By Emmanuel Legrand
Diane Warren is a hit factory. She’s some sort of modern version of the Brill Building, except that she is the sole songwriter in the building.
Since her first hit – ‘Solitaire’ performed by Laura Branigan in 1983 – she has penned over 1,000 songs and scored more hits in the Billboard charts than any other living songwriter.
She is not always the subtlest songwriter, but she sure has an ability to come with efficient choruses and melodies. ‘I Don't Want to Miss a Thing’, which she wrote for Aerosmith, or Toni Braxton’s ‘Un-break My Heart’, sum up her style pretty well, even though she is hard to pigeonhole.
The usually media-shy Warren will be part of Midem 2011’s International Music Publishing Summit, where she will be interviewed in Cannes by former Billboard editor Tamara Conniff, founder of the Comet web site.
Warren is in an interesting place: she is a very much demand songwriter in a world where, thanks to (or because of…) TV-reality shows, there is a need for good, solid songs to be performed by the aspiring ‘stars’ but also to established artists, searching for hit material. And that’s what she can deliver.
The other characteristic is that she is not interested in the least in the limelight. She is content with her role in the background, and does not aspire to be a performer of her own songs.
She is also an astute businesswoman. She owns her copyrights through her company Realsongs, but it has not always been so. When she started, she made a deal with a publisher on terms that were not very favourable to her. When success started to kick in, she asked for the deal to be revised, but it was not to happen. So she decided to sue and fly on her own, and ever since, she’s owned her songs.
As editor of music publishing magazine Impact, which unfortunately stopped in 2009, I had the pleasure to interview her in her offices in Los Angeles in 2008. She appeared as extremely relaxed, witty and totally unfazed by celebrity. And like many of her peers, she is absolutely unable to explain what makes someone talented, and how songs come to fruition. So that remains one of the great mysteries of creativity...
Below you will find the interview in its full version.
(This Q&A was originally published in Impact’s issue 2, Spring 2008)
Diane Warren’s magical world
Diane Warren has had more hits in the past 20 years than any other living songwriter – 90 ‘Billboard’ top ten hits, 38 of which went to No.1, out of a catalogue of over 1,000 songs. Yet, if the American songwriter is a reference in the business, she is hardly known by the general public. She relishes this lack of celebrity attention, which allows her to concentrate on what she does best – writing hit songs for artists ranging from Whitney Houston to Aerosmith and Britney Spears.
At the end of 2007, after years with EMI Music Publishing, her company Realsongs switched allegiances and signed with Sony/ATV Music Publishing in an administration deal for the world outside North America.
These days, she mostly works from Realsongs’ Hollywood offices located in the same building as the Los Angeles School of Film, where the notoriously media-shy Warren met with Emmanuel Legrand for an earnest interview.
Q: In 1998, EMI Music Publishing in the UK put out a six-CD box-set of your works. If you were to do that today, how many CDs would be needed? Twelve?
Diane Warren: Probably more!
Q: How can you be so prolific?
A: Because I don’t have a life. This is what I do. I’m starting to get a life though…I am trying anyway. I am a workaholic and I’ve been obsessed with writing songs since I was 14 years old.
Q: How did you get into publishing? Was it because you wanted to own your copyright?
A: It was kind of an accident. I was signed to a man named Jack White, a German producer and publisher who was working with Laura Branigan and David Hasselhoff (smiles). I guess I made some money on that…kind of funny. I was signed to Jack, he was producing Laura Branigan and she was the first artist to perform my songs [‘Solitaire’ in 1983]. Later, we had a dispute and we were in a lawsuit together. At that time I had a couple of hits, nothing really huge, but good hits like ‘Rhythm of the Night’ [for DeBarge in 1986]. After that a lot of people wanted to sign me and my deal with Jack was really not a good deal. I wanted to sign with other publishers but because of the deal, I couldn’t. My lawyer at the time said to me, “You have to keep your publishing.” And I was like, ‘why?’ (smiles). I wouldn’t say ‘why?’ now. My lawsuit settled, and I wrote a couple of songs that were big hits and that I owned, and I never looked back.
“I have been offered staggering amounts of money for my company but I would not sell it.”
Q: And now you have probably one of the most important and valuable self-owned catalogues.
A: My catalogue is huge and just keeps earning, and I have new songs recorded all the time. Many songs in my catalogue are constantly recorded or licensed. There’s all this new activity for catalogue songs and it’s pretty exciting. It’s like real estate that keeps going up and up. And these are all songs that I have been writing by myself. I have been offered staggering amounts of money for my company but I would not sell it. These are my songs and obviously I don’t need the money.
Q: In the first issue of Impact, [Sony/ATV Music Publishing CEO] Marty Bandier said that you looked after your songs as if they were your babies. The two of you go back a long way, don’t you?
A: Yes, I was at EMI [Music Publishing] for years and when he left, there was no reason for me to really stay there.
Q: So, Sony/ATV will now administer Realsongs for the world outside North America. What do you expect from that deal?
A: I would hope to get more activities on the songs, although we do pretty well already around the world. You know, whatever they do, I just hope they pay me… (laughs) I trust Marty, we have history – history is a good thing. He’s cool.
Q: You wanted to be a songwriter from a very early age, but always stayed away from the limelight. Usually, you would expect people who want to be in the music business to relish it.
A: I never did. I never wanted to be in the limelight. I never wanted to be a performer. For me it was always about wanting to be that little name on the record sleeve. When I was buying 45rpm records, I was always looking at the centre of the record and looking at the names. That’s what I wanted to be, that’s what I aspired to.
Q: A lot of songwriters want to be the performers of their songs…
A: I don’t. (smiles)
Q: Have you tried?
A: No. I might do a record for the hell of it, just to do one, but I’ve never wanted to be a recording artist. I think you’ve got to do what you are good at.
Q: So what inspired you to be a songwriter?
A: I was inspired by a lot of different people like the Brill Building writers and The Beatles, but mostly I was inspired by the radio. I grew up in the 60s and to me that was the prime period for pop song writing. You had Motown, The Beatles, Burt Bacharach; all these people at their prime and there were so many great songs to have as an influence.
Q: You cover a huge variety of styles.
A: I love writing lots of different songs in many different genres. I guess growing up I heard so many different styles of music. When I first started to listen to music, I heard everything, and I’ve always been a sponge, taking on board all these different influences. I was lucky to grow up in such a fertile musical time. My parents had a lot of records at home so I had a well-rounded musical education as a listener.
“[Songwriting is] a mysterious process for me, so I don’t even like to think about it. I can’t really analyse it, because it’s magical.”
Q: And how about your education as a musician?
A: I wasn’t educated at all, I’m self-taught. I don’t know how to notate music. I don’t do scores, I write songs. I had one theory class but I didn’t pay attention to it. But I know chords, I can find my way around. I kind of taught myself, really.
Q: So how does it work?
A: I don’t know. Sometimes I sit at the keyboard and play a chord progression or sometimes I start with a title or sometimes with the lyrics. It’s always different. It’s a mysterious process for me, so I don’t even like to think about it. I can’t really analyse it, because it’s magical.
Q: You said somewhere that you would advise aspiring songwriters to start with a publisher. Why?
A: Just look at what I did: I was a ‘nobody’ and I might have had a bad publishing deal but in all truth, I did not deserve a huge deal because I hadn’t proven myself, right? Part of the issue I had with my deal is that when I proved myself, my publisher was not ready to work that out. I probably paid back his investment a million times, but that’s not the point. The point is that in the beginning, you need someone, you need a champion, so if there’s a publisher who believes in you, just do it, because you cannot get through the doors that a publisher can get into. It does not hurt to have a publisher who is excited about you, who’s willing to break down walls for you. As time goes by and you earn money and you become successful, yes, you are in a position where you can own your copyright.
Q: Do you sign other writers to your company?
A: No, we don’t. This is all about me. (laughs)
Q: And why is that?
A: Because I have so many songs…that’s why I got into it. I want to own my own songs; I don’t want to own other people’s catalogue or songs. I’d feel bad. They can keep their own songs. It’s not where my heart is. It’s about my music.
Q: When it comes to licensing your music, are there any brands or products you would not like to see your songs associated with?
A: I don’t think I’d let my songs be used for cigarettes. I wouldn’t do anything for any products that harm animals, that’s where I would draw the line.
Q: Have you ever created songs for specific ads?
A: No, I’ve never done anything like that. But I’d be open for the right thing.
Q: The list of the people who have sung your songs is quite staggering. Do you pick them or do they pick you?
A: There’s a lot of different ways. If I have a song that I feel is right for somebody I will call them. Some will call me. It could come from a manager, a label. If I think a song is great for Daniel Powter, I call the manager, and if he comes over and he does the song, it’s great. Or Lenny Kravitz, or whoever. I’m not shy about calling someone if I think I have the right song for them.
Q: Have you written for artists who have specifically asked you to do so?
A: Yes, I have but mainly I do not write for somebody [in particular]. I wrote a song for Meat Loaf and I wrote a song for Whitney’s new record, her comeback album. A great song, I think, and I wrote it specifically for her. At times I do that, but most of the time I just try to write great songs. If I write a great song, it can be done in lots of different ways, as opposed to writing for one artist, or one style. That’s why my songs are so open – they can be country songs, rock songs or dance songs.
Q: You do have a lot of songs in movies, like recently in ‘American Gangster’. How does it happen?
A: I am usually contacted by someone from the studio. For ‘American Gangster’ it was [Universal Pictures president of film music] Kathy Nelson with whom I’ve done a lot of movies such as ‘Coyote Ugly’, the Aerosmith song for ‘Armageddon’, and ‘Pearl Harbor’. It’s always good to work with her because she knows what she wants. Movies are really hard because there are too many opinions. I call them commidiots, you know, a committee of idiots, because there’s just too many people. Nothing good is done by committee.
Q: Do you isolate yourself from the world of record labels?
A: No, I’m not isolated. I deal with people from record companies. I deal with artists. I am very hands-on in my music but I don’t say I am just a songwriter and I can’t do business. I do both.
Q: What current projects are you involved in?
A: Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson, Daniel Powter, Lenny Kravitz, Faith Hill, Pussycat Dolls, and several new artists.
Q: Céline Dion?
A: I wasn’t really interested.
Q: Someone told me that she asked for a cut on publishing to those who supplied her with songs.
A: Yes, they did ask for a cut on publishing. I don’t think it’s right when people do that. I didn’t give them any but I know they got it from some other people. I think it is so wrong.
Q: Are there any artists you have never written for and you’d like to?
A: Probably people I haven’t met yet. I’ve been lucky enough, and I’m currently lucky enough to have worked with some great artists. I always wanted to work with some of the greats, but there’s always someone new to work with. I love great singers, great voices, so there’s probably a great voice out there that I don’t know yet that’s going to knock me out and for whom I will have to write a song for. That’s what’s so exciting – there’s always someone new to write for and maybe my song is the one that’s gonna give them the chance to have a huge hit and become a star, and I could say I was there right from the beginning, and then they’ll go, “Diane who?” (laughs)