The Motown songwriting legend shares his fundaments of songwriting in an excerpt from How Sweet It Is, A Songwriter’s Reflections On Music, Motown and the Mystery of the Muse.
[See Part Two of this Series here: Lessons from Lamont, Part 2. ]
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“I no longer think in terms of good days or bad days,” said Lamont. “There are good days and learning days. If you woke up today, that’s a good day. And when things don’t work out your way, there’s always something to learn.”
It’s that kind of positive thinking that has allowed Lamont Dozier to become one of the most successful songwriters of all time, and also one of the best teachers around, happy to share his wisdom with students of songwriting. And when someone like Lamont Dozier tells you about songwriting, it’s wise to listen.
As the first part of our series “Lessons from Lamont,” we’re bringing you his list of songwriting principles. This is a lexicon of the fundamental wisdom, both artistic and practical, he’s acquired over the years.
After all, he’s got a track record. As part of Motown’s legendary songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Lamont has written and produced countless beloved classics. “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Heat Wave,” ”Baby Love,” “You Keep Me Hanging On,” ”Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” and many more as a solo artist, producer and in collaboration with others.
Now he’s come out with his long-awaited book, How Sweet It Is, A Songwriter’s Reflections On Music, Motown and the Mystery of the Muse, published in November by BMG. It’s both the story of his life, and a compendium of lessons learned along the way, which is golden for any student of songwriting.
To discuss the “mystery of the muse” is what it’s all about, as even this hitmaker cannot calculate a great song. The source of those, as he explains, remains a mystery. But how you tap into that place is something he can discuss, as he’s done it with culture-impacting hits and standards for decades.
With big thanks to Lamont, we’re happy to bring you those principles. It comes with his reminder: These are not rules. This is a set of guiding principles on which he’s relied through his years as a songwriter.
Lamont’s Guiding Principles of Songwriting
From How Sweet It Is, A Songwriter’s Reflections On Music, Motown and the Mystery of the Muse, published by BMG.
1. Don’t take something that belongs to someone else unless you have their permission. Before I can ever consider a song finished, I have to make sure that I’m not unintentionally lifting someone else’s idea. The same principle applies to unintentional “borrowing” as well as sampling and building off someone else’s work.
2. You need to have a point of view that informs what you want to say. Know who your audience is and what values you want to transmit through your lyrics. Nobody else can decide that for you, but if you want to be a great writer, it’s crucial that you understand your own perspective and how you can best communicate it.
3A. If you want to write songs that move people, you have to write from a place that moves you. You need to find an emotional connection to your subject. If it doesn’t resonate with you, it’s probably not going to resonate with someone else, either. In that respect, all songwriting is personal. You’ve got to be willing to put your own heart on the line if you want to touch the hearts of your listeners.
3B. Ideas are all around us if we keep an ear out for them. If you want to be a great songwriter, you’ve got to absorb conversations, books, movies, TV shows, and art. You’ve got to experience the world with open ears and eyes to pick up on those universal truths that others might miss if they’re not paying close attention. Being a songwriter is a way of life. And that way is all about observation.
4A. Think about what you’re trying to communicate before you throw down the first line or idea that comes to your mind. Let the song reveal itself to you. Marinate in the idea so that it can properly emerge. There’s no set amount of time that will take. Some songs come in a rush like a freight train, but others want to be chased for a while. You’ve got to be mentally prepared to spend the time it takes to get a song to where it needs to land.
4B. You must educate yourself about the business. Then, once you’ve educated yourself, you’ve got to be realistic. If you want to live the life of a songwriter, read some reputable books about how the music business works. Or consider taking a class or two. Then, ask good questions and draw from the wisdom of those who have gone before.
5. You have to recognize what’s beyond your control. You can write a song, record it, release it, find success with it, and sometimes something can still go awry. There are certain things that are just out of our hands. It’s important to be diligent to control what you can control. Beyond that, you have to release the songs into the wild and trust that the right thing is going to happen.
6. It’s crucial to be open to new situations. When you’re starting out as a writer, there will be opportunities to collaborate with different people, and I always encourage newer writers to get in the habit of saying “yes.” Some of those encounters will lead to nothing, but you never know who you’ll click with or where a particular collaboration will lead you down the road. Be open to experiment and try new things.
7. Be flexible enough to change your ideas when it’s appropriate to do so. I’m not saying that writers should compromise their vision or change things on a whim, but I am saying there are situations where we must avoid being rigid in order for the song to emerge as what it was meant to be in the first place. Never become so rigid that you’re not willing to at least consider changes that will tip the scale to help the song earn the attention it deserves.
8A. Never count out a possible opportunity. Sometimes our minds want to jump right to the reasons something might not work instead of considering how we can make something possible. I try to live my life and pursue my writing career in such a way that I hope for the best outcome rather than restrain myself with negative “what-ifs.” Don’t decide that someone will probably give you a “no” and miss out on an opportunity for them to give you a “yes!”
8B. If you want to find success, surround yourself with the right people. This business is about knowing what you do best and then surrounding yourself with the right people who know how to complement your talents. Nobody is an island, and the right combination of people will not only serve your skills but will also give you a sense of artistic community and encouragement to make you better at the important piece that you bring to the puzzle.
