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'I overcooked it': Randy Newman on stripping down his complicated music for his 'Songbook' series

Randy Newman knows what it’s like to be confused.

“Sometimes at the movies I’ve gotta ask my kids what the hell’s going on,” said the veteran songwriter and Oscar-winning film composer. “I’m real loud in the theater: ‘Wait, who’s that guy?’”

So although he has always delighted in using his records to set up trap doors of intent — as in his oddball late-’70s hit “Short People,” in which a jaunty groove belies the bitter sarcasm of the lyric — Newman is sympathetic to anyone seeking a firm grasp on what exactly he means.

“Apparently, my songs are complicated enough,” he said with a laugh. “Add a complicated arrangement, which is what I do, and it doesn’t always help for understanding.”

Thus was born his series of “Songbook” albums, on which Newman, 72, performs his tunes by himself on piano. The first volume was released in 2003 featuring stripped-down renditions of “Rednecks” — sung from the soured perspective of a Southern bigot — and “You Can Leave Your Hat On”; a sequel followed in 2011 with “Yellow Man” and “Baltimore.”

On Friday, the Los Angeles native will release a third volume containing some of his best-known tunes, including “Short People” and “I Love L.A.,” as well as a four-disc box set collecting all the “Songbook” recordings and a handful of bonus tracks.

Looking back at his work, Newman said the albums hadn’t just offered his listeners a crack at comprehension. They’d also given him an opportunity to fix some things.

“I’ve made mistakes with arrangements, certainly. ‘Baltimore’? I overcooked it,” he said, referring to the rather grandiose version of his song about that troubled city that appears on 1977’s “Little Criminals.” “But I did what I thought I should at the time.”

Last week, the singer took a break from scoring an upcoming movie to discuss four of the tunes he remakes on the new “Songbook” album and a classic released years after the fact by Barbra Streisand.

“Love Story”

The first song on Newman’s self-titled 1968 debut, “Love Story” sketches a scene of tidy domesticity — which, considering his age at the time, immediately marked him as a songwriter interested in exploring more than his own feelings.

You’re not exactly tapping into some huge passion here.

It’s an impoverished kind of dream to have: just sitting around on the couch, occasional dancing if you’re not too tired, then going away to Florida and dying.

How serious were you at the time about the attractiveness of that vision?

Not at all. I suppose there’s some sort of security to it, but it’s not a dream that any 22-year-old would have, when you’re young and the world’s straight in front of you.

And how about now?

Doesn’t look so bad from this end. Given my age and given the times, it’s a pretty solid life. Not a cloudy sky.

::

“Mama Told Me Not to Come”

Best known for its hit 1970 cover by Three Dog Night, “Mama Told Me Not to Come” presents the interior monologue of someone “in over his head at a party,” as Newman said.

The narrator’s a bit of a square.

He’s not a bad guy, just completely unsophisticated. He doesn’t know about this kind of thing.

When you wrote it, how long had it been since you’d felt like that?

Well, I’ll tell you, I never liked parties much. I remember the first thing I went to when I was like 11: boys and girls at somebody’s house or something, real loud, kids were smoking. It was alien. I can still hear the ringing in my ears.

Have you become more acclimated to the social demands of your profession?

Once I wasn’t a kid anymore, I could always function at those things. But I never did much of the social demands. There’s books and stuff they’re writing now about the [Laurel] Canyon [pop scene], and I was around, but I wasn’t that interested. I had a family kind of quick, so I wasn’t really part of the group.

“I Love L.A.”

This indelible 1983 hit is filled with local references both sunny (“Look at that mountain / Look at those trees”) and not so (“Look at that bum over there / Man, he’s down on his knees”). Sonically speaking, it’s also a clear product of its time.

How does the song sound to you now?

Certainly, the ’80s — with the synths and the haircuts and every goddamn thing about it — it doesn’t hold up so well. And that’s not a great thing, apparently. But it doesn’t bother me; I always felt friendly about it. I mean, I like a lot of disco records. One of my favorite records I ever had was “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees. Tremendous talent for melody.

As in many of your songs, the lyric is doing two things at once: praising a city and lampooning the idea of praising a city.

You can’t really write a chamber of commerce song about any town in the country. East St. Louis; Gary, Indiana — you can’t do it. So I didn’t. But Don Henley told me, “You know, you oughta write something about L.A.” People can laugh at where they’re from a little bit. You can’t insult a town onstage when you’re onstage in that town — classic showbiz mistake. But they get what the song’s doing. The occasional bum? I just had to do that. And the streets I picked to mention — I mean, there’s nothing on the Imperial Highway taller than I am.

::

You’ve Got a Friend in Me”

Newman’s Oscar-nominated theme from 1995’s “Toy Story” led to years of work writing music for children’s movies, including “James and the Giant Peach,” “A Bug’s Life” and two “Toy Story” sequels.

Do you think your old fans would’ve predicted this move?

I’m an odd choice. When they explain it to me it’s because I can write for orchestra, and you can’t do an animated picture unless you’re able to do that; it’s sort of hard to fake it. So that may have been it. [“Toy Story” director] John Lasseter didn’t talk much about lyrics for the song. But it’s very fortunate that I was given assignments like that, since it’s the only thing that gets me vaguely to the middle of the road.

Though it comes from a kid movie, a number of older guys have recorded versions of the song: Dick Van Dyke, Brian Wilson, George Jones.

George Jones!? Really? My God, I’m sure it’s brutal, but he’s like my favorite artist almost.

It’s an unexpected demographic to have embraced it.

I’ll do the song and there’ll be college-age kids out there crying and stuff. It’s something that means something to them, and I guess it means something to people who have children. I don’t know. It’s a popular song of mine — top three, I would think. Whatever.

“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”

Another tune originally found on Newman’s debut (and revisited for the first “Songbook” album), this ballad has been performed many times by singers such as Bette Midler, Norah Jones and Nina Simone. In 2012, Streisand released a recording  from the early ’70s that featured Newman accompanying her on piano.

What do you remember of cutting it?

Streisand’s voice, being next to it, it’s a stunning kind of thing to be in the same room. It’s a hell of a voice. I thought at the time that she couldn’t sing with a backbeat. At all. She was about my age, but it was like she hadn’t hung around with anyone her own age. And I didn’t think anything of the stuff we did; there was nothing distinguished about it particularly. But I heard that record when it came out, and it’s not a bad record at all. In fact, it’s a pretty goddamn good one.

Did that surprise you?

It did. I remembered it being just sort of stiff, and then there it was. But, you know, maybe I’ve just lowered my standards.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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