Diane Warren is one of the most successful and prolific songwriters to ever work in the music industry. She was the first songwriter in the history of Billboard to have seven hits, all by different artists, on the singles chart at the same time.
This interview was conducted by John Braheny for the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase Musepaper in April, 1987.
At the time of this interview, Diane is reveling in the fact that her Starship hit single, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is #1 in Billboard for the second week in a row. She had written the song with Albert Hammond for the film, “Mannequin.” Though it isn’t her first hit, it is her first #1. Her first was Laura Branigan’s “Solitaire.” Her next was the DeBarge hit, “Rhythm Of The Night,” for which she wrote both words and music.
She has also written songs for such diverse artists as Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner, Air Supply, the Commodores, Deniece Williams, Joe Cocker, Jeffrey Osborne and is looking forward to many upcoming major releases.
She has her own small writing studio in a downtown Hollywood office building. In it she fits an acoustic piano, a DX7 and assorted other synths, a drum machine and a mini sound system. She never stops working.
JB: We first met you when you were 15. I think it was in ’71 or ’72.
JB: How long had you been writing before that?
DW: Probably a year or so…all great songs of course…
JB: Of course…
DW: Just kidding…
JB: Your father had brought you in the first time. I remember his attitude was that you had this talent and were doing stuff that was really special. He had no idea what to do with it but he wanted to be sure it got developed in the right direction. I think he knew there was no stopping you.
DW: Yeah, that’s how it started.
JB: You were playing 12-string guitar then. Why did you start with that, it’s so much harder. Did you just like the sound of it?
DW: Yeah, I couldn’t play it any better than I could a six string.
JB: But for 15-year-old fingers, it must have been hard for you.
DW: I still have indentations in my fingers from that.
JB: One of the things that impressed us about you was that you’d come in once a month with about 15 new songs.
DW: About 50 songs! I wrote a lot of songs then.
JB: Were you writing one a day?
DW: Yeah, probably, and sometimes two or three.
JB: What motivated you at that time to do that?
DW: I wanted to be songwriter even before I was one. I just love music. It’s a way of expression for me. It wasn’t really easy growing up. I didn’t have a hard life or anything like that, but had trouble communicating with people and stayed in my own little world. It was a form of getting something out of me…a form of expression before it became a craft.
JB: We started critiquing your songs at that point.
DW: And as you recall, I really loved that a lot, right? (kidding)
JB: Yeah, let’s say you were less than thrilled with critiques. Were we the first ones to critique you?
DW: Yeah, I’d play songs that people in my neighborhood would like and then I’d play for you and it’s like…”Well, you have to rewrite this…there’s no hook here,” and I ‘d think, “What’s a hook?” You thought I had potential, I guess.
JB: Actually, we did. We were super impressed with you because we had never met anybody that young who was that prolific and who obviously wanted to do it that bad. It’s very unusual. I mean, there are dilettantes born every day who give something a shot for a minute but fold after the first rejection.
DW: Oh, I really love this a lot. I have a need to write. I really love it. I have to get it out of me for some reason.
JB: But the critiques were a plateau in your development.
DW: A lot of fun…they really helped, actually.
JB: I think the carrot, too, was the showcase.
DW: Yeah, you probably turned me down about twenty times before you let me on there. I’d be so mad when I’d leave, remember?
JB: Yeah, you would. And then your dad would say, “Now you listen to these guys…” We had to ask your dad not to be in the same room, ’cause we just wanted to talk to you ourselves and it was kind of inflammatory to you to have him there.
DW: Only two people abusing me at one time was enough.
JB: I remember the first time you played your songs at the showcase. We waited till you had two songs that were really very good. You didn’t have any perspective about the level you had to be at to be competitive. At that time, of course, the showcase was completely made up of live performances. We were auditioning literally hundreds of writers and showcasing about five percent. You were still at the stage where you thought everything you wrote was great.
DW: I still think that… just kidding. I was young and didn’t know what was going on. I thought everything that I did and expressed was perfect.
JB: Well, it was, in a way, because it was a real expression of your feelings and fantasies, but when you’re confronted with critics who also judge it from a commercial standpoint, its a whole other thing.
DW: And that’s great too. It’s the next plateau.
JB: We showcased you several times after that.
DW: Yeah, I’d get up there and forget my songs. I was so nervous I’d forget where my hands should go.
