Singer-Songwriter Tracy Newman On Ellen, Ageism And Being A Late Bloomer

Tracy Newman, singer-songwriter

Photo: Jeff Fasano

UPDATE 4/14/13: Tracy Newman’s “Peaceful Easy Feeling” 40th Anniversary Tour is happening. Check out her upcoming appearances here.

By Stacey Gualandi

At 63, Tracy Newman went from award-winning TV writer to fledgling singer-songwriter. Tracy was a founding member of the improv troupe The Groundlings with her sister and Saturday Night Live alum, Laraine Newman. She had won an Emmy and a Peabody for co-writing the “coming out” episode of Ellen. She wrote for Cheers; and she co-created According to Jim.

But just when most people start thinking retirement, Tracy did a rewrite on her career. Now she tours all over the country with her band, The Reinforcements, and is currently working on her second CD.

Tracy Newman and her band

In the 60’s, she scored a significant song publishing deal and even appeared on The Tonight Show. By returning now to music, Tracy is now proving age is just a number. I caught up with Tracy between gigs recently to find out why she made the tough decision to return to her first love and whether or not you can start over…

EYE: Is your mantra starting over…reinvention…it’s never too late…?

TRACY: No…but I do change my mantra often. I think my new mantra in the last couple days is “just show up.” My feeling is that the only way to fail is to quit. I always say that, but I think I got that from Dr. Phil. Haha! It’s probably the best advice you can give to anybody.

EYE: Is that something that you’ve always lived by?

TRACY: I think it is, but I don’t think I understood how important it was. A great example is constantly sending songs in to contests. Of course you don’t win most of the time, but what do you have to lose? Just show up. Send your material out!

EYE: Why do women hesitate sometimes to just show up?

TRACY: I think there are certain things I tend not to do because it’s considered a man’s domain. With my music stuff, sometimes I’m discouraged by assuming they want a guy band. It’s a really lazy attitude. The fear of rejection is always there. Maybe it’s fear that makes us lazy. I was very lucky in my television career.

Tracy Newman Band

Tracey and The Reinforcements/Photo: Pam Vick

EYE: Is that because TV writers are mostly men?

TRACY: In a lot of ways, TV writing is a man’s world, especially comedy. When I was 46, I partnered up with former Groundlings alum Jonathan Stark, a guy 10 years younger that me. At that time in 1991, I think the shows may have had a quota where they had to hire a minority, so with me and Jonathan, for the price of one writer, they would get two and fill their quota.

I was a woman in my mid-40s…definitely a minority. Maybe that’s why we were hired. You do have to have the goods, and we were fortunate to get that first chance on Cheers. It was a huge lucky break. It was second only to having my daughter.

Tracy Newman, 1960

Tracy Newman, 1960

EYE: But TV writing in Hollywood wasn’t your first love…

TRACY: Right! In my 20s, I was performing and active in music. I had various people cover my songs and got a publishing deal. But I didn’t like being in the studio or anything having to do with recording. I had the same feeling sometimes working in television.

EYE: I find it interesting that your TV career started at 46!! Many people would say that’s not easy.

TRACY: I think all the stuff that you’ve been doing up until now–it all counts in terms of getting yourself ready for whatever that next thing you want to do is. I was a singer-songwriter for a while and a founding member of the Hollywood improv troupe.

I was there for 15 years…teaching, writing, and doing everything. From there I went into writing for television. That’s the natural step if you’re not going to be a performer. But after According to Jim went into syndication, I felt it was time to go back to music.

“People with a really strong passion for a creative endeavor, writing a script, a book, or singing, will do it even if they don’t have the time or money.”

EYE: Didn’t anyone say you’re crazy, Tracy?

TRACY: It’s fun to be in a writer’s room for about four hours. After that, it’s exhausting!!! You feel your life draining away. I was ready to leave and fortunately I had the money to do it. I probably wouldn’t have actually quit my job if I didn’t have the money. Going back to singing, I had to assume I wouldn’t make a lot of money. So far, I work all the time, but I don’t make a living. I don’t even break even.

Tracy Newman and Jim Belushi

Tracy and Jim Belushi/Photo: ABC/Disney

EYE: So do you advise people to do what you did? What if you don’t have the money?

TRACY: Those who have money don’t need my advice. People with a really strong passion for a creative endeavor, writing a script, a book, or singing, will do it even if they don’t have the time or money.

They’ll find the time. When I was working in TV, I wanted to write a book, so I got up at 5 every morning and wrote before I went to work. I was tired. I had a kid. I was exhausted.

But when you have a real passion to do something, you have to find a way. For those who say I wish I had the time to write, I guess you don’t really want to write.

EYE: When did you know you were a gifted, funny writer?

TRACY: When I was in The Groundlings, I was surrounded by a lot of people who were a lot funnier than me, including my sister Laraine. But I always greatly appreciated really good comedy. So I became a teacher and director and the person people would come to get a script or sketch in better shape. When I started getting into writing seriously, I realized television is essentially rewriting which is what we were doing for free.

