MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This month, we talk to the legendary Diane Warren – a multi-award-winning writer who’s penned more than 30 Billboard Hot 100 hits over three decades. The World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
The London-to-LA time difference means that MBW talks to Diane Warren quite late in our day, pretty early in hers.
We’ve packed quite a lot in, thanks. Smashed out 1,000 or so words, almost all spelled correctly. And those stairs didn’t vacuum themselves, don’t worry about that.
Warren? Well she’ll have had her breakfast, sure. Maybe cleared some email. But we’re way ahead, bound to be.
Nope. Turns out she’s written a global smash recorded by one of music’s biggest superstars. Well, actually, she’s written a song, but in Warren’s world, the words ‘a song’ and ‘global smash recorded by one of music’s biggest superstars’ tend to be quite interchangeable.
She actually doesn’t want to talk about it much, and certainly makes no claims about its chances of success. But, she confirms, when asked about the last song she wrote, “I finished a great one right before I got on the phone with you today. I mean, check in in 24 hours and and maybe I’ll feel differently, but right now I’ve just finished it and I love it.”
Assuming it passes the Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow test, it will join a catalogue that has not only earned Warren a reputation as one of the world’s greatest songwriters, but also generated huge hits for artists including Cher, Kiss, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Aerosmith, Chicago, Toni Braxton, Starship, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, LeAnn Rimes, Michael Bolton and dozens more.
On the way, she’s won a Grammy, an Emmy and a Golden Globe, as well as being named ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year six times and Billboard’s Songwriter of the Year four times.
It has been an incredible career so far, but one that, to some extent, even as a teenager, Warren sort of expected, planned for – and certainly worked damned hard for.
The level of success, well that’s something no-one could have predicted, let alone a rather insular girl from The Valley.
But being a songwriter, making a living through her craft, and continually honing that craft? That, she says, was always her only option in this life. And the seeds were sown by the very best.
What’s the first music you remember listening to and falling in love with?
My mom and dad had all the Broadway show albums, and I grew up with older sisters, so I got to hear early rock’n’roll through them.
I think the first thing I specifically remember hearing was That’ll Be The Day by Buddy Holly. But the first music I fell in love with myself was The Beatles, that was the first thing I got obsessed with.
When was the first time you became aware that these songs didn’t fall from heaven, that there were these people called ‘songwriters’, who you maybe didn’t even know?
I have a very clear moment, actually. I remember looking at the single Up On The Roof by The Drifters in 1962, and I saw the names Goffin/King in parentheses.
“I remember looking at the single Up On The Roof by The Drifters in 1962, and I saw the names Goffin/King in parentheses.”
It was weird, because I knew I wanted to be in those parentheses. That’s when they gave fucking credits for songwriting, of course. I kind of miss that. You have to search pretty far and wide to see who wrote what these days.
I was going to ask you about that later actually, but we might as well tackle it now: how do you feel about songwriters not being credited on streaming services?
Well, they need to do something about that, and not just writers: producers, musicians, background singers – people should be credited for their work. That’s how I discovered the names Goffin/King and became aware of songwriters and songwriting and suddenly that’s what I wanted to do.
My Dad bought me a little guitar from Mexico and I started making up my own songs. I was lucky to grow up when I did, because to me the ’60s was the golden age of pop songwriting. You had The Beatles of course, but you had the height of Motown, and those songs were just fucking genius, and you heard them all on the radio, every day.
The songs of that era still stand today and I’m sure I was heavily influenced by them.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
No, I remember some of my old ones, but most of them I try and forget. You have to start somewhere, right?
I know that I thought I was a lot better than I was.
“I was a typical arrogant asshole little teenager, you know.”
My dad used to take me to see publishers when I was 15 or so, and they’d be pretty nice and pretty encouraging, but I’d go, Yeah, you’re gonna be fucking sorry you didn’t sign me, because I’m gonna be the best songwriter ever.
I was a typical arrogant asshole little teenager, you know.
What gave you that confidence? What made you think you could make your living as a songwriter?
