MUSIC: Randy Newman, the ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ composer, to play at the Keswick in Glenside

Randy Newman

Randy Newman is back. Not that he ever left. But when he’s not working on film compositions he tends to wait a long time between albums. Too long for his fans. “Dark Matter” released earlier this year is his latest studio release following 2008’s “Harps and Angels.”

“There’s no excuse for it other than I have bad work habits,” Newman said calling from his home in L.A. “When I write I have to be at the piano. I started working on ‘Dark Matter’ in a serious way about a year ago.”

Considering the fine quality of the songs Newman delivers on his latest, he doesn’t owe any apologies for the wait. The singer-songwriter is known for writing from the perspective of various narrators, many of whom are unreliable.

The album’s nine songs includes “Putin,” a satirical song that explores the Russian leader’s penchant for bare-chested photo ops.

“It’s unusual to see that type of vanity,” Newman said. “He’s a world leader who seems to think he’s Tom Cruise.”

Other songs include topics ranging from the Kennedy Brothers, Sonny Boy Williamson, and love and loss, the latter being an area that Newman has explored extensively both poignantly and satirically over the decades on both his own albums and in his film scores.

The album opens with the grand “The Great Debate,” a nearly nine-minute opus that sounds like the opening of a zany musical that delves into the science v. religion debate between a slew of characters.

“I’m particularly proud of that song,” he said. “Most of my songs are in the three minute range, but I kept going on that one and I didn’t hold back. I’m happy with the results.”

Newman began writing in his teens composing hits for other artists before releasing his debut “Randy Newman” in 1968. In 1970 Harry Nilsson released an entire album of Newman covers, but it wasn’t until 1977 that Newman enjoyed his own hit with the satiric and often misunderstood ballad, “Short People.” He scored another big success in 1983 with another ironic homage to his hometown, “I Love L.A., which can be heard regularly at Dodgers, Lakers, and Kings home games. It’s basically the unofficial anthem of the city.

“The odd thing is I was always an Angels fan,” he muses, “but it is such a thrill to hear them play that song.”

Concurrent with his work as a solo artist, Newman began to establish himself as a film composer. That was a world familiar to him: as a child, he attended scoring sessions with his uncles, the esteemed composers Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman, and Emil Newman.

“My father was an internist, but he was always talking about his brothers and their careers,” Newman said. “I wasn’t exactly pushed into music, but I was strongly encouraged and told that it would be an enjoyable way to make a living.”

He received his first Academy Award nomination in 1982 for Milos Foreman’s “Ragtime,” and finally won his first Oscar, after 15 previous nominations, in 2002 for the song “If I Didn’t Have You” from the animated film “Monsters Inc.” He won a second time in 2011 for “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3.” Newman also won an Emmy for the title theme of the Tony Shalhoub–starring detective series, Monk, “It’s a Jungle out There.” He’s also won six Grammy Awards, starting in 1985 with his theme for Barry Levinson’s “The Natural.”

Perhaps one of his best known songs from film is “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from Pixar’s “Toy Story.”

“There are a handful of songs that I have to play during any concert, and that’s one of them,” he said. “I can play them over and over again because of the audience’s reaction. To see them get excited is an adrenaline rush for me over and over again.”

Newman has spent a lifetime writing music for himself, for other artists, and for film. It seems to be the muse that drives his creativity. Sometimes the albums take a little longer since no one is pushing him.

“When you get a film assignment there’s a deadline and they tell me what they need and give me all the information that I need as to where the song will be used, so that makes it easier to compose.”

Newman has a keen interest in historical storytelling and he seems to have quite an extensive memory of history, even personal. “I’ve been playing the Philadelphia area for years,” he reminisced. “I remember visiting Radnor, Devon, Bryn Mawr, all those Main Line towns back when I was starting out. I used to play The Main Point.”

What about those of us too young to have seen a show there?

“Well, who wasn’t?” Newman quipped.

“You better come out and see me at the Keswick. I don’t want another nine years to pass before you see me again.”

Just for the record, that would make Newman 82. He’s definitely got it in him to still be going strong. But why wait?

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