JB: What other people did you hang out with after that who were giving you feedback on your songs?
DW: Well, Alan O’Day was really helpful. He used to abuse me also. I’d play him my latest so called great song and he’d perceive it differently and tear it up, but it was a good learning experience. He was really helpful to me.
JB: You were a learner.
DW: I was always a sponge.
JB: Yeah, as vehemently as you would oppose those criticisms, you would come back with better songs.
DW: Oh, yeah, I’ll learn from anything. There’s always another level to get to. You can learn a lot from listening to people, although at the time I was mad about it. But then, the next day, I’d scratch my head and wonder if there wasn’t something there in the criticisms.
JB: I think the fact that you were writing so much allowed you to put into practice all the things that you learned right away.
DW: I got all my bad songs out of my system, so I’ll never write another bad song again, right? Wrong…
JB: So Alan helped you…
DW: Yeah, Alan, and other writers and I’d listen to the radio and study what was out there and why it was successful.
JB: How did you go about doing that?
DW: I’d just listen a lot and study other writers. I’d buy albums of all the songwriters I liked. I meet people now and tell them everything they’ve ever written and freak them out. I’d buy these albums in bargain bins for 25 cents. I tried to really be a sponge and learn whatever I could from everybody. I was a big Jimmy Webb fan. I listened to everything he ever did. I went through writing everything that sounded like him for a while. I listened to the Beatles and other people I respected.
JB: I think that’s probably the fundamental way that most people who get to be really good do it. First they emulate people they admire.
DW: Then you have to get to the next step and create your own thing from that, but there’s so much to learn from with great people.
JB: When did you start collaborating?
DW: I don’t know…sometime after that, I guess. I was writing by myself and I still write by myself now. It’s something that I enjoy doing the most. Those tend to be my favorite songs. I was lucky enough to write “Rhythm of The Night” on my own. I guess I started collaborating in my twenties. I haven’t written with that many people.
JB: Who have your collaborators been?
DW: Albert Hammond, who wrote the Starship single with me. We have a really good writing relationship. We tend to write very good songs together, I think. Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager and I wrote “Heartbreak Of Love” this year for the new Dionne Warwick album, which I’m really excited about. I was just sent off to Boston and wrote with Aerosmith. That was kind of a fun experience. I wrote something with Bryan Adams last year. Desmond Child and I did some things.
JB: Tell me about you and Albert Hammond. Didn’t you write another chart song with him before “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now?”
DW: Yeah, the lower end of the chart. “Lonely is the Night” with Air Supply. I guess radio didn’t seem to want to play Air Supply at the time or they didn’t like the song or the record…in other words…it didn’t happen.
JB: How are you lining up co-writing situations?
DW: They’re lining up for me a little bit, actually. All of them are different. People call me. I’m trying to think of others. Robbie Buchanan, Robbie Nevil and I wrote something …I know I’m leaving people out.
JB: You write both lyrics and music, so how do your collaborations go?
DW: I usually write with someone who does both, too.
DW: I like that. I like two people being strong in both things. You get a stronger song. I never like to write just lyrics. I usually don’t like to just write music, ’cause I get ideas for both. Writing with Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, I worked with both of them on both. Carole and I worked on lyrics and Burt and I worked on the music.
JB: Tell how you came about writing “Rhythm of the Night.”
DW: There was a movie that Motown produced called “Last Dragon” and they needed a song for Debarge. Linda Blum, who I’d worked with when she was at Arista Publishing, told me about it and I wrote “Rhythm of the Night.” It was handed in to them and they loved it.
JB: Was that something that you started with a rhythm machine?
DW: Drum machine, synthesizers…I think I’d just gotten into something then…I was writing a lot of ballads at the time and that was one of the first up-tempo songs that I’d written. I seemed to stick with a lot of mid tempo and ballads.
JB: On an up-tempo song, do you start with a groove?
DW: It depends. It starts different ways. It’s good to get a drum pattern, and play along with it, getting a feel going. You wouldn’t do that for a ballad.
JB: Has that been an inspiration? The drum machines and synthesizers…do they get you going?
DW: Sometimes, yeah, sound can inspire you. They’re just tools to work with. I know just enough about them to keep them from getting in the way.
