Interview with songwriter DIANE WARREN - May 9, 2005
'The World’s Most Successful Songwriter'
… is a frequent claim of Diane Warren few would argue with. Her roster of songwriting credits speaks for itself: Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Elton John, Tina Turner, LeAnn Rimes, Toni Braxton, ‘N Sync, Britney Spears, Cher, Christina Aguilera, Faith Hill, Mariah Carey, Reba McEntire, Aerosmith, Ginuwine, Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Roberta Flack, The Cult, Sugababes, Roy Orbison, Gloria Estefan, Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, Daniel Bedingfield, Uncle Kracker, Ace Of Base, Trisha Yearwood and more… Diane’s songs have also been featured in over 100 motion pictures.
In this exclusive interview with HitQuarters read about her journey from first guitar to her first No.1, her songwriting process, and what advice she has for aspiring songwriters.
Did you attend any music schools before you established yourself as a songwriter?
I went to college for a few semesters but mostly learned my musical skills on my own. I started writing on a guitar that my father gave to me for getting straight As and Bs in school one semester. After I got the guitar, the grades went back to ‘bad’.
All I wanted to do was play the guitar and write songs. I had a little shed in my back yard that I lived in, practiced in and wrote in. I had everyone I could find listen to my songs; neighbours, friends, family, strangers, cats or dogs. I wasn’t choosy.
What artists/songwriters have influenced your writing?
When I was young my dad got me a subscription to Billboard Magazine. I read every song listing and the writers of the songs and memorized them. I read every liner note on every album and listened to the radio non-stop.
The Brill Building writers, David and Bacharach, The Beatles, Motown; everything influenced me. I knew that I wanted to be a writer when I was very young and my love of music and hunger for knowledge of music just went with that.
How were you discovered?
My dad took me around to meetings with publishers so that I could play my songs. Eventually I met Jack White who signed me to a publishing deal. ‘Rhythm of the Night’ by DeBarge was my first No.1 song that I wrote alone.
Jack and I had a lengthy lawsuit over my copyrights, during which time I couldn’t sign to a major publishing company. I started Realsongs and held all my copyrights. That lawsuit was a blessing in disguise because I now own all of my songs.
What instrument do you use to compose? Do you use a computer in the writing process?
I’m not computer literate at all. I write in a room that hasn’t been cleaned in 20 years, on an old torn up stool, with keyboards, various drum machines, and a small tape recorder.
I write my lyrics out longhand and give them to someone else to type for me. I also compose on the guitar from time to time.
To what extent do you use other musicians on demos?
I do demos in many different ways. I use several producers who also work differently. The songs are programmed and then we pick a vocalist to sing the demo that works for the song, and then sometimes we use live musicians. I like my demos to be as close as possible to how I think the record should sound.
A lot of time is spent on perfecting the demo before an artist hears it. There are a lot of times when the song is never demoed. If an artist comes to see me and I have a new song that I can play for them on my piano or guitar, that song might go directly to production with that artist.
When you play a song to an artist, does it have a full arrangement and a production at that stage?
Each song is different. Sometimes I like the song to be a piano demo, to showcase the song, and other songs are full production demos.
Do you ever participate directly in the work of the producer?
I work very closely with my producers. I hear the song at every stage and we discuss how to improve the sound of the demo. I am very hands-on with the singers. I like my songs to be sung as I wrote them. That would make me the “melody police”, as I am affectionately called.
When one of my songs goes to outside-production, the producer will most likely call me for my opinion before they lay down the tracks. I appreciate the respect that those producers give to me and my song, and to getting the finished product right.
Do you ever disagree with the direction a producer is taking a particular song?
Usually this happens when one of my songs is produced and I don’t hear it until it’s mixed and mastered. If I don’t like the production, it’s too late to make changes. That makes me crazy. If the producer asks for my opinion, they usually take my direction and make the changes that I ask for.
Do you ever write with certain artists in mind?
I don’t write a song with an artist in mind. I just try to write a great song. The only time that I would write a song for something specific is for a film. I read the script or see the movie and write a song that specifically works for the film.
When you receive requests from an artist do you check if you have a suitable song in stock, or do you start writing something new with them in mind?
After I’ve written a song, an artist usually comes to mind. It’s natural for me to have an artist come in and find a song that I’ve written is perfect for what they need. That’s the ideal. The artist sits with me, hears the song and just feels it. Then it becomes their song.
Do you ever write in collaboration with an artist?
I don’t co-write as a rule, but I have done as exceptions. Most recently I set up a writing session with Daniel Bedingfield and he ended up hearing a song that I wrote by myself and recorded it. I prefer to write alone but I will look at each situation.
Your songs often deal with relationships, and people can easily recognize themselves in those situations. What importance do you attach to the lyrics in regards to popular music?
Lyrics are critical to a good song. There are songs that have a feel that become hits, even though the lyrics are not great. But I prefer to hear a lyric that moves me in some way. Not that I don’t enjoy songs that are beat-driven and not lyric-driven. The songs that last, the standards, have a perfect marriage of lyrics and music. Those are the songs that stay around for years and years.
Do you let the rhythm of the melody be the foundation to the lyrics, or do you write songs from the words?
I write in many different ways. Sometimes I start with a title, and then I build a chorus. The verses come after the chorus, and then the bridge. I write the lyrics and the music simultaneously. They sometimes just come together naturally, and at other times I work very hard at crafting the perfect lyric for the melody.
I am meticulous with every word and every chord that I use. My writing is very intuitive at first, but then I use my experience to fine-tune and craft the song so that it will be the best it can be. I want every song I write to be a potential hit, and that is my criteria.
How much time do you generally spend working on a song?
I can usually finish a song in a week. I put a lot into every note and every lyric, until it is perfect.
Is the ability to write top-chart songs something that can be technically learnt by practicing, or do you need a genuine love for the music to be a successful songwriter?
There are some writers who learnt how to write and then became successful, and others who just knew that they were songwriters and wrote songs. Both are credible. I knew that I was a songwriter when I was little and I was driven to be successful at that skill all of my life.
School wouldn’t have been helpful to me except for learning piano chord skills for writing. I still don’t read music.
Besides building a song around a strong melody, how important is form, and the way that a song is structured?
I usually write with verse, chorus, verse, bridge and chorus. Sometimes the structure of my song changes according to the feel of the song. Sometimes it just feels right to change the structure to make the song work.
Phrasing is really important to how a melody is experienced. Do you usually have specific tempos in mind to best suit certain songs?
I set the tempo with a beat when I begin a song. The phrasing of my lyrics and melody are very important to me. Every word and its phrasing is well thought out, and is critical to the song. When the song is demoed and the singer puts their voice to it, I am adamant about the phrasing being correct.
Sometimes you deal with a more complex harmonic structure than most 10-top hits. Can harmonic richness be an obstacle to reaching a wide audience?
I don’t think so. It needs to sound simple even if it isn’t, that’s the key - or key change, as it may be.
How have your writing skills developed through the years?
As with anything, experience and practice make your skills more proficient. I’ve worked at songwriting for many years and I hope that with each song I write I get better and better at my skill.
As a top-chart songwriter, what requirements do you have for an artist wanting to use a song written by you? Say an artist asks to use a song as a single, is it usual for a successful writer to request that more songs are used on the album on which the single is featured?
Not necessarily. I always love to have multiple songs on any album, but having the single is the ideal. There are no rules as to how many songs are on an album if a songwriter has the single.
How does your publishing company work?
We don’t have any other writers in the catalogue but me. The company is exclusive to my songs. We actively work the catalogue for artists both domestically and internationally, for TV, film and for commercials.
Which artists do you work with at the moment?
I am always working with a lot of artists. I am currently working with Gavin DeGraw, JoJo, American Idol, Macy Gray, Anita Baker among other US artists, a bunch of amazing UK artists including Jamelia, Sugababes, Daniel and Natasha Bedingfield, and Il Divo.
I have a No.1 album in Australia with Anthony Callea, a compilation of Love Songs on Warner Brothers in Southeast Asia that has gone top 5 in Japan.
I am working with a ton of new artists and am developing a couple of artists of my own. I also have a couple a major movies in progress that I have written the title songs for. My studios are always full and I am always working on something new.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of songwriting itself? What is important to know/think about, and what are the usual mistakes committed?
I’m not sure how to comment on general mistakes, but I can say that songwriting is a skill and takes practice, patience, and perseverance. There is a lot of rejection in the songwriting business so a new songwriter has to believe in him/herself and stick with it.
Always know the market and be objective about your songs. I have been blessed with many, many hit songs but I have worked very hard at what I do to make sure that my songs are heard. Never take ‘no’ for an answer.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters, with regards to publishing contracts?
First, make sure you have a good lawyer before you sign anything. My advice would be to keep as much of your publishing as possible.
Have you ever wanted to become an artist yourself?
No. People tell me that I should but I just want to write songs and get them out so that people can hear them. I don’t think that I am a great singer, but I can get my songs across.
Which albums to you consider as your greatest credits?
I love all of my releases. I guess the obvious albums would be Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, LeAnn Rimes, Toni Braxton; but I am equally as proud of my work with ‘N Sync, Cher, Christina Aguilera, Faith Hill, Mariah Carey, Reba McIntire, The Cult, Aerosmith, Sugababes, Ginuwine, Mary J. Blige, and Aaliyah, among a lot of other artists.
Read Diane Warren’s Biography
Interviewed by Anders Hellquist
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