Diane Warren has probably touched your life at least once a day during the last ten or fifteen years and you may not have even known it.
She has written songs for the likes of The Starship, Michael Bolton, DeBarge, Gladys Knight, The Jets, Joe Cocker, Cheap Trick, Dusty Springfield, Daryl Hall, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Kenny G., Peabo Bryson, Aaron Neville, Ace of Base, Monica, Chicago, Belinda Carlisle, Meat Loaf, Cher, Patti LaBelle, Taylor Dayne, Expose, Gloria Estefan, Roberta Flack, Michael McDonald, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Barbra Streisand, Heart, and many, many more top artists.
Diane has had her songs in more than 50 major motion pictures. She’s had multiple Grammy nominations, as well as Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. She was the first songwriter in the history of Billboard to have SEVEN HITS, all by different artists, on the singles chart at the same time.
During one unprecedented week she occupied the Number One and Number Two slots on the singles chart, then reversed them the next week! She is the only female writer in history to be named ASCAP’s writer of the year three times.
Her company, Realsongs, is the most successful female-owned and operated business in the music industry, and she is a philanthropist of significant proportion.
After spending some time interviewing her, I think the most amazing thing about Diane Warren is that she truly believes that she is capable of much more than she has already accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. Hey Diane! I truly believe it, too.
If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to be the very best at songwriting, or for that matter, anything, then this interview is not only something you should read–it’s something you should read every morning when you get up.
Where did you grow up?
In Van Nuys and Northridge, California–that area of the San Fernando Valley (“the valley”).
What is your first recollection of what you wanted to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a songwriter.
How old were you when you first knew that?
Probably about six or seven.
How old were you when you wrote your first song?
Probably around ten or so.
What inspired you at six or seven years old? Did you hear something on the radio or see a singer/songwriter?
I used to live in a radio, basically. The radio was like my best friend growing up. I have two older sisters, and it was great because they had all of these records. My parents loved music too, so I got to hear all kinds of music growing up. I would always look on my sisters’ little 45’s to see who wrote the songs. I did that even when I was little. I didn’t care to sing them. I haven’t changed! [laughs] I just loved music, and I just thought that I could make up my own songs. It wasn’t coming from a place of wanting to be a singer.
So you never tried to be a singer/songwriter?
No. This is the gig I always dreamed of having. Being an artist is a whole different world. You have to be up front, and people know who you are, and they bother you. When you’re behind the scenes, you don’t have to deal with those things.
But, don’t people bother you? As far as songwriters go–maybe just shy of Lennon and McCartney–you’re probably the best known songwriter certainly of this generation.
People usually don’t know what I look like, which is good. Sometimes it’s funny, though. Like if I’m at a restaurant paying the check, and they might say, “Oh are you the same Diane Warren that’s the songwriter?” and stuff like that. But usually people don’t know who I am. I kind of like that. I like the anonymity of it, but yet a lot of people will know the work. And your peers will know, which is good enough for me.
John Braheny once told me about you at fourteen years old coming to the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase. He said that even at that age, you appeared to be professional, and you handled rejection well.
I didn’t handle rejection well. I’d probably say, “That’s good advice. Screw you! What do you know?” [laughs] I had a lot of anger, though. I would go, “What do they know?” which kind of kept me going in a way. It was like, “I’ll show them. I’ll come up with better songs next time.” I was nice about it, though. I also went to a lot of publishers early in my career. They’d say, “Oh you’ve got potential.” I used to hate that word “potential.” Yeah, but potential doesn’t have a check attached to it. I’ve always been pretty confident that I was going to be successful. No matter what anybody said, this is what I was going to do.
How often did you write?
At that time, when I was about fourteen, I wrote about three songs a day. But they all sucked.
Did the songs you wrote back then follow traditional song form? Did you even know about form at that age?
Yeah, I kind of always had a good sense of structure. I think I developed that more the more I did it, but I’ve always had a good sense of it. Like I said, I grew up listening to a radio. Even when I was a baby, there were radios and music playing in my house. I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t some kind of music playing. It was what was popular music. It was show tunes, the radio, the Beatles–everything. My influences were basically commercial music.