JB: Did you have any formal musical training? You were teaching yourself guitar at first. I think we suggested you go to a teacher and learn a few more chords.
DW: I did. I went to theory classes, too. But I’d usually be ditching them and writing songs, so I missed a lot of stuff I should’ve learned. Then again, I learned some stuff, some basic stuff about different keys and things I can utilize now. I get mad at myself for not staying in class. It’s a combination of being semi-stupid and semi-learned.
JB: Do you mostly write on keyboards?
DW: Yeah, I don’t even remember how to play guitar anymore. I was the worst guitar player in the world.
JB: So did you teach yourself to play keyboards?
DW: I did. I taught myself how to play bad piano, which I’ve developed into an art. Some of the theory stuff I can utilize now.
JB: And how did “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” happen?
DW: This was another movie situation.
JB: That was “Mannequin?”
DW: Yeah, the song was needed for the end and we wrote it.
JB: Did you see the movie first?
DW: We looked at the script.
JB: You just took it from the mood of the script?
DW: Yeah, it was kind of fun to write one of these “United We Stand” type songs.
JB: An anthem.
DW: Yeah, I love anthems. Those are my favorite kind of songs to write.
JB: Who have been the people who’ve been the most important in the development of your career?
DW: Recently, I give a lot of thanks to Teri Muench of RCA who’s responsible for getting the Starship to record “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and who’s been really helpful to me in a lot of ways. She’s a great a&r person, and I also enjoy working with Don Grierson at Epic. As far as publishers are concerned, Linda Blum, who got me my first real break I guess, with getting “Rhythm of the Night” cut. There’s a lot of them. A lot of people have been helpful along the way.
JB: Beyond the artistic advantages of collaborating, are there any other benefits?
DW: Sure, depending on who you’re writing with. When you write with someone else, you get their whole network of contacts and people they deal with. You have a double shot of getting some major stuff happening. Although, when you have a name for yourself, you have that on your own, too.
JB: Do you co-write with artists as well?
DW: Yeah, I just wrote something for the new Kiss album with Paul Stanley.
JB: Are those projects coming to you a lot more now that you’ve had hits?
DW: Oh, yeah. I wish I had enough time to do everything, but unfortunately I don’t. Yeah, there’s a lot of opportunities now.
JB: So you’re at a place where you can pick and choose your projects?
DW: Yeah, definitely more so than before. You really have to be careful what you do. You only have so much time in your life, you don’t want to get on the wrong project. You also want to be careful not to spread yourself too thin. My whole thing is coming here everyday and writing on my own. I don’t want to do too much to take away from that either.
JB: How much time do you spend here in your studio?
DW: Oh, 23 hours a day. I’m never home.
JB: Do you have a fairly regular pattern?
DW: Yeah, I get here between 9:30 and 10 every morning and work all day and go out to lunch and dinner and come right back here, and maybe if I’m writing with somebody they’ll come here or I’ll leave to go where they are. I’ll be here ’till 11 or 12 at night usually. In that time, I’ll also be on the phone dealing with people and business stuff.
JB: Do you ever get blocked?
DW: Oh, yeah, everybody does. I think, with lyrics, it takes longer for me. I’m quicker musically. I really want my lyrics to be great, so I take a lot of time there. Sure, you get blocked.
JB: How do you get out of that?
DW: I jump out the eighth floor window…it jars my mind a little and I get the line every time. No, logically, I should just walk away and take a drive or something, but I’m a masochist and end up staying here and hitting my head against the wall most of the time. Sometimes it looks like you’re never going to get out of a situation, like you’re never going to get that one line. With me, I’ll have the whole song almost done, and I’ll need one line at the end of a bridge or something. I’ll work three days on that one line and it drives me nuts. But the end result is hopefully a great song that is worth it.
JB: Do you read or listen to people’s conversations or are there any techniques you use to come up with the ideas?
DW: Oh, everything. I listen to people…what’s the word?
JB: A voyeur?
DW: Yeah, a conversation voyeur. I love to listen to people. I get the best song ideas from that. I like to talk to people. I get ideas from everything, reading something and thinking it says something else. I can hear a song and think they’re saying something else and get an idea from it. One time someone said a song title and it was the wrong one and it was a great song title. I wrote a really good song from that mistake.
JB: When you work, what does that mean in actual practice. Do you sit down at your keyboard and start noodleing?
