The banner on the back of Randy Newman’s eponymous 1968 debut album claimed he’d created “something new under the sun.” The songwriter behind “Rednecks,” “Sail Away” and “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” has done that again and again, and he’s been awarded handsomely for it after a notoriously long dry spell. “I don’t want your pity!” he joked when he received a standing ovation for earning his first Oscar, finally, in 2002.
Today, Newman is one Tony shy of the full EGOT. In addition to two Oscars, the one-of-a-kind songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has three Emmys and six Grammys to his name. On June 2nd, he’ll add another honor to the pile when he accepts the second Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence award from PEN New England at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston along with Kris Kristofferson. (Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen were the first two recipients in 2012.)
Kristofferson, touring in New Zealand, had a two-word reaction to the news last week, referencing one of his classic songs: “Why me?” Newman was a bit more forthcoming, naming some of his own favorite songwriters, remembering the time he dissed his biggest musical hero and waxing about Kanye West and EDM.
Do you have enough space for all the actual awards hardware at this point?
Well, it’s always nice. I’m enough of a snob to enjoy getting an award from on high [laughs]. In general, there’s such snobbery in the arts, in music and, I guess, in literature. People who like classical music don’t like movie music. Not only don’t they like it, but they disdain it. And rock & roll people say “This is rock & roll, and that’s not rock & roll.” “Country music should be this way, not that way.” It’s a ridiculous thing to be doctrinaire about, but people are.
Do you think of songwriting in terms of literature? There are certain songwriters who get a kick out of having their lyrics published in book form, so they look like poems on the page.
It’s not designed to do that. But it is character-oriented. It’ll start from some syntactical thing – what a character says, the way he talks. I try not to have vocabulary in a song that maybe he wouldn’t know. I always thought we should have the latitude a guy writing a short story would have, to be other than ourselves in a song. I’m not sure I made the best choice you could for the medium, but it interested me more to do that – to write about characters rather than have it be confessional.
Are you aware of the people on the selection panel? It’s Elvis Costello, Bono, Rosanne Cash, Peter Wolf and Salman Rushdie.
A bunch of rock & rollers and Salman Rushdie? [Laughs] Well, that’s very nice. That is a pretty good group. I admire all of them. I’ve read Rushdie. You know, I think he mentioned me in a book. Certainly Elvis Costello, beginning with “Green Shirt” – that’s a great lyric – and “Watching the Detectives.” He does things in character very well.
I think more than people realize, actually.
Oh, he does. And he really loves music. That’s the primary thing about him, is his enthusiasm. If I had the energy he has, I’d be president.
I believe Elvis has said that “When She Loved Me” [from Toy Story 2] makes him cry every time.
Aw, really? Well, that’s nice to hear. It was assignment stuff, which is sort of the easiest thing I do. When you have an assignment — when it’s clear what they want to have said for a picture — it’s easier to do that than pulling something out of the air for a song or a record. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” they wanted a friendship between a boy and his toy, and there it was.
Do you think you knew all along you could write professionally like that?
I didn’t know I could do anything. When I write a song, I don’t know if I can write another, to tell you the truth. I’m much better now than I was, but I still have that thought. Far less, now that I think of it, than I was 10 years ago, or 15, or 80 years ago [laughs]. But I never had that kind of confidence. I wasn’t sure how I did it.
You’re getting this award alongside Kris Kristofferson. Who do you think of in terms of real writers’ songwriters – the masters?
Well, Kris Kristofferson, I knew him fairly well since, geez, the early Seventies. He’s a real good guy, and he’s got some great lyrics. We knew some of the same people. I remember seeing him at the Troubadour a few times.
Who would’ve been mutual friends – like Leon Russell?
No, actually, it was a stewardess. That’s actually who it was [laughs] . . . Writers, I think the best have been Chuck Berry, Jerry Leiber. Dylan. Paul Simon. A lot of Neil Young. It’s an odd thing – he’s got a style like a kid, but it all works out because of his intelligence. He’s like a fourth grader, but he gets such good stuff with it.
The first Literary Excellence award went to Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen, who’s a published poet. But some people thought Berry was an unusual choice since people may not think of him in terms of lyrics.
They’re fantastic. Some of that music is found music, licks from 1938. But the lyrics – “It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well” – I mean, they’re click, click, click. They’re really good. And full of color. When he’s talking about a car, it has all kinds of brightness to it. Most people don’t have that, at all. I like humor – too much, really. It’s not part of the medium. Well, a little more, now that rap’s prevalent. You know, Kanye West is a hell of a lyricist. The music’s great, too.
Is there any type of music you’d say you don’t have a feel for?
I actually don’t like those sort of mellow piano player types. That kind of mood music . . . I’d like to do an EDM record – get some Swedish guy, have him do 700 dates ‘til he breaks, then get another one. I could write it. I think I could. Some of that’s kind of irresistible.
Ray Charles did “Sail Away,” and he was your biggest musical hero.
He was. My uncle, Ray Charles and Carole King. I remember thinking, ungratefully enough, that I wished the record were a little better. That’s an awful thing to admit to. It’d be nice if you could turn your critical faculties off when someone you worship is singing, but I didn’t.
Well, you wouldn’t be Randy Newman if you could easily shut off your critical faculties.
Yeah, maybe not.