Songwriter Diane Warren

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Grammy-winning songwriter addresses whether she’s territorial about her music and shares how she stays interested in writing.

Diane Warren has penned more than 800 songs that have been recorded by some of the world's most iconic artists and featured in nearly 100 movies. Her accomplishments include more than 90 top-ten hits and being the first tunesmith in Billboard history to have seven hits on the singles chart simultaneously. The Songwriters Hall of Famer also helped create the duo Due Voci, which has its debut release this month. Warren supports several charitable causes, including a program she established at the Jewish Home for the Aging in memory of her father.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Diane Warren to this program. She is, of course, one of the most prolific songwriters in music history, with chart-topping hits for everyone from Barbra Streisand to Rhianna and many more. She is the driving force behind a new vocal duo called Duo Voce. Their new project of Diane Warren songs is available starting today.
All this month, though, here on PBS you can catch her special, “Love Songs.” Here now, a preview of Diane Warren, “Love Songs.”
Tavis: Watching you at that piano, I’m seeing you thinking –
Diane Warren: Where the chords are? (Laughter) What the right chords are? That’s what I was thinking.
Tavis: Was that what you were thinking, where the chords are?
Warren: Yeah, I’m like – I forget how they go.
Tavis: I’ll take your word you were thinking that, but I’m thinking that you’re also listening to make sure they’re getting this right, like do not mess up my song.
Warren: No, actually, I was really making sure I was getting it right.
Tavis: You’re getting it right. (Laughs)
Warren: They’re fine, I’m cool with them – it’s me that I was worried about.
Tavis: I raise that to ask how – and I say this kindly, of course – how territorial are you about your stuff? What I mean by that is, do not mess this up. This is how I wrote this; this is how I want this song. Are you that connected to it?
Warren: Well, I am, because when I write a song I labor over – anybody that knows me, over every note, over every word.
That being said, when I’m done writing the song, it’s not up to me unless I’m in the studio with that artist and they care about what I say – hopefully they do. But it becomes their record. You would hope that they respect the song and they sing the melody I wrote.
Tavis: What’s a songwriter of your stature, or any stature, for that matter, do when you write the song, to your point, you turn it over, it’s no longer in your control, but you’re not happy with the interpretation that the artist gives it.
Warren: How many records do they sell? It depends on how many records they sell. (Laughter)
Tavis: If they sell a bunch of records, you don’t care, huh?
Warren: Anything over a million, “You know, you messed up, but that’s okay. It’ll be okay. It was really great what you did.”
Tavis: Yeah – “It went platinum, so I’ll live with it.”
Warren: Yeah, I’ll live with that.
Tavis: Without calling names, though, you’ve heard people do stuff that didn’t quite –
Warren: Yeah, that’s happened. But I’ve been lucky, because people have done such great versions of my songs and I’ve worked with the best singers ever, and I’m lucky that way. There’s been some cases where it’s just like what were you thinking, why did you change those chords or why did you change – whatever. But like I said, if it sells over three million records, “Those are great changes. I love that change you made.”
Tavis: Why and how did the love lane, if I could put it that way, become the lane that you decided to run in and have done so successfully?
Warren: You mean writing the love songs and stuff?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Warren: I don’t know; it’s just what I do. It’s ironic, since I don’t have a lot of personal experience in it. But I do, I write these songs that become these big love songs and wedding songs and things like that. I would never want to get married.
Tavis: See, I’m glad you said that.
Warren: I don’t want anybody to listen to me breathe while I sleep. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m glad you said that.
Warren: I would hate that.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because I read this somewhere and I said, “That can’t be true,” and you’re now confirming that it is, which is that you have never been in love? Is that a –
Warren: I’ve loved, but I haven’t been that in love like my songs. I love music that way.
Tavis: But not with another person?
Warren: No. (Laughter)
Tavis: So how the heck do you write this stuff, then?
Warren: I feel it, I do. It’s like I become the character of the song I’m writing, and I really feel it with all my soul and all my heart. I’m really there, it’s like method songwriting.
Tavis: Are you imagining something when you’re writing?
Warren: I’m feeling it, which is even more than imagining it. I’m living it while I’m writing that song. I’m in there.
Tavis: That’s an amazing gift.
Warren: Then when I’m done I don’t have to be with anybody. (Laughter) So that works out.
Tavis: That’s an amazing gift, to have never been in love in the way that you write –
Warren: No, not the kind of like I stay awake just to hear you breathing, watch you – whatever. Okay, I don’t want to – I do feel it when I’m writing, but if someone ever said, “I want to listen to you breathe while you sleep,” I’d think get out of here. I just wouldn’t want that. (Laughter)
Tavis: When did you know that this was going to be your gift, that songwriting was the way you were going to make your contribution in the world?
Warren: Well, I knew at seven years old. I have two older sisters and I would look on their singles at the time, this is when there were actual singles, I would look to see who wrote those songs. It was weird because I didn’t even know what a songwriter was.
I knew I was going to be that name in the parentheses, so from that time on I just knew it. When I was about 11, my parents brought me back a little guitar from Tijuana, and I took guitar lessons one time and the guitar teacher said, “Mr. Warren, do not bring your daughter back. She has no future in music,” because I didn’t want to learn scales.
But meanwhile I was just making up my own songs. When I turned about 14 I became just obsessed, and to this day – it’s a long time since I was 14 – and I’m still as hungry and as obsessed as I was then.
Tavis: Obviously you recall it because you just shared it, but do you recall what it meant to you, how you interpreted, how you felt when someone says to your father, “Don’t bring your daughter back here, she has no future in music?”
Warren: How I felt?
Tavis: Yeah, how you felt.
Warren: It’s how I am with everything. It’s, “Really? Okay, I’ll show you. I’ll show you.” I’m all about “I’ll show you,” so when anybody closed the door on me or anything, I’m like “Okay, really? Okay. Really, you don’t think I’m going to do that? Okay.” So I use that as fuel. So him saying that, that was just one little step.
Tavis: On the one hand I think love is one of those endless subject matters where you can write song after song, and obviously people do it all the time, song after song after song.
On the other hand, I’m trying to understand how it is that something that gets covered that much –
Warren: Like how is there a new way to say it?
Tavis: Yeah, how is there a new way to do it?
Warren: Isn’t that weird? There really is, and I always try to find that new way. Everything’s been said, right? Most things have been said.
Tavis: Right, you would think.
Warren: Just about everything, but there’s – you put a spin on it, you say it in a different way. “Unbreak my Heart.” No one said it that way, so that was really – I remember coming up with that idea. I love coming up with something that says something that you’ve heard a million times in a little different way.
But yeah, it’s interesting, though, that so many things – that everything has been said, but it’s your way of saying it that makes it unique.
Tavis: I would assume – I’m not a songwriter, but I would assume that every song you write, you obviously, to your earlier point, you feel it, you feel it, and then you write it.
Warren: Yeah.
Tavis: Then if you’re a positive thinker, which obviously you are, you assume and hope that every song that you write is going to be a hit.
Warren: Yeah, I always hope that. I always want to believe it.
Tavis: But is there something extra or something special that happens when you write those songs that really do, in fact, become major, major hits?
Warren: Well, I think I know when I write a song that’s a hit because there are so many things that come into play.
Will the right artists get that song? Will it be sung the right way? Will it be produced the right way? Will the label want to promote it? Will radio want to play it? Will people want to buy it?
Tavis: So it’s more than just a song.
Warren: Yeah, but my job is to make that song great, so I have to do my job as great as I can make it, and I’m serious about doing that. So from my side, it’s just to try to write a great song and then just cross my fingers.
Tavis: At this point in your career, are you writing songs and the songs then find the artist, or do you seek out artists and you write the song specifically for the person?
Warren: Well, it’s always both. I usually don’t write a song specifically for people, although I wrote the Whitney song, “I Didn’t Know my Own Strength” for her on her new album.
But most of the time I just try to write a great song and a lot of artists are calling me for songs always. If I have the song that’s right for somebody, I’ll call them and say, “Come over if you want to hear this song. I think it’d be great for you.”
Tavis: Is it possible, though, that I could call you and say, “Diane Warren, write me a song,” and nothing comes at the time that I’m asking you to write it?
