Her Songs Go On: An interview with Diane Warren

Diane Warren is one of the most prolific and successful songwriters of our time. At the age of 11, she started playing guitar, and by the age of 14, she was writing songs, while using her Billboard magazine subscription to grow her knowledge of the industry. Three decades into her career, her songs have had over 100 top ten hits and have been performed by iconic artists such as Whitney Houston, Cher, Aerosmith, Celine Dion, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga—just to name a few. Diane is a Grammy, Emmy and Golden Globe award winner and has been nominated for eleven Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, fifteen Grammys, is a four-time Billboard Songwriter of the Year and was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Her awards and accolades are endless and only continue to grow… Diane is not stopping anytime soon.
diane warren

Photo courtesy of FeatureFlash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com.

Your studio and building Realsongs is pretty amazing. When did you land in this Hollywood space? I bought the building four years ago. I had been renting down the street since 1985 where my writing room is. I record here. We have four studios on this floor. I have various tenants. Eva Longoria is here and a lot of cool people. The rented space where you write hasn’t been cleaned for how many years? Basically, I haven’t cleaned it for 34 years. It’s your creative space. I have a couple of rooms here, and I have a writing room there, also. Where do you create more . . . here in your studio Realsongs or in your writing room down the street? Probably in my writing room because I start out there in the morning, but I work here too. I come in the afternoons to write here. Like, when this interview is done, I’ll have a session here later on tonight. I want to go back to the first thousand songs that you created. Your dad took you to the Songwriter’s Showcase, and what did he tell you? It was called LA’s Songwriter’s Showcase. It was two guys, Len Chandler and John Braheny. John’s no longer with us. Both great guys. I was 15 years old and kind of a brat. They would criticize my songs, and I would give them shit for it. But they were right. They said, “You’re not ready yet.” I’d go, “Okay, yeah, fuck you, what do you know.” And then my dad would say, “You need to listen to them.” They’d go, “Mr. Warren, wait in the other room.” Then I’d come back with five new songs next week. Ultimately, I played at their showcase. I was 16, and I went to some publishers. I was a bit arrogant. But you worked hard. I did. I still work hard. I work my ass off. I mean I love it. I love to work hard. I love my job. I mean I get to write songs. I get paid. I mean I bought a building with my songs. Like how crazy is that when you think about it? Do you ever not think about writing? No. I always do. Are you ever frightened? I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I just work. You don’t ever get frightened? Yeah. I mean, you know, I probably do, but I don’t like to give it the time of day. I want to go back to your childhood. Yes, doctor. I read where you admitted that counseling helped you write. I haven’t been in therapy for a long time, but yeah, it was a good thing. You were a reluctant participant? People told me, you know, don’t go to therapy. It’s really going to like fuck up your songs. I think the next song I wrote after that was “How Do I Live or Because You Loved Me,” you know around that time. So, it didn’t hurt that much. When I look at all this, I would like to think it did not hurt you at all. No, I don’t think so. You’ve written and talked a lot about isolation. Is that from your Jewish heritage? I think the Jewish thing I’m talking about stems from being an immigrant. Like when immigrants—my relatives, or whatever, (great-grandparents or grandparents) came from Russia. I didn’t really know them, but you know, they wanted to make it. They came here with the thought that America is the land of gold. It transcended them, and I wanted to make something of myself. And you believed you could. I knew I could. Did you ever doubt? No. You started to write. . . . I never had a Plan B either. You did not have a Plan B? No, I have a saying, basically, that I really believe is true. If you have a Plan B, don’t bother having a Plan A. In the beginning, you were starting out, and you were working hard to get your work published and sung. Everyone was saying you were not ready. When