September 01, 2006

WONDER WOMAN

diane_warren

By Jim Steinblatt

The amazing, true life adventures of one of America's greatest hitmakers,
Diane Warren.

2006 marks the year that songwriter Diane Warren celebrates a significant milestone - the 25th anniversary of success as an ASCAP member. Looking back on her history, it seems that Warren spent the first half of her life — a period of learning, struggle and rejection – preparing for the across-the-board success of the second. And, in Warren's case, across-the-board means #1 hits on the R&B, Country, Latin, Christian, Adult Contemporary and Dance charts, as well as Pop. Her songs have been featured in close to 100 feature films. The Grammy-winning Warren has received multiple nominations for Grammys, Academy Awards and Golden Globes; enjoyed more than 100 Top 10 hits; been honored as ASCAP Songwriter of the Year six times, including receiving the ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year award in 2000, and has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Warren astounded the music business when seven of her songs recorded by seven different artists appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 in the same week. And the Warren-owned publishing company, Realsongs, which represents only one writer – Diane Warren – is one of the mightiest independents in the industry.

The San Fernando Valley-born Warren can claim no musical tradition in her family, no professional musical training and no special skill as an instrumentalist or singer. Yet her words and music have connected with an array of performers that can best be described as dazzling and varied: Trisha Yearwood, Aerosmith, Reba McEntire, Elton John, Toni Braxton, Johnny Mathis, Gloria Estefan, Faith Hill, KISS, Patti LaBelle, Michael Bolton, Barbra Streisand, Eric Clapton, Natalie Cole, Mary J. Blige, Céline Dion, Starship, Cher, Kid Rock, Enrique Iglesias, Rod Stewart, LeAnn Rimes, *NSYNC, Joe Cocker and the Pet Shop Boys, among many, many more. With so many achievements and so much material success, it would hardly be a surprise to find that Warren is blasé, self-congratulatory and ready to rest on her considerable laurels. But in fact, the opposite is the case – her enthusiasm, work ethic and love for songwriting remain undiminished. Playback recently caught up with Warren in the Realsongs suite of offices and studios in Hollywood, where she reflected on a career that continues to unfold.

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Cher's rendition of Diane's "If I Could Turn Back Time" was a major hit across the board.

Let's talk a bit about your beginnings in this business, and I guess a little bit about your life at home. You grew up in the San Fernando Valley?
I grew up in Van Nuys, near Hollywood, but a million miles away — a different world. When I was small, my parents came back from Tijuana, and my dad bought me a very small acoustic guitar. I loved it. I started making up my own songs right away. I was obsessed with music. I wanted to be a songwriter since I was 7. I was always looking at my older sisters' records to see who wrote all the songs.

So I started, playing guitar, and my dad took me to get guitar lessons. The teacher, after one lesson, told my dad, "Don't bring her back. She's tone deaf, and she doesn't have a future in music."

When I turned 14, I became very obsessed with writing songs, and it took over my existence. At my age, I'm still as obsessed and insane about it. It hasn't eased off at all. I can't wait to come to work.

Was there anything in particular at 14 that happened that made you feel that way?
I just became obsessed, and I made my dad get me a subscription to Billboard. And, I would just read it from top to bottom, wanting to know who did everything. It was like a new world. So, I wanted to know who wrote every song and who produced every song – mainly, who wrote. I'd look to see publishers' names, and I'd have my dad take me to those publishers. My dad would drive me to see publishers, and I'd bring out my guitar and play, you know, something that probably wasn't very good. Everybody I'd go to see was pretty encouraging.

A friend of mine was friendly with [ASCAP Publisher Board member] Jay Morgenstern's daughter. I remember going to Jay Morgenstern's house — I was probably 16 or 17. I played him a song, one of my early songs that wasn't really good. It was a song called "Don Quixote Has Windmills," about a dreamer like me. And he published it. No one ever recorded it but, wow, it was a vote of confidence.

I'm somebody who finds adversity is almost as good as encouragement. It's almost like you close the door and I'll find ten ways to kick it in and go around it or dig under it or something.

What was your first big break?
The late Laura Branigan was the first artist to record my songs. She did "Solitaire." But I don't look at that as my first big hit, because I only wrote English lyrics for it. Technically, it was my first Top 10.

But to me, my first big hit was "Rhythm of the Night," with words and music I'd done by myself. Since then most of my hits have been songs I've written by myself, which is kind of cool. It kind of separates me as a writer.

I've mainly always written by myself — that's always been my main focus. I've written with some artists and a couple of other people, but not on a long-term basis. I just love the idea of going into a room and creating something by myself.

