Interview: Randy Newman on ‘Harps and Angels’ and Hurricane Katrina


Randy Newman returns to Carnegie Hall next Friday, September 19. 

photo by Pamela Springsteen

Before our hellos are complete, Randy Newman has tagged my Southern accent. His father attended the University of Alabama. And he offers that his mother maintained a regional twang all her life, bemoaning that “people are losing it now, like it’s something bad.”

Though Newman is most often identified with Southern California thanks to his second biggest mid-career hit “I Love L.A.” and nearly 30 years’ worth of composing for movies and television (one win from 17 Academy Award nominations for not even close to his best song and four wins out of 12 nominations at the Grammys), he has consistently revisited his Southern roots, most notably with Good Old Boys. That 1974 release includes “Louisiana 1927,” a song now permanently connected with Hurricane Katrina thanks to the immediacy of its empathetic chorus, “They’re trying to wash us away.”

Newman’s latest album, Harps and Angels (his first non-soundtrack in nine years, and just his second in the past 19), is drawing critical raves. So we used it as the core of our songwriting discussion, taking sidetrips through the South and one of the most shameful moments in the history of the federal government on our way home. — Rob Trucks

Tell me one thing you’ve never ever done before in your life.

I’ve never jumped out of a plane in a parachute.

Tell me something that you’ve done once and one time only.

Jesus Christ. I was staying with a girl in a house, and I didn’t know where the hell I was and I went to the bathroom and I got in bed with her roommate.

Okay. Tell me the name of a book that you’ve read at least twice.

I read The Memoirs of [Hector] Berlioz twice.

A movie that you’ve seen at least three times.

42nd Street.

And where do you keep your Oscar?

On a shelf in the den.

All right, so let’s get to the stuff that counts. I’ve heard you say many times that songwriting is painful. Certainly a weekend on the wrong side of the fence at Guantanamo Bay or an unanaesthetized root canal has to be worse, but where is it relatively? Is it really that kind of drag your feet, “I don’t want to go in there” kind of pain?

It’s not as bad as it used to be. I mean, it used to be ‘I don’t want to go in there,’ and then when I’m out I’m thinking, ‘Why aren’t I in there?’ Like I’m happy watching television or, you know, watching a ballgame. I don’t get any peace of mind. I don’t get any peace of mind any other way either, but it was on my mind a lot and I didn’t understand why the hell I wasn’t going in there and doing it. I can explain it intellectually, but I can’t explain it any other way.

Do you do it because you feel guilty if you don’t?

Yeah. One time I ran out of money, my wife told me, and I had to do it.

We all get motivation from different places.

I’ve done enough of it, you know. I feel like I’m not as bad as I used to be about that. I mean I will go in there when I don’t have anything necessarily else to do and work on it. The one thing about it, when you start doing movies and you’re a motion picture composer, it adds to it in that you have to work every day for long hours until the job’s done. So when you don’t have to do anything you kind of don’t want to have to do it. John Williams [New York-born composer of Star Wars, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtracks] writes every day of his life. When he’s not doing a picture he’ll be writing a piece, and there are guys who have that habit and I don’t.

Critics are once again gushing over your new album. Have there been times when the critical reception was something more akin to disappointment or even a good, old-fashioned raking over the coals?

You know, I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t . . . I will say, very seldom read them. If they’re bad I don’t want to see it, and if they’re good . . . it just isn’t going to do me much good.

Every once in a while someone will show me one, or Disney was complaining about the thing I did for Rolling Stone, slightly, because I mentioned, in a flippant way, the alligator or something like that [Newman, while walking a RS reporter through his home, referred to a piece of sheet music for the upcoming Disney feature The Princess and the Frog by saying, “This is a song I had to write for a goddamn alligator.”). And it was just being out of shape for interviews, because I’m smart enough not to do that usually. And I don’t feel like I’m doing lower work.

So are you completely dependent on just yourself to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the not as good as it should be?

Well, I am. With the movies, I have bosses.

But with your own records―Harps and Angels, Bad Love, Good Old Boys―yeah, you’ve got bosses at the record company but they don’t get to play around in the process. They only get to hear the material after it’s finished.

