Lyricist Pamela Phillips-Oland is coming off one of the best years of her long career. She continues to reinvent herself, and her creative juices keep flowing into multiple projects and genres. Defying categorization, the 3X-Grammy-nominated Oland writes pop, R&B, rock, country, jazz and theater songs with the same ease of inspiration. Her break was having “Monday Morning Quarterback” recorded by Frank Sinatra – she became his last lyricist when he commissioned her to write “Barbara” for his wife. Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Selena, Peabo Bryson, Reba McIntyre, The Jacksons, and Gladys Knight represent just a few of her 500 or so recorded songs. This post is the first in a series of three. Click here for part 2.
In the Musical Exchange Songwriter Series, we explore the craft of songwriting through regular interviews and short videos with songwriters who share inspiration and advice and reflect diverse musical styles and approaches to the art of songwriting.
Carnegie Hall: When did you decide to start creating music and be a songwriter? Was there any specific event that led you to the career path?
Pamela: I have always had a love affair with words. When I was a kid, I loved writing, I loved writing stories, and I wrote poems as I came up. I also studied ballet in London at the Royal Academy and wanted to be a ballerina. My father was a brilliant musician, so I grew up around music. Musicians from all over London would come to our house, and I’d hear them playing. And I loved music. I started singing all the musicals, all the shows. I loved My Fair Lady and The King and Iand all the great shows. I was enamored of music.
My parents then sent me to elocution classes where I had a wonderful teacher named Gloria Brent. Gloria was a teacher of elocution, and she taught me how to speak properly, to say the Queen’s English, and to enunciate. I learned all these poems, and I’d have to go up in a contest with 30 or 40 other kids from all over London, and we’d all say things like, “Why does the wind so want to be here in my little room with me?” and that was my beginning. I just loved words, so that gave me a great grounding for being a writer of words, because I actually studied how to enunciate them, how to say them, and where the emphasis was. We have joke in songwriting that “you mustn’t put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle.” You have to learn how to use language. If you don’t have a good lyric, you don’t have a song. You might have good melody, you might be a great musician, you might be able to play, and you might have all of those things, but you really need to have your language skills.
Pamela Oland has written the lyrics for some of contemporary music's biggest stars, including "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do" for Whitney Houston.
Carnegie Hall:Were there any songwriters that you looked up to?
Pamela: There was one in particular, and that was Carole King. Before I heard Carole King, I actually wrote a song called “Knight in Shining Armor.” That’s literally where my head was. Romance to me was an absolutely fantastical thing, and everything I wrote was very prosaic and beautiful and pretty and full of longing and full of hope and wonder. It was really quite pretty. And then I heard Carole King sing, “You’re so far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” Something about that song just changed everything for me. I suddenly got that songwriting was about reality, about conversations between people, not just some observation of a distant, far off fantasy. That swung it. That made the whole difference. I understood the difference between poetry and lyrics. I used to go to publishers and they’d say, “Your songs are poems, not lyrics.” I’d say, “How do you know?” And the publisher would typically say, “I don’t know. I just know.” I’d say, “That’s helpful. That’s useful advice.” I had to figure it out myself. When I wrote my first book, The Art of Writing Great Lyrics, I very much went into the difference between poetry and lyrics, because nobody had been able to find it before. That became very helpful to a lot of people, I think, because we all start writing poetry.
Carnegie Hall: In writing lyrics, how important do you think it is for songs to rhyme?
Pamela: I do believe in rhyme. I don’t believe in the “June, moon, spoon” rhymes, which are just contrived and as dull as dirt because they’ve been done so many times. If you can’t find a perfect rhyme, I’d say have a sound-alike rhyme or a near rhyme, “you” and “June” or that sort of thing. But I do believe in perfect rhymes. In musical theater, it used to be an absolute de rigueur. It was absolute. Everything had to rhyme perfectly. You’d have all these wonderful internal rhymes, which I think are fabulous, too. And you’d rhyme the third word in the first line with the third word in the third line, and all these wonderful shapes of rhymes. Today, people are very sloppy about rhymes, because they haven’t studied songwriting. They feel that just because they have a gift with words or music or they like to sing that they can write songs. It’s not that easy. Anybody can write a song, and everybody does. Every taxi driver I’ve ever ridden with was a songwriter. It’s true. Everybody’s a songwriter. If you throw a rock across the street, you’ll hit a songwriter. Everybody wants to write songs today, especially with the proliferation of American Idol and The Voice and all the talent shows. Everybody is dying to be a singer-songwriter-performer. Everybody wants to be involved in the biz. But there is a craft to it, and it’s not easy. In fact, I wrote a course for songU.com, which is an online songwriting university in Nashville. It’s fabulous. It’s got people from all over the world. I wrote a course for them called Thinking as a Songwriter, in which I taught them the art of all of these wonderful things of rhyme and using colorful words and expressions, with many exercises. It was a tough course. I made them do a lot of homework. The first few letters that I got from disgruntled students were, “It’s too hard. I don’t want to do it.” I’d say, “Great. More cuts for me, then, if you don’t want to learn how to do it.” More recently, I’ve had letters from people saying, “I’ve studied your words. I’ve studied what you’ve taught. I’ve studied your book. And I am much better. It was hard work, my gosh, but now I get it, and it’s really exciting once you get it.”