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Whitney Houston has scored with a number of Top Ten renditions of Diane's songs.

How did you make the connection for getting "Rhythm of the Night" into a film?
My publisher told me about this movie, The Last Dragon, that needed a song. I wrote "Rhythm of the Night," and DeBarge recorded it. That was pretty cool. I was up for a Golden Globe, and I took my dad as a date. He came to my apartment and saw what a slob I was. He said, "I'm waiting outside" because I never cleaned my apartment. I was always just working.

When did you start playing the piano?
I taught myself piano when I was about 18. I read somewhere or somebody told me that the piano was a songwriter's instrument. I'm not a very good guitar player or a piano player, but I can figure it out. I only had one music theory class, but I guess I kind of figured it out, just enough to get by on and write.

What do you do after coming up with a song? Do you write it down or use a tape recorder?
I still use a cassette. I was just talking to a record producer last week, and I was shocked that he uses cassettes, too. I'm not really that high tech, so a song has to sound good on my cassette player. I have two studios here. After putting it down on tape, I go in and have it arranged. I have all the technology in the studio, but I don't know how to use it.

Your mother was opposed to your music career.
Yeah, my mom was more of a pragmatist. My dad was more of a dreamer. My mom was thinking I was going to be sitting on the corner with a little cup and a guitar. I got lucky in some things. I always say luck opens the door, but hard work and talent keep you in there. There was no choice in this. This was my life, and I was going to do this even if I had to sit with a cup. I'm a pretty determined and ambitious person, and nothing was going to hold me back at all. It's like I was almost programmed to do this.

Tell me about your early experience with music publishing and how you eventually came to form your own company, Realsongs?
I would go over to see publishers when I was 17 — and then I drove myself when I was 18. But, I couldn't get anywhere. Then, a few years later, I met a guy named Jack White, who signed me to my first deal... Jack White had all my publishing.

I would love to say that I was really brilliant for starting Realsongs, but it was kind of an accident. In order to gain some ownership of my songs, I had to get into a lawsuit with Jack. My lawyer said, "You have to have your own company — no one can sign you because they'll be part of the lawsuit you have with Jack White." So that's how I started my own publishing company. Shortly after, we settled the lawsuit out of court.

When I thought about naming my company, I thought, "I write real songs, and I want to be known for writing real songs." To me, it's such a cool name; it really sounds forever, doesn't it? I was shocked that nobody had that name. I snapped that one up.

Then all of a sudden, everything started happening — tons of hits and covers, and I never looked back. It was like, "Wow, I write these by myself, and I own them? How cool! How could I even have thought of being a staff writer?"

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Diane with Aerosmith's Steve Tyler. Aerosmith enjoyed a #1 international hit with her song "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing."

Realsongs only has your material.
Yeah, Realsongs is one writer. It's a big business here. All the songs have to be licensed. Two recording studios are always pretty much going full time to demo my songs.

So who is it that gets your songs out to producers and film supervisors?
Well, I do a lot of that and Julie Horton, the Executive Vice President of the company, works with me on getting songs out to people.

A major publisher spoke of you as one of the best song pluggers in the business.
That's because I believe in my wonderful product, though I don't like using the word "product." I'm enthusiastic; I have a passion for what I do. No one can get in a room like me — if I really believe in something, you know, no one can get in a room and sell like me, because I really believe in it.

I'm not one of those people that writes a song specifically for somebody. I know people who do that. I'd rather just try to write a great song. The song is going to tell you who it's right for.

So, a great deal of your success has been your own doing.
Yeah, I'm a hustler, basically. My heart's in the right place though. I always think it's like an immigrant gene or something like that. My mom's family came from Russia, a Jewish family. I almost feel like I could relate to that; you want to make something of yourself.

I used to be a classic underachiever. In school I was like a D or F student. I was thrown out of two schools. When my dad said he'd buy me a Martin 12-string, that semester I got straight A's and B's; next semester F's and D's. But I didn't care about school. I didn't care about doing anything, to be honest with you.

When I found music, when I found I had a talent for it and I loved it and, that it was my life, you know, I mean, I just became obsessed. Then, I excelled. There's no one in my family who's a musician. I'm a mutant. [LAUGHS] I don't know where I came from.

One of my favorite songs of yours is one recorded by Milli Vanilli.
"Blame It on the Rain." I love that record. I heard it on the radio the other day. I think somebody needs to redo it — you know, somebody did redo it! You know who? It's so cool; it was Sam Moore of Sam and Dave. He did this amazing duet with Fantasia that Randy Jackson produced. I love it! When I wrote that song I wrote it as a soul song, you know. And then my hand slipped; it's the weirdest key change, and it goes up half a step in a really weird place. I like that. I think if you're trained, a really trained musician, you probably wouldn't like that, but to me — I remember writing it, and I was kind of bored with the song. Then my hand slipped.

