Why folk music? Why not?
Tracy Newman writes and sings the lyrics to her life, helped out by her band, the Reinforcements.
By Rhea Mahbubani
12:47 p.m. CST, February 21, 2013
Sneakers, drugs and everyday life. That’s what Tracy Newman’s albums are made of.
“I usually mention tennis shoes and some kind of drug in my CDs,” she said. “I was dating a guy whose tennis shoes were all over the place and I was always tripping on them.”
Her ex also dabbled in the occasional substance. So she wrote about it.
The Emmy Award-winning TV writer turned singer-songwriter will be in Laguna Beach on Tuesday. Tracy Newman and the Reinforcements are poised to take the stage at 8:30 p.m. at the Marine Room Tavern to perform well-known acoustic tunes, along with new songs.
A familiar face at weekly writing classes, Newman embraces every assignment as an opportunity to produce newly crafted lyrics. Although she has a fine-tuned aversion for the initial stages of songwriting — staring at a blank page is the worst part — rewriting, editing and finding the perfect word is a lot of fun, she says.
Newman burst onto the folk music scene in 2004 and released “A Place in the Sun” in 2007. Every one of that album’s 10 songs reflected the Los Angeles resident’s creative élan. Honing in on the details, she pieced together, and then sang about, character sketches of her sister, a waffle chef and others.
“I have letters from fans who have put the CD in their cars and they listen to it everyday,” said Newman, 70, recalling a feeling of invincibility upon the creation of what she deemed a “perfect CD.”
Alternately, the lyrics of all 11 songs on her newest album “I Just See You,” which hit the market in September, offer a glimpse into Newman’s kaleidoscope of experiences — as a woman, lover, wife and mother. This venture took five years to complete because it caused worry at every step, be it flow, song order or set list, she said.
Although the album was ready to go before 2010, Newman was stymied.
“I was insecure,” she said. “I actually recorded 30 songs to get the 11 songs on the CD. I love every song, but I couldn’t come up with an order I liked. I kept redoing vocals. I love the end product, but it was not an easy birth. My next CD will be very easy. I think I learned that it’s not life or death, you know? I love all the recordings, so maybe someone else will too.”
Newman recalled spending a chunk of her childhood swaying back and forth on her rocking chair listening to Judy Garland. A fan of Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, and more recently Ed Sheeran and Adele, she was 14 when she first picked up her guitar and began jotting down songs.
When she was sent to the University of Arizona, Tucson to pursue a degree in liberal arts, Newman adopted a street corner in what she calls a “gentle city” and began playing music, even though she was enrolled as a full-time student.
“I had no business going to college at that time,” she said. “I never attended class, except botany for a few weeks, because the teacher was so cute.”
While she loved performing and interacting with fellow artists, her enraged mother brought her home and plunked her on a seat in a psychologist’s office. An elderly man unable to connect with the plight of an upper-middle-class Jewish girl who wanted only to be a folk singer, he proceeded to nod off during their post-lunch sessions.
“It twists you when you’re a performer and somebody who’s as influential as your mother or your father doesn’t want you to be that,” she said. “In the end, it didn’t matter whether I was talented or not, they were trying to protect me.”
In an effort to stave off a singing career that she thought would yield no returns, Newman’s mother enrolled her in school and helped her find work as a dental assistant.
“I hated all of it,” she said.
Subsequently, Newman found her way to the Groundlings, where she spent a decade and a half, first as a performer, then as a director and teacher. This improv group on Melrose was a gold mine of talent, uncovering and training bigwigs including Will Ferrell, Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens, Kristen Wiig, Kathy Griffin and Lisa Kudrow.
The Groundlings experience was also a professional wellspring for Newman because that was where she met Jonathan Stark, who went on to be her 15-year writing partner. With heads bent over their material, Stark and Newman churned out award-winning quality work for shows including “Cheers,” “The Nanny,” “Ellen,” and “The Drew Carey Show.”
During her nearly 17-year career, Newman grew to be a well-known entity in the TV writing community, which brought with it fame and recognition. Having enjoyed both, she said, it was the good times shared with her partner that hold a special place in her heart.
“We really made each other laugh,” she said. “It’s the laughing all day — for about eight hours — which was the most rewarding.”
In 2001, when the duo masterminded the script of “According to Jim,” which was then picked up for eight seasons, the writer “hit the jackpot.” Having earned and saved enough money, she resurrected her first love — music.
“Music is hugely important in my life,” she said. “If you try to watch a movie without music in it, you suddenly realize how important the soundtrack is.”
Now, flanked by a band composed of a retired lawyer, computer programmer, masseuse, and former Harry Belafonte bandmate — all brought together by a shared passion — Newman is slated to perform at various locations in Southern California through March, despite having recently undergone back surgery. The group will travel north for a six-day tour in April.
In the process of fine-tuning her third CD, Newman said, “Why folk music? Because I can play it.”