Do you remember what some of your earliest influences might have been?
Motown, the Beatles. The great thing about radio then was they played everything. Top-40 radio wasn’t as fragmented then as it is now. You could really hear all kinds of music.
It was certainly a better time for music I think. The ’60s were phenomenal.
There was some shit there too, but there were a lot of great songs. It definitely seemed to be an inspired time as far as songwriting and experimentation were concerned.
I don’t know that the ’90s will be remembered by the publishing community as a decade that they could make a lot of money from in the future.
I don’t know if there are a lot of copyrights (that will be exploitable). There are great songs being written, but it’s not like if you look at a lot of those Motown songs. There was a reason why Berry Gordy sold Motown Records and didn’t sell Jobete. (Three hours after I did this interview I read that Berry Gordy sold half of Jobete Music to EMI Music Publishing for $132 Million. He retained the other half – ed). That stuff lasts forever. Those songs are great.
What did you do to perfect your craft over the years?
I just kept doing it. In a nutshell, I just kept doing it no matter what. I’m a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person. To this day, I’m a serious workaholic. I have a real hard time pulling myself away from my work. I’ve just been like this forever.
Did you co-write? Did you have a mentor?
No, but I have had people that believed in me through the years and stuff like that.
Do you think it’s important for aspiring songwriters to educate themselves about songwriting, as well as keeping their noses to the grindstone?
Well, yes you should listen to songs and listen to what works. Listen to why a song is a hit. Check it out–not to imitate it, but there are certain things that work–hooks and melodies. Hear what works through the ages.
You seem to have an intuitive sense for analyzing a song, though.
I don’t really sit and analyze a song. I don’t really pull things apart and analyze them.
You don’t look at a song and say, “Oh it’s got an eight-bar intro. I would have done four?”
Oh yeah, I do that. I say, “That’s really cool, that key change there,” or whatever. But I don’t use that side of my brain too much.
Do you favor writing lyrics or music first?
I do both, and I much prefer to do it by myself, which is what I usually do.
Where do you get inspired?
Anywhere and everywhere.
Do you keep a recorder with you everywhere you go?
No, it’s not worth recording unless it’s good. I’ll sing it onto my answering machine if I have to.
How often do you write today?
Seven days a week basically. Hours and hours and hours. I can’t give you an exact count. I’m in the office everyday. I’m in meetings, and I’m on the phone and doing other things too. But I’m writing a lot of the time–studio, writing, studio, writing. That’s the story of my life.
Do you often get a call to do a rewrite if a section isn’t working while an artist is in the studio?
Not too much, not really. Usually when somebody takes my songs, they take the songs. Things aren’t usually changed much in them. Maybe we’ll change a line or two that somebody is having difficulty with vocally or something.
How many songs do you start in a month, and how many of those songs do you finish?
It’s hard to say because it’s always different. I don’t finish anything unless I think it’s great. I don’t look at it like I write a hundred songs to get one. I look at it like I write one to get one, or else I’m not going to write it. It’s got to be great. I don’t have time to waste writing crap.
Do you ever have an artist in mind when you write?
Sometimes. Usually I don’t though. Usually I just try to make a great song. Then the song itself will tell you who it’s good for–what the casting should be. It’s like a movie part.
What motivates you other than your work ethic?
Hunger. The hunger is still there. I think there are so many more heights to reach. I just want to keep getting better. I have a long way to go I think in my own mind. I haven’t written my best songs yet. I think I’ve written some great songs, but I think I’m going to write better.
I love the process of going through it and making up songs. It’s the best thing in the world, and I can’t believe I am well paid for it. I would be doing this for nothing. I did it for nothing for enough years. I didn’t really make a living at it until I was like 24 or 25–a living that I could survive on. Just before that it was hardly any money–it was still macaroni and cheese days, peanut butter, and things like that. I didn’t make really significant money until I was about 30. But then it became very significant money.