DW: Yeah, usually. I’ll start playing around with chords or a drum pattern and hopefully something will come out. Even if I have a whole day and just come out with a little piece of something, it’s worth it to me. It’ll develop into something. It all comes down to me to have a really good work out. I’m probably overly disciplined, ’cause I don’t have much of a life outside of it. How do you spell “life”? This is my life. I try to get away and take a vacation and I get bored after five minutes and get bored and want to be back here working. Then I get here and wanna leave sometimes, but I don’t.
JB: Do you keep a lot of notes on ideas?
DW: Yeah, on napkins, checks. Once I’d written a song title on a check that I cashed, so I lost the title. I’ve even written on my hand… but I have lots of notebooks with ideas, scribbling ideas that’ll grow into songs eventually.
JB: What’s your demo process. Do you demo every song that you write?
DW: Yeah, I do. If they’re good, I do. Usually, I won’t finish them unless I think they’re good songs. I work really hard to get to the point of concentration I have on that song, so it better be good. I do spend a lot of time on the lyric on everything, so I do tend to demo all that I finish. Maybe in the past it wasn’t that way, but now it is.
JB: To get to that, how do you assess those ideas as to whether or not they’re going to be good enough or not?
DW: I wait ’till the drugs wear off…just kidding. I do them long enough to where I know if it’s good or not. I’ll play them for friends, too, people I trust, for feedback. If enough people think it’s the worst thing they’ve ever heard, no matter how much I like it, I’m going to question it a little bit. If I love it, I’ll still write it.
JB: How do you do your demos?
DW: I hire musicians. I’ll work with a keyboard player and show him what I hear in the song and arrange it with him. I hire a singer or maybe sing it myself depending on the song. Demos are really important right now.
JB: Are your demos fairly elaborate?
DW: Yeah, I’d say they are. They sound like records. A lot of my records don’t sound as good as the demos.
JB: Do producers usually do it pretty close to the demos?
DW: The ones that have been hits have been pretty close. They also take it to the next step. Narada Michael Walden did a brilliant job on the Starship record. There were some things on the demo that were similar to that, but he took it to the next step. Same thing with Richard Perry on “Rhythm of the Night.” A lot of times you don’t want someone to do it exactly the same. You want them to add something and keep it spontaneous. You want someone to take what you do and elaborate in a good way, which every writer knows doesn’t happen too much. We get disappointed with the results. I’ve been lucky with some things and hopefully it will continue to be so. Of course I’ll be disappointed a lot too. That’s a reason to get into production, I guess.
JB: Do you feel like you’d like to get into that someday?
DW: I’ve done it a couple times. I co-wrote and co-produced something on the last Joe Cocker record. It was a hit in Australia and a small hit in Germany. I wrote something for the Bunny DeBarge album and co-produced it. It’s something that I don’t really enjoy doing. I don’t really enjoy being in the studio. I’d rather be writing. But it’s a chance to make sure the song is coming out with the vision I had for it. The only person I can kick in the head then is myself, if doesn’t come out right.
JB: I remember Ray Parker Jr. saying he became a producer because he was never satisfied with the way anybody else produced his songs and the only way to be satisfied was to do it himself.
DW: It’s true. When you slave over a melody and lyric …I really do, I want to get it right. I wanna get the exact melody right. Then someone goes in casually and screws up the whole thing, even just a couple notes or a couple words and the whole meaning can change. It drives me crazy. So in that sense, I’d want to get into it more, but in the sense that it takes time away from my writing, I really don’t. I’m not as good a producer as I am a writer. It’s more like I’m babysitting my songs. I’m watching my baby to make sure it’s ok when it goes out into the world.
JB: So co-production is good.
DW: Yeah, I would never do it myself. I would never think of myself really as a producer enough to produce it myself. To work with another is great, then I can be there for the vocal and work with the singer and make sure certain things go right. It’s like an executive producer, I guess. I don’t care if I get credit usually, I just wanna be there to make sure especially on a really “A” song, one you know is really great. I had some I was really close to and I didn’t want to just give them away and have it come back with no arms or legs. I’m really protective lately of songs I think are really great.
JB: When you start writing a song, is the commercial consideration as to whether it’s going to be a hit something you think about or do you try not to think about it?