Carnegie Hall:How should a beginning songwriter go about studying the craft of songwriting?
Pamela: The first thing you need to do is to get books on it. You need to read books like my The Art of Writing Great Lyrics and The Art of Writing Love Songs. But there are many books. You need to know about the craft and the business and everything about songwriting, but that’s beside the point. You also need to study what has come before. “I love you” is not an original phrase. People say things that they think are original to them, but they have been said a million times, and better. You need to study the great writers starting in the 1930s and 1940s. You want to hear all the songs that Tony Bennett recorded, Ella Fitzgerald recorded, and Barbara Streisand recorded, from all the great writers. You want to hear Sammy Cahn. Maybe they’re not relevant to today’s marketplace, but the craft is. There are no greater writers than Alan and Marilyn Bergman. They’re wonderful. They wrote fantastic lyrics, like “like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel.” They create pictures and images. You have to learn to think more interesting thoughts than the one you’re currently thinking. And you have to stop writing about yourself. All of us starting writing our own stories, about how “you hurt me” and “you left me” and “you did this and that to me.” Eventually, we have to learn how to write about the listener, because it’s the listener who counts. When you say the word “I” you need to be speaking for the listener, not for the songwriter.
Another great thing to do is to join a songwriters’ group in your neighborhood. You can join Songs Alive. You can join the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International or the West Coast Songwriters’ Association out of Northern California. They all have seminars and conferences every year.
There are many ways for people to network. But if you do the songwriter groups, you go in there and you sing your song, you sit there with an open mic and you sing and play the guitar, and then you get critiqued by everybody.
Carnegie Hall: Could we discuss a little bit about your songwriting practice?
Pamela: I just write every day. I think it’s really important. If you’re a beginning writer, just write a list of titles every day, or a couple of lines of a song, or just a few bits and pieces of it. Try and do something every day. You have to keep doing it. It’s like any muscle that you work. It’s a muscle in your brain.
But my biggest tip is that I always start with a title. A title is a roadmap. Once you know what the title is, you know what you can do with it. You might find five different ways to go with a title. If you think of a title, you can think of various stories. If you give me a title right now, I’ll tell you what the stories could be. It can be “Look at Me Now,” for instance. If it’s “Look at Me Now,” it could be “Look at me now. I used to have this wonderful life with you and you loved me and everything was fabulous and now I’m all alone,” or it could be, “Look at me now. I’m loved the most that I’ve ever been. Nobody could ever have imagined how much I could be loved, let alone me,” or it could be, “Look at me now. I’m travelling all over the world. I’ve got this incredible life, this incredible career. Look what’s going on,” or it could be, “Look at me now. I’m down on the ground. I used to have everything and I just let everything go. How did I do this?” There are a million ways you can take the title, but the title gives you a roadmap. Once you do that, you start to think about what the story is and how to set it up.
Carnegie Hall: I think that’s a great tip about using the title as a roadmap. That’s really helpful as it immediately gives you some structure to build upon.
Pamela: The other tip I have is, when you start a song, sometimes you don’t finish it. There are a couple of explanations for that. One of them is that you don’t have a clue what you’re trying to say, and you just had a thought that flitted through your mind and you wrote something down and you’re unable to figure out what it meant or what it was about. The best answer to that is, instead of breaking your head over it and thinking about it for days and days, just leave it. Let it go. Forget it. It’s just an exercise, something along the way that you tried to do and didn’t end up with. This is one of my best tips.
Whenever I teach, I always say this, and people go crazy. I say, “Is there anybody in the room who ever started a song they couldn’t finish?” They all go, “Oh, yeah.” The number one tip for songwriters is this. I say to the class whenever I teach, “Is there anybody here who hasn’t finished a song they started, who has started a song and couldn’t figure out what to do with it?” They just love what they have, but they don’t know how to finish it. They stare at it for weeks and weeks. You’ll hear stories like, “It took me ten years to finish this song.” There’s a simple answer to that, and when it hit me I was like, “Oh my god. I can’t believe I thought of this.” It’s that what you’ve written is the end of the song, not the beginning. You have written the completion of an idea, which is perfect and sums it up and wraps it up. All you have to do is take that ending and put it at the end of a song, and then build up to that. You have to tell the story that leads into that ending.
Carnegie Hall: It gives the song a sense of structure, so you know where you’re going to land.
Pamela: That’s it. Now you have to figure out what the story is that leads up to it.
In addition to her work with pop musicians, Pamela's hit musical “Soldier of Orange”—co-written with composer Tom Harriman and script writer Edwin DeVries—is currently the most successful musical in Dutch history, in its 24th month of a run at the Theater Hangaar in Amsterdam, with nearly 650,000 tickets sold and a “Best Musical” win to its credit. The cast album spent 17 weeks on the Dutch pop charts, topping at #7. She and Harriman are currently writing the songs for “Real Women Have Curves,” a Broadway-bound Musical based on the play and film by Josefina Lopez.