Industry Profile: Diane Warren
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Diane Warren
While the music industry continues to undergo a significant upheaval, Diane Warren is likely---at this very moment--writing one of her best songs at 6363 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
The nine story office building--with its dramatic views of the Los Angeles basin and Hollywood hills—is at the corner of Sunset and Ivar.
The building houses Realsongs, Warren’s 23-year old publishing company.
It is also home to the Los Angeles Film School; and is the former setting of RCA Studios where the Rolling Stones recorded “Satisfaction” and where Elvis Presley rehearsed his live shows, and recorded sections of "Burning Love" and "Always on My Mind."
Each day for 28 years, excepting Sundays, this Van Nuys-born self-confessed workaholic has been coming to 6363 Sunset to work in her songwriting "cave." She begins writing at 8:30 A.M.--she's most creative in the morning—and then spends the afternoon pursuing artists and entertainment executives to cover her songs.
Realsongs, with 12 employees under executive VP Julie Horton, publishes and promotes Warren’s catalog of 1,400 songs. There are only about 25 Warren songs that the company doesn’t own completely. Sony ATV Music Publishing sub-publishes her works outside the U.S.
A fierce creator of works that have become part of the fabric of pop culture, Warren has had songs recorded by hundreds of artists including Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Joss Stone, Mary J. Blige, Tina Turner, and Aerosmith.
She had her first hit in 1983 with Laura Branigan's “Solitaire.”
She has recently had songs recorded by Jennifer Hudson, David Cook, Rihanna, the Pussycat Dolls, Akon, Sean Kingston, and Tokio Hotel. She also tailored her song "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" for Whitney Houston.
Warren has had nine #1 hits top Billboard’s Hot 100 chart; and 31 songs peak in the Top 10.
Among her best-known hits are: “Because You Loved Me" (Celine Dion) and "If You Asked Me To” (Dion and Patti Labelle); “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher); I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" (Aerosmith) which was recently chosen as U.K. newlyweds’ #2 choice for a first dance tune); ("Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" (Starship); “Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me” (Tim McGraw & Faith Hill); "Can't Fight the Moonlight” (LeAnn Rimes); and “How Do I Live” (Rimes and Trisha Yearwood).
Warren’s song “Un-Break My Heart” launched the careers of both Toni Braxton and Il Divo. Braxton’s 1996 version held the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 11 weeks. It made Braxton a superstar, and remains her signature tune. According to reports, Braxton initially didn't want to record the song. However, Warren was there for her vocal performance of the song in the studio, and predicted that she'd win a Grammy for it.
And Braxton did.
Since 1984, when Laura Branigan's version of her song "Hot Night" was featured in "Ghostbusters," Warren has had over 100 songs appearing in films. This includes “Space Jam,” “Prince of Egypt,” “Up Close and Personal,” “The Preacher's Wife,” and “White Men Can't Jump,” “Confessions of a Shopaholic," and “American Gangster.” Last year, she was the recipient of the inaugural Hollywood Reporter/Billboard Film and TV Music Career Achievement Award.
"Because You Loved Me," written by Warren as a tribute to her father for his encouragement of her career, was featured in the film Up “Close & Personal.” The song was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award, as well as four Grammy Awards. It won a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.
Born in 1956 to an insurance salesman father who supported her musical aspirations, and a mother wary about the realities of a music career, Warren was raised In Van Nuys in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.
Growing up, the radio was Warren’s best friend. She would also study her sisters' 45s to see who wrote the songs. By 7 or 8, she thought that she could make up her own songs. After being given a guitar by her father, she began to spend hours each day writing in her parent's garden shed.
By 14, she was writing three songs a day. She tried, with her father's help, to gain a foothold within Los Angeles’ music world. However, publishers weren’t initially interested.
In 1983, she was hired as a staff writer by Laura Branigan's producer Jack White. After producing hits in Germany for Tony Marshal, Andrea Jürgens, and Lena Valaitis, Cologne-born White (aka Horst Nussbaum) hit the international pop music sweepstakes by producing Branigan's ‘80s hits "Gloria," Ti Amo,” and "Self Control,” all in a glitzy Eurodisco style. Later, he’d produce similar styled hits with actors Pia Zadora, Audrey Landers, and David Hasselhoff.