That’s right. Occasionally . . . with songs no one’s ever much told me anything. They’ll say something about an arrangement, a producer will, but I’ve been left alone, and was very fortunate early on that we were allowed to fail―[Ry] Cooder, me, Bonnie [Raitt], Lowell [George] with Little Feat. And we did. But nowadays I don’t think [modern songwriters] get the same chances.

It’s been nine years since Bad Love, so not all of these songs on Harps and Angels are newborns.


And I know that you bring out new songs when you play live. Are you ever test-driving material? Do you ever let audience reaction affect your own opinion of your work?

No, not my own opinion, but whether I play it or not sometimes. I will play “Red Bandana,” for instance, whether an audience particularly likes it or not. But I like it. I don’t play “Old Man,” which on paper is one of my best songs, but it’s so depressing I can’t get the audience back for a while.

You’ve been playing “In Defense of Our Country” for a few years now.

Yeah. And will have another year or so to play it maybe.

But the audience response doesn’t help you decide whether or not it’s going to go on a record, for example.

No. I mean, I knew that one. If I’ve got it and I like it enough to play it for an audience, and have courage enough to play it . . . For instance, I added something to the Supreme Court verse in that song. I said, ‘I defy you to find anywhere in the world two Italians like the two Italians we’ve got.’ I added ‘two Italians as tight-assed as we’ve got,’ and they laughed. And so . . . I was going to do it anyway, but because they laughed at it . . . made me keep it there.

It was validation of something you’d already decided.


So then what’s the newest song on the album?

The ones I finished in the last week . . . I wasn’t going to do “Harps and Angels.”


I didn’t have two of the angels things. I didn’t have an ending, really. It just wasn’t enough to do it. That and “Only a Girl” I finished a couple of days before I recorded them. “Only a Girl” has still got things like I should’ve gotten better, but I couldn’t.

But obviously “Harps and Angels” matters a great deal. I mean, it’s not the title song just because it’s a catchy title. It’s the opening track. There are thematic concerns, and obviously some pride and pleasure with that song. When that song comes to you so close to the deadline, do ever start believing in gifts?

Yeah, I get them all the time. I mean, I got more when I was younger. But sometimes when you’re writing, as you sound like you know, things fall on you. But it falls on you because you’ve been sitting there working at it.

Oh yeah. The harder you work the luckier you get.

That’s right. You’ve got to show up to have it happen. But I was working at it. And another thing that made me very happy was the arrangement in the “Potholes” [he hums the part]. That I thought of kind of late, and it made the song so much more interesting for me.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the best things that happened to me happened in the studio, when I get an idea that I like. But it almost has to be comedic or something. I like comedy so much better in general. It’s so much often easier to make me laugh than it is to move me with a drama that I tend write more of it than other composers do.

So do songs like “I Miss You” and “Marie” go through a stricter editing process to make sure that you’re comfortable…

I’m perfectly comfortable with it.

I mean, I think as an exercise I’m going to write just some straight love songs to see if I can do it. I know I can, actually. So I will. But “Marie” has an idea. With “Marie” a guy’s drunk and he’s able to tell her these things, and he recognizes that. It’s a simple, kind of humble thing but, you know, honest. Things he’d never say. “Losing You” has an idea that at a certain age you reach a point where you don’t get over stuff that happens. You don’t live long enough to do it. And “Miss You” is about giving up on a first wife, and it’s about writing. It’s about saying, ‘I know all the harm this is doing, but I’d sell my soul, your soul and my soul, for a song.’ And I would. Almost. That’s kind of writerly bravura. You know, I’d dig up my mother for a song. I believe that it’s true of me, that it’s important enough to me that I would sacrifice quite a bit for it.

But songs like “Miss You” seem like they almost have to take more out of you effort-wise, more out of you personally than, as you say, writing a comedy.

No. Sometimes performing it, I’ll think about what I’m saying, and it’ll get to me. But it doesn’t take more out of me to write them, no. I mean, “The World Isn’t Fair” was hard to write. “Harps and Angels” turned out to be very hard to write.

Okay. So this is the only other movie question I’m going to ask. What’s your relationship with Disney movies that don’t come with a Randy Newman soundtrack? Because “Laugh and Be Happy” seems like it could’ve easily been inspired by one of those great Phil Harris songs from Jungle Book.

