Randy Newman always has been among the most fearless performers in popular music – ready, willing and eager to make himself look bad for the sake of the song, if that’s what it takes.
And while he’s best known to the mainstream for his Oscar-winning Pixar cartoon scores and his 1978 No. 2 hit “Short People,” Newman seems more interested in humanity’s less-savory side.
To that end, he’s frequently misunderstood, which happens a lot when one writes first-person songs about a rogue’s gallery of slave traders, stalkers and bigots of various stripes. But as reprehensible as a lot of his characters are, Newman’s saving grace is that he gives them all a kernel of humanity.
The 73-year-old Newman offers up more of the same with his current album “Dark Matter,” cheerfully painting himself as a heretic about religion, politics and other hot-button issues. We caught up with him by phone in advance of his Nov. 9 show at Durham’s Carolina Theatre.
A: At first that lyric actually went, “Home of the Duke Blue Devils, but no devils are here tonight.” I’m a sports fan and already knew about Duke and Cameron (Indoor Stadium), and that just popped into my head – there it was. But I changed it to Research Triangle because it seemed fitting that it be in a place famous for science. That made it the perfect place for me to assault.
Q: Have you spent much time here?
A: Not a lot. I’ve played in Raleigh a couple of times, but I haven’t been there a lot. Being a basketball fan, I’m an expert on North Carolina – as much as anyone from anywhere else is.
Q: Well, it should be interesting when you play that song here.
A: I can’t do it! I’m coming with just a piano, doing the solo song and dance. So I can maybe do about the first three minutes of it. Maybe I’ll try that, see how far into it I can get.
Q: How long has it been since you toured with a band rather than solo?
A: Years and years ago. I’ve played with orchestras occasionally through the years but never much with a band. Last time I did it was about 20 shows and it went OK, but I didn’t feel like it was as good. The solo thing I can adjust and change, play what I want, and I think the audience likes it better, too. In my opinion, the distinctive thing about what I do is the songs. I’m not sure that solo piano isn’t the best way to put them across.
Q: You come up with a lot of dodgy characters in your songs; do you like them?
A: They’re all human. To me, it’s never black or white, good guys and bad guys. Even with the bad guys, which is admittedly the preponderance of what I do, there’s always something there that isn’t so simple. Like the guy in “The Great Debate” toward the end, where he points out the truth that atheists cannot compete with the armament that comes with faith, all the music and art. You can’t say, “Here’s a great atheist song, now out of the trenches and attack!”
Q: You had a song about Donald Trump going around, but it isn’t on “Dark Matter” while a song about Vladimir Putin is. Why?
A: The idea for the Putin thing suggested itself almost three years ago, when there were all these pictures going around of him with his shirt off. I couldn’t understand why the richest, most powerful man in the world seemed to want to be Tom Cruise, too. It’s an odd thing for someone so important to have that kind of aspirations as well.
Q: “Putin” has a telling exchange where you ask who won World War II, the chorus answers the Americans and you say, “That’s a good one, ladies.”
A: That’s my favorite part of it. I was looking for a joke on the back end, following a joke-less expanse of a minute or so, and that was it. There’s also, “We fought a war for this? I’m almost ashamed.”
Q: What do you think of this current political moment, and what is to become of us and the world?
A: I think it’ll pass without a cataclysm, but we may have done irreparable damage to the union. People are so far apart now, we can only hope we someday come back together. I hope people can agree that this guy is, you know, non-presidential. You can’t have the president behaving the way this guy does. My real concern, even though I’m not gonna be around for much of it, is what comes after. It will take a long, long time to repair the damage being done. It hurts to see it.
Q: “She Chose Me” is such a sweet song. It’s almost disarming compared to the rest of the record.
A: I can write ’em! That one interested me because it’s something you don’t hear much, this guy who feels fortunate to have a beautiful woman love him, as many of us are. He doesn’t think he’s up to much, either with looks or intelligence, and he feels fantastically lucky. I think it’s a feeling a lot of people have, that they marry above themselves.
Q: “Brothers” covers a lot of ground, between John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs invasion and Celia Cruz.
A: I’d say it’s the best song ever written about those subjects. A lot of my things kick off with just a few words. I had that “Hey, Bobby” part at the beginning. But I like the fact that it’s impossible to know what it is they’re talking about until you listen for a while.
Q: When it comes to songwriting, do you have to have a deadline to work?
A: I always write just when I’ve got something to write for. Even when I was very young, it was always an assignment of some kind, followup for so and so – Brenda Lee, say, when I was working for a publisher. So I really don’t write unless I have to, even though I’m drifting toward maybe doing a little of that now. I’ll sit there and whack around a little bit, when I’m not under the gun. But I usually have to be.
Who: Randy Newman
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 9
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org