Warren’s first hit was Branigan’s "Solitaire" which reached #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. The song was originally written and recorded in 1981 by French singer/songwriter Martine Clémenceau, a former Eurovision contestant. Warren only provided new lyrics.
Two years later, the Michigan family group Debarge recorded Warren’s original song 'Rhythm Of The Night” that reached #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
Her career then took off.
Warren soon moved into 6363 Sunset Boulevard and set up shop in a cramped writing workspace she still uses.
Today, however, Realsongs offices also house two state-of-the-art recording studios where producers and engineers turn her songs into fully fledged recordings.
Although she started out writing on guitar as a teenager, and still has an acoustic piano in her writing room, Warren herself works predominantly on an ancient Yamaha DX7, recording her ideas for songs to a Sony TCS60 Walkman.
Warren founded Realsongs in 1985 following a lawsuit with White. She recalls, “My lawyer said, 'You have to keep your own publishing,' and I said, 'No, I want to be with a big publisher.’ Thank God I listened to her.”
A project based on Warren's life by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, producers of the films "Chicago" and "Hairspray," is currently in development at the Lifetime cable network.
How cool is hearing your music on the radio or in films?
It’s all good. Seriously. Hearing my music anywhere is great. I still love to hear my songs on the radio. Being a kid who was in love with the radio, the fact that someone is hearing my songs and is touched by them is a full-circle kind of cool thing. I am always happy that my songs are heard and sung by people. I know songs touch people, and that's a wonderful feeling.
Watching a film do you wait for your song?
You recently wrote “I Don’t Know My Own Strength” for Whitney Houston who says she relates to the song because of her struggles as a single mother.
I’m really excited about the Whitney song. It is kind of her story. I looked at her life. I have worked with her through the years. I heard all of the stories like everybody else did. I had the title “I Don’t Know My Own Strength” that I felt was really cool. Then I thought, “I’m going to write this for Whitney. I’m going to write her story.” Write her story as I see it, anyway. You never know someone’s story unless you live in their skin, right? But I knew she was going to make a comeback record. I knew she had gotten clean (drug free).
You first played the song for Clive Davis (the Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music Entertainment Worldwide). You have a long working relationship with Clive including working on hits for Toni Braxton, Kelly Clarkson.
He has said that it was thrilling seeing you perform your own song at his bungalow at the Beverly Hill Hotel.
That’s sweet. But I don’t know. I am certainly different than hearing Whitney sing. Some times I do go and play for him. Some times I will play him a (recorded) demo. Clive appreciates it when I play something that is raw. We have done so many huge records together. What I love about Clive is that he still loves songs. The guy is passionate. He really believes in great songs.
With over 1,200 of your original songs in Realsongs’ catalog, do you forget that you have written certain songs?
Yeah, I do because I am always onto the next one. I am always writing new ones. I’ve got a lot of good stuff coming. I just did a great song on the new Sean Kingston album that I am really excited about. I like him. I like singers like that. Akon as well. I did a great song for his new record.
You started Realsongs in 1985 after suing producer Jack White to get out of your publishing deal?
Actually, he sued me for leaving. (The law suit) wasn’t cut and dry. It was complicated. My lawyer suggested I have my own publishing company and own my own songs. I was like, “No. I want to be a staff writer.” I couldn’t sign with (another) publisher so she said, “Well, you have to keep your own publishing.” At the time, I was frustrated because I was in a lawsuit with Jack. But then I settled it myself with him which I was proud of.
What was the appeal of being a staff writer in the ‘80s? I know you admire such Brill Building songwriter teams as Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, and Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry.
I always aspired to be one of those Brill Building kind of people. But I couldn’t figure (that kind of career) out. It just worked out the way it was supposed to. I know Carole King a little bit but not well. I have never met Ellie Greenwich. I have talked to some people from those (Brill Building) days. It must have been a cool time. But the cool thing is that I can do (songwriting) on my own. I come here every day, and I am my own little weird Brill Building. I put myself in a weird little cubicle and I just make myself work.
I’m still a workaholic. I don’t like to work at home or I would never leave. I love the idea of going to work. I don’t need to write songs (financially) but I need to write to live. I’d go crazy if I didn’t write.
How many of your staff pitch your songs?
Julie (Horton) does and I do it constantly.
Do most people want to deal direct with you?
A lot of times they do. I’m fine with that depending on who it is. I can’t deal with everybody personally. But I love one-on-ones with artists. I really do.
You have a reputation for toughness. Maybe you’re not an LA person.
I am definitely not an LA type person. I’ve heard that I am aggressive and tenacious in business. That I am a pain in the ass. That’s because I believe (in my songs). I’m usually pretty nice but I am tenacious (dealing) with my songs.
Swear like a truck driver?
Definitely. But I am not rude or obnoxious.
Do you have a concern about traditional royalty streams fading in the digital age?
I am not thinking about it. Whether people buy a song on a wrist watch or wherever, if it is a hit, they will want to own the song. I definitely want to get paid for what I do. But I can’t think about that when I am writing. I am just trying to write great songs.
Have you seen a deterioration of income with your catalog?
The fact that records are selling less, I’m sure I’m making less money there. But my songs are used for everything. There’s radio, commercials and so on. There may be a commercial somewhere in the country I don’t even know about and they’ll pay me a few hundred grand to use my music. Okay. Hit songs are the gifts that keep on giving.
Will it become more difficult to get paid for songs in the future?
I think (publishers and songwriters) will be paid. There will always be ways to get paid. Records sales (are down) but there’s a million ways to get paid for a song. There’s sync (licensing). There’s (radio) airplay. Those Motown songs will be played on the radio forever.
I just heard the Miracles’ 1967 hit “I Second That Emotion” (written by Smokey Robinson) and thought it was something you could have written.
I could have written that. It has a good clever title which I like. Smokey Robinson is a great songwriter. Everybody has covered his song “The Tracks Of My Tears.” Linda Ronstadt had a hit with it. All those Motown songs are great.
The ‘60s was a great time for music on radio.
It was the golden age of songwriting in my opinion.
Were you a big radio fan?
I grew up listening to KRLA, KFWB, and 93 KHJ Boss Radio. I remember (announcers) B. Mitchell Reed, Sam Riddle, Robert. W. Morgan with “Morgan in the Morning” and Wolfman Jack.
Night time, did you have a radio under your covers?
I was that person. That is where I would live. I remember hearing faraway stations It was like (hearing) a train. I also loved listening to my older sisters' records, people like Buddy Holly and the Beatles. But I was more fascinated by the songwriters, people like Carole King, Leiber and Stoller, and Burt Bacharach. Those were my idols.
You went to Birmingham High School where Ron Fair (president/chairman of Geffen Records) also went.
I did. Ron Fair went to school there but he was a couple years older than me. He says he remembers me. We had the same music teacher, Mr. Waddell. I did not pay attention; Ron did.
A lot of successful people didn’t do well in high school or college.
Well, I did badly in all forms of school. I got kicked out of two junior highs. I barely graduated high school. I was kicked out for cutting school, forging (my parent) signatures (on absent notes), flipping off a teacher. Everything. I went to junior college for a couple of years. I went to California State University in Northridge for a couple of years. I was only going because my dad said that he would support me through college. I really didn’t care. I was mainly taking film classes.
You started doing the rounds of music publishers in Los Angles when you were 15. You kept being told, “You’ve got potential.”
I used to hate that word. I really did not like the word potential. I wanted to strangle people when they used that word with me.
You were writing three songs a day by then. Were your songs any good.
They were probably bad. Those people were probably right, I hate to say. Of course, they weren’t great. They were the beginnings of somebody that was going to get better later. The fact is that I believed that they were great is a big thing.
LA is a great place to start a music career.
I was from Van Nuys. Going over the hill was a million miles away. I didn’t know my way around here. You can get in a car (and get around) but it is night and day from where I grew up.
You never wanted to be a performer?
No, no. Some times I’ll think about doing a record, just to do one because I feel every (songwriter) should, perhaps, do one. But my aspiration was never about (being a performer). I wanted to be the one writing the songs. I wanted to hear my songs on the radio
Laura Branigan recorded several of your songs including “Solitaire” and "Hot Night."
She used to stay at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. I remember us sitting together in the really echoey bathroom, going over the songs.
I heard she introduced you to Japanese food and the power of wasabi.
That (incident) really happened. It was at Imperial Gardens on Sunset. I don’t think I had ever had Japanese food before. She said, “Here have some green tea ice cream.” It was not a little tea spoon. It was a large table spoon. I swallowed it and I’m telling you I was on the floor. I felt like I was going to die. Then I wanted to kill her. (Looking back) it was kind of funny.
Despite her big ‘80s hits, like "Gloria,” "Self Control", "Solitaire" and "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” Laura is often overlooked today. I thought she had vocal chops on par with Donna Summer or Celine Dion.
Exactly. During my first time working with Celine I remember thinking that she reminded me of Laura Branigan. Laura was a great singer.
[Laura Branigan died at her home on Long Island, New York, on August 26, 2004. Her death was attributed to a previously undiagnosed brain aneurysm.]
You were working with Laura’s producer Jack White?
I was signed to Jack White’s publishing company. He was my publisher and Arista Publishing administered his (catalog). Through them I got “Rhythm Of The Night” placed with DeBarge (in Berry Gordy’s 1985 film “The Last Dragon”)
“Rhythm Of The Night” still sounds great today.
Yeah. Isn’t that weird? But I do aspire to write songs that transcend genres and the times that they are written in.
You count “Rhythm Of The Night” as your first real success?
That was the first (song) I was excited about. I did the lyrics to “Solitaire” and, even though it was a hit, it never felt like it was a song of mine. I just wrote the lyric. With “Rhythm of Night” I wrote words and music. So it is something that I created on my own. To this day, that is what means the most to me.
As a top songwriter you have often been asked by labels to co-write with artists. Often a co-write doesn’t reflect reality.
I won’t do (that kind of co-writing). If there’s a co-written song then I’ve truly have written it with the artist. Early in my career there were times that I probably wrote more than the artist that I was writing with. Today my attitude is, “Do the song or don’t do the song.” Their name isn’t going on (a song) if they didn’t write it.
How often have your songs been changed by artists or producers?
People usually respect them. That being said, if someone wants to make changes of a few notes or a line that might be uncomfortable, I’m cool with that. It like an actor saying there might be something better for the screenplay.
Early on, however, you were told to write songs at 120 beats per minute.
That did happen while I was at Arista. I was playing a ballad for someone at the company and he interrupted me and said, “It has to be 120 beats per minute.” That was a little strange.
Well, the ‘80s were pretty wild.
When I got into the business it wasn’t very wild. Maybe it was but I had my blinders on. I just wanted to work. I was work, work, work. I wasn’t doing coke or partying. When everybody was doing that, I was at the office.
When you were a teenager, your father bought a subscription to Billboard. When it was founded in 1894, Billboard was a trade paper for the bill posting industry. Within a few years, it began to carry news of the circus industry. In many ways, artists and songwriters are carnival people still.
I think so too. I think I’m in the fucking circus. I think a lot of times it’s the circus (out there) and there are a lot of clowns.
Despite your success you had difficulty for years breaking down the barriers in Nashville. It wasn’t until 1997 with "How Do I Live,” recorded by both Trisha Yearwood, and LeAnn Rimes, that you were taken seriously by producers and artists there.
Do you know that the first person to do one of my songs was Barbara Mandrell? It was either before or just after (my success with) Laura Branigan. The song was “Bad Boys Do It Good” (for the 1983 album “Spun Gold.”) It was something that Arista Publishing got me.
It’s so weird (not being taken seriously in country) because my songs are so good for that world. A lot of (country) people have had hits with my songs. Reba McEntire ("I'll Be”), Mark Chesnutt (with a version of "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing"), and the Tim McGraw & Faith Hill duet of "Just To Hear You Say That You Love Me” was a massive hit.
You aren’t generally a public figure. Yet, you appeared this year on "American Idol" as a mentor and a judge; and two years ago you were a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (alongside Russell Simmons).
Were you being the businesswoman branding your music?
You gotta do what you gotta do. I don’t have to do (TV shows), really. But I’m a business person too. It is a part of (building) my brand. As much as I am shy, I need to be out there some times. And it’s fun too. Oprah was fun. It was cool being on with Russell Simmons. I loved that the show was about following your dreams. Oprah is awesome. She’s always supportive of what I do. The “American Idol” thing was a night of my songs.
"American Idol" provides a fast track into the music business. But you really have to have talent to stay in.
Oh yeah, totally. But everybody deserves a break. If it’s “American Idol” or some other way, they are still getting a break. As far as longevity (is concerned), it’s what you decide to do with your break. Are you doing the right song?
Why haven’t you written for other entertainment forms, like Broadway?
Because that’s not my thing. There’s talk about some (theatrical) projects happening and, if they work out, that would be cool. But it would have to be (with) hits. I just can’t have people breaking into songs (onstage). I can’t do that. If I can load up a show with hits, that’d be great. Maybe, somebody could take my songs and do a musical and do it in a cool way.
There are theatrical production of Ellie Greenwich hits (“Leader of the Pack”) and the hits of Leiber & Stoller (“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”) as well as “Dirty Dancing.”
They could do that with my songs as well. That’s fine with me. But I don’t know how to do it. It’s all about songs. And it’s all about making a compelling story. I don’t know anything about that. I only know the song part.
Your songs do have a common thread. Many of them are emotional.
Yeah. So, in the right scenario, they could be used. I have no idea of how that would work.
Are we ever going to hear another version of “Blame It On The Rain?” It was a #1 record worldwide for Milli Vanilli in 1989 before the lip-syncing scandal broke.
That’s an interesting question. I don’t feel any guilt about (the Milli Vanilli scandal). I think it’s one of my best songs. In fact, Fantasia and Sam Moore did a cool version of that song on his record. But, I think there’s another life to that song. Milli Vanilli is kind of hip again, again. Those records were great. My reaction (when I heard they didn’t sing on their records) was whoever singing is really good. Too bad he wasn’t onstage. I’m still proud of the song. Proud of the work on the record. Lip-synching was more prevalent in Europe than here. But I guess when you win Best New Artist at the Grammys, you probably should be singing. It’s not good when the tape stops in the middle (of a performance).
[Milli Vanilli was a pop/dance music project formed by Frank Farian in Germany in 1988, fronted by Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus. The group's debut album “Girl You Know It’s True” achieved earned them a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1990.. However, their Grammy was quickly revoked after it was revealed that the vocals on the album were not the voices of Morvan and Pilatus. In 1998, Pilatus was found dead in a Frankfurt hotel of an apparent drug overdose.]
You wrote "I Wish That" for Israeli president Shimon Peres’ Center for Peace. Performed by Elliott Yamin and Liel Kolet, it was the grand finale song for the “Believe Concert” in Tel Aviv in 2008.
It was amazing to do that for the president of Israel. Shimon Peres. He’s a lovely man. I was asked to write something with the president in mind. But then I thought, “I have a really great song that fits better than anything I could write.” They loved it. It was really a great experience.
Did you feel Jewish being there.
Yes. I felt very Jewish. Very proud.
The last time you went to Israel you were almost arrested.
I was 15. I went there with a bunch of Jewish children of which I was one. We smoked hash when we were there. The night before (leaving Israel) a bunch of kids got high. We carried the hash pipes in my guitar case. I said, “Make sure you throw the (pipes) out before we get to the airport.” And they didn’t. I kind of remember being stripped-searched (at the airport).
With "I Wish That” you didn’t have the pressure trying to create a hit single.
Well, I had written it already. I would like to think that, everything I write, hopefully, will be a hit. There’s always pressure on me to write something great. I have never sat down and thought I’m writing something for the charts. I want to write hits but I am also trying to write something that I love too.
Did your parents live to see your success?
My father lived to see some of it. He went to the Golden Globes with me for “Rhythm of the Night.” He wrote out my acceptance speech on a napkin. He did. It was cute. But I didn’t win. My mom lived to see a lot of stuff (in my career).
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.