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Randy Newman: And You Thought ‘Short People’ Was Controversial?

Since the 1980s, he has juggled his own songwriting with a wildly successful career composing scores and songs for films, including the three “Toy Story” movies. The nephew of three prominent Hollywood composers, Mr. Newman has racked up 20 Academy Award nominations and two wins for his music.


Randy Newman in 1977.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Writing for an orchestra must use a different part of the brain,” he said, comparing his work on “Dark Matter” to his writing for film. “There are definite parameters — it’s a minute-20, it’s a chase scene. You know where you are, where with a song you have nothing if you don’t have an idea.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

So now everybody wants to ask you about a song that you didn’t actually record.

That was one of the reasons I discarded it, because I thought it would be too much for me — it would get all the attention, because everything about him is such a big deal. And it’s so vulgar. I wrote it a year and a half ago, when he was talking about relative size, implicitly. This writer asked if I’d written anything about Trump, and with my big mouth, I couldn’t resist. It’s almost something I feel like apologizing for. I don’t regret anything I’ve ever written — I’ve written bad songs — but I do kind of regret this. What’s the point of it?

You wrote it during the primaries, but do you think that there is a Trump song you could write now?

I thought of a way you could do it — to write a song from the standpoint of Ivanka, writing a “Dear Dad” letter, saying “I’m so proud of you and everybody loves you” and all that puffery you would have to say to him, and then have her say, “I just wonder if you know what’s real right now.” That’s not quite the right thing, but something like that, you could do. [Sings] “Dear Daddy/I’m writing you this letter”… that could work, but I doubt I’ll do it.

You have always tended to avoid more topical songwriting, but you do have a song about Vladimir Putin on this album.

When I wrote that, I started it with all of those shirt-off photos, which I found hard to understand. I think he wants to be not only the richest and the most powerful man in the world, but also the most attractive, to be Tom Cruise. He wanted everything, like a rich guy buying a pro football team. It’s interesting that he had that kind of teenage vanity. Even now, that whole shirt-off thing isn’t in the forefront of the news about him, but I think people still remember that.

The album opens with “The Great Debate,” which is not only the longest song you’ve ever recorded (at nearly nine minutes), but maybe the most elaborate, with multiple speakers and perspectives in the lyrics.

I started with “Welcome to this great arena,” and then I went to this guy holding a mock debate about faith versus science, as if they were completely separate. Then I thought I needed the scientist as the second narrative voice. So I kept going — I tried to make it shorter, but couldn’t knock it down. I’m happier with that than with anything else on this record.

You also work in a critique of your own role, with an audience member complaining that “the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman,” is stacking the deck in the argument.

It’s career suicide, like a magician showing his trick! I just felt like it was too easy. I was cooking the results in one direction, so I wanted to make it a little more ambiguous. Maybe it’s a warning to myself — maybe I do want to get out of show business!

When people talk about your songs, they always concentrate on the words. Have you ever thought about working outside the song form, writing essays or stories?

I just went to the doctor, and I had those forms to fill out, and when they ask for your occupation, I’ve always put “musician.” That is, first and foremost, how I think of myself. I’ve never done anything that wasn’t musical. And it is very important to me that I write well musically — that if I’m writing for an orchestra, I do it well. Maybe it’s because of my family, watching the soundstage when I was a little boy. I know I’m getting better at those arrangements, I think that’s the one thing I’m getting better at.

Can you hear a through-line in your writing?

It used to be that I’d make a record and never listen to it again. Now with Spotify and all this stuff, I listen to myself more than I ever did. It’s gratifying to me — it sounds like the same guy, from something like “Davy the Fat Boy” to now, the same guy wrote ’em, good or bad.

I think I mean to make people laugh more than most people do who use the form of songs. My narrator is usually not so much unreliable as insensitive; he often doesn’t exactly know what it is that he’s telling you about himself. I’m not sure it’s the best way to use the form — people love love songs, so I should probably write more of them. Even among my fans, the stuff they like best is when I play it absolutely straight. They’re not necessarily wrong, but it’s still surprising to me.

When you look up “Randy Newman” this week, the headlines say “‘Toy Story’ Guy Writes Song About Trump’s Penis.” Are you happy to make the jump from “Short People” Guy to “Toy Story” Guy?

Well, it’s hard to say it’s good in that context! But still, in my obituary, which will be soon, it will say “Newman, composer of ‘Short People’” — that will be in the first sentence. Right after “composer of the Trump penis song.”

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