"I just became obsessed, and I made my dad get me a subscription to Billboard. And, I would just read it from top to bottom; wanting to know who did everything. It was like a new world. So, I wanted to know who wrote every song and who produced every song ? mainly, who wrote."
—Diane Warren

I remember holding the song for a certain artist, and they didn't do it. We went to New York to see Clive Davis at Arista Records. I told him about "Blame It on the Rain." I said, "I don't even know if you have anybody for it, but it's a really cool, kind of weird song. He asks me if he can play me something first – and he played Milli Vanilli's first hit, "Girl, You Know It's True," and I thought, "This is psychic weirdness!" My song sounded like a follow-up to that. And it was. I didn't know anything about the lip-synching at that time. But even though someone else sang that record, it is still a great album.

I could be wrong, but my perception is that the songs you write are not necessarily about you.
They're not. A lot of them are what I call method songwriting — you become the characters. When I'm writing a song I'm really that character. It's funny, I just worked with this kid Mario, a great young singer. In one of the songs I did with him, I had to imagine myself as a 20-year-old black guy — I wrote it from a guy's point of view.

And when you write a movie song, you know what the premise of the movie is?
Oh yeah, I either read the script or see the movie when I do a song.

I wanted to mention before I forget. I think you may be the only person who's written songs for both Celine Dion and Dion DiMucci.
Yeah. I did do songs for Dion and Celine Dion, wow! "And The Night Stood Still," was the song I wrote for Dion. That was a cool song.

Did you put yourself in a 50s frame of mind for it?
I didn't write it for him. But when I learned he was recording it, I was really excited because when I was a little kid, my sisters had records by Dion and the Belmonts. He's a great singer.

Another singular thing that you accomplished is all the success across different charts with different types of artists.
Yeah. I remember being in the studio with *NSYNC and KISS on the same day, and then a week before that with Reba McEntire in Nashville. That's a good diversity. Recently, I was working with a Latin group called RBD and also working with Lenny Kravitz and Joss Stone. It's kind of fun to be in different genres.

Do you have songwriters that you look up to?
I have a lot. Stevie Wonder, like all the Motown writers, and Jimmy Webb is an old hero of mine. And Irving Berlin — he wrote by himself, too. And he had his own company, his own publishing house.

Yes, Irving Berlin Music.
He was kind of my hero. Not that I am on that level.

You have been doing songwriting for a long time. Do you think that practice makes perfect?
I think practice makes better. It's like an athlete — you're going to keep building those muscles. As long as you're doing that, they're not going to get screwed up, they're not going to turn into fat. So, every day, I write. I'm learning something all the time. I'm willing to take chances. I'm not complacent. People say, "Look at all the songs you've written." Whatever — it's in the past. I don't mean I don't care about the work, but that's in the rearview mirror. I'm looking up ahead of me.

There was a period when there were Diane Warren songs on the radio constantly.
I can't always be having nine songs on the chart. Everything is cyclical. It's pretty cool when it happens, but you have to know that it doesn't always happen. I just got lucky that all these records came out at the same time. Whenever a song was a hit, I thought, "Well, that didn't screw up." Believe me, there are a million things that happen that just derail a song — maybe the song wasn't done right. Maybe the manager pissed off the label that week. Maybe the artist didn't show up at the radio stations or the concerts.

So you don't take these things personally.
Well, that being said, it's painful if something doesn't work. I can't say that it doesn't matter. It does. But a song's like a kid; if one gets run over by a car, are you going to not care?

There must be quite a few of your songs that may not have made it once, but that you'd still like to get out there.
Oh, yeah, I don't give up on songs. "Some Hearts," which is the title song of Carrie Underwood's album, is one I wrote 18 years ago. It's still a great song. Hopefully, everything will have its day.

I know you don't like to look at the past much, but is there something that makes you particularly proud?
Every time a song has been successful, it's a great thing. Maybe a song I've written has touched someone's life, just like songs used to do to me. To think that I could do something like that is an amazing thing. And, I don't ever take it for granted. I would almost pay to do this because I love doing this so much. I never did this for the money. It was never my inspiration. It's cool to have it, and nothing is wrong with having it. But songwriting is just something I would just do normally, no matter what.

It's really been quite a career for you. Is there anything that you've not done yet that you are looking forward to doing?
I don't know. I just want to get better at what I do. I want to be the better version of who I am. There's always room to grow.