poked fun at his destiny as a critically acclaimed, commercially challenged songwriter.
He demonstrated his original version of “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” It slogs along, a creepy grind from a man you would certainly not want to bring home for Thanksgiving. Then he jokes about the upbeat covers popularized by Joe Cocker and Tom Jones. Talking after the show, Newman says he once cared enough about this stuff to consider calling Three Dog Night to ask them not to release their version of his “Mama Told Me Not to Come” as a single. Waronker persuaded him to let it go.
“ ‘Mama Told Me Not to Come,’ they made that a hook, whereas I didn’t,” Newman says. “I didn’t even say it one of the times we got to a chorus. I must be antithetical to hit.”
The records never come easy. “Dark Matter” may have been the toughest.
“I had these songs for, in a couple of cases, two years, and I would go in there and move forward a little, and I was having trouble making up my mind,” Newman says. “I don’t know why, but it happened to me.”
That’s where Mitchell Froom came in. The producer, whose résumé includes Elvis Costello and Los Lobos, has worked with Newman since 1999’s “Bad Love.” This time around, Froom came to the house, set up a microphone and spent a month making demos, something for Newman to judge. “It surprised me how ambitious he was,” Froom says. “And how prepared he was to work on it as hard as he did. You see somebody work through a series of good ideas to get to great ones. And with the arrangements, it would be the difference between something that worked very well, and it would sound like him, and I’d be satisfied, and I’d say, ‘That’s great.’ But then, a week later, he would come up with something that was greater there. It wasn’t fast or easy or any of those things, but really impressive.”
Newman wrote “Putin,” a comic take on the Russian leader, more than two years ago, long before the election-tampering news cycle took hold.
He was inspired by “the shirt-off stuff, the whole part of his personality that apparently wants to be not only the richest man in the world, and the most powerful man in the world by default, and wants to be Tom Cruise. He wants to be a star.”
“Brothers” came out of his desire to consider the relationship between not just the Kennedys, but brothers in general. The song darts into an aside on George Preston Marshall, the late Redskins owner who held out on signing any black players until 1962, and throws a musical change-up with a section on Cuban singer Celia Cruz.
There are also a pair of songs about those who are lost. “On the Beach” is about a high school friend who drifts away. “Wandering Boy” is the story of a child who grows up and disappears from his father’s life. When he’s asked about the song, Newman chokes up, a reaction that he admits later, surprises him.
“I don’t know why, but when something like that happens, reason tells me it’s about yourself,” he says. “I think I imagine having lost a kid, one of my children. I mean I did to write it. I imagine that, and I imagine a guy I went to school with who ended up on skid row or on the beach, wherever he was staying, who fell out. The idea of falling out has always been interesting to me.”
Back in Pacific Palisades, Waronker and Newman are talking about songwriting again. The producer mentions that often, younger bands he works with will be in awe when they learn how close he is with Newman. They’ll ask if they can come to the house to meet the master.
That would, for many, be a wonderful compliment on which to rest. Newman, naturally, doesn’t view it way.
“How come they don’t write like that then?” he asks, as though he doesn’t totally trust his friend’s anecdote.
“They can’t,” Waronker says. “Randy, it’s not that easy.”
Randy Newman will appear at the Birchmere in Alexandria on Sept. 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m.