did you know they were wrong…and it actually broke in your favor? I always thought I was ready. It just took people a while to catch up with me. Do you believe that? I had to get better, and I got better. The break was those 10,000 hours, you know, I put in 50,000 hours. That’s what it takes though. To hone your craft in whatever you do, whether it’s being a great athlete, a great songwriter or a great anything, you had better do the work. You’ve been touted the greatest songwriter ever. I’m not the greatest songwriter ever. I hope I become one of the greats someday. You know it’s a work in progress. You’ve also been deemed, as a woman, the most successful female songwriter. Can I just tell you my issue with that? Tell me. I’m so sick of the whole thing. Not just about me, but I had a conversation last night with some people, with women directors. They don’t say male directors. They don’t say male composers. It’s female composers. It’s female songwriters. I’m not saying it in anger, like I’m not being an asshole. I guess I am kind of angry. Why do they have to do that? Why do women have to be put in the box like that? So, you are not singularly the most successful female songwriter of our time? I don’t know a lot of guys that are as successful as me. The songs that you’ve written… did more end up in the hands of women or men? Both. Let me see. I mean I’ve had just as big a hit with a man—you know, with Steven Tyler as with Celine Dion and Beyoncè. You believe your songs resonate 50/50 with the artist that performs them? Maybe more female artists because maybe more female artists do outside songs, you know. But I’m working with male artists now. You don’t like gender-based typecast or being placed into a box, do you? No, I don’t. I’m a songwriter. I happen to be a girl. So, I’m a female songwriter. I feel bad for some of my friends that are directors, right? And it’s like female director… they’re just great directors. But you admit you are a great songwriter? Yes. You are brilliantly gifted. I’m not saying everything I write is great. God, how do I do that without sounding like an arrogant asshole? I’m not. I know I’m really good at what I do, but it hasn’t gone to my head, and let’s put it this way . . . I write great songs. You have said that you “knew when you had a good song” when you wrote one. How do you know? I just feel it. So, you sit there. You compose something. You write it down. Then you have an epiphany—you know? Yeah, that’s a great song. That’s a hit. That’s whatever. I feel it. You said the song that you co-wrote with Lady Gaga that she sang with the documentary The Hunting Ground was very political because it was based on molestation. When I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking that I only wanted that song to work for the movie. If you notice, I never said what it was. When I write a song for a movie or when I write a song, but especially for a movie, obviously, it has to fit that movie. It has to be great for that movie, but it has to exist outside of the movie too. Outside of the movie, “Til It Happens To You” means whatever happens to you. You could have been bullied. You could have been going through something. Going through a divorce. Going through whatever. Until it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, which is the truth because everybody can say, “Oh, you’ll be okay,” but you know. Many of your songs are about love and perseverance. Love is an interesting topic for you, the ability to describe connection . . . Love, and yet you are very nontraditional, not married, no children. You just singularly want to create? I have kids all the time. They’re my songs. And you create, nurture and watch them completely go and fly away? Yeah, you just want them to have really good lives and grow up. You know, you want them to be heard. You want them to touch people. Look, I walk down the street and people say things like, “That song saved my life, or you have no idea what that song meant to me” . . . or notes I get. You know, wow. That’s so cool. I sat in my little room, you know, and wrote. Your thoughts just come up out of nowhere, and then you put them down on paper? I just, I don’t even know what I do. I never even really analyze what I do. I always say I show up, you know. I really do. I show up, and I see what happens.
diane warren

At the 2016 Primetime Creative Emmy Awards, Diane holding an Emmy in the Press Room at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, California. Photograph by Joe Seer.

