aAt the end of the ’90s, when Diane Warren was the unrivaled queen of Power Ballad, her music publisher presented her with a gold disc quartet and a billboard hailing her as the “career savior of the ’90s.” The discs celebrated huge, windswept hits written by Warren for Toni Braxton (Un-Break My Heart), LeAnn Rimes (How I Live), Celine Dion (Because You Loved Me) and Aerosmith (I don’t want to miss a thing), the first two of which are still among the best-selling US singles of all time.
Being an empire in the pop era is usually defined forever, but Warren has been writing songs for nearly four decades, achieving nine US hits and 32 top 10 hits. In 2015, Til It Happens to You, her powerful collaboration with Lady Gaga on a campus rape documentary, once again made her look like the striker you turn to when you have to score a penalty.
Six of her 12 Academy Award nominations have come in the past seven years and one of those songs, for the RBG documentary, was a thank you note from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself. Warren performed a lead song for Biden Harris campaign titled Change, a feminist anthem for Michelle Obama called her This is for my girls, And Here are the nightsRingo Starr’s open lock with backing vocals by Paul McCartney. “I have two Beatles singing in my song,” she says artfully. “Things don’t get any better from that.”
It’s eight in the morning in Los Angeles and Warren is drinking coffee as if she was filling up a car. Wearing a gray T-shirt, checkerboard scarf and large horn-rimmed glasses, she has a loud, quick-talking energy, like Salty’s best friend in Nora Ephron’s movie. Intermittently we are joined by her cat rabbit, who jumps into Warren’s lap, uses her leg as a scratching pad, eats paper and so on. “She loves attention,” says the songwriter.
its owner? Not much. Warren grew up in Van Nuys, California, and admired songwriters more than performers. “None of that liked me,” she says. “I have stage fright. I hate being on the road. Some of these artists I work with can’t even walk down the street. I have a big party because a lot of people don’t know me. I’m like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.”
Warren literally has a green curtain behind her, preventing any glimpse of her definitely gorgeous home via Zoom. Once we finish talking, she’ll be on her way to working on a song in “The Cave,” the Hollywood Hills office she’s been using since 1985. Although she’s rich enough to buy an entire building on the same street her Realsongs Publishing Company, Warren still rents out the cave because she creature of habit. “It is really dirty and comfortable. I have lived there more years than that.”
Warren “is obsessed with writing songs, more than ever.” She writes seven days a week when she’s in Los Angeles and has never been seen by a writer. She takes time off from time to time but six days is her maximum. Almost uniquely in modern pop music, she prefers to work alone. “I don’t know, when there are 12 writers in a song, what exactly do they do,” she says. “Do they drink coffee? Go out in hi-hat style at the bridge? I don’t need a writing camp. Me A.m Writing camp.
At 65, Warren is now releasing her first album, The Cave Sessions Vol.1. After a while, I took a song called Where Is Your Heart to john legend, which he recorded but did not release. After that back and forth, I thought: Why don’t you call it her name? When she was writing songs like “I Don’t Want to Lose a Thing” for the films of Jerry Bruckheimer (“Girls Songs for Boys Movies”), she works on synopsis, but usually writes about herself, so on demand there always comes something in the basement. This means, she says, “Some of my best songs haven’t been heard yet.”
Warren designed the album — featuring former clients Celine Dion and Paloma Faith along with newcomers like G-Eazy and Ty Dolla $ign — to showcase her collection. There’s R&B, hip-hop, country and Latin, as well as highly anticipated knockout songs. While she can carry a good enough tone for a demo, she knows her limits: “The good thing about my singing is that no one is going to say, ‘Wow, I wonder if I could sing that good.'” “
Every singer I called said yes, but that’s not always the case. When someone rejects a song, does she, as the most successful songwriter in the world ever think: “That’s cool, aren’t you an idiot?” She giggles. “When someone doesn’t understand it, I kind of think it. I’m like, ‘I know what I’m talking about, just do the song.’ Sometimes I talk to someone and I’m never wrong.” to remember Share, whose initial response to if I could go back in time was: “I hate it so much.” With the help of a video that’s no longer than 80 seconds (Battleship, buttocks), the song ended up rebooting Cher’s career. Warren says, “The suit might look weird, but once you try it on, it might be the coolest suit you’ve ever worn. You just didn’t picture yourself in it like I did.”
Warren, whose last romance ended in 1992, doesn’t claim to pour her own experiences into every single. Her attraction to singers and listeners is the general inaccuracy in her words. “I am not someone who sits and writes about my life because how boring would that be? My songs are so open. They can go in a million different directions.” The change, for example, wasn’t political until she gave it to Biden Harris, and Numb was all about losing her mother before the Pet Shop Boys reinterpreted it as post-9/11 anxiety, only to inadvertently return it to the source with a video using old Russian news tapes. “My mother’s family was from Russia,” Warren explains. “Watching this video was emotionally wrecked.”
twilight Director Catherine Hardwicke talks about making a biographical film about the songwriter’s early life. As an unruly teen, Warren was sent to a juvenile prison for smoking cannabis and once stayed with a group of heroin addicts when she ran away from home. Nothing attracted her like songwriting. “I was expelled from schools, I hated school, but I would have studied Brill Building on my own.”
Her insurance salesman dad was right behind her (Dion’s because You Loved Me was a tribute to him disguised as a romantic) but her mother was skeptical. “My mom used to say, ‘This song is really cool but take it to Ralphs [supermarket] And see if they will give you groceries for it. It’s not that she didn’t believe in me, but how do she make a living as a songwriter? It’s a million to be successful and to be as successful as I am one in a billion, probably.”
Warren didn’t get her first written credit, because Debarge Rhythm at Nightuntil she was twenty-eight years old. And thirty-six years later, it is still delivering goods. Did you ever feel like it broke the pop code? She shakes her head. “Every song really breaks the code. It’s its own solar system. Everything that works in the song only works in that song.”
The challenge of proving herself over and over again is what keeps Warren going, and while she’ll absolutely love the Academy Award, she enjoys collecting nominations. “I’m now the only woman in the history of the Academy Awards to have been nominated so many times without winning, and I’m kind of proud of that. If I could win once and then not be nominated again, I would definitely choose the longevity game.”
But the songwriting business has changed a lot since I started. To avoid claims of plagiarism, the credits on some hit songs have as many names as a football band, and expand to include anyone whose song sounds vaguely similar. “Uptown Funk Got a New Writer Every Week!” It’s a weird place we’re in.” Then there’s the rise of venture funds like Hipgnosis, which pick up song catalogs for staggering sums.
“It’s something I would never do,” she says at the end. “If they pay you 20 times the value of your catalog, I can see why people do it, especially if they need money. I don’t need money. This is my soul and my soul will not be for sale at any price.” Can someone practically live off the proceeds of just one of her songs? I stopped. “Probably. You could live well on how I live. It depends on how you live, right?”
Warren finds that song marketing these days is a drag. “To me, it’s like, ‘That’s a great song, let’s get it on the radio!'” But she’s like, ‘Well, no, you have to build a story.’ Damn that. If the Beatles or Prince were around now, I have no idea how that would work. They had to do TikTok campaigns and if that didn’t work, the label wouldn’t pay for their music. Who knows? But it’s still an undeniable song. I still think so.”
I guess interviews aren’t her favorite activity either. I can feel itching back to the cave. “I’ve always been talking about showing up and doing the fucking job,” she says. “To have dreams and aspirations is one thing, but without work it does not happen.” The most successful songwriter in the world is effectively saying goodbye to me. “Nice to meet you. More coffee!”