Songwriter Series: Pamela Phillips-Oland, Part 2
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 second in a series of three. If you missed part 1, click here.
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: Looking at your phenomenal discography, and the amount of songs you have written, it seems you have done a lot of co-writing. Can you tell us about some of those experiences?
Pamela: I almost always collaborate now. When I started out in the songwriting business, I wrote my first cuts, my Lou Rawls and Frank Sinatras, myself, actually. But once I learned the technology and how hard it was to do all that, I decided I needed to collaborate, so I always work with composers.
There are several ways you can collaborate. One of them is very straightforward, the way Jim Dunn, when I wrote “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do,” he gave me the melody and I wrote the lyric. We were in the room together, and he guided me throughout it. He didn’t like this, but he did like that. We did it in real time. I work a lot with Richard Carpenter of the Carpenters. We just finished a lot of songs for a Christmas album that he’s in the studio with now. He has finally found a singer, because Karen passed away a long time ago. Richard is a brilliant composer, one of the best I’ve ever known. He writes the whole melody on the piano, and it’s gorgeous. You could write “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to it and it would still be gorgeous. But, of course, you have to really consider where the spots are, where the highs are, where the open vowels are, where the rhymes are, and where the internal rhymes are. Plus you have to tell a story and be interesting and reach a certain level of intellectual capacity in the storytelling.
Pamela Oland has written the lyrics for some of contemporary music’s biggest stars, including “Monday Morning Quarterback” for Frank Sinatra.
The second way to go is to sit in a room with another co-writer and bang it out together. You both have your ideas and you throw music and lyrics back and forth, or they come with a melody but they want to be involved in what happens with the lyrics.
The third way to write would be to a track. If somebody gives you a track, it usually doesn’t have a melody or a lyric. It’s just nothing. It’s just beats. They call them “beats,” in fact, if it’s hip hop or something like that. And you have to write the whole thing, the music and the lyrics. You just have to try and imagine what the melody would be that might fit into this pattern. You just start hearing it. You have to listen to the melody many times before you get the feel of it. You should listen to it over and over and find the title, find where the hook is, find where it takes off, find whether the hook is at the beginning of the chorus or the end of the chorus or if it’s included in the verse or just exactly where it’s located in the song. You have to find that. It’s where the money moment of the song is. You’ve got to find that.
Then there’s just the plain Tin Pan Alley way, where you come with a line and I come up with a word, or I come up with a melody line and you come up with a word. I believe in equal shares. In Burt Bacharach and Hal David days, everything was 50-50, right up until current times where there may be 15 writers on one song. If you were a lyricist, you got 50 percent of the song. It didn’t matter how many composers there were. The part that’s now called the “track” used to be called an “arrangement,” and they hired Don Costa or Jimmy Haskell or Billy May or one of the great arrangers. They would arrange it, but somebody else would produce it. The producer would get paid as a producer, and the arranger would get paid as an arranger. With a musical, the guy who arranges a stage musical doesn’t get any songwriter credits unless he’s the composer. It’s a very odd, skewed thing now. Everybody wants in on the songwriting.
Carnegie Hall: It has become a very interesting landscape for songwriting in the studio. Since you have had so many song collaborations, what is one of your most memorable experiences collaborating on a song?
Pamela: I remember working with Simon Lynge. I had this house that had an avocado tree in the back yard. It was our first collaboration, and we ended up with this song that got onto his first album called “Bird’s Eye View”. We were sitting out in the garden, and we had the old, red, terra cotta brick, and this beautiful tree was arched over us, and there was an umbrella. I made this fabulous lunch, and we were sitting out there in the rocking armchairs that were around the table. It was so peaceful, with birds in the trees. It was a lovely afternoon. He was actually born in Copenhagen, one of his parents is from Greenland, and one is Danish. I said, “Isn’t this a wonderful place to be? Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a bird’s eye view on this and just be able to see it?” And he said, “I like that phrase. What does that mean?” Even though he speaks perfect English that was not a phrase he was familiar with. I explained to him that it means that you’re looking down on everything and you can see every perspective all at once. He said, “I love that. Let’s do that as a song.” And we wrote this song that was very interesting lyrically. He talks about everything that’s going on. “If you could see me now, you would understand that that’s what keeps me from you.” When those lines came up, it was like, “Oh my god, what a wonderful thing. Boom.” Sometimes you just get ideas out of the sky. You don’t have to just use the titles in your title book, which all writers need to keep. Write down a title every time you think of a title. Every time you’re in a movie and you hear a great line, record that title on your iPhone or write it down on your hand or something. Keep a pen near the toilet paper. You’ve got to be ready to write down something every time somebody speaks, because you never know when you’re going to hear a great idea for a song.