Yeah, I love those. It probably was, but I wrote it for Cats Don’t Dance many years ago. That may be the oldest. But I wrote that for the animators because they were having such a hard time. They kept changing . . . not the director so much, but the producers kept changing the idea of the movie. And it started at the same time as James and the Giant Peach and Toy Story did, and it looked the most promising to me. You know, it’s a veiled allegory about African-Americans in motion pictures. And so I wrote it for them. And it goes a lot of places harmonically I wouldn’t go ordinarily.

It’s a rare occurrence, but Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” came back around when Princess Diana died, and of course “Louisiana 1927” is pretty much the unofficial anthem one of the most shameful moments in our government’s history. Are there mixed emotions?


What’s it like to have that song adopted, to have that song mean so much to people, giving them empathy but at the same time having it come out of such a tragic event?

Yeah. Me too. My emotion is that I can’t . . . You know, even people who are doing it, they’re not smiling. They’re doing it . . . You know, in that song, there was a disconnect between Washington and the South and what kind of care they took of it, in the days of Hoover. But that’s also that little bit of Southern paranoia, that all evil comes from the North and the federal government. That’s bullshit. The federal government’s done okay by them at times. But they sure as hell didn’t this time. And with that flood, you know, the guys who ran the Mardi Gras, the bosses in New Orleans decided the course of that flood. You know, they cut a hole in the levee and it flooded the cotton fields. So it isn’t like I wrote about it, though I think some of it did get down to Plaquemine, but not to New Orleans.

Obviously it’s two different situations, two different causes of tragedy…

It’s the same thing, though. It’s the same kind of devastation.

But the line “They’re trying to wash us away” holds true for both. That line is a bell. It rings and it rings. It’s like a church bell in an empty town. It stays with you long after the song is gone.

It’s more true . . . I don’t know exactly. I don’t know what the federal government did about ’27. The Army Corps of Engineers fucked up the River so completely they turned it into, you know, like a ramp. But in any case, I don’t know what kind of error it was, but this one was certainly federal.


If you’ve ever been in Louisiana . . . and you don’t have to be there a minute and a half . . . I realized this state was dysfunctional. Are you kidding? Of course it’s dysfunctional.

But I’m glad, you know, most of the time. And the city. Are you kidding? You can’t get anything done there. The federal government had to be there. It was too big. You put it . . . The most shameful moment of the federal government. Yeah. You know, if attacking someone who didn’t attack us isn’t, that is.

You mentioned being proud of the song “Old Man,” but not playing it live because it’s too hard to get the audience back.

That’s what I thought. I mean, I played it four or five times and I couldn’t get anyone to laugh at anything for a while.

But you’ve got such an extensive catalog. And there are so many people who are going to come to a Randy Newman show and have their own particular favorites that are more than likely different from the person sitting next to us. I love “Wedding in Cherokee County,” for example. And I doubt that’s the number one choice of . . .

They like it, though. You know, I’ve got things that are funny, but sometimes the vulgarity of it, and having no background, no interesting music behind it, facilitates against me doing it.

With so many songs to choose from, and a certain segment of songs, like “Short People,” that you probably have to play in order to get to the parking lot safely.

But that’s fine with me to play that, though.

Do you imagine that you will be playing “Louisiana, 1927” at every show you play until you retire?

I wouldn’t have, because it’s the same tune as “Sail Away” and it’s not quite as good a song maybe. But yeah, I do. I figure I’ll be playing it now because people want to hear it.

And you’re okay with that.

I’m okay with it. The song feels good. I mean, the arrangement of it was very good. I mean, it just happened to work out. It was in the right part of the orchestra by accident. I was surprised at how well it worked, with the organ and the triangle and everything.

Last question. Carnegie Hall has often been equated with making the majors as a baseball player. I know you’ve played there before and I know you’re going to play there again, but is it still a special thing, where you’re thinking, ‘My goodness, I might actually be good at this because I’m playing Carnegie Hall in New York.’

That doesn’t happen because, you know, Carnegie Hall isn’t like 100 percent. And nothing else is either. But I know where I am. You know, Rachmaninoff played there. Serious people have played there. New York always makes me a little more nervous just because of the attention you get.