I just never doubted it. My mom was pretty worried. My dad always encouraged me, but my mom was pragmatic, like, How are you going to make a living? Try taking your songs to the grocery store and see if they’ll give you groceries for them, that sort of thing.
But I just always believed. And I didn’t just believe, I worked really hard.
“I always believed. And I didn’t just believe, I worked really hard.”
And by the way, I still work really hard. I had friends who were going out with boys and this and that, and I would mostly be sitting with my guitar, usually in the bathroom, because of the good acoustics, playing the same song over and over.
Those were the hours and days and nights that I learned my craft.
I guess the ironic thing is you were writing songs about teenage things: going out, meeting boys, falling in love, but you were sacrificing doing those things in order to write about them.
Yeah, probably some of it, and I still am. I don’t really live much of a life.
I certainly don’t live the life that’s in my songs.
“I don’t really fall in love; I’d rather just write about it.”
I don’t really fall in love; I’d rather just write about it.
I don’t want to stay awake just to hear someone breathe, like in the first line of I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing [Aerosmith, 1998], like get the fuck out of here. I like to listen to my cat purr.
You mentioned your parents reaction to telling them you wanted to be a songwriter, was it that definitive a split between your mum and dad?
Mom was a realist. I was a girl from Van Nuys [California]. We knew no-one in the business, so what’s the likelihood of a girl from The Valley making it?
So I get where she was coming from. But my dad always encouraged me. The thing is, they were equally important, because I had to prove myself to my mom.
“After my mom passed away I found that she actually kept a scrapbook of all my press cuttings, awards and what have you. She was always proud of me.”
I’m all about proving, and I still like to prove to people: ‘Oh really? Yeah, watch…’ So she was really important.
And she didn’t doubt my talent, that’s not what it was. After she passed away I found that she actually kept a scrapbook of all my press cuttings, awards and what have you. She was always proud of me. She just knew it was going to be hard.
Was there a moment when you could say to her, Now do you believe me?! Maybe with a Grammy in your hand?
Well, yeah, one time I got a particularly large advance, so I go, ‘Mom, I got blahblahblah.’ It was in the millions. I’d never had that kind of money. And she goes, ‘How much are you gonna keep?’
But that was my mom. She was proud of me though, she’d tell me all the time.
And it was never coming from a place of not believing in me, it was because she knew how hard it was.
Because guess what? I had no plan B.
Did you never have a ‘proper’ job and songwriting was a side line that might take off but might not?
No, I could never keep a job, no way. My dad said that as long as I went to college he’d support me.
So I basically took every film history class there was, so I could just watch movies. I never graduated, of course.
All the time I was in the music practice rooms, all day, and then sneak in at night.
Did you never want to be a performer? You never formed bands with friends?
Never, never, never. I have stage fright. Being anywhere near a stage horrifies me.
“I have stage fright. Being anywhere near a stage horrifies me.”
I’m confident in my work, but I’m not confident in front of people.
How did the first big break eventually come about?
I was signed to Jack White, a German producer who was working with Laura Branigan at the time. It was a pretty horrible deal, but it was someone signing me.
Laura was the first artist to record any of my songs.
Jack was with Arista publishing at the time and they would work some of my songs, and through that I got Rhythm of the Night [recorded] by DeBarge, which was my first really massive hit [top five in the US and the UK in 1985] – and I wrote it words and music, which was the start of my long line of songs I’ve written by myself.
What’s it like to have that first big hit?
Oh it’s the best. I remember driving down the street and hearing it on three radio stations at one time.
It’s always cool to hear your songs on the radio or when you walk into a store. It’s also cool seeing all these covers on YouTube, some of them are amazing, I love that.
How did you develop that into a career that’s spanned three decades?
Here’s the thing with me: I just keep working.
I’m a one-woman workforce. I never look back.
“I’m a one-woman workforce. I never look back.”
As soon as I’ve finished a song: what’s next?
Nothing’s ever enough for me, I’m always trying to get better and write better songs.
How do you go about getting better and honing your craft – after three decades of being one of the best there is?
