by Leah R. Garnett on Thursday, November 5th, 2009 at at 12:47 pm
A former TV writer, Tracy Newman started a new career as a singer/songwriter in her 60s. Photograph by: www.sherrybarnettphotography.com
You may not know Tracy Newman’s name, but you likely know her dialogue. She’s a former TV writer who’s written for “Cheers,” “The Nanny,” “Ellen” (with Ellen Degeneres), The Drew Carey Show,” and many others. She and co-writer Jonathan Stark won an Emmy and the Peabody Award for writing the ground-breaking coming-out episode of “Ellen.” The duo then co-created the long-running sitcom, “According to Jim,” starring Jim Belushi. And for Newman’s encore?
In 2005, she left the TV business to become a full-time singer-songwriter. Tracy Newman cut her first CD, “A Place in the Sun,” in 2007. Her second CD is due to be released in early 2010. She’s also recording a CD for children.
A Los Angeles native, Tracy is in her 60s and has played the guitar and written songs since the age of 14. Tracy says that the years of experience creating “stories” within the confines of the 22-minute situation comedy improved her songwriting skills. Now her stories are 3 minutes long, and she gets to sing them. Music After 50 talked to Tracy Newman about her new career, her approach to songwriting, and her next gig.
LRG: I understand that both you and your younger sister, Laraine Newman of “Saturday Night Live” fame, were members of the Groundlings, an improvisational group and theater in Los Angeles. I imagine you weren’t just writing, but acting as well. Did that experience set the stage for what you’re doing now?
TN: Yes. Being in the Groundlings made me comfortable on stage and helped me hone my re-writing skills. TV writing is really about re-writing. So is songwriting. So is all writing. That’s where the hard work is.
LRG: What prompted you to leave television when you did?
TN: I’ve always prepared for my next job while I still had the money coming in for the current one. When we sold “According to Jim,” we had a great staff in place and I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I thought I could get out of television and do something else. I loved writing comedy, but I didn’t want to be going every day to a job anymore. I was burned out from the pressure of shooting and editing a live show every week.
When we sold the pilot in 2001, it was like winning the lottery. I stayed on as a consultant until the end of 2005. I then went to Nashville to study songwriting 101, where I wrote “Waffle Boy.” It’s about a kid suffering through his first day of making waffles at a Waffle House. I tried to give a very detailed description of everything he goes through on his way to triumph. It’s really about a wonderful father-son relationship. I’ve won several songwriting contests with that song. [LRG: listen to it here, along with other songs.]
LRG: I really enjoyed your song “Laraine,” which is about the love and friendship you feel for your younger sister. Do you think mature songwriters tend to write less about romantic love than young singer/songwriters?
TN: Not necessarily. I think all songwriters write about heartbreak, lost love, etc. The best songwriters cover everything, no matter how old they are; they are observant. Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, the Beatles – all influenced what a lot of us write. They certainly wrote a lot of love songs when they were younger, but they also wrote character studies. “A Free Man in Paris” by Joni Mitchell is a good example. It’s a very detailed character study of then agent David Geffen, with a lot of heart in it. It has an emotional through-line. He’s a frustrated man. Everyone is trying to get a piece of him; everyone is begging him for favors. It’s heartfelt; you understand why he’s in Paris.
There’s “For Free,” about the clarinet player on the corner playing for tips. She meant to give money but the signal changed. Such a great comment on all of us. She’s a brilliant observer. She writes about life around her. She was young when she wrote that.
LRG: You mentioned that you’re much less nervous going on stage at 60-something than at 20-something. Why is that?
TN: I think many people feel more at ease…or maybe more accepting of who they are as they get older. When I started singing and playing in clubs again…as I had done in my early 20’s, I practiced and practiced until at least I knew I wouldn’t screw up the technical stuff. Then I wondered for a New York minute… “Jeez, I’m in my 60’s. What’s this going to look like? Who’s going to be interested in what I have to say?” Then, I just shrugged and said, “Who cares?” I am who I am. There’s nothing I can do about it, and as long as I’m interested in what I have to say, maybe someone else will be, too. I think that’s my new motto.
LRG: You mentioned you were also doing a kids’ CD. Talk about that, and about how you got involved in children’s music.
TN: When I was a teen, I was the camper who led singalongs around the campfire. In the early 70s, I was a nursery school teacher and I did a song circle every day. When I had my daughter, Charlotte, I sang her to sleep every night with songs I knew and songs I made up. Then I sang in her school for all ages. I have a lot of songs for kids. By the way, if you want to sing for children, make sure they know your songs ahead of time, if you can, so you’re a superstar when you walk through the door. Then, they’re riveted. Actually, it’s the same with adults.LRG: On your CD liner notes, you thank your songwriting teacher, Harriet Schock.
TN: I’ve taken her class about 20 times…that’s 10-week sessions, over three years. Many of the songs on my current CD were written in her classes.
LRG: What sorts of people are in class with you?
TN: Some are there because they just want to write; they’re never going to perform. I think others are there for a kind of therapy. Others are experienced singer-songwriters who may have hit a wall, and need help. Sometimes there’s a teenager in there. Right now, I’m probably the oldest. One of my band-mates is in there writing up a storm. Harriet’s class is really fun. As far as I’m concerned, she has a sure-fire method.
LRG: What were some recent gigs and where is your next performance? Do you, or do you want, to tour?
TN: My last gig was at Kulak’s Woodshed in North Hollywood. That’s a funky 60s throwback with a 6-camera international webcast of the shows. My next one [Saturday, Nov 21, 2009] is at the Living Tradition Concert Series in Anaheim. That’s like a community center with a subscription audience. I play a lot at The Talking Stick in Venice. I play Russ & Julie’s House Concerts in Oak Park, Bob Stane’s Coffee Gallery in Altadena, Strings Music Store in Glendora, Arnie’s Café in Tujunga. As you can tell, I do a lot of shows locally. I don’t travel much yet. It becomes a matter of managing my energy. At this age, do I want to tour? If they made it comfortable for me? Maybe. I’d probably have to have a hit record. That would be very cool, wouldn’t it?
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