As the Mercury-nominated folk songwriter releases a new record commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage to America, he tells Gary Walker about a special album…
This album was lying in my dad’s extensive vinyl collection when I found it. He was a big fan of Randy Newman, and along with Chris De Burgh, I really consider those two the ‘soundtrack to my dad’. I loved the sound of the band and Randy’s voice. By my foggy recollection, I must have only been 12 or 13 at the time I discovered the record and started listening to him. I was getting absorbed by the West Coast sound of those 70s records; Glyn Johns’ production, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon and Ry Cooder. I wouldn’t say I was listening to much of the music popular among my friends at the time, something that still seems to be true nowadays!
The cover artwork is great, too. It’s a shot of Newman in a classic cream-coloured 70s suit stood over a busy LA freeway, although I wouldn’t say that was what initially drew me to the record. I was particularly struck by the first song on this album, called Short People – it appealed to me. So many references to being short and how you might struggle with height restrictions. Something I can relate to!
I think it also had an impact on me as it was made in 1977, the year I was born, which marked a great time in songwriting and in the recording industry. The track Rider In The Rain, towards the end of this album, is particularly nostalgic for me, and is a song my dad has been singing for years on concertina. It shows the wide appeal Randy Newman’s songs have, as my dad is still singing it…
My father’s love of Newman, and the fact that I was introduced to his music by my dad, is something even more profound. I’m a big fan of all Newman’s albums, and I, of course, love the Toy Story soundtrack, which my kids have just discovered. Newman’s music really has transcended the generations of the Lakeman family, being passed from fathers to their children. My kids will happily listen to all of Newman’s music on car journeys because of their association with him in the films. It’s such a wonderful thing that his contemporary writing for films has given him such longevity and appeal to vastly differing age groups. A rebirth of a career almost, another string to his bow.
Newman’s got a unique voice that seems to attract all walks of life. You can see why Disney have always chosen him to be a composer and singer. At 23, I was at a folk alliance in the US with my brother and we somehow blagged our way into a solo performance he was doing for all the bigwigs at DreamWorks. I was one of only 70 people there. He was doing a ‘My life in song’ style seminar, where he would play a track, and after would talk about all the influences and compositional elements that went into the song. It was wonderful to hear him break down all the orchestral arrangements, and to hear him play his biggest songs stripped back on piano. He’s such a talented man and uses politics and a cynical play on characters, he’s always got something to say about or for someone. I would say his use of metaphors and wordplay is something I’ve always tried to work into my own lyric writing, but really it’s the arrangements, vocal melodies and production hooks that have made their way unconsciously into my playing.
With his background in composition, there’s also a huge depth of harmony and arrangement. Later on in life, I discovered this album had the Eagles singing and Ry Cooder playing throughout, so it’s pretty special in that respect, too. I love the way Newman always incorporates orchestral arrangements within his songs. It always seems to take the music to some wonderful places and it’s sonically fabulous to listen to loud, especially on vinyl.