Here’s the thing, I don’t really ever change anything; I show up. To me, the key is showing up. I show up and I work, same as I did when I was 14.
I’m just more successful at it and, I think, better at it. I go to work and I work.
What were the key songs or relationships with artists that propelled you on from your first burst of success?
Well, I’ll give you one example, which is Cher. I think I started working with her over 30 years ago. She’s done over 20 of my songs and I’ve just done an amazing song with her called Prayers For This World, from a movie called Cries From Syria, that I think is probably the best song we’ve ever done.
She just got an icon award from Billboard and, totally unexpectedly, from the stage, thanked me. That was so cool, because it made me think back to when she hated If I Could Turn Back Time. I had to get on my knees and literally hold on to her leg in the studio and tell her, I won’t let go until you at least agree to try it; I’ll pay for it, I’ll pay for the studio, if you just try it. I’ll put my ass on the line because I believe – no pun intended. She was an important artist early on.
“I had to get on my knees and literally hold on to [Cher’s] leg in the studio.”
And my songs have become passports for me, they’ve gotten me to places and to meet people I would never have met. I remember one year at the Oscars I was up against Paul McCartney – I’ve been nominated eight times, so I can’t remember exactly which song it was – but we both lost and we were backstage and I said, ‘If you’d told the 14 year-old me I was going to be a loser alongside Paul McCartney…’
I’m not sure if he found it funny, maybe he wanted to win; I just figured I’d lose again.
Do you ever write with specific artists in mind?
Usually not. I just try and write a great song. But sometimes when I’m writing I think, If I do this this way, this could be great for… whoever.
A case in point is when I was writing I Was Here. I was thinking it could be really cool for Beyoncé, but it could be something for a big Susan Boyle voice.
So I recorded a guitar and vocal and I sent it to Simon Cowell. And I also called Jay Z and played it to him over the phone.
“The next day I got a rejection letter from someone in Simon’s office saying, Sorry, this song doesn’t go all the way for us.”
[Jay] loved it, he got Beyoncé to call me and she literally stopped her album , which was due to be mastered that week. She recorded it on a Wednesday, a couple of days after she’d heard it, I couldn’t even sleep that night I was so excited.
The next day I got a rejection letter from someone in Simon’s office saying, Sorry, this song doesn’t go all the way for us.
I go, That’s okay, I was just in the studio with the biggest artist on the planet and it went all the way for her. Smiley face. And that song’s become like a standard, you know, it’s cool.
How do you actually go about writing a song?
Like I say, part of it is just showing up and going to work. Whenever people ask me about ‘the process’, I don’t really know what to say because it’s kind of a magical thing – I just get to work.
I sit at my keyboard or with my guitar and I get to work. I guess in 2017 having one person in one room, having one person on a song is kind of radical though.
Is there anything you especially dislike or do like about collaborations? Because you’ve done some, but not many.
I really love the process of writing by myself – because I guess I must have a process, I just don’t know what the fuck it is.
I love getting that lyric just right, and slaving over every chord and every note.
“I love getting that lyric just right, and slaving over every chord and every note.”
I drive myself crazy, but then when I get it, it feels so good. I wouldn’t get that when I collaborate.
I do it, and I do enjoy it, but to get the best out of me, it’s definitely through me sitting down and writing a song.
What do you think about the number of people it takes to write some songs these days?
It makes me laugh, especially if it’s a crap song. Like, seriously, it took 10 of you to write that?
And then you hear a great song, like Take Me To Church, and you see, oh right, Hosier wrote that, that’s cool.
“Like, seriously, it took 10 of you to write that?”
Sometimes it’s a producer coming in, putting a snare on something and suddenly they’re a co-writer. I mean, come on. But on the other side, if it’s a record that starts as a beat, and [it’s] integral, then there’s that way of looking at it.
But if it’s a song that’s written already, on guitar or keyboard or something, with lyrics, and then someone programmes drums for it: no, sorry, you’re a drum programmer.
If, as you say, you don’t have much of a personal life, where do you get the lyrical ideas from for your big romantic songs?
Everywhere. I mean I really don’t have much of a life, but I can get ideas from anywhere.
Someone says something; that’s a song there. My antenna is always up, never off.
“One friend was really unhappy in her relationship and as she was talking to me, my response was, ‘That’s a great idea!'”
I’ve pissed off some of my friends. One friend was really unhappy in her relationship and as she was talking to me, my response was, That’s a great idea! She was like, Wait, you’re not even listening to me!
She was practically crying and I was saying, ‘I know, I’m sorry, but let me just write that down.’
You’ve had a lot of success writing for films. Is that a different kind of writing – and something you enjoy?
I love writing songs for movies. Sometimes it’s frustrating because it can be political, which I hate, just too many opinions. But when it works I love it.
And what I try to do is write a song that’s right for the movie, but it also has to be able to exist outside the movie – a perfect example being the Gaga song, Til It Happens To You, which people have adopted as their voice not just against rape, but against violence and bullying. [It’s also the first ever song nominated for a Grammy, Emmy and an Oscar.]
You know, I’m an eight-time Oscar nominee. I haven’t won yet. Maybe one day they’ll feel sorry for me: She’s lost enough, just give her the fucking Oscar.
What do you think of the songwriter/publisher share of revenue in the streaming sector compared to the artist/label share?
They have to fix that shit, they really do. I have no idea how someone coming up right now makes money.
“you know, the labels own part of these streaming services, so that’s odd.”
And you know, the labels own part of these streaming services, so that’s odd. They’ve just got to fix it and make it fair. Come on guys, it’s all about the song.
When and why did you establish Realsongs – your own publishing company in LA?
It was an accident. In the late ’80s I was in a lawsuit with my former publisher [Jack White]. I was two-and-a-half years into it and it wasn’t a fair situation, to be honest.
There came a legal reason for me to leave the deal, so I did, and he sued me [they ended up settling].
At the time I had no money, my royalties were being held up because of the lawsuit and other publishers were offering me millions of dollars.
I told my lawyer and she said, ‘Well, you can’t sign anywhere, you’ll have to set up on your own.’ So I founded Realsongs and guess what – I never looked back. I’d like to say I was super smart, but it really was an accident.
Who is the greatest songwriter of all time?
Wow. I have a lot. Let’s start with Irving Berlin. Burt Bacharach, Hal David.
God, I’m going to leave people out. Lennon and McCartney, Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, Leiber and Stoller. Oh God, I’m going to leave out so many of my heroes.
There are so many I greatly admire. All the Motown writers – Holland/Dozier/Holland. I love Prince, to me he was one of the absolute greats. Stevie Wonder, of course. Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb, there are so many.
What advice would you give to young songwriters today?
Don’t give up. Also, if you’re not going to die by not doing it, don’t do it.
Do you think today’s writers will, or should, respond to Donald Trump’s presidency and policies?
I think so, yes. There’s nothing more powerful than music, there really isn’t. So you should be inspired by what inspires you and give it a voice.
I have a couple of things coming out talking about that.
“The song I’m talking about, I hope, will be a 2017 version of [A Change Is Gonna Come].”
I can’t talk about it yet, but there’s something in particular that is so massive and is going to be so great. I’m all for that.
Not in a preachy way, but let things inspire you. Because music really can change things: A Change Is Gonna Come, right? The song I’m talking about, I hope, will be a 2017 version of that.
Is there anything you can tell us about it at all?
It’s two really massive artists collaborating on it, but I can’t say anything more than that. You’ll hear about it in a couple of months, I hope.
Where do you still get your drive and ambition from after 30 years?
I don’t know, but I am still as driven and ambitious as I was, maybe more so. I don’t know, I’m Jewish – maybe there’s an immigrant gene that makes people want to make something of themselves.
It’s funny, because at school I sucked, it was Ds and Fs all the way, until one term my dad bribed me with a Martin guitar if I could get nothing less than Cs for a semester. Suddenly, the grades were good.
I knew what I wanted from a very early age and I still know what I want – and that’s to keep writing great songs.
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