The Mamas & the Papas longed to be “safe and warm” in L.A. Tom Petty sang about a “freeway runnin’ through the yard.” And in “L.A. is My Lady,” Frank Sinatra crooned: “I brought her my wildest of dreams and she came up with the answer.”
The long list of songs about Los Angeles includes odes to cruising on Sunset, experiencing the rare rainy day, and how nobody walks in L.A. Musicians have not only written about the City of Angels—they’ve settled here and created distinct sounds, from the scene in 1960s Laurel Canyon to the so-called “glam metal” of 1980s Sunset Strip.
In advance of the Zócalo/UCLA Thinking L.A. event “A Conversation with Randy Newman,” Zocalo asked professional music lovers: Who is your favorite L.A. songwriter and why?
More at Zocalo Public Square.
I first heard Randy Newman’s “Short People” when it came out in 1977. I was 7 years old and could not stop laughing at the critical lyrics. “Short People got no reason to live / They got little hands….” I was not old enough to be offended or to throw tomatoes at him in concert. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized he’s short, too. Randy is a self-deprecating Jew. I can relate.
In many of his songs, Randy sings from the perspective of misguided, difficult characters—and is therefore often misunderstood. In “Rednecks,” he’s the redneck. In “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” he’s the letch. It’s a unique way of shining a light on these character’s weaknesses—and humanizing them to perhaps suggest that those who don’t possess the strength to overcome their circumstances or unhealthy obsessions are actually not that different from us.
Randy Newman was born right here in Los Angeles and is undoubtedly best known for writing the city’s undisputed theme song. The tongue-in-cheek “I Love L.A.” is the perfect shout-out, but also touches on escapism. The beach, the sun, the mountains, the beautiful women, the cars, the Beach Boys, and… “Look at that bum over there, man/ He’s down on his knees.” The idea is that L.A. is a fantasyland, where everything can be just how we want it—and if it isn’t, we will rationalize it to our heart’s content.
Years ago, I spent some time with Randy Newman at Sunset Sound Studios. We were working in different rooms but shot baskets in the courtyard during a break. I told him I’m a huge fan. He looked at me sideways through his wire-rimmed glasses and said: “I didn’t know kids your age listen to my music, but thank you very much, that means a lot to me. For whatever it’s worth, I really like your band, too.” I turned from the hoop, somewhat surprised, and replied: “Randy, you’ll never know how much that means to me.”
Greg Richling is a Los Angeles-based music producer. Born and raised in L.A., he was a member of the rock band The Wallflowers for 20 years and is co-founder/head curator of the soon-to-be-launched music promotion site unkovr.com.
Stevland Hardaway Judkins, aka “Stevie Wonder,” is one of the most unparalleled songwriters and artists of all time. Although he was born in Michigan in 1950, he has called Los Angeles home for most of his adult life.
Like most songwriters, Stevie has written a lot about romantic love but he has also never been afraid to use his platform to call our attention to more challenging, and often avoided, lyrical topics. He addressed hate, transcendence, racial issues, and poverty in his songs “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” “Higher Ground,” “Living For The City,” and “Village Ghetto Land,” among others.
As an artist and producer, he makes some of the most genuine, emotive recordings you’ll ever hear. One of my favorite Stevie songs of all time is “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” which he co-wrote, produced, and performed when he was only 20 years old. From just after the first downbeat of the song when he screams out a “hey, hey” to the very last note, that record is jam-packed full of joy and energy! It is so honest and natural that it feels entirely improvised. The drum groove is funky as hell, the background vocals feel like they’re jumping out of the speakers, and young Stevie is singing passionately about love in a way that goes far beyond his age at the time.
Since his first album was released in 1962, Stevie has had more than 30 Top 10 U.S. hits, has won 22 Grammys and an Academy Award, been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and sold over 100 million albums. But more importantly, go listen to a Stevie Wonder song right now and try not to be moved. His timeless songs help make our world a better place to this day. What a legend. Cheers to you, Mr. Wonder!
busbee is an award-winning songwriter and producer who has had hits with artists ranging from Pink, Timbaland, and FloRida to Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum, and Hunter Hayes. He and his family are proud to call Los Angeles home.
Selecting a “favorite” for anything is tough because I have many, but I went with the first L.A. songwriter who came to mind: Tupac Shakur. It should be noted that he was born in East Harlem, but it was Los Angeles that defined his character and passion in such classics as “California Love” and “To Live and Die in L.A.”
I wasn’t a fan of Tupac until college. I was turned off by his braggadocio’s perspective and lyrics of sex, weed, and guns. At that time, I connected more to rap songs with messages of community empowerment.
But one night after class, I heard a Tupac song playing out of a neighbor’s apartment. I put my prejudices aside and listened—and his lyrics instantly clicked. Each line and metaphor hit like a punch to the gut. I realized that his music came from not only a dark but also a celebratory place. It was this urban duality. How does a man celebrate taking a life in one song, and then praise his mom in another? This was the duality of Tupac.
To this day, his songs resonate with my own experience of duality in finding and fighting with myself. I was the first in my family to graduate high school and had very little financial support. Trying to do right (and being the first in the family to do so) was never an easy task.
It’s hard to believe that Tupac left us at the age of 25—given his wisdom and perspective. To this day, I have to hit the rewind button to hear a metaphor or clever wordplay that I might have missed the first few times I heard the track.
Tupac’s delivery was powerful over well-crafted beats. His lyrics were fierce and passionate, angry yet compassionate. In the end, he sold over 75 million records worldwide. His life may have been short but he still has an impact on music today.
Anthony Valadez can be heard weekly on KCRW in Los Angeles, in addition to being featured on NUVOtv’s “The Collective.” He is also the resident DJ at the Sayers Club and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He loves hanging out at the Venice dog park.
Being in the business of creating and curating independent music festivals in L.A., I come across some of the most passionate and talented people on this planet. Artists who are generous with their talents, create for their own advancement, and collaborate with independent venues, filmmakers, and everyone in between. Film might drive our city’s artistic economy, but our music—whether it’s our fierce underground hip-hop, eclectic DJs or indie bands—is what keeps us cool.
I have these musician friends named Alex Pfender and Noah Diettrech, who together make strikingly harmonic, nostalgic, and completely original music under the name yOya. Songs like“Fireworks” and “Come Alive” push me to feel present and young and giddy and sad all at the same time.
And their work is an aspirational standard for artists in our community. These are the guys who insist you come out on a Tuesday but make it feel like a Friday. These are the guys you can call with an idea for a really weird project and they’ll figure out ways to collaborate. These are the guys who support other artists instead of competing with them. These are the guys who bring their instruments to a party and make you feel like you’re living the L.A. dream rather than chasing it.
So here’s to you, yOya for keeping this strange and beautiful city alive with your art.
(Band photo: Jenna Carver)
Negin Singh is the Founder and Artistic Director of cARTel: Collaborative Arts LA. In addition to creating and producing some of LA’s biggest Indie events (BROKECHELLA, No Budget Film Festival, Art Party, Living Room Tour), Singh has produced the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and screenings for LACMA. She is currently the Special Events Producer for top Augmented Reality developers, Daqri.