9A. Always put the song ahead of your ego. Sometimes you think a song should be one way, but that song will tell you if it’s meant to be something else entirely. Don’t fight it! It’s a delicate balance to pursue your vision while having the humility to be willing to let the Master Muse guide you along the right route.
9B. Do your best work, enjoy your successes, and don’t get stuck in the paralysis of overanalysis.
If you don’t let go of your songs and let them be done when they’re done, then self-doubt can eat at you and ultimately destroy your creative impulses.
10A. You can have the success you dream about, but you’ve got to have a relentless work ethic. To truly “make it” you have to want it bad enough and be willing to put in the sweat equity. If you want to succeed, you can’t play around at your career because there are other people out there dedicating their lives to it, and they’ll beat you out every time.
10B. It might be a cliché, but you meet the same folks on the way up that you meet on the way down, so always treat others the way you want to be treated. You never know where life’s circumstances will take you or who you might need help from in the future. I’ve always tried to steer clear of the drama and the backbiting and the politics that come along with the dirty business of music. It’s easy to get sucked into it, but if you want to do it right, don’t forget about the Golden Rule that you learned back in kindergarten or Sunday school.
11. Know when to break your own rules. The better you know the rules, the wiser you are about when and how to break them. Soak up all the songwriting wisdom you can as you dedicate yourself to the craft, but recognize that there’s occasionally a time and place to set it all aside and pursue something outside the box.
12. You have to be true to yourself. People will come and go from your life. Seasons will change. Fashions and fads will ebb and flow. Different people will want different things from you at different times, but you have to have a strong sense of self in order to stay grounded and centered.
13. Know when to push the envelope. The flip side of that coin is knowing when not to push the envelope. It usually isn’t a good idea to write about something that’s going to make your audience uncomfortable simply for the sake of making them uncomfortable. But there’s also something to be said for writing songs that might leave people a bit unsettled for the sake of making them think or moving them emotionally. You can’t make a gimmick out of that kind of thing, but a few well-timed envelope pushes usually make for a more interesting songwriter. 14. Believe and have faith, even when it’s hard to see the fruits of your labor. Your dream can come true, but it never will if you give up. It’s easy to believe and have faith when things are going well, but when you’re in the midst of challenges is when your faith is tested. That’s the time to double down and hang in there.
15A. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Stop feeding those lies about writer’s block. Writer’s block only exists in your mind, and if you tell yourself you have it, it will cripple your ability to function as a creative person. The answer to so-called writer’s block is doing the work. If you press on, the answers you need will come through. You have to show the muses that you’re capable and committed, then you’ll get the answers you need.
15B. The best songwriters know how to take personal feelings and translate them into universal experiences. If you can start with that personal, passionate spark and then widen your message so that people can project their own experiences onto it, then you’ve achieved one of the building blocks of what it takes to be a special kind of writer.
16. To truly go the distance as a songwriter you have to be completely consumed by it. It has to be something that you’re going to do even if you never make a dime at it. It has to come from deep inside you. It’s almost as if you have to be chosen by the Master Muse.
17. Be open to all avenues for your songs. If someone wants you to write something for an independent film or a commercial or a web series, don’t count it out just because you might think of yourself as only writing for your own albums as an artist. Writing songs for films was a new avenue for me in the 1970s. When those opportunities first began presenting themselves, I could have said, “No, that’s not really the kind of thing I usually do.” That would have been true, but had I not stretched myself, I would have missed out on some great opportunities. More importantly, I might have missed out on meeting Barbara!
18A. Talent plus determination equals songwriting success. You must have them both. You have to be prepared to kick the door down no matter how many doors are behind that one. You have to be stubborn. You can do anything you make up your mind to do. Tell me I can’t do something, and the challenge is on!
18B. Don’t waste your time being jealous or envious. There’s more than enough success to go around in this industry, 276 | HOW SWEET IT IS so entertaining jealous thoughts is nothing but a waste of time. It won’t do anything but eat at your insides and hamper your own creative flow. When others have a streak of good fortune, celebrate with those people—even if you consider them your “competition.” Refuse to be swayed by negative thoughts and negative talk that only keeps you from fulfilling your destiny.
19. Understand what kind of environment you need to do your best work, and then make sure you intentionally create that environment for yourself on a regular basis. There’s no secret formula that works for everyone, but if you’re serious, you’ll figure out what works best for you and make sure to put it in practice. 20. There are no bad days. There are good days and there are learning days. When things aren’t going right, there’s always something to be learned from the experience. There’s a way to grow and improve. To live up to your full potential, you have to approach writing and life with humble awe.
With gratitude to Lamont for letting us reprint this today, American Songwriter will bring you more wisdom from Lamont in the coming days, with his further thoughts on all these principles and more from our recent interview.
See Part Two of this Series here: Lessons from Lamont, Part 2.
How Sweet It Is, A Songwriter’s Reflections On Music, Motown and the Mystery of the Muse by Lamont Dozier and Scott Bomar [BMG] is available now at bookstores in the world and online: