The Frame

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Diane Warren on writing for Beyonce, Lady Gaga: 'They're not really divas with me'

by Michelle Lanz and Elizabeth Nonemaker | The Frame

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Songwriter Diane Warren at the 2015 annual Academy Awards. Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Diane Warren has been called "the most important songwriter in the world."

Her catalogue of songs stretches into the thousands, and the army of artists who have performed her songs is almost as large. You certainly know several of them — like "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith, or Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time."

Warren's works across genres — in country, pop, and hip-hop — and she's teamed up with divas like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. If you watched the recent CNN documentary "The Hunting Ground," about the epidemic of sexual assault against young women on college campuses, you heard Lady Gaga's powerful rendition of Warren's song, "Til It Happens To You."

Much — possibly all — of Warren's success can be attributed to her grueling  work schedule, which is roughly 12 hours per day, six days a week. But she says that's not out of the ordinary when it comes to the music business. "Work ethic!" she exclaimed when she spoke to The Frame. "That's why these people [like Beyoncé and Cher] are great."

Listen to Diane Warren's discussion with John Horn, where she reflects on collaborating with performers, how a song changes (or doesn't) when an artist picks it up, and pitching "I Was Here" to both Simon Cowell and Beyoncé.


Let's talk about your writing process. Are you usually hired to write a song for a specific person? Do you collaborate with a particular artist? Or do you just write the song without knowing who will sing it?

I write alone most of the time . . . “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” — I had no idea Aerosmith would do that song. I was totally surprised. The way it was written was more of a Celine [Dion] song. And then Steven Tyler heard it and loved it. I remember sitting at the piano and teaching it to him. I remember that being one of the most amazing moments of my life. “Blame It On The Rain” was just a song I wrote and brought to Clive Davis. He had this new group called Milli Vanilli. And he played [their hit] “Girl You Know It’s True.” “Blame It On The Rain” is almost the same rhythmically, it’s weird. It’s almost like a follow-up. 

But screenwriters and film directors will talk about writing in a particular voice. They might hear an actor as they’re writing their own dialogue. Even if you don’t know who’s recording the song, do you picture in your mind’s ear how that song is going to sound?

Yes. My songs can go a million different ways. “I Was Here,” which Beyoncé did, I wrote that on my acoustic guitar, right? And I was thinking, this could go anywhere. It could be Susan Boyle to Beyoncé. But I thought, Oh, Beyoncé. But I sent it to Simon Cowell for Susan as well. I did this little acoustic guitar demo. And I also called Jay-Z and played him the song on the phone. And he said, "Stay where you are. I’m having Beyoncé call you." She called me. I played her the song . . . She [says], "I’m going in the studio on Wednesday and recording that song. I’m holding up my whole album."

But the best part — and there are so many good parts about it ...

That’s a pretty good part!

But the best part of it was I got a rejection letter from someone at Simon Cowell’s company the next morning [saying], Simon sent this along for us to hear. It just doesn’t go all the way. Sorry.

When you hear somebody like Beyoncé record a song that you’ve written, and give it their interpretation, does it change the meaning for you for the song itself? In other words, can you hear somebody perform one of your songs and it takes on something that you didn’t hear or intend in the composition itself?

Not in the composition itself, but in what they bring to it. Like the song is the same song. But they take it and bring it to life in a different way. Even Lady Gaga, in the song I wrote for “The Hunting Ground,” she took it . . . Well, the way I wrote it was very somber.

[In] the first verse . . . she’s very vulnerable. In the second verse and second chorus, she’s getting more pissed. And at the end it’s just triumphant.

Is that the way you wrote the song?

I wrote the song the way the song is, right? But it was all somber. And Gaga was like, No, this has to be epic. So it was really her vision, the way that record came out, the way it went, and how powerful it is.

I’ve never had this kind of reaction to a song from everyone. I got on a plane last week and the stewardess hugged me and said the song was saving her life. She’d been a victim of sexual assault. People that I grew up with [are] writing me notes [saying], You didn’t know, but I was assaulted. So, it’s powerful. Everybody’s sharing it with everybody.

A lot of the people you work with have a reputation for being great artists, but also as divas. What are your creative conversations like? Is the diva-ness kind of toned down a little bit when they’re dealing with you?

They’re not really divas with me, you know? We’re just in there trying to make something great. For instance, Beyoncé — her work ethic was amazing. When I was in the studio with her when she did “I Was Here,” she sang for three hours straight. Then she says, I’m gonna have a dinner break now and then I’m coming back. I go, Why are you coming back? She says, I’m going to get it better.

Gaga, we were in the studio for three nights — doing vocals, doing the arrangements and stuff.

Because of work ethic — that’s why these people are great! And that’s why Cher is around still. She’ll be like 200 years old and in a wheelchair, and touring. 

If you meet young potential songwriters, people who believe they have stories to tell musically, what is your advice to them? And, how do you make sure that people don’t try to imitate something that they think the audience and record labels want?

I just tell people to work hard and have a thick skin, you know? So I don’t sit and listen to other people’s songs a lot. I’m always writing. So I don’t want to hear somebody’s songs and all the sudden something sticks in my head. Because how do I know if it will or not? I guess my advice is just, Be great. Work hard.

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