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Monthly Archives: August 2017

Explains Every Song on His New Album

 The hunched 73-year-old recently turned up in a segment on TMZ’s TV show, of all places, reporting on “Putin,” a track from his latest LP, Dark Matter. The song is a biting faux-anthem for the Russian president, with lines like, “When he takes his shirt off/Makes mewanna be a lady!” It’s a goof, but TMZ was stumped. “Is he puckering up—or poking fun?” asked the clip’s cartoonish narrator, after Newman affably tried to explain the song to a paparazzi cameraman in an airport. Then the gossip site’s newsroom launched into an argument about the song’s true meaning—as evidence, one diminutive TMZ staffer even attested to the bigotry of Newman’s 1977 hit “Short People,” a song that was written to expose the ills of baseless bigotry.

When I bring up this TMZ appearance to Newman, he sounds genuinely amused. “Yeah, there I was!” he drawls. “Actually, I’m probably the only person who likes that cameraman—it’s just that he’s got his camera with him.” That Newman is able to find some humanity in a guy who hounds celebrities and is generally considered a pariah is no surprise. He’s had a lot of practice.

Though he’s likely best known as the composer behind the music in the Toy Story movies, Newman’s most rewarding work lies in the 11 solo albums he’s released since 1968. In the past, he’s written songs from the perspective of slave traders, Alabama racists, California douchebags, and creepy stalkers—not exactly Pixar material—and on Dark Matter opener “The Great Debate,” he plays a slick-talking faith healer type bent on disproving scientists of all stripes. But the record also features less sinister Newman tropes: sentimental ballads that steer clear of easy emotions, sly historical gambits, paranoid dixieland vamps. In an effort to minimize the misunderstandings this time around, the songwriter delved into the backstories and inspirations behind each song from the new album.

1. “The Great Debate”

Pitchfork: This song is an eight-minute mini-musical that pits science against religion to determine, once and for all, who is right when it comes to humanity and existence. Though you are an atheist, in the song, the religious side comes out on top, largely thanks to the power of gospel music.

Randy Newman: Faith wins because it’s got Dorothy Love Coates, the Golden Gate Quartet, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, everybody. I don’t know whether I am a music lover, strictly—it’s hard to say how I feel about it—but I love good gospel music. No doubt. My side, the agnostic, atheist side, has got nothing like that. There’s no great song that’s like, “Let’s all not believe and play our agnostic hymnals!” They got everything: the high ceilings, the confessions—man what a hit idea.

2. “Brothers”


What interested me about the song is that they’re brothers, irrespective of who they are. I like the dynamic of an older brother poking fun at the enthusiasms of the younger brother. I didn’t know I was interested in the period itself, but when I think of it now, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a time when you were looking up every time a plane went by—for a few days there, it was scary like it hasn’t been since. So there is something there. And I liked how the trivial the reasons were to support the Bay of Pigs, and that the guy wants to save Celia Cruz. Because the U.S. has done some invading of small countries for not much more than that.

3. “Putin”

When did you start writing this quasi-theme song for Vladimir Putin?It could have been as much as three years ago. It was when all those pictures were appearing of him with his shirt off, and I couldn’t understand why. What did he want? I think it was just personal vanity of some kind, like he wanted to be Tom Cruise. It wasn’t enough to be the richest and most powerful. He wanted to be the most handsome and a superhero, throwing young people around and wrestling. It’s a strange that you wrote a song about Trump but decided not to put it out. In a way, though, if you changed a couple of lyrics to this song, it could be about him too.Yup. Though this one is way less critical of Putin than I thought I would have been. As I’m doing it, I’m saying to myself, I’m not criticizing him enough. He’s a bad guy. But I was conscious of it being too easy. It’s like writing an anti-war song that goes, “War is bad.” Well yeah, of course it is!

Powerful Experimental Pop

Káryyn seems perpetually overwhelmed—one moment by the complex and unpredictable machinery of life, another by its dazzling simplicity. On an August evening, she sits cross-legged in a cozy north London studio, where she is toiling away at a trove of experimental pop songs that may, if she lets them, become her debut album. The discussion is dense, a voyage through her harrowing family history laced with digressions into the afterlife, quantum physics, and the prefrontal cortex of jazz musicians. At one point, mid-sentence, she interrupts herself by saying, “I want to say something.” After 90 minutes of conversation, she mysteriously apologizes and proceeds to pace the room. She sits in an office chair, puts her face in her hands, and thanks me for listening. Then she asks for a hug and beckons me into a cluttered little space next door.

