“I’m always doing something,” Diane Warren tells me via phone from her office at Realsongs, the music publishing empire she presides over in Los Angeles. In Warren’s case, “something” refers to cranking out a seemingly endless string of mega-pop smashes across the musical stratosphere. Since her ascent to songwriting superstardom in the early 1980s, Warren has had over 100 songs in the Billboard charts — hits she penned for artists such as Aerosmith, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Joss Stone, Celine Dion, Eric Clapton, and the list goes on.
With a seemingly clairvoyant sense of the monster chorus, and a penchant for old-school keyboard and recording gear, the Grammy Award-winning (as well as Academy and Golden Globe Award-nominated) Warren continues to craft her unique brand of power pop for some of today’s most sought after acts. Whitney Houston, Madonna, Sean Kingston, Akon, Carolina Liar, Due Voci, Slash, and Jennifer Hudson are just some of the artists she has written for of late. Warren will also begin nurturing the next generation of recording artists, cultivating acts for her new Atlantic Records-distributed label, Dinamic.
One of the things that struck me immediately about your gear list is how decidedly old-school it is. You use a lot of ’80s and ’90s synths, but your sound is always fresh.
Yeah, I am pretty old-school. I still use my Yamaha DX7 from, like, 25 years ago. I don’t need a lot. I have some cool drum machines because I like to have cool beats sometimes to write with. I’m not in the world that everybody else is in, in terms of the technology.
But isn’t that the point? Having 10,000 presets on a keyboard is meaningless if you don’t have a story to tell, or a song to move people with.
Exactly. Something simple. It’s about the song. I still write on cassette tapes! I actually have a couple of Sony Walkmen here. That’s fine with me. I have two fully-functional, amazing studios here, and we don’t use cassettes in there [laughs]. But for what I do, at least I know it’s going to be there. If it’s something digital, it might not be there. You can have something that’s a great idea, and it gets lost. You’re like, “Yikes!” But I can take a cassette anywhere and I know it will work.
Many people probably look at you and think you’ve had a nonstop stream of success, but the truth is that you refused to take no for an answer. Is that a lesson to people starting out in this sometimes brutal business?
I’ve been doing this since I was 14 years old. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and that theory of having 10,000 hours of experience in something. I’m like the poster girl for that — someone getting good at their craft by putting all those hours in. It took me a long time to make a living doing this. But if you give up, it’s never going to happen. That’s what it comes down to.
In this day and age, with the music business having changed so much from what it used to be, how would a person mount a career as a songwriter? With radio play and music publishing deals so elusive . . .
Honestly, it was never easy when I did it. I’m from Van Nuys [a bedroom community of Los Angeles] and there was no one in the music industry in my family. My Dad was an insurance man, my Mom a housewife. To come from that, then to go knock on publishers’ doors and do whatever I had to do to get my songs heard — I mean, that wasn’t easy. In this business, whether you’re a musician or an actor — anything in the arts is highly competitive. It’s always hard, and it’s probably harder today, because of the economy, to get a deal. But the fact is, it was never easy. So you’ve got to keep trying. You’ve got to just keep knocking on doors — kicking doors down. And you’ve got to be excellent at your craft. Good isn’t good enough. You’ve got to be great.
Are there any songwriters today that are blowing you away?
I’m always checking things out, more on a song-by-song basis. Probably the last artist that just blew me away was Prince. I mean — right? He has everything. He writes the words and music by himself. He’s an amazing performer, singer, musician, just the whole package. Sometimes today, I’ll hear something I really like, whether that’s a band or a song. But to me, the overall level of songwriting on the charts these days is not what it was. I do get inspired from a lot of the beats I hear in music today. I’ll think, “Ah, what if you take those kind of beats and that kind of vibe, and have that be the rhythm track of a great song, instead of someone rapping about going to a club.” You know what I mean?
One thing about accomplished songwriters is their willingness to experiment — so sometimes a verse becomes a chorus and vice versa. Are you always changing things up until the very end?
Yeah, but that being said, when I feel something is great, I’m not going to overthink it and rewrite it ten times. I’m willing to experiment, but I usually know when I have a good chorus. That’s usually what comes first for me.
You’re known for your ability to write across a multitude of styles. Pop, rock, R&B, Latin, and so on. Is that just the idea that a great song should be able to work in any style?
I think it’s two things. For instance, take a song like Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing.” A great song can be a country record, or an Aerosmith record, or a dance record — all of which that song was. So a great song should transcend the genre, but it also should transcend the time period in which it was written.
The second thing is that I had a lot of influences growing up. I had my Mom and Dad playing show tunes in the house, and my sister playing Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the Beatles. And then there was top-40 radio, which truly was a mix of everything. And what all those songs had in common was that they were all hits. So I got fed a diet of really great stuff. The level of writing when I grew up — if you look at the top ten in 1967, just randomly — most of those songs are still around today. Whether it’s the Beatles, or Motown, or Burt Bacharach, just in terms of craft, that was the heyday. I was lucky enough to grow up during that time.
In our February issue, the songwriter Mika related a conversation he had with Paul Anka about how some of the most successful songwriters are the least accomplished piano players.
That’s an interesting thing. I think when you’re not really a trained musician — like me, who’s not trained at all — you don’t know what you’re doing “wrong.” You don’t know the difference, so you do what you do because you like it.
I remember a long time ago I wrote a song called “Blame It on the Rain” for Milli Vanilli. I had changed keys in a weird way, and the guitar player came in and said, “You can’t do that!” That song actually goes up a half-step in the verse, and if you were a trained musician, you’d probably say, “What the f*** is that?” And literally when I wrote it, my hand slipped — so it was an accident, but I liked it so much I kept it in!
Warren’s Writing Rig
• Akai MPC2000XL drum machine and Z4 sampler
• Ensoniq ESQ-1 synthesizer
• Korg M3R and EX-8000 sound modules,
• Kurzweil PC88 digital piano
• Roland JV-880, D-550, and MKS-20 sound modules
• Yamaha Motif XS6 workstation and vintage DX7 synth
DAW of Choice
• Apple Logic Pro 9
Software Instruments and Sound Libraries
• Arturia Analog Factory
• Best Service Titan
• EastWest Stormdrum 1 and 2
• IK Multimedia SampleTank 2, Miroslav Philharmonic, and Sonik Synth 2
• MOTU BPM, Ethno, and Symphonic
• Musiclab RealGuitar 2 and RealStrat
• Native Instruments Komplete 6 and Maschine
• ReFX Vanguard
• Rob Papen Predator and SubBoom Bass
• Spectrasonics Omnisphere
• Vienna Symphonic Library
• XLN Audio Addictive Drums