On "The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1," due Sept. 30 on Nonesuch Records, Randy Newman recreates 18 works spanning his 33-year career.

On "The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1," due Sept. 30 on Nonesuch Records, Randy Newman recreates 18 works spanning his 33-year career. But to hear him tell it, he wasn't much for the idea originally. "It was what the label wanted, and it didn't seem particularly interesting to me," he tells Billboard. "I was a little surprised that I did what the record company wanted me to."

However, as the project progressed, and as he "tried his hardest" in the studio with producer Mitchell Froom, Newman says he changed his mind. "I now think it's probably a good idea to have a record of them the way I usually perform them," he says.

That means the album is just Newman and his piano; it's the first to feature the artist -- Billboard's 2000 Century Award recipient -- solo at the keyboard since 1970's "Live" album. The songs are interspersed with snippets from his movie scores, and the result is a seamless project that showcases not only Newman's gruff yet touching vocals but also his elegant, deft playing.

Although he had been performing many of the songs in concert over the years, Newman says that when he listened to all of them together for the first time, "I realized there were things that I wrote a long time ago that I could have written last year." In particular, such songs as "Political Science" or "It's Money That I Love" seem more relevant today than ever. Other songs, like "It's Lonely at the Top," which appeared on his 1972 classic "Sail Away," grow only more hilarious.

"I wrote that for Frank Sinatra," he says. "I thought it would really be funny -- the lamppost-leaning crap -- but Frank didn't think it was funny. Then I played it for Barbra Streisand, and she was afraid people would take it too seriously."

Happily, he also notes that as he listened to the new versions, "I didn't notice any big decline, thank God, in quality. Actually, I think I've gotten better. I think [1999's] 'Bad Love' was the best album I've made, but you don't know if you've gotten crappy because no one's going to tell you."

In addition to preparing for his return to the road -- a U.S. tour starts Friday (Sept. 19) in Boston -- Newman is also writing songs for an album of new material on Nonesuch. "If they don't drop me," he says. "It would be so hip if they did that -- dropped me after they put out 'Vol. 1.' I'd almost enjoy that."