In the corner of the room looms an upright piano, strings exposed to microphones on angled stands. Barren white walls create a sense of erased space around the instrument, like brackets enclosing an afterthought. Káryyn stands with one foot on the piano’s mute pedal and performs three half-formed songs, her dreamy falsetto scything through ancient-sounding chords. During the finale, which she wrote the day before, the piano drops out as she sustains a rolling vowel sound. Turning to face me, she lets her voice tremble while forming an expanding ball with her hands, as if to demonstrate particles filling a balloon. She holds the note four or five seconds, in the space of which I forget to breathe. The impromptu performance is as strange and poignant as everything else about Káryyn and her curiously affecting music.

There’s a certain breadth to her handful of songs to date, uploaded to her SoundCloud page over the last six months and sometimes accompanied by videos compiled from childhood home-movies shot in her second home of Syria. On “Yajna,” her synths sound nuclear, mangled by unsettled beats; “Moving Masses,” recorded seven-hours deep into a nocturnal jam, is altogether gentler, a work of celestial simplicity. Despite joking about her talent for disrupting technology—on her first day in this studio, the entire complex had a power outage as soon as she started singing—she describes a meticulous process for manipulating sounds and space. She’s been called a “sonic architect”; in fact, she’s as much like a wrecking ball. Both sides will likely be on full display during her latest project’s upcoming debut headlining show in London, and they’re also apparent on her deconstructed debut single, “Aleppo,” a meditation on the Syrian city; snares shudder, shrapnel synths gleam, and operatic vocal fragments scatter like dust in the stratosphere.

Although borne by wild imagination, the story of “Aleppo” has tangled personal roots. From a young age, Káryyn understood that a legacy of misfortune has haunted her family all the way back to the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century. “My grandfather was in my great-grandmother’s belly when her husband’s head was delivered to her door,” Káryyn tells me, her active eyes swiveling behind gold-framed glasses. “They collected the intellectuals and beheaded them and then delivered them back to their wives.”

Káryyn grew up between the States and Syria with her mom and “badass classical guitar player” dad. (He was a doctor by day.) In her youth, for three months a year, Syria was young Káryyn’s anchor, a second home. Her Syrian-based relatives lived in Aleppo and the nearby city of Idlib, where they owned a hotel and restaurant before ISIS took over in 2011. After the country’s civil war spread to the capital, it became too dangerous for her to return. “I thought I’d get married there,” she tells me. “It is devastating to know that there’s an entire place in this sepia tone in my mind, dusty and bustling, that is gone.”

She moved from Alabama to Indiana as a baby, and then, at age 10, to L.A., where she lives today. By her teens, she was writing hyperactive, narrative folk songs; her singing was inspired by Arabic music, and she says she played her guitar “like a machete.” This volatile oeuvre eventually won her an unlikely sit-down with a high-profile record label. “They made me listen to the Beatles for an hour,” Káryyn recalls, raising both eyebrows. “They told me, ‘You should do this, and then that to get here.’ I literally left. My sister was waiting for me outside, like, ‘That’s your way in! You have to go!’ I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do my own thing.’”

She did. What she calls a “reservoir of confidence” buoyed her to young adulthood, and at 16, she quit high school and transferred to Mills College in the Bay Area. A class called Women in Creative Music, tutored by the electronic composer Pauline Oliveros, inspired her to abandon medical studies. She made music by smashing light bulbs, manipulating tapes, and mastering various samplers and programming units. Her anarchic shows—fusing punk, electronic, and jazz—were a hit, at least among the 40 or so people who showed up. (Part of the reason she declines to publicize her full name, it seems, is to avoid detection of music from this period in her 20s.) Again, labels gathered. And again, something in Káryyn snapped. “One day, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m very deeply unhappy,’” she recalls.


