If you want be successful in the music industry, be prepared to pour your blood, sweat and tears into your craft. This was the message that legendary 25-time GRAMMY winner Stevie Wonder shared during his keynote speech April 15 at the ASCAP I Create Music Expo in Los Angeles.
In a special onstage interview with GRAMMY-nominated R&B singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe, Wonder regaled the crowd with his personal career insights, including the commitment he makes to music.
"You have to put work into [music]," said Wonder. "Your commitment has to be that you give to that what you love. It's a relationship. If you love, you have to put into that relationship."
Wonder followed up with an explanation of how he puts this commitment to work in the studio.
"You have to … listen outside of yourself," he said. "I find myself listening as a producer after I sing something. Do I like the way that I sound when I sang that? Does it feel right? Does it sound believable?"
But when is a song finally right? Wonder noted that he only stops working on a song when he is satisfied as both an artist and a producer, even if that means spending hours listening back and making adjustments. To illustrate his point, Wonder recalled recording his 1976 GRAMMY Album Of The Year-winning Songs In The Key Of Life.
"I had this little transmitter. I would hook it up and listen and listen," said Wonder, who recalled re-recording the songs "Black Man" and "Contusion" over and over again until the songs had the exact feel he was going for. "So it's all about the feeling, every time."
When Monáe asked if he aims to finish an album by a certain date, Wonder replied, "I wish I could do that. Everyone at Motown would have loved if I could have done that. The bill collectors would have loved if I could have done that. Family vacations would have happened on time if could have done that."
"If it's not done and it doesn't feel right, it's just not done. You want to give your best and each project is different than the other so it's not based on, 'Well, I want this to be better than this.' You know how you want it to feel."
To tie this concept to an example, Wonder revealed how this exercise played out on 2016's "Where's Our Love Song?" He'd written the piano part for the song seven years earlier, but couldn't come up with the right lyrics. Instead of forcing the words, Wonder held onto the song until the right inspiration hit, which finally came during the 2016 presidential campaign. He used the song to address the negativity in America at the time.
On that note, Wonder reaffirmed his desire to address politics with his music. He touched on a well-known example of this, the 1981 single "Happy Birthday," which he wrote in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Motown head Berry Gordy warned that political messages might cause people to stop buying his records, but Wonder was undeterred.
"I feel like those of us who have been blessed with the gift of expression, we have to express ourselves lovingly," said Wonder.
Across his five-decade-plus career, Wonder's passion for confronting political issues and creating positive change through his music remains as strong as ever.
"It's my motivation to challenge those things, to confront them, as a lyricist and songwriter and singer, and sing about them and move us forward," he said. Wonder challenged the audience to do the same: "Don't be afraid to express your truth but do it with love."
(Nicole Pajer is a freelance writer and reporter based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Billboard, among other publications.)