Are there some days when you wake up and think this is not going to be a good creative day? No, I don’t think that way. I show up. I go to work. I mean it’s really simple. Who knows if it will be something great or maybe something the next day. I don’t know. Are you religious? No, I guess I’m spiritual. I mean I’m proud to be Jewish, but I don’t go to Temple a lot. Do you feel that your creativity is inspired by God? It can be, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it could be a higher power because I think I channel a lot. See, I don’t think about all that. I’m grateful, and it feels like it’s, it’s from something, right? So, talk to me about perseverance. You have pushed hard since you were a child. Yeah. I still do. Your first musical instrument was a guitar. How old were you when you started playing? Probably 11. Ten or eleven. And your dad was your biggest champion? Yeah. My dad was, especially when I really got into writing songs, about 14. Yeah. He would take me to publishers, and I got a subscription to Billboard. I would memorize who wrote everything and who produced what. I studied it. That was college for me. I really made it my mission to know everything that I needed to know about this business. Where did your creativity come from? Your father was an insurance salesman . . . There was no one in my life in the music business at all. I mean being from Van Nuys was like being from the Midwest. Coming over the hill to Hollywood was a whole other world. My mom loved to paint and was artistic. My dad, after he retired, worked at this place called the Megaw Theatre, a cool little theater near where we lived. He would go over lines with the actors. I think my dad was maybe a frustrated actor. I guess everybody has probably something artistic in them, whether it’s realized or not. Your mother was from Russia and your dad? Her whole side was Russian. My dad, third-generation American. Before 1983, was there anyone who took a chance on you? This guy Jack White. I mean he took a chance on me. I think it was a little before that I signed with him, maybe 1981, ‘82. And then you broke through in 1983. Yeah, I wrote lyrics to a song called “Solitaire,” but I don’t consider that my first hit or anything because that was just lyrics to an existing song. “Rhythm of the Night” was my first big hit because I wrote it by myself. There were a lot of people that believed in me. Early on, who else saw your talent? This guy named Alan O’Day. He was a songwriter. It’s funny how I got to know him. I took one class in songwriting at Pierce Junior College. There was a girl there; her name was Clarice, I think. She said her dad had taken a class with Alan O’Day at UCLA, and did I know who he was? I studied the charts, so I knew what he’d written. She did not have his telephone number but did have his address. So, I wrote a letter, like I was her talking about me … “a girl in my class that was the best songwriter and your biggest fan and that my dad was from his class.” I got all the information and sent the letter, and he called me. I got to know him, and he was always really super encouraging to me. Did you ever confess the impersonation? Oh, yeah I told him. We became really good friends. He passed away a few years back, but he was just a great guy. He took me in. He really believed in me. He took me into the head of his publishing company at Warner Bros. Music, and they didn’t want me. All those people that didn’t want you, did you learn to harness that energy? Yeah. It makes me stronger. I’m like that. Well, if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be where you are making great music! Thank you. I mean I’m still like that. If I believe in something, you know, nothing’s going to stop me. What is “songwriting”? I write words and music, a song. That’s what a song is, words and music. I do that myself. Then do you shop it out with different artists in mind? Do you say, “Gosh, that sounds like a Beyoncé song?” Yeah, yeah. That’s what I did with I Was Here. I called Jay-Z and played it on the phone, and he loved it. He said, “Stay by your phone,” and he got Beyoncé on the phone. So, that’s an example and one of my best songs too. You have a tremendous reputation. Do you turn business away? Yes, sometimes. I don’t like to say no a lot. So, sometimes I take on more than I, you know, maybe should. What is your favorite song? I have lots of favorites. Like lots of children? Yeah. I mentioned “I Was Here.” You know, that’s one of my favorites. Songs that you don’t know of yet. I love my recent song “I’m Standing with You” I did for the movie Breakthrough that Chrissy Metz sings. It’s a really great movie, and she’s an amazing singer. The song’s called “I’m Standing with You.” That’s one of my favorites. When you pass off your “creation” and someone else records the song, it becomes known as theirs. Do you retain a business interest? I want the song to be theirs, and their listeners to think it’s theirs. You know when Steven Tyler sings “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing,” they’re not thinking, “Oh, Diane wrote that song.” They’re thinking Steven Tyler is living that. That’s the whole thing. It’s a wonderful business model to have. Yeah, I mean I never thought of it like that, but it’s cool—I love it. I love that I can write something, and someone brings it to life. Willie Nelson . . . He did a song of mine two years ago. I know he did. That was really cool. He’s a cool man. I love him. I mean he called me, after he heard the song, he goes, “You think it’s okay if I record this song? Is that all right?” I’m like, “Are you really asking me that? Like are you kidding me? Of course. I’m honored. I mean I’d beg you to do that song. You don’t have to ask me.” What’s next? Everything. Lots of things. I mean—okay. What’s next is what I do now, writing songs. You know, there may be a Broadway show based on my songs hopefully—it’s in development. There’s movie stuff I’m working on developing. There’s something I’m doing with Shonda Rhimes. She’s doing an anthology about love, and I’m doing one. Well, mine’s going to be different from everybody else’s. I don’t even know exactly what it is yet, but it will be cool. What’s next? You know, there are things I don’t want to put out in the world yet but some exciting recording projects that I’m super excited about. More of the same, writing songs for people. A lot of movies. A lot of great movies. Oh, it’s so good. What was behind the song you wrote with Lady Gaga, “Why Did You Do That,” from the movie A Star is Born? The derivation? That was a fun song. We just wanted to write it, a fun pop song. I just started singing that. And the line they make fun of, the one that Bradley Cooper’s character makes fun of, is “Why did you come around here with an ass like that?” Guilty. Is there a person with whom you create or collaborate best? No. Well, just me. Do you mean like writing or artists doing my songs? Artists doing your songs. Cher’s done like 20 of them now. Celine recently did a new one, and I think that brings it up to like 18 or something. I have done a lot with those two. I’ve done a lot with Aerosmith, and sometimes it’s one-offs you know.
diane warren

Diane on the red carpet at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California. February 2020.

Cher has said incredibly kind things about your writing. Yeah, she’s cool. I love her. Why did you go to college? Because my dad said he would support me if I went. So, I took all these film classes where I didn’t have to do anything except watch movies, which probably made me good at writing songs for movies. It all works out, doesn’t it? You have been nominated and won numerous Grammys, Emmys, Golden Globes and consecutive Billboard Music Awards. You have been nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Ask me how many I won. How many? Zero. You were inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. You’ve been named the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year six times. Billboard Songwriter of the Year four times, the list is extensive. Of all the accolades and awards, which was the one that you said WOW? All of it is cool. I was named Publisher of the Year one or two years, which was really cool, because most publishers have hundreds of writers and I have just me. So, my company Realsongs, which owns this place, has one writer, and that’s me. So, it’s crazy. I mean it’s really hard. When you think of a publisher being Publisher of the Year with their hundred writers, and you think I did that with just me, it’s kind of a phenomenon. I’m maybe proudest of that, but I’m proud of everything. I’m proud that these songs matter. I’m proud when I get nominated for an Oscar because there are only five songs a year nominated. I won one Grammy. I’ve been nominated a few times for that, but there are 50 song categories in the Grammys. You know what I mean? Best Country Song, Best Pop Song, Best Traditional. There are only five songs in the Oscars. Five. ELYSIAN Impact’s mission is to support efforts to eradicate violence against women and children. Silent Tears is one of the charities that this publication supports which is focused on children that have been sexually abused. I was. I was molested. At the age of 12. Yeah. You know, my friend’s dad molested me. And did you tell anyone? No. No. That’s the thing. We don’t tell, do we? We do now. Yeah, we do now, and I think my song helped. I think “Til It Happens To You,” helped me blurt it out at a Times Talk. I blurted out that my friend’s dad stuck his finger up me when I was 12, right? I told my mom later in life, you know, but I never told people. I certainly never told my friends or never told my dad. Were you ashamed or scared? I don’t know what I was. Maybe ashamed. I don’t know. Maybe both, you know. I wasn’t scared. I don’t think I was scared. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just uncomfortable or something. When you told your mother many years later, what did she say? Why didn’t you tell your dad? He would have killed him. Did you tell your father at some point? No, I never told my dad. My dad passed away years ago. I think my dad might have killed him or certainly hurt him. The times have changed now. Yeah. So, a piece of advice for these young women that are facing similar things? Talk about it. Tell. Just speak. If you go through that, it’s not your fault and tell everybody. Tell the police, and get these fuckers put in jail. They don’t like sexual molesters in jail. Will you continue producing and creating until you die? Yeah. I knew that. Is there anything that you have not done yet that you want to do? I just want to do what I’m doing. Do you ever get scared that you’ll get tired, you’ll get stuck? No, I don’t think about it. You don’t think about anything negative? I don’t want to think about stuff like that. I get tired of people I have to deal with all the time. I get tired of some of the stuff and certain aspects. I don’t get tired of doing what I do because I love it. Do you like interviews? This kind of stuff? Not really. You have done really well. Thank you. It’s not my favorite thing to do. I have to kind of psych myself into doing stuff like this. Your songs have helped people. Some young women will read the excerpt about overcoming abuse, and it will make a difference for them. I think it will too. Like that song Til It Happens To You, when you watch that—and, by the way, Catherine Hardwicke did that video which is little stories of what happens to these girls. At the end, they’re fighting, and they’re just like what the song is about. Was there a childhood dream that you did not fulfill? No. You have a charitable foundation dedicated primarily to . . . ? All—mostly animals. I have to say that, you know. Rescue? I have a rescue ranch with almost 50 animals there—various animals saved from slaughterhouses. The meat industry is murder. It’s disgusting. If people really saw what happens to get that chicken, pork or steak on your plate, that was a beautiful animal. I have pigs. I have cows. I have chickens and turkeys. They’re awesome. Really think about what goes on your plate; it wanted to live as much as you and I do. We have no right to take its life. I’m pretty passionate about that. 2020 resulted in many amazing projects. The original song titled “Free,” just premiered and was performed by Charlie Puth for a Disney feature. Can you tell me about that? Yes. The movie The One and Only Ivan came out a month or so ago. It is probably my favorite song that I have written for a movie. I am a big animal activist and the story really touched my heart. Do you remember “Born Free?” Yes. I loved that song. As a kid, “Born Free” was my favorite movie. On one level, I think it is one of the best songs ever written. I needed to write something with that movie in mind. When I was writing the song, I started crying, which is always a good sign. I feel that it captured the modern “Born Free.” I predict great things with that song. I feel like this is an Oscar year. I am hoping … wouldn’t that be great? Please, please, please. It would be awesome if it were that song too, because the song connects my love for animals. The song could also be about us right now. None of us have felt very free this year, you know. It has been such a hard year that I’ve decided birthdays in 2020 do not count, and no one is a year older. I’m all about that. “Without a Net” is another song written after you watched an amazing documentary, Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story. Tell me about that. I didn’t write the song for the documentary. But when I saw the documentary, it was the perfect song for it. I gave the song to Mickey Guyton who is becoming a big country music artist. She is one of few black female artists with a major record deal there. I have known her and worked with her for some time. I believe she is the perfect artist for the song because it reflects what some of those stunt women go through. “IO SÌ (SEEN),” from the Netflix film The Life Ahead starring Sophia Loren, can you tell me about that? About a year ago, Eduardo Ponti, Sophia Loren’s son invited me to Bari, Italy. I had read a script for The Life Ahead and loved the beautiful story. I was asked to write a song for the movie. The day I met Sophia they were actually shooting, so I just took in the atmosphere. When you see the movie, you realize both Sophia’s and this young man’s character are both on the outskirts of society. He is seen as a little criminal, and she portrays an older, former prostitute that takes care of other prostitute’s kids. The world doesn’t see them for the beautiful people they are. Ultimately, they see each other. It is a heartbreaking