The Music of Twin Peaks

Trouble were one of many acts who played the fictional bar during one long production day that also saw handpicked artists including Nine Inch Nails, Sharon Van Etten, and Eddie Vedder take their turn to be directed by Lynch while pretending to play their own music. Early on in the series’ run, these Roadhouse scenes could seem incongruous, like clunky appendages often added to the end of every episode. Yet their role began to reveal itself as the show evolved: The scenes, and the music within them, are used as a guide back toward something resembling reality, a reassuring embrace of the familiar following the rest of the show’s deeply disturbing and bizarre images. In “The Return,” once you’re in the Roadhouse, you know you’re safe—relatively speaking, at least.

Even though the show’s music has been largely defined by those star-studded Roadhouse performances, they were never part of the original plan. “It wasn’t in the script,” Hurley tells me, adding that the scenes were constructed to allow editorial fluidity—to act as a punctuation tool—because Lynch imagined “The Return” not as a TV show but rather an 18-hour film broken down and shown in parts.

As composed by Angelo Badalamenti, the role of music in the original “Twin Peaks” remains as crucial to the program as any character or plot line. Its moody, melodramatic presence was embedded into the show’s most fundamental DNA, running through the town’s core with the same tangible presence as its gushing waterfall or buzzing sawmill.

Music remains a big factor in much of the new series, but its form has altered. Badalamenti remains the show’s primary composer—his original theme still plays over the opening credits and he contributed several original and previously unreleased compositions to the series—but overall the music has become much more disparate. The new series features a mix of industrial sound design akin to what Lynch employed on his 1977 feature debut Eraserhead—thuds, whirs, malevolent drones, static hums, looming tones of dread—with a more traditional soundtrack featuring those Roadhouse tracks along with older songs from artists such as ZZ Top, jazz great Dave Brubeck, and, for that instantly classic dawn-of-the-atomic-era sequence, Polish modern classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

Lynch mentioned including some songs in the new script, including the Platters’ “My Prayer” and the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me,” but the director’s gut instinct pointed him toward the man who made the sound of the original series so iconic. So Badalamenti was sought out to create the tone of “The Return” before the revolving door of Roadhouse bands came to augment it.

Along with Badalamenti’s solo work, the show’s soundtrack features the composer’s collaborative side project with Lynch, Thought Gang, which was created for the 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.Lynch, who is credited as the new series’ sound designer, also worked on original musical pieces with Dean Hurley, while dream-pop auteur Johnny Jewel contributed both instrumentals and songs to the show.

Despite being more involved than most in the musical process, Jewel too was working in the dark. “No storyline, no script, nothing,” he tells me. “I didn’t want to know anything either. I’m very secretive about how I work so I can completely sympathize with someone who wants to just capture people on a really instinctual level, without a preconceived notion.” In this spirit, he chose to not re-watch any of the original “Twin Peaks” before working on his own compositions for the new series. “Everything was based on emotional memory,” he says.

Of all the Roadhouse acts, Jewel’s band Chromatics get the most screen time, including performances in the opening and penultimate episodes. In that second-to-last part, Jewel and his bandmates back the defining musical voice of “Twin Peaks,” Julee Cruise, on the Badalamenti/Lynch song “The World Spins,” which she also sang in the original series. “I was really manic about doing it because the song is six minutes long and it’s non-linear—it’s a very, very odd piece of music,” says Jewel. “For about a week and a half, it was the only song we listened to—we would play it six to eight hours a day, over and over.” He even played the original Rhodes piano from 1973 that Badalamenti used for the original series on set.

Jewel and his bandmates were so keen for Cruise to be the focus when filming that they consciously tried to fade into the background. “I didn’t want there to be any distraction on stage,” he says. “The old Roadhouse bands were these rockabilly greaser types, all in black, so I had the band wear black. We were aiming to be shadows.”

Though Lynch generally let the various Roadhouse bands simply do their thing, according to Jewel, the director did whisper something to Cruise that changed their scene dramatically. “The first take felt very logical, but then after David spoke to her, the second take was insane. The feeling on stage was so incredible. The difference was night and day.” The performance with Cruise proved to be an overpowering one for Jewel. “I held it together at the Roadhouse, but when we left I completely lost it and was sobbing uncontrollably for hours,” he says.

Singer Julee Cruise and Chromatics onstage at the Roadhouse in “Twin Peaks: The Return.”

