Songwriting Wisdom from the Motown Master
[See Part 1 of this series, Lessons from Lamont, here.]
By LAMONT DOZIER
[Lamont Dozier is one of the most successful American songwriters of all time, having written many of America’s most beloved soul standards. As part of the Motown hitmaking trio, Holland-Dozier-Holland, he connected with the “the mystery of the muse,” as he calls it, time and time again over the years. A quick glimpse into his songbook at the lexicon of famous titles brings home the magnitude of his impact on our culture and our hearts: “Stop In The Name Of Love,” “Baby Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Just Keep Me Hanging On,” “Heat Wave,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.”
Lamont’s autobiography, “How Sweet It Is, A Songwriter’s Reflections on Music, Motown and the Mystery of the Muse,” was published this year. It’s a book which is quintessentially Lamont, relating his remarkable history, but also much wisdom and practical advice, which is woven throughout the narrative and comprised again in the Afterword, called “Lamont’s Principles of Songwriting.”
In Part 1 of Lessons from Lamont, we brought you that list. Here’s Lamont expounding on the first five fundamental songwriting principles.
Lamont’s Principles of Songwriting, the First Five.
1. 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.
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.
You do damage to your psyche when you say, “I’m having a bad day.” There’s no such thing as a bad day. If you woke up and you’re breathing, you’re having a great day. You know what I mean?
So I learned to say things that pick me up or keep me going. I have good days and I have learning days. The days, they fall in place the way you want them. If things don’t go the way you hoped, that’s a learning day. It’s something you learn. But it’s all good.
Don’t tell yourself you’re having a bad day. Adjust your attitude. Be positive, and also kind to yourself. I no longer have good days and bad days. There are good days and learning days. There’s no such thing as a bad day. If you woke up and you’re breathing, you’re having a great day.”
I’ve learned to say things that pick me up or keep me going. The days fall in place the way you want them. If things don’t go the way you hoped, that’s a learning day. It’s something you learn. But it’s all good.
Songwriters can be derailed every day by unforeseen circumstances; it’s just the way life goes. What matters is how you react. You can let yourself be defeated, or you can learn to rise above defeat. If you readjust your reactions and learn to take things less personally and frame them as teachable moments, you can stay on beam, and remain bright and unbroken.
2. 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.
It’s so important for songwriters to do this, because you can’t be having naysayers around you. Naysayers are the negative ones, the ones who will run up to you and give you the wrong advice.
Why do they do this? Sometimes it’s because they’re envious. There might be other reasons. You don’t know what their motive is. Sometimes they claim they’re helping, but they’re being more of a hindrance to you.
So it’s important to not let someone like that lead you astray. You can’t listen to just anybody. You have to learn to listen to your self – your inner self – and trust your own judgment of your song.
Songwriting, first of all, is a very personal thing. I was lucky I had two other partners (the Holland Brothers, Brian and Eddie) like I had. We’d sit down and discuss a song and look at what we’re saying and what we’re doing and feeling. It’s can be hard, with two people, sometimes, to agree. With three, it’s even harder. But we were in sync with each other when it came to those songs.
3. You have to be true to yourself.
This is connected to the previous section about avoiding people who can poison your creative process, which requires learning to honor the voice in you that knows what is best for you.
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.
You have to trust yourself, and trust that you know better than anyone what’s best for your song. But always remember: it’s about the song. It’s not about you. You need to get your ego out of it. I know is not an easy task for anyone, cause our egos lead us through the world. To let go of your ego at such a crucial time feels wrong. But it is necessary. You need to be open and aware in the world, and not let your ego concerns keep you from taking it all in.
3. 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. Trust that it moves you for a reason, and for that reason, it will move others.
4. Ideas are all around us if we keep an ear out for them.
Be an observer.
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.
We’re always looking and listening for songs that mean something to you. The job of the songwriter is to reflect the world around us. You’re not writing songs for yourself only. They’re for our fellow humans. So to connect and communicate, you need to create songs which reflect the world in authentic ways. And that requires seeing it clearly, now, and using those details in your song. Enrich your songs with the images of life as you see it, and also with the language used in the lyrics. By using the language of the people – the way real people really speak – your song will feel authentic, and connected directly to this moment in time.
To do this, you have to always be observant, and keep your eyes open to see what there is to see and hear how they speak, so you can make your song feel real.
I’ve always been a great people watcher. I’ve always been watching, listening to them, and eavesdropping to get new ideas for songs. Whether love songs, or political or otherwise, to make them true, you have to pay attention to what people say and how they say it.
But it’s not only about people. We are part of nature, and songs can contain all of creation. So listen to the birds, birds singing! You’d be surprised at some of the ideas that I’ve borrowed from some whistling in the trees, what the birds have given me. They gave me an idea for a melody.
It all happens. That’s nature. That’s love. That’s all of the beautiful feelings, all around us, all the time.
So you have to be aware, keep your eyes open and keep your ear open for the what people are saying, and what the birds are singing. And the muse will be there for you, if you work hard and listen.
5. Say Yes. It’s crucial to be open to new situations.
Take every avenue offered to you to write a new song. Say yes instead of no.
When you’re starting out as a writer, there will be opportunities to collaborate with different people, and I always encourage writers to get in the habit of saying yes. If someone wants you to do a song for some little indie movie, or if someone wants to collaborate, say 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.
Because there are always reasons, and often quite reasonable ones, not to do something. You can spend all your time avoiding various circumstances you think will not further your career. The result of this will be that you pass up possibilities, and perhaps did not write a great song that you could have created.
Because you don’t know where your luck – or your success – is going to come from. It comes from strange places sometimes. If somebody wants to collaborate with you, give it a shot. Because you never know, to create lasting or smash hits, where they come from. Don’t be so quick to turn down people. You never know where these hits come from. And nobody can tell you what’s a hit and what’s not a hit.
And then you might realize, “Damn. I’m glad I did collaborate with that person because we came out with a iconic hit.” You know what I mean? So you never know where your blessings come from.
End of Part 2.
Coming Up In Part 3: Lamont covers many issues, including how to translate personal experience into universal songs; how to deal with writer’s block; how talent as well as relentless determination and hard work are all required to succeed, and more.