A new Randy Newman song doesn’t come around every day. He’s notoriously slow in the studio, a master craftsman who has only released four studio albums in the last 36 years. But when Newman does emerge, it’s with his satirical pop powers undiminished. That’s what you’ll hear in “Putin,” a tune being released later his week to the public – but here, above, first – as part of a new album coming from Newman in early 2017. Inspired by the Russian leader’s penchant for bare-chested photo ops and a geopolitical approach that’s somewhat short of soft and cuddly, Newman has crafted a song that tells Putin’s story from multiple perspectives. It’s fully orchestrated to boot. Newman spoke with us by phone about “Putin.”
You saw the picture of the shirtless Putin on a horse?
Horse, tractor. I can’t remember if he had a bare chest on that giant tractor he was driving around. It’s certainly that kind of thing. A person with that much extraordinary amount of power, doing things like that is disturbing but also kind of amusing.
Do you wake up one morning and hear the Putin girls in your head?
I don’t think I set out to write a song about Putin but I’ll tell you, another thing that inspired it, there’s an old song in the ‘40s, by the Golden Gate Quartet, a gospel song called “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ when he fought the beast of Berlin.” About Hitler and Stalin. And I love it, that song. So I think “Stalin Stallin’” is what really pointed the direction to me. “Putin putting his paints on. Stalin wasn’t stallin’.”
And we also have you rhyming of “Kurds” and “way” with “curds” and “whey,” which is delicious.
I have to give credit where it’s due. I heard it, years ago, Harry Shearer was pretending to be Dan Rather walking through the halls and thinking about his copy and said, “Kurds are in the way.” Or something like that And then he said, “curds and whey.” It’s a great joke.
The last time we talked, in 2008, you were putting out your last record. This was pre-Obama. You were very, I don’t know if depressed is the right word, but you felt things were bleak. Has anything changed? The empire hasn’t ended, as you sang back then.
No, but there’s threats to it. A candidate like this. You keep wondering whether people will see that he’s a liar and not very bright.
You don’t mean Gary Johnson, right?
No, I don’t think he’s a liar. It’s a big surprise to me about the country that there are 40 million people prepared to vote for [Trump.] They wouldn’t want him as a friend. No matter who you are, you wouldn’t want him on your bowling team or to have dinner with him or anything. They would recognize it immediately in a guy. A big blowhard, braggart.
Last time around you were complaining about how far right you felt the Republican Party had slipped.
They got what they deserved. It’s not like they’re radically different in terms of policies in terms of who he is. He’s more liberal than they are, no doubt. Cruz is further to the right. It’s like they drifted so far, I thought they drifted out of the American mainstream completely and they’d have to adjust. To get nominated by that party you’ve got to be pretty reactionary really.
What is it about the timing of “Putin”? You want it out now, not in the spring when your album is released.
I think that people will lose interest after this surfeit of political talk and attention after the election. And I’m just anxious to get something out. I hate having to wait. I’ve got the thing done. I just want to see what happens. I’m curious to see how the thing is received.
Obviously Trump and Putin have been linked together recently. Did you consider how you might bring Trump into this thing?
Didn’t know it when I wrote it and didn’t know that there was some obvious connection. This is the Republication Party who has run against Russia for 80 years and you know, he hasn’t mentioned him except in a positive way.
[Chelsea Handler is topless again. This time, Vladimir Putin is involved.]
Last election you sang “I’m dreaming of a white president,” or your narrator did.
I felt I needed to say that because it was implicit in so much of the vote against Obama. I don’t care what anyone says. There are millions of people who thought that there’s a million white people better qualified than a black man to be president of the country. So I wrote a song about it.
That song was very direct. We can connect it immediately to the election. This song is a little more abstract. Do you even think in that way when you’re writing the song?
No. I want them to get what I mean. And all I mean is fairly straightforward. I’m saying it in that it’s not black and white, really, and he shows in the song more doubt than maybe the real Putin shows. He says, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do this big job here and pull the people into the 21st century‘ and he asks the girls, who say, ‘no, you can do it.’
He needs those girls.
Yeah, they give him the confidence and he’s talking with his wife and about the war and it’s hardly a resort worth fighting for, the Black Sea. Things aren’t black and white in the world. I try to make him interestingly human which, of course, he is.
You aren’t out there trying to overtly trying to politicize but with a song like this, do you imagine it being played in a way it can influence something in the election?
No. the belief in the ’70s was that music was changing the world. I never believed that it had that great an effect. The effect Madonna had on fashion and sort of mores of young girls was a bigger deal than anything Dylan may have said, even.
Things have changed a lot since you started putting out records. I was just showing my daughter “Rednecks” and trying to explain to her what was going on there. She’s 14 and I found it was a little hard to explain that there was a world like this where songs like this could be written and released in the mainstream.
I don’t play it much now because it requires such an explanation. I can do it but it’s like explaining a joke. It’s not a joke. Also that problem with the songs about the North having some idea they had a moral superiority to the South isn’t necessarily true anymore. I think people know the problem is the whole country. I think it’s different now. I’m not more careful with what I say but on both sides of the spectrum there’s a pressure to be careful with what you say.
And that’s something that influences what you’re doing? Or do you just do what you do.
Yes, although I wouldn’t use the word I use in “Rednecks” now in almost any circumstances.
This record you’re making. How far along is it?
Just mixing now. The reason they’re waiting now is because I’m doing the pictures and I can’t promote it or go on the road with it. I wish it could come out tomorrow. It’s sort of different. The songs are a step for me in that there are a few songs that have more than one character in it. Which I can’t remember doing very much of. The “Putin” song sort of does. There’s a song about Sonny Boy Williamson and one about a pair of famous brothers. And let’s see, I’m happy with it … I had a teacher one time who said, some day you do something where you use everything you know. You don’t do it ostentatiously where you see the workings going on. But some day, if you’re lucky, that will happen. This is the case where I did that about as well as I can do.
We just heard Paul Simon declaring he’s thinking of retiring. He’s 74. You’re 72. But you don’t sound like a man thinking this is it for me. I’m done.
I’m thinking about it. But I think I’ll wait until I see that I’m getting worse at what I’m doing. I don’t quite see it yet.
I’m not sure that we’re the best judges of our own demise. Right? I mean, remember Willie Mays.
Definitely not. But I mean, I wrote that song, “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)”. No one taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘you’re past it. You outta give it up.’
After hearing this song I think you still might have it.
Even I think that and I thought I was done when I was 24 at various times and at 36 and 42. But now I think this last stuff is pretty good.