“When I was a teenager, I genuinely thought my mother’s life was over when she was in her thirties.”

EYE: You’ve written about your mom. When you were 16, you said, “I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother one day, and she was all excited, filled with creative passion about decorating a house, and I sat there thinking ‘why is she telling me all this. Her life is almost over?’ Guess how old she was? 36!!”

TRACY: When I was a teenager, I genuinely thought my mother’s life was over when she was in her 30s. I thought she was so old. I couldn’t imagine living that long.

EYE: What’s so sad is that she waited her whole life to make up for lost time only to find out at 68, just when she felt she was starting to live, she had lung cancer…

TRACY: I describe her as being angry; you can’t even imagine. She just wanted to die. That’s the shape the anger took. She didn’t even want to deal. It was very difficult for all of us.

Miss Groundling Contest 1973

Miss Groundling Contest, 1973/Laraine and Tracy on right

EYE: What’s the lesson do you think? You wrote that your mom believed that middle-aged women are the least valued group…

TRACY: She was right at the time though. An older person then would have had a tough time breaking into something new the way they can now. But I think the Internet and technology have changed “age.” My audiences have people of ALL ages. When a young person hooks into my music, they continue to come see the show many times. I think they learn something.

“In show business I think you can make your own success.”

EYE: Is there still a problem with ageism in Hollywood?

TRACY: Yes, it’s rampant. But I always think somebody is going to slip in under the door, and it might as well be me. Sometimes you see people emerge in their 60s, and you’ve never seen them before!! In show business I think you can make your own success.

EYE: You had great success as a writer: a Peabody and an Emmy. You had a lot of confidence. But how do you feel about singing and performing again?

TRACY: I wasn’t nervous at first. Getting up in front of 10 people in a coffee house, I was just as scared as the newcomers even though I used to do this. In 1963, I performed at Carnegie Hall twice.

Tracy Newman at Carnegie Hall

I had developed a great comfort performing on stage in my 20s. Now in my 60s, I was nervous, but I knew if I could get back to the comfort level I once had, then everyone would be as ease. It’s hard to watch someone who is nervous.

EYE: You’re setting an example for people…you can go back.

TRACY: You have to be willing to start over. You can’t just say, “I won an Emmy for the ‘coming out’ episode of Ellen, now I’m going to sing for you.” The audience doesn’t care!!!

Tracy Newman and Ellen

Winning Emmys with Ellen/Photo: ABC

EYE: Speaking of that episode, did you know that it was going to be as groundbreaking as it was?

TRACY: I think that we knew it was important and could make a difference in people’s lives but Ellen was way more aware than us writers. My writing partner and I are not gay, but I think they chose us to write the episode because…well, I don’t know why. Maybe because we weren’t gay. Whatever.

Our primary concern was staying at the heart of the subject. This was a character that could not become intimate with anyone. It wasn’t a gay problem; it was a relationship problem. We also wanted to focus on “funny.”

They could have chosen anyone on that staff to do it. But I knew, and was very sure, that we could write a great episode because they gave us so much time!!! It was fun. It was scary. There were bomb threats. But we knew everyone would be watching that episode.

EYE: If you could write about this next chapter in your life, what would you have happen?

TRACY: One thing is I would love to have one of my songs covered by someone like Dolly Parton or Merle Haggard. And I’d like to get bigger and bigger jobs as a band and be better known as a singer-songwriter. I guess that’s where I’m heading. There are always baby steps. If I were in my 20s, this would be the normal career trajectory. Now, I’m older and I have less time, that’s all. Ha!!

EYE: But there’s nothing wrong with that, right?

TRACY: Are there some nights when I’d rather be home cooking instead of at a show? Yes, but once I’m on stage, I don’t feel that way.

Tracy and sister Laraine

Tracy and sister Laraine

EYE: What did your sister think about your shift back to your original passion?

TRACY: She has said it’s inspirational. Laraine is now getting back to performing all the time, and we like to do shows together. I’m nine years older than her, and she’s inspired to think if Tracy can do it, I can do it.

EYE: Even though you once thought life was over at 36, your successful TV career was just starting at that age!!!

TRACY: Well, I certainly didn’t think that of my own self.

EYE: Are you glad you waited later to have a child at 39?

TRACY: There are times when I wish I had started a few years younger, and I could have felt comfortable physically about having another one. Laraine didn’t start until her early 40s, and looking back, I could have had another kid. I feel that raising a child is the biggest and the hardest thing to do, and you really have to focus your time on at least the first five or six years and be present.

Tracy Newman Band

Tracy and her band

EYE: What is your musical style?

TRACY: Acoustic folk and country. We do a fun and uplifting show. My audience is growing, and I just keep treating each show like someone really important is out there and that I’m touching somebody. You always have to treat each performance like it’s important to you and important to them.

EYE: Be sure to tune in to our radio interview with Tracy. She will be a guest on The Women’s Eye Radio Show, date to be announced soon….

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