But money, no matter how much I’ve earned, has never been a motivating factor. It’s been the quality of the work and the work itself. It’s the journey.
How do you feel about publishing in general and publishers?
Let’s put it this way, I have my own company. I’d much rather have my own company than be with publishers.
Do you think they do a good job for the artists they represent?
It depends on who they represent. They can function as a bank. Some publishers go out and get covers for their writers. I’ve just always loved to be in control. I’m too much of a control freak really to be with anybody. I kind of have to control my own destiny.
Did you ever have a publisher when you were younger?
Yeah, I was signed to somebody who produced Laura Branigan. Through him, I was signed at Arista Publishing, which was the weirdest experience actually. I remember sitting in a room playing a ballad and the president of the company coming in and yelling, “It’s got to be 120 beats per minute. It has to be 120 beats per minute!” And I had to sing him songs a cappella before I’d be able to demo them. But I got a big cover there which was “Rhythm of the Night.” Shortly after that I owned everything. Being with a publisher was an interesting experience, one that I would not want to repeat. But that’s me. I think most writers would do good to have a publisher because they are the key to the world of artists.
In general, is it better for a songwriter to attempt to get cuts by hanging out with artists, or knowing the bus drivers, or pitching stuff to A&R people? What are some of the more productive routes?
It’s so dependent on the situation. Obviously, the more personal relationships you have the better. Not everybody has the capability of hanging out with Celine Dion, though. You have to usually go through people. I don’t think the bus driver is the best person to get a song to an artist, but you never know. I’d say the best route for a new writer is a publisher. I really would.
You’re one of the few writers who is fluent in many genres of music and has had chart-topping songs in several of them . . .
Right now I have a song on every chart, I just realized, in this week’s Billboard. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody do that at the same time. I have a song on the R&B charts, the country charts, the adult charts, the dance charts–I guess the only one I don’t have something on is the alternative chart. All different songs.
Do you wake up in the morning and pinch yourself?
Yeah, when I think about what has happened it is kind of a trip. A couple of years ago I was ASCAP Songwriter of the Year, and they showed a video of a bunch of my hits. I was sitting there as a viewer thinking, “Oh wow! I didn’t know I wrote all of those songs.” I don’t think in the past, I just kind of go forward. It’s amazing. But I’m always about, okay I’ve done that. Now what’s next? I have a short attention span.
How do you write in all of these genres so well?
I think it goes back to what I said before about growing up and hearing so many different kinds of music. I heard everything. I don’t like to write just one kind of song, although I love writing ballads. I like to give songs to all kinds of different people. It just keeps it interesting. I just wrote a song for an upcoming movie called Shut Up and Dance. It’s a Latin-themed movie that Vanessa Williams stars in, and I think it is going to be a pretty big movie. They did a salsa version of the song which they sent me this morning, and it was so cool. It was a totally salsa, really legitimate version of the song. So maybe I’ll have a salsa hit too.
Does technical stuff stick in your brain, even though you may not consciously think about it?
I guess everything you do is in there somewhere. Everything you experience or hear is there on some kind of subliminal level.
You’ve been honored more times than Mahatma Ghandi. Is there any particular award that touched you most?
The awards like ASCAP Songwriter of the Year, and the Grammy, and all of that. It was pretty cool getting a Grammy. It’s cool getting all of them. It’s not like one was any more than anything else. It’s great to be recognized. To me, the greatest honor of all is to write a great song. I was in Tower Records buying some records last week, and someone was in back of me buying a copy of my Monica single. That’s an honor!
Do you remember the very first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
Yeah, “Rhythm of the Night.” I remember hearing that and freaking out pretty much. I was in the car on Sunset beaming away. I still love to hear my songs on the radio. Being a kid who was in love with the radio, and now the fact that someone is going to hear my songs and be touched by them is a full-circle kind of cool thing. I know songs touch people, and that’s really a wonderful feeling. You asked about honors, what could be more of an honor than that?
What has been your favorite part about your life so far?
My favorite part of my life is that I’m able to do what I love and love what I do.
Interviewed by Michael Laskow
by Kenny Kerner