DW: I don’t think about it anymore. I’m naturally a commercial pop writer. I’ve programmed myself to be that and studied that for the last 18 years.
JB: So that’s something you trust…that your instincts will guide you?
DW: Yeah, I have really good pop, commercial instincts. All I did was listen to top40 commercial radio growing up. So, I have a natural inclination towards the commercial. That’s just where I am. I’m not going write a ten minute song about flowers or nuclear disarmament. That’s just not me, although it’s great if you can do it and do it well.
JB: So when you’re in your creative mode, you don’t think about any of those kind of considerations.
DW: Well, no, but I mean, I think about the hook being strong enough and stuff like that, sure, objectively later, but I rely on the instincts mostly. Later I might reconstruct it to make the setup stronger or the hook stronger. I don’t usually think about that when I’m at the piano writing. I just tend to go with what I’m feeling and throw up later (laughs).
JB: When you come up with ideas, do you try to be adventurous?
DW: Yeah, always. I want to take chances lyrically and definitely musically, going to weird places. It has to be interesting for me. I’m with these songs for such a long period of time. If they bore me, I’m never going to finish them, ’cause then they’ll just bore everyone else. I do like to take chances. It’s really important for a writer to not play it safe. Go somewhere that might seem a little odd or phrase it in a strange way. I’m learning more in the last year or so to take more chances. It’s becoming more important to me.
JB: Does that come with the confidence of being more successful?
DW: Yeah, you know they’re going to love everything you do…just kidding. You get a little more confident and that makes it easier to take chances. I’m not the most confident person I’ve ever met. But I am a little more so than I was. I do like to try new things. That’s the only way you can grow with anything you do. As a writer, especially, if you don’t keep learning and taking chances and trying different things, you’re just going to stay in a rut. That’s kind of boring.
JB: Are you listening to new kinds of music?
DW: I listen to a lot of music. There’s some good music out there. I try to listen to all the good stuff if I can.
JB: Are you looking for different musical styles to get turned onto?
DW: Yeah, you can learn from everything. I was saying before that I like to be a sponge and listen to everything. “Rhythm of the Night”…where did I get that? I’m a Jewish kid from the valley, pretty far away from the islands, but I listen to it. I tend to write different kinds of styles. I write the hard rock thing and the ballads and the Latinish things that I like…I can take bits and pieces and be influenced by everything. Then I put it through me and comes out as what I am.
JB: I remember that even though you had all this talent, you were also really inscure about it.
DW: Yeah, that hasn’t changed.
JB: But despite that, now you’re having all this success and people are calling you. How are you adjusting to that?
DW: Slowly. It’s a nice thing to adjust to. It’s strange for me, ’cause these are people I’ve idolized my whole life and I’m wondering why they’re calling me. I’m still at the stage where it’s very strange to me.
JB: Like every writer, you go through really long periods of being rejected by everybody.
DW: Oh yeah, I went through my whole life getting rejected. Not just in this business, but in life. I was the person that Janis Ian wrote about in “At 17,” that no one wanted on their basketball team. All the rejection probably made me work harder for something.
JB: Yeah, for some that works, and for some it destroys them. Obviously, you have a core of ambition and a love for what you do that gives you the drive to do it.
DW: I think even that rejection made me work harder. I also work off of anger really well. I mean, you saw that.
JB: Absolutely, because we knew how devastated you were even though we kept telling you we really believed in you. If we didn’t think you were good, we wouldn’t have bothered to criticize. You’d come back with a bunch more songs and we’d have to disappoint you again, but the songs kept getting better.
DW: I might add that it helps to be persistent in this business.
JB: You did just keep on doing it.
DW: Yeah, it’s strange when the doors start opening. You’re so used to them closing in your face, you’re shocked. At least I am. The fact that Burt Bacharach would even consider writing with me is still freaking me out. It’s great. I’m outside a candy store looking in.
JB: And then suddenly the guy comes out and gives you a whole bowl of candy.
DW: Yeah, I’m used to them locking the door in my face. But it’s great. I’m not used to it.
JB: You probably never will be.
DW: Yeah, I don’t think I will. I’m really happy it’s turning out this way. I always had a fantasy of meeting my idols and saying, “I love what you do” and they’d say they love what I do and it floors me. I love it! It makes all the rejection you have to go through really worthwhile.
For a current update on the continued success of Diane Warren, go to her website.