We’ve Got A File On You: Diane Warren
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Diane Warren is a songwriting legend. She’s had a hand in innumerable pop hits over the past 35 years, working across multiple genres of popular music with absolute ease. Her music has iconically soundtracked films in which asteroids hurtle towards Earth and men fall in love with department store mannequins. She’s written for tons of pop megastars — Céline, Gaga, Britney, and plenty other artists you can identify with only one name.
The 64-year-old songwriter’s list of accomplishments runs so long that it’s literally impossible to keep track of everything she’s done. Throughout our chat, Warren regularly reminds me of this while mentioning that she has trouble remembering what she did a week ago, much less 15 years previous. When I bring up her appearance on Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s cultishly beloved reality TV show The Simple Life, she questions whether it even happened at all. “Are you sure I did that?” she asks genuinely.
But the details Warren provides about her songwriting approach — leavened with self-deprecation and amazement at the life she herself has led — are sharp and fascinating, providing a look into the mind of an artist who’s always defied genre well before pop itself became genreless. Driving that home is her first proper album, Diane Warren: The Cave Sessions Vol. 1, a multifarious affair featuring artists ranging from Ty Dolla $ign and Carlos Santana to G-Eazy and Celine Dion. “I’m looking at this album as a microcosm of my career, really,” she says. “I’ve been in so many different genres, and there’s not a lot of people who do what I do. I hop around a lot, always have — and I’ve always been lucky to work with a wide variety of artists who wanted to record songs I wrote. So this record is a microcosm of that.”
Laura Branigan – “Solitaire” (1983)
STEREOGUM: Your Wikipedia says this was your first charting hit.
DIANE WARREN: I know this was technically my first top-10 hit, but I don’t consider it like that. I wrote the English lyrics to it — it was originally a French song that Laura was doing. That wasn’t my breakthrough song, necessarily — that happened two years later with “Rhythm Of The Night.”
STEREOGUM: What are some other times over the years in which you’ve encountered misconceptions about your career and work?
WARREN: I don’t know what peoples’ perceptions are. I remember meeting John Singleton years ago and he was shocked that I was white. [Laughs] That’s a misconception that comes to mind.
DeBarge – “Rhythm Of The Night” (1985)
WARREN: I’d just gotten my first drum machine — I think it was a Linn. I remember turning the drums on, I must’ve programmed it myself. I was just trying to mess around with it and I came up with that song. There were songs like Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” at the time, and I wanted to write something that was cool and fun too. That was my first big movie song, too, for The Last Dragon. It was cool.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about the time leading up to this as a songwriter — cutting your teeth and finding your own voice and style.
WARREN: I’d always been writing songs. I’d been obsessed with songwriting since I was 14, and probably before that, too. It was a lot of years of knocking on doors and trying to see publishers with no luck. It felt good to have something that broke through. That was an amazing time and opportunity, and the door opened up a crack — and I’m somebody who, when the door opens up a crack, I’ll kick it in.
STEREOGUM: You won your first real award — an ASCAP Pop Award — off of this, too. You’d go on to win a few of those.
WARREN: I won Publisher Of The Year a few times too, because I was the only person at my publishing company. I can’t remember things that happen three weeks ago, and, fuck, [winning for “Rhythm Of The Night”] was a long time ago.
STEREOGUM: How did it feel?
WARREN: I mean, it wasn’t like winning a Grammy. A lot of people get those ASCAP awards. But it was cool to be recognized, and it was cool to hear the song on the radio. I still haven’t won an Oscar, by the way. Twelve times nominated. [Laughs] I don’t usually win things. But I’m happy to be nominated. It’s amazing. But I remember with “Rhythm Of The Night,” driving down Sunset and turning to the radio stations and hearing it on all of them at the same time. That was fuckin’ cool.
Starship – “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (1987)
STEREOGUM: Speaking of Oscar nominations, this was your first one.
WARREN: I did that song with my friend Albert Hammond. It was funny that my first Oscar-nominated song was for a movie about a guy fucking a mannequin. [Laughs] Which is what it is. It became one of those classic movies — it’s campy, and I love the movie, actually. But we wrote the song, and it got nominated, which was really cool. It was a great feeling. It’s still one of those classic records, too.
