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 third in a series of three. Click here for the past installments.
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: You've had some amazing success recently composing for a new musical theater piece. Do you want to talk about that?
Pamela: Yes, I’d love to. It’s called Soldier of Orange in Dutch, Soldaat van Oranje. There was a movie called Soldier of Orange with Rutger Hauer in the 1970s. It was about Holland’s greatest war hero in World War II, and arguably the greatest Dutch hero in modern history. I had seen the movie, but was not really that familiar with any of it. My partner Tom Harriman, a composer, and I were invited to write this musical, Soldier of Orangebased on Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema’s memoir. I went to Hawaii, where he lived, and I met Erik, which was a great honor and privilege. He was fabulous and informed me a great deal. When I first sat down with him, he said, “I’m mildly interested in doing a musical of my life, but let’s have lunch.” So we had lunch in Hawaii, and had a wonderful time. I gave him all these ideas I’d had after reading his book. I’d read what he did and how he lived and where he came from, Java, and all these things. I gave him a lot of ideas, and his eyes started sparkling. He was 88 years old, and he was like, “Oh my god, I love this. This is great.” By the end of the lunch, he said to me, “Now I am wildly enthusiastic about doing a musical of my life, and I want you to do it.”
When we started writing the show, we started with the memoirs, which went, “And then I, and then I, and then I.” So we had to figure out, “Where is the story? What is the parameter of the story? Where does it start? Where does it end? What do we leave in? What do we take out?” There was a wife. There were girlfriends. But we just needed one girl. There were girlfriends and then a wife, but not all at once. So I said to Tom, “We need one girl,” so we made up a girl named Charlotte, who didn't exist. We were able to give her a very big part in the Underground, getting captured and killed and all of these things. That was all made up. We started writing with an image. In Erik’s memoir, he talked about standing on the beach at Scheveningen, looking out and saw the carpet bombing of Rotterdam. I thought about how he said it looked like a giant strawberry sundae cloud. The description was so magnificent. I just sat down and started writing a song based on that line.
A big lesson that I understand about show writing is, every word of every song has to apply only to the character that’s singing it. If you can take a song and say, “Let’s give it to them. No, let’s give it to them,” then you haven’t done your job as a songwriter because the song has to only apply to the background, the story, the intent, the story development, the plot development, everything of that one character. It can’t be that just anybody can sing it. If it’s generic, then you haven’t written a show.
We have had much success with the music from the show. The show’s album went to number seven on the Dutch pop charts and the show itself has now sold more than half a million tickets. It’s a massive success. 1,100 people come every day. It sells out.
Carnegie Hall: What are some suggestions for getting your creative juices flowing? We’ve discussed always keeping your book and a pen anywhere so you can always write down a thought. But sometimes people might experience writers’ block, so what are some suggestions?
Pamela: The first thing I want to tell you is good news. There is no such thing as writer’s block. Writer’s block is simply that you had no idea what you were trying to say. You just move on to the next idea. You don’t have to go lie out under an apple tree. You can just move on to another idea. Go for a walk, come back, and try something else. Writer’s block just means that you haven’t fleshed out your idea.
If you missed the past 2 installments of Pamela's interview with Carnegie Hall, Click here.
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.