Warren: Well, I usually don’t write songs by people calling me and saying, “Write a song about this.” Usually I’m just going with what I want to write, so you never know.
Tavis: What keeps you interested? Obviously everybody wants a hit and you’re writing because you want to express yourself –
Warren: What keeps me interested is that I have to do it. It’s like people wake up and they have to breathe; I have to write songs, I have to make music. That’s like eating or breathing to me. It’s that simple.
Tavis: What’s your process? You do this every day?
Warren: Yeah, I show up in my office about 8:30 and just start working and just sit at the piano.
Tavis: What happens on the days at 8:30 when nothing comes and you’re just sitting there?
Warren: I just keep trying. That’s why I have padded walls, because hit my head. No, I’m just kidding. (Laughter) I should. I just show up. That’s my secret – I show up.
Tavis: Right, and it just comes.
Warren: Yeah, it comes. I work. I work hard. I work hard, I could spend a whole day writing one line or getting the right chord, just to find – it’s a process.
Tavis: Does the process change every day? Does it change for every song? Do you start with the lyric and then the chord, the chord comes and then you find the lyric? How does that work?
Warren: I like to start with a concept that wants to be written. It has to be compelling as an idea. I usually start there. I might just start with some chords. It might just be a fun song or something. Every song has its own life.
Tavis: So tell me about this PBS special. You excited about this?
Warren: I’m really excited, yeah. It’s was like kind of a big thing, and what I wasn’t excited about at the time was I had to get in front of people, and I’m not good at that. I was, like, dying.
Tavis: You didn’t like the idea of being out front?
Warren: No, but I did it. I survived it. It’s like being in the principal’s office or something, I don’t know.
Tavis: Did you have any kind of epiphanies once you convinced yourself to do it?
Warren: Yeah, my epiphany was I don’t want to do it. (Laughter)
Tavis: I don’t like this and I don’t want to do this anymore.
Warren: Oh, man. But it was really fun and I knew some of the people that came. Some of my friends were in the front row and I was trying to look at them. But it was really cool, it was really great that all these artists came and it’s great for my group.
Tavis: It’s a great tribute to your work, the people that show up for a special you.
Warren: Wasn’t it nice? Then Jane Fonda and Cher and all these people that said nice things. It’s really cool.
Tavis: Tell me about this new group, Duo Voce.
Warren: I’m really excited about them. Tyler and Kelly, they’re great. They’re amazing. It took so long to find the right singers for this project, because there’s nothing like this. You have Il Divo, you have Josh Grobin, there’s no duos.
Tavis: When you said it took you a while to find them, that means you were searching for what, specifically?
Warren: I was searching for these singers, and Kelly I’d worked with before and Tyler was someone that David Foster told me about and said he’s great, and I met him and he was amazing.
I put Kelly and him together, it was just magic. They’re both stars and just amazing singers.
Tavis: You mentioned David Foster, which makes me want to ask, as I will, whether or not in the journey that you’ve been on as a songwriter there are songwriters who you have really, really admired. I don’t want to say emulated, but admired over the years.
Warren: There’s a lot.
Tavis: Who do you like?
Warren: God, everybody from, like, the Beatles to Burt Bacharach and Hal David to Stevie Wonder to Jimmy Webb to Carole King, Jerry Goff. I loved all the Brill Building writers. Irving Berlin to – I loved so many people – to Smokey Robinson, who just called me a few days ago. It was like wow, that was pretty cool.
Tavis: That’s a good songwriter.
Warren: I had Ronald Isley in my studio. That’s pretty cool too, right? Talk about legends.
Tavis: Absolutely. Yeah, but they don’t get much better than Smokey when it comes to songwriting.
Warren: No, right? Right? The best.
Tavis: And he’s calling you. (Laughter)
Warren: Yeah, I was like, “Oh, my god.” It was pretty cool.
Tavis: Wow. You know her, of course – Diane Warren. If you don’t know her, you certainly know her music. A wonderful PBS special called “Love Songs,” and the new project, Duo Voce, is the team that she’s put together to specifically sing her wonderful works. Diane, good to have you on the program and congrats on the special.
Warren: Thank you so much.
Tavis: My pleasure.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm