The great American songwriter talks film scores, Sinatra, Family Guy and the ‘mystery chord’

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Do you ever wonder whether Pixar will collapse, if and when you stop writing songs?
Kent Carter, Chicago
Well, I’m not working for them anymore. I’m sure they’ll do OK without me! I mean, I don’t think I’ve finished with them, but there’s nothing planned at the moment. What was my favourite movie to work on? It’s got to be Toy Story 2. It’s got space music, cowboy music, happy music, sad music. Jessie is an interesting character to write for. She’s got a different kind of depth, a romantic side and a bad temper. Then there are pieces of incidental movie music that people probably don’t notice, like the “Ride Of The Doors” scene in Monsters, Inc., which worked out nice. Film writing – actually writing the scores to order – that’s the only part of my job which is really hard, you know, really physically exhausting work. They’re not nice when I’m doing them, but it makes me happy when it works out, when I feel I’ve done something good with the scene.

Harry Nilsson embraced your music and did a great job with many of your songs and I love your version of “Remember” on his tribute album. How well did you know Harry?
Bob Ferguson, Aurora, Ontario, Canada
We worked together solidly for a while. And we played together – we would play basketball, ping pong, drugs… and then he just disappeared. In that I didn’t see him anymore. Part of the reason for that is me, as I don’t have a great capacity for friendship, because I don’t reach out, exactly. But I think he met Lennon and all that stuff, and it was a different matter. But working together was great. We would make fun of each other’s musical idiosyncrasies. I’d joke that he’d sing “da, da-da, da, da-da” [sings mournfully, like a Jewish cantor] and he’d tease me about shuffling all the time on the piano and mumbling over the top. So there was a lot of teasing. Maybe we were too hard on each other. Thing was, he had even less confidence than I had. And I don’t have much! There was a big hole at the centre of that extraordinary talent. I listened to his stuff after he was gone, to pick one to do for that tribute album, and I was reminded of just how good he was.

Following your successful adaptation of Faust, do you have any further plans for a stage musical?
Willy Russell
Wow, Willy Russell? The Blood Brothers guy? I’m honoured! Well, I’ve talked for years about making a musical about the life of Jane Fonda. She says she trusts me to write it… although she also trusted every other man in her life! But yeah, it’d be a good one. It divides up into around five perfect scenes. She starts out growing up in a house with this giant movie star – you’d make him bigger than the stage, like they did in Star Wars with those pack animals – who’s not the warmest father in the world, shall we say. Then her mom commits suicide. Then she becomes a movie star just walking down the street for 45 seconds in Walk
On The Wild Side. Then there’s [Roger] Vadim, scenes in Paris, the extraordinary stuff in Hanoi, Tom Hayden, Ted Turner… and those exercise videos! Inexplicable life changes. Even she can’t explain them. A fantastic life, I think, and the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. Thing is, I’ll mention this and now Willy Russell will end up doing it…

What was Frank Sinatra like?
Mark Napleton, Hounslow
I thought it’d be hip if he recorded “Lonely At The Top” – it was pure Sinatra, it’d fit in with all that leaning-against-the-lamppost, I’m-so-miserable bullshit. So me and Lenny [Waronker] met him at Warner Bros. But it didn’t exactly fly with him. He asked me to play “I Think It’s Gonna Rain”, and he liked it. He never told us that he hated us, but I got the distinct impression that he didn’t like that next generation much, The Beatles onwards. It was weird how insecure he was, looking at my manuscripts, pretending he could read music, going on about minor-key this and major-chord that. And he showed us his private airplane, which was something. He was a great singer in his day but – and I know this is sacrilege – according to a lot of musicians who worked with him, he stopped being a perfectionist. Nelson Riddle would do these fantastic orchestrations for him, and Sinatra would turn up and just do one take, warts’n’all. Still, he’s one of those guys – like Neil Diamond, or Bruce Springsteen – who just inspires such love and affection. He makes people feel good about themselves, and that’s an important function.

Who’s your favourite Python?
Eric Idle
Ha, of course it’s Eric. A great guy. I became aware of Monty Python’s Flying Circus the first time I went to England, around 1969. Alan Price had recorded a number of my songs, and I was at his house and he started telling me about this amazing comedy show that had just started and which was on that night. He didn’t have to convince me much, I thought it was amazing and still do. I first met Eric on Saturday Night Live in the ’70s – he hosted it a lot and I quite often played on the show. And he came to see me in concert, with the show’s producer Lorne Michaels, a mutual friend. Recently he presented me with a thing on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. It was great to see Eric, but yeah, those kind of things aren’t that important to me. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it’s like Academy Awards and Grammys, I like having them but I know that it isn’t a measure of merit.

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