and beautiful story. What came to mind with me is the word Seen. They see each other where no one can see them. By seeing each other, they accept each other and ultimately love each other. Laura Pausini and I had talked before about working together. I thought, this is probably the song because I hear her big voice. It needs that emotion. She is amazingly talented and loved it. And then, she worked on the Italian translation, which is beautiful. diane warren I’m curious about Sophia Loren who is notably iconic. What couple of words come to mind when you are with in her presence? Strong, powerful, ageless, timeless. She is still beautiful with an aura around her. They don’t make them like that anymore. You know? I’m talking to one, you have a God-given talent and a kindness that comes through in your songs. Talk to me about “I’ll Get There (The Other Side)?” I love that song from the movie Emperor, too. Reggie Hudlin produced the movie. I had written another of my favorite songs, “Stand Up for Something,” for the movie Marshall, which he had also directed. That song became a modern protest anthem. Reggie told me about this movie as well, and I saw a rough cut, and it felt like the right song for it. I was really proud of that song and had worked with Emeli Sande before, who is an amazing singer out of the UK. She loved the song and recorded it. What triggers you to write songs? There are so many ways. I’ll give you an example of how “IO SÌ (SEEN)” came about. I was attending the luncheon which Diane Von Furstenberg holds annually for Oscar nominees. I was talking to someone that I knew, and she mentioned the Sophia Loren movie and told me about the story. “Oh my God,” I said, “I need to know more about it.” She got me the script, and I worked on it with Bonnie Greenberg who was the music supervisor. With Free, Mitchell Leib, the head of music at Disney who is amazing, told me about this movie about animals. When he told me the story, I had to do the song, I had to. “The Change,” was it written for political purposes? “The Change” was not at all intended to be a political song but about changing something in yourself. I wrote the song months before the protest but then felt the song needed to be heard. I had just written it when the Biden campaign came to me and asked me if I had a song. I go back a bit with Joe Biden. Earlier in his campaign, he used another of my songs, “Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground. In fact, he introduced Lady Gaga’s performance at the Oscars; he’s just a lovely man. It was a full circle moment. They loved “The Change” when they heard it, and we talked about different artists. It was really an eye-opening experience because some people that I thought would want to sing it didn’t want to be political. For me, it was not a political song. When I called JoJo, she said, “I’m coming in tomorrow,” which she did, and coincidentally, gave one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard on that song. What’s next for you? Broadway maybe? A features record which is exciting. Why not get some artists I really love, or that I’ve worked with, and let’s get a bunch of songs together. My album Diane Warren: The Cave Sessions Vol. 1 (via BMG), will feature an all-star line-up including John Legend, Celine Dion, Mary J. Blige, Jason Derulo, Ty Dolla $ign, Jhené Aiko, LP and Darius Rucker. I am also part of a Broadway show called The Right Girl where I have written a bunch of songs. It is so very sad because Broadway has its own ecosystem. You look at all those people that aren’t working and aren’t able to because of the pandemic: it’s the actors, it’s the actresses, it’s the set designers, it’s the lighting people. I hope it comes back soon. I hope it comes back too, but people like you show others there is hope, and you can push through by taking one step at a time. Exactly. And each step is a large step, right. You know, every small step is a big step. And you persevere. That’s right. That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done. Close the door on me and I will go right underneath it, or I’ll go to the backdoor. If the backdoor’s closed, I’ll climb in the window. The window’s closed? I will just dig right under there and get in. Do you believe in God? Yes. If you could ask one question, what would it be? I have a song called “Five Minutes with God” which is about that. It’s interesting. It’s a song about what would you ask . . . for the wars or world to stop? Would you ask for the things you have? You know the song basically asks what you would ask for. I don’t know what I would ask for. What about you? I’d say thank you. How about that? What’s a piece of advice that you would give to a younger you? Keep working hard, and just do what you’re doing. It will be okay. I think that’s what I’d say. I have a song about that too, by the way.
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