STEREOGUM: Of all the Oscar nominations you’ve garnered so far, did any losses particularly sting?
WARREN: There was a couple of times. There’s some times that you know — like, when I was up against Titanic with “How Do I Live” — that you’re not gonna win. But when I wrote “Because You Loved Me” and I didn’t win that year, that was disappointing. “Til It Happens To You” really hurt, because everybody was saying that was gonna win. The performance with all the sexual assault survivors on that stage, and [Lady Gaga]’s vocals, I honestly don’t know how she hit those notes. People in the audience were sobbing, and then it went to commercial, and it came back and they were like, “The winner is…” And we were all like, “It’s gonna be this song.” And it wasn’t. That hurt, I remember that. And this year I lost again. [Laughs] But it’s all good.
The people that nominate you are the best of the best, within the music branch of the Academy. They’re the best fucking songwriters and composers alive on the planet. When there’s hundreds of songs in movies every year and only five [nominations] — unlike the Grammys, where there’s lots of song categories — if you’re lucky enough, and I’ve been lucky enough to be nominated 12 times, that’s a win. But I usually lose things. I won one Grammy 25 years ago for “Because You Loved Me.” A lot of people have won Grammys singing my songs, but that’s their award, as it should be. I didn’t sing it. [Laughs]
Milli Vanilli – “Blame It On The Rain” (1989)
STEREOGUM: Speaking of people singing their own songs…
WARREN: [Laughs] The guy who sang on it, John Davis, just passed away. He sang it great. I don’t think any of us knew who was singing at the time, it was just something I gave to Clive [Davis]. But I’m proud of the song, it’s one of my favorites. The whole album is great. I loved that era. The song has the weirdest key change too, because my hand slipped [while writing it] and I went up a half-step. I ended up keeping it.
STEREOGUM: You wrote a song for Rob and Fab afterwards too. What was it like watching the entire Milli Vanilli saga unfold from a songwriter’s point of view?
WARREN: I don’t remember much of it, I was just giving songs to Clive. I met [Milli Vanilli producer] Frank Farian later, too. I had the #1 and #2 songs at the time when “Blame It On The Rain” came out, the other one was Bad English’s “When I See You Smile” — both songs I wrote myself. Then they switched positions. That was a good month.
STEREOGUM: Being able to rattle off accomplishments like these — is it ever surreal for you?
WARREN: You want to know what’s surreal? Last year, Ringo Starr asked me for a song and I gave him “Here’s To The Nights.” I had a whole vision for it where I wanted him to get his old and new friends — and his old friend, in my mind, was Paul McCartney. And it happened! I have two Beatles singing my song. Does it ever get old? No. [Laughs] It’s great. It’s pretty fuckin’ cool. The little kid in me that idolized the Beatles, that will never be not cool. And there was a lot of other people on that song too — Chris Stapleton, Sheryl Crow, Lenny Kravitz. It was a cool record, but it was really cool that there were two Beatles on there. It’s never not gonna blow my mind.
Russell Hitchcock – “Swear To Your Heart” (1990)
WARREN: No one asks me about this song. [Laughs] I vaguely remember the song. I’d done songs for Air Supply at the time. This must’ve been for a solo album on Arista, right? Or was it for the movie Anaconda?
STEREOGUM: Arachnophobia — and it’s one of the only songs on the soundtrack that isn’t about spiders.
WARREN: Well, spiders have hearts.
STEREOGUM: That’s true. You’ve done a lot of songs that appear on soundtracks. How often do you write those songs with the specific intention of them appearing in movies?
WARREN: When I write songs for movies, I usually see a rough cut or a draft of the script first. Wanna hear a funny story? I wrote “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” for Armageddon, and years later the director of The Sweetest Thing wanted to see me because they’d spent all of this money shooting a scene where they used “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing.” He was scared because it was a scene where Selma Blair was giving a blowjob to somebody, and [Laughs] he had a cock ring on, and it gets caught in her throat.
So she needed a song to sing [to get it out of her throat], so they used “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing.” It ended up being a big sing-a-long, and I guess they thought I wasn’t gonna say it was OK. Shit, of course I think it’s OK! I wish I was in the group singing along to it. That was some random thing that no one’s ever asked me about, so I figured I’d tell you about it.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever see The Sweetest Thing?
WARREN: I did, and I had a special reason to see it. I loved that movie. It’s a good song to sing when something like that happens too.
Meat Loaf – Welcome To The Neighborhood (1995)
WARREN: A lot of times, I write a song just to write a great song, but I did write those songs for Meat Loaf. “I’d Lie For You (And That’s The Truth)” is very Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman-esque, may he rest in peace. Meat Loaf is all about larger-than-life drama with that big voice. It was cool to work with him, that was the first time I had.
KISS – “Nothing Can Keep Me From You” (1999)
WARREN: That was the first outside [written] song that KISS had done. Same with Aerosmith, who had also covered “Come Together,” but that’s a Beatles song. I’m friends with Paul Stanley and he asked me to do the song. He and Gene both loved it. I love that I get to jump into a bunch of different worlds with these songs. They’re like passports.
STEREOGUM: You’ve worked with a few rock bands over the years.
WARREN: I’ve always been in a lot of different genres. I worked with Cheap Trick, RATT, Alice Cooper, all those people in that era — what, the ‘80s? I’ve always been in R&B and pop too. The key to my longevity is that I’m not just known for one style of music. I can jump around and swim in a lot of different oceans.
STEREOGUM: As a songwriter, when it comes to just listening to music for fun, what are your go-tos?
WARREN: I don’t go home and listen to music because I’m doing music all day. But in the daytime, I need to stay current and know what’s going on. So driving home, I have the radio on. But I can’t listen like a normal person — I’m always analyzing everything. I listen to classical music sometimes when I’m driving to the beach on a Sunday. It’s something different to hear that’s just beautiful.
Britney Spears – “When Your Eyes Say It” (2000)
WARREN: It was cool to write for her. I’d hoped it would’ve been released as a single. Was that for her second album or third?
WARREN: She was the biggest artist in the world at the time. Look, when anybody does my songs, I think it’s great. That whole Christina Aguilera, N*SYNC, Backstreet Boys era — I was doing songs for all of them too. I love that era.
STEREOGUM: Have you been following the news regarding Britney Spears’ conservatorship?
WARREN: Yeah. I hope she gets out of all the shitty stuff that she’s in. Seems like she’s making progress.
Getting A Star On The Hollywood Walk Of Fame (2001)
WARREN: The whole thing was surreal. I used to hitchhike there as a kid and get into trouble. [Laughs] It was cool. My mom got to see that — my dad had been gone for a while. Someone right now is walking over me or shitting on me, as we’re speaking. [Laughs] And my star has a giant crack in it, which is really appropriate.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned your father. “Because You Loved Me” was written as a tribute to how he supported you during your early years as a songwriter.
WARREN: My dad was super supportive. He paid for me to go to Cal State North and take film classes so I wouldn’t have to do anything but watch movies. [Laughs] I was always writing, and my dad always believed in me. My mom was the one who was like, “How are you going to make a living doing this?” But part of me is that I’m always loving proving people wrong, so I would say my mom not being so supportive was, maybe in a weird way, more important — because I had to go, “Fuck you, I’ll show you.” That’s been my thing my entire life. “Fuck you, I’ll show you.” [Laughs] To this day, it’s pretty much that.
Being A Guest Judge On American Idol (2003)
STEREOGUM: This was during the show’s early years, when it was arguably at its cultural peak.
WARREN: Yeah, it was a huge show. It was cool to do it, but I would never in a million years want to be a real judge because I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Even when someone wasn’t that great, I’d be like, “You made it your own!” or whatever the fuck I said. [Laughs] I’d never want to be anybody that would kill someone’s dream or make them feel bad because that’s not my style.
Writing England’s Eurovision Entry “It’s My Time” With Andrew Lloyd Webber (2009)
WARREN: That was really fun. I remember being in the car with him, and I go, “We have to be really honest with each other. I hope you’re open. I really respect you, you’re Andrew Lloyd Webber, but we have to make this as great as we can, whatever it takes.” He was such a nice guy. I loved his wife, they’re such nice people. I remember going to his townhouse and going, “That’s a really cool painting,” and I know people don’t usually ask how much things cost, but I did. It was, like, $90 million or something. [Laughs] He had this little piece of music, and he was like, “Let’s try this.” It was really collaborative, and we got England back in the top five. They hadn’t been there in a long time. We went to Russia, that was a trip.
STEREOGUM: What was your cultural relationship with Eurovision beforehand?
WARREN: I didn’t know much about it. I’d heard about it — ABBA coming from there, Céline [Dion]. I knew what it was, but I wasn’t one of the people who would watch it.
Michelle Obama’s “This Is For My Girls” (2016)
WARREN: I wrote the song and Missy Elliott wrote the rap. It had Zendaya, Janelle Monae, Chloe x Halle, Missy, Kelly Rowland. It was a really fun experience, and I talked Michelle Obama into doing Carpool Karaoke too. She wasn’t going to do it but I made her, it was so funny. I got invited to a White House thing, and her assistant goes, “Don’t you dare talk about it to her. She’s not gonna do it.” So I was on line at a White House dinner next to her, and I said, “You gotta do Carpool Karaoke because the label’s not promoting the song. We need something.” And her assistant was giving me a really dirty look because she knew what I was doing. Michelle goes, “But I’ll have to sing!” I go, “No, no, we’ll get Missy Elliott to jump in the car with you. You won’t have to do anything. It’ll just be fun.” So she goes, “OK, I’ll do it.” I told her assistant, and she was so mad at me, but then she was happy.
The Instagram Where She Reacts To Her Portrayal On Netflix’s Selena Series (2001)
WARREN: That was so funny, because [the scene in the show] didn’t happen that way, and it made me look like I was such a dick to Selena. “Why would I give her that song when I could give it to Whitney Houston?” My friend Nancy Brennan who had signed Selena to the label told me about her, and I met her, and I gave her my song “I’m Getting Used To You.” So [when I saw the show] I was like, “Please don’t think I was like that!” [Laughs]
Cow Incident (2021)
WARREN: Besides music, I’m an animal activist. I have my own farm animal rescue ranch in Malibu. I think I just saved another 200 cows that were gonna be killed last week as well — I wrote a check to a farm. But this particular cow you’re talking about is one of 40 that got out of that horrible house of horrors that is a slaughterhouse. Paul McCartney had that line about how if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everybody would be a vegetarian. It’s terrible what happens to these animals. They’re sentient beings like us. Cows are like big puppies.
So those cows got out, and they knew what they were escaping from. Sadly, they captured and murdered most of them, but I woke up a couple of days later after they’d gotten out and I saw this one cow. It was crying while they were trying to capture it, and I called my friend Simone and said, “We gotta save this cow, I don’t care how much it costs.” She said, “You gotta reach out to the guy who runs the slaughterhouse,” and I was like, “Fuck.” [Laughs] He happened to be someone that I rescued two cows at my ranch from, and I did text him and said “Let us have this cow, I’ll write any check you want.” Once I see something, I can’t unsee it. And he did help, and we saved the cow.
I didn’t think anything of it — I was happy, but I didn’t think it was a news story. They said, “Award-Winning Songwriter Saves Cow,” and all of the sudden my phone was blowing up with my friends saying, “This had to be you.” Then it blew up. I did 50 interviews or something, it became a worldwide story, not just in America. Every interview I did, I made it about what they were escaping from and what you’re contributing to when you’re eating meat. It’s horrible and horrifying.
The beautiful thing is that it is having an impact, because the people I know that were eating meat aren’t eating meat right now, or they eat less of it. I really believe that once you’re aware, you cannot be unaware.
The Cave Sessions Vol.1 is out 8/27 via Di-Namic Records/BMG. Pre-order it here.