Best known for winning an Academy Award with Barbra Streisand for writing the song “Evergreen” from the 1976 film “A Star is Born” and for the song “A Rainbow Connection,” which Kermit the Frog sings in “The Muppet Movie,” singer/songwriter Paul Williams has never lost his passion for the craft that made him a cultural icon in the 70s.
In the new documentary, “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” Williams, who is currently the president of the American Society of Composer, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), looks back on his career as director Stephen Kessler explores the impact he had on the entertainment during that era and why nearly 40 years later he is still inspiring people with his lyrical talent. “Paul William: Still Alive” was recently nominated by the Broadcast Film Critics Association for Best Song for “Still Alive,” which Williams wrote specifically for the documentary. The song was also put on the shortlist for a possible Academy Award nomination come January.
What were your initial thoughts about making documentary on your career?
I didn’t know for sure if I really wanted to do it. It had been a really long time since I considered being back in the public eye. I didn’t think there was anything more pathetic than a little old man saying, “Please let me be famous for two more minutes!” That’s not who I am anymore. For years I was such a media whore. I mean, give me a couch and a camera and I would pop up. I also thought, “Who’s going to want to see a movie about a songwriter from the 70s?”
So, back then, when you were in front of the camera all the time, was it all about just staying famous?
You know, songwriting has always been my life. It’s what always got me into the parties. When I did “The Tonight Show” (with Johnny Carson) the first time everybody started treating me differently. It was like I was a big shot. I think I developed an addiction to the attention. But then my addiction to drugs and alcohol came. After I got sober I asked myself, “Do I really want to go back to that world?” I didn’t know how people would treat me, but it’s been amazing.
I was very moved by your new song “Still Alive.” One of the lyrics is “If you’re lucky, when it’s over/The dreamer’s still alive.” After 40 years in the film and music industry, do you still consider yourself a dreamer?
You know, I think [those lyrics] are the heart of the movie. I don’t know why I’m still alive and artists like Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin are dead. We were all addicts. But, you know, I think everything we do in our lives that is productive probably begins with a dream. I don’t think I’ve changed that much in the last 22 years. I think my dreams are happily still alive. At first I didn’t like the title of the movie, “Paul Williams: Still Alive” because I still had enough ego left, but I realized I am alive in ways I have never been. I’m connected to the rest of the world in ways I’ve never been before. Now, I’m not trying to control the world in ways that I used to.
Talk to me about your work in ASCAP and what you’re trying to do for songwriters to make sure they’re getting paid for their creativity and hard work.
You know, there are two ways a songwriter makes money. One is mechanical: When someone buys a CD or a download, money goes to the record company and to the publishing company and to the songwriter. Then there is a performance fee. When songs are performed on TV or film or radio or clubs, and a songwriter gets a royalty. What ASCAP has done for the last 100 years is create licenses for all our members’ work. So, if you have our license, you can play as much of that music as you want and those royalties go back to the songwriter.
Has there been a particular version of “The Rainbow Connection” that you especially liked over the last few years?
Oh, there have been some great recordings of it. I did a duet with Willie Nelson, which was just fun. Willie also recorded it alone. I also did a duet with Jason Mraz. I love the Sarah Mclachlan version. Everyone has recorded it from the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes to the Dixie Chicks. The best part of being a songwriter is what I call “heart payment.”
Explain what “heart payment” is.
That’s when, for example, a mother comes up to me and says, “My little boy is learning to play the piano and starting learning how to play “The Rainbow Connection.” Or someone comes up to me and says, “My mom was a single mom and your song ‘You and Me Against the World’ was a really important song to us.” That tells you as a songwriter that you were a part of somebody’s life. I love the money and love the fact that I can put the kids through school and put gas in the car, but the real payment for someone like me know is that “heart payment.”
Well, I have a one year old who is addicted to “Yo Gabba Gabba,” so I was very excited when I put a new DVD on and you came out in the “Super Music Friend Show.” How fun was that?
Oh, that was so much fun. See, that’s what I’m talking about. What you just gave me was a heart payment. I’m going to tell my wife about this. You know, right after I did that show aired, I walked into a restaurant and this woman was walking out with a baby who was maybe two years old in her arms. As I walked passed them, the baby pointed at me and said, “Gabba!” I was like, “Oh my, God! I have a whole new fan base now!” How old is your baby?
She’s 13 months now. She watches that DVD about 100 times a day.
(Laughs) Oh, you’re probably sick and tired of “Rainbow Connection” then.
Oh, not at all. There are a few other songs that grate my nerves, but that’s definitely not one of them. On that note, is there a chance you could sing something to my daughter? Her name is Alora.
Hear Paul Williams sing to Alora HERE.