Many that were invited to the Roadhouse share similar feelings of intensity on set. Heather D’Angelo of the synth-pop group Au Revoir Simone found the environment to be otherworldly. “It was literally like stepping into someone else’s dream,” she says.

For Rebekah Del Rio, who sang the Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in an unforgettable scene in Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive, returning to the director’s realm was especially poignant. After undergoing brain surgery to remove a tumor in 2012, she thought she may never perform again; the ordeal forced her relearn how to sing from scratch.“When I got to the Roadhouse, I was once again transported into that world,” she says.

One of the oddest Roadhouse scenes—in which a woman crawls and screams on her hands and knees through the crowd—was soundtrack by doomy London band the Veils. According to the group’s frontman, Finn Andrews, though, lending sound to strangeness has become something of a specialty, as other bold auteurs like Tim Burton and Paolo Sorrentino have also placed the band’s music in their work. “We seem to sound good paired with generally pretty unwholesome imagery,” he says. “If there’s ever a scene with someone having sex with an amputee, or a horse is dying, or there’s a slow-motion hanging, we get the call.”

The Success Of ‘Despacito’

The song “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee been streamed over 4.6 billion times, and has kept its number one spot on Billboard‘s Hot 100 since before the official start of summer. Fonsi, the song’s singer and songwriter, says he’s ecstatic that the No. 1 in the world is in Spanish.

“The whole world is singing in Spanish,” he says. “We have everybody Googling, ‘What does Despacito mean?'”

“Despacito” was originally released in January of this year and quickly began climbing the global charts to become an international hit. When Justin Bieber jumped on the song’s remix this spring, it gave “Despacito” the boost it needed to hit No. 1 in the US.

The song has also brought up conversations about the power of crossover culture. Fonsi is far from the first Latin artist to cross into the mainstream, though his predecessors typically did so in English.

“‘Despacito’ was just the song that exploded through the door,” Fonsi says. “But I give a lot of credit to amazing artists who have done these kinds of fusions in the past, like Ricky [Martin], Enrique [Iglesias] and Shakira.”

“Despacito” also broke records this summer as the most-streamed song in history. Jesus Lopez, President and CEO of Universal Music Latin Entertainment, says that streaming has played a big role in the song’s success, partly because it makes more information available about how many times a given track is played.

“Before, you cannot see how the market was working because of the piracy. On the charts you only saw the official sales,” Lopez says. “Now you can see all the consumption of the music on the charts.”

Rocio Guerrero, Spotify’s Head of Latin Culture, says that “Despacito” is one of a growing number of cross-cultural team-ups she’s seen lately, including collaborations between Romeo Santos and Drake, and J Balvin and Pharrell.

“I think ‘Despacito’ creates even more buzz about something that was already happening,” Guerrero says. “This is something that didn’t happen overnight — we’ve been working really hard for many years to push the Latin culture to the forefront of the music business.”

“The timing is quite perfect, you know, in this environment we live in,” he says. “I don’t want to turn this song into a political environment, because it’s not. It’s a great song to make us feel good. But in the times that we live, where some people want to divide and want to build walls — we’re going through a lot of change, so it’s quite lovely that a Spanish song is No. 1 right now.”

Not only is the song in Spanish — it’s in the style of reggaeton, a genre born in Puerto Rico that mixes hip-hop with Jamaican dancehall music.

Petra Rivera-Rideau, assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and author of Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, says that reggaeton “has endured a lot of attempts to get rid of it.” The music, she says, was created in working-communities where many identified as black and/or close to Afro-diasporic culture.

“The communities that were associated with [reggaeton] culture were also communities that were stigmatized by the Puerto Rican government,” Rivera-Rideau says. “They were targets of anti-crime initiatives in the mid-1990s that represented [them] as chaotic, perpetrators of violence, tied to drugs and all kinds of stereotypes. So reggaeton became a cultural symbol of these establishments. They were looking at reggaeton as emblematic of all the ills and problems of this community.”

Rivera-Rideau says this moment is significant: Reggaeton has become a worldwide genre, with increasing numbers of pop artists drawing from its sounds. It’s a position many wouldn’t have ever thought possible for reggaeton back in the 1990s.