Randy Newman: 'If I could have written more hits, I would have'
If you want intelligent, acerbic songs, or memorable, crowd-pleasing film music, he's The Man. Chart success? Forget it.
Newman’s scores for films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc (below) are a far cry from the outsider perspective of his songs
Maybe it is his status as one of America's foremost songwriters, the one to whom other acclaimed tunesmiths defer. Perhaps it is the forbiddingly acerbic nature of his songs. But it just seems too familiar - not to mention insufficiently reverential - to be interviewing Randy Newman and using his first name.
This is, after all, someone whose '60s and '70s solo albums such as Sail Away and Good Old Boys are all-time classics of mature, mordant song-craft, and whose film scores since the '80s - for everything from Awakenings and Meet The Parents to Toy Story and Monsters, Inc - have won him Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammy Awards.
No, calling him Randy will not do. So how should I address him? Mr Newman? Sir?
"Randy's fine," he says, that husky, nasal tone unmistakable down the transatlantic phone line. Are people tentative - nervous, even - when they speak to him?
"No," he replies, then pauses for comic effect. "But I've gotten to the point where people try and help me out of cars."
Now 68, Newman is self-deprecating almost to a fault, which is odd considering how highly regarded he is. He may not have had the commercial success of his Jewish songwriter peers such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, but for critics, serious music fans and indeed other musicians, he's The Man.
Does he feel that he's been accorded the right sort - and amount - of veneration?
"Me? Yeah," he says. "I'm not exactly sure I know how much there is because people aren't worshipping me aloud. But I'm satisfied and feel fortunate as to where I am. I'm not resentful of anything. The public perception of me is fine as it is."
With the exception of Short People, which became a freak hit in 1977, Newman has always been more of a cult albums artist than a purveyor of big-selling singles, even if his songs have been covered by the great and good, including Nilsson, Nina Simone, Tom Jones and the recently departed Etta James. Does he agree that he could have had more hits had he not sabotaged his songs with snarky lyrics and angular melodies?
"No - if I could have written more hits, I would have," he asserts. "I never consciously sabotaged my own stuff."
He admits that, from the start of his career, the intention was to connect with as large an audience as possible and to write the kind of lovelorn ballads that, say, Carole King excelled at. But after a while, he "stopped trying" to be a confessional troubadour and focused instead on penning portraits of characters, some of whose views might be questionable, even reprehensible, to expose the latent bigotry and hypocrisy he saw in America.
"What I do is different to what other writers do," he says. "What works is the direct stuff: 'I love you, you love me, you don't love me anymore, I still love you'. I have written love songs, but they don't interest me much. I like songs where I can see the characters more clearly, possibly on a couple of levels.
"In a song like [1974's notorious] Rednecks, I was defending the South against accusations of moral superiority in the north," he continues, then he chuckles, realising what he has just said. "'Moral superiority' - this is not the stuff of which hits are made."
Newman's position in his songs is detached, and although he may at times be affectionate, more often than not his voice is critical. Does he agree that there is a "Jewish voice" in popular culture that stretches from the songs of Steely Dan to the comedy of Larry David? At first he is not sure.
"Ricky Gervais, is he Jewish? Or Steve Coogan?" he wonders, knowing full well the answer. Then he seems to concede the point. "Maybe," he says, then again: "Maybe not."
Newman, the nephew of venerated Hollywood composer Alfred Newman, was brought up in Los Angeles, in a household that was culturally Jewish even if his parents hardly adhered to the tenets of biblical law.
"We'd light candles on the holidays, but we didn't go to synagogue," he recalls. "But there wasn't any sliding around: 'Are we Jews or not Jews?' I always felt Jewish." And yet his father was an atheist. "He didn't carry a sign or walk around saying that, but I do remember going to a children's hospital with him when I was very young, as if he was asking me: 'Where's God here?' It bothered him."
Was there ever a time when he determined to rebel against his father and adopt a more zealous form of Jewish practice?
"No," he says. "I never felt like it. I am Jewish. I consider myself that, although I don't know whether other Jews would. I didn't marry in, but I am of it. But zealous? No."
When I ask why he believes there are so many Jewish rockers, he catches himself employing a pronoun quite unusual for someone accustomed to assuming the position of the eternal outsider - the third person plural.
"It's funny," he says, "because I'm not used to saying 'we' about anything, but I'll say it to you. 'We' were there at the beginning of the movie industry, for whatever reason, and we've always been part of showbusiness in America, maybe because it was a place we could go." Returning to the point about a Jewish voice in popular culture, he accepts that there may be a line connecting satirical Jewish comedians and sardonic Jewish rockers, one "worthy of study". But he advises caution when acknowledging the preponderance of Jews in arts and entertainment.
"People can use that as a weapon," he warns. "When someone says something like: 'Oh, there are only 20 million Jews in the world and everyone I know is Jewish', I'd watch out. Because they might mean it badly. Like, 'God, they're everywhere!' It might not be the beginning of a pogrom exactly, but it's not a compliment. There's always a body of resentment. Nobody goes: 'Oh, it's great, these Jews are really tearing it up'."
Newman's self-titled first album was released in 1968, but, he notes, things have not changed as much as he might have liked since then.
"I remember when I first came to England, they described me as a 'Jewish-American songwriter'. Why did it need that appellation connected to me, or to Paul Simon? As a kid I asked that. Now I still don't know." He laughs. "You know, a psychiatrist might think I'm getting paranoid."
Perhaps not, hence the embarrassment among many Jewish musicians about their heritage. African-Americans tend to declare: "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud". No song by any of the major Jewish rockers has ever involved an assertion of pride.
"I think you're right, myself included," he says, a touch sadly. "I really don't know why that should be."
He thinks things have "gotten a little better" in America with regard to race relations since he wrote Rednecks, and is proud to live in a country that voted in Obama even if he cannot really imagine there ever being a Jewish president. Finally, I wonder whether Newman, in one of his less self-deprecating moments, has ever allowed himself to believe that his gently withering tunes have done their bit to improve the lot of Americans?
"No," he replies. "Madonna has had a bigger effect than anyone that deals with ideas, apart from Bob Dylan maybe. I never thought music was changing the world, even in the '60s."
Then he catches himself again, this time being too dour.
"I wish I hadn't been so downbeat in this interview because I don't want anything to get in the way of the perception of the work that I'm doing."
Bespectacled, self-critical, anxious: is he the Woody Allen of popular song?
"I don't know," he replies. "I actually don't believe Woody Allen's self-deprecation. But it's a nice compliment."
Randy Newman will be playing the Royal Festival Hall on February 28 (www.southbankcentre.co.uk)