Michael Bolton, Cher, Lionel Richie, Justin Bieber, Aerosmith, Celine Dion, Tina Turner and Mary J. Blige are just a few superstars who have sung hits written by Diane Warren. She has a Grammy Award, an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe Award and has been nominated for an Academy Award nine times.
She received her first nomination in 1988 for Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now from the movie Mannequin and her most recent award is for Stand Up For Something from the movie Marshall. I caught up with Warren recently to have a quick chat about how it all began for her and her process for writing songs that stand the test of time.
We swap stories about having hairless cats. Mouse, her Cornish Rex, she tells me goes everywhere with her. I tell her about Gia, our hairless Sphynx cat. We could talk all day about our furless babies, but we get down to business and talk songwriting.
It’s such a delight to be talking to you about your music. I still remember the first time I heard “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” I was a wee kid.
Haha, way to make me feel old. That was my first nominated song. You know what’s crazy? That song was nominated at the 60th Academy Awards and here we are with Stand Up For Something nominated at the 90th Academy Awards. It’s been thirty years.
So, how did your love for music begin?
I just grew up loving music. I have older sisters who are a lot older than me but they were in the house when I was born and grew up with the stuff they were listening to. They had the show tunes and the show tune albums. I remember listening to Man of La Mancha and My Fair Lady, all the great songs. I remember hearing early rock and roll when I was four. I always remember loving music. I remember seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I would look at records and saw songwriter names, and I thought, I wanted to do that. I’ve always loved music and it was always my escape.
Was there a trigger song for you that you can recall that was that “This is definitely what I want to do?”
It was just The Beatles. I was always a fan. I actually didn’t want to be a singer, I just wanted to write songs.
How does the songwriting begin for you?
It begins with an idea and a concept. Or it can begin with playing chords on a piano or guitar. I like to have a concept and I like to know what I’m going to write about.
You’ve written two songs recently, of course, Stand Up For Something and Prayers For This World which was performed by Cher, someone you’ve worked with before.
It was my twentieth song for her but she didn’t like herself on it, she didn’t think she sounded good on it. I thought, “You’re crazy, you sound great.” So, I had that out and Stand Up For Something.
There’s so much going for that song. Common was a great partner on it and it’s such a positive song. I’m proud of both of those songs. Prayers For This World is the calm pleading of prayers for this world which is what we need right now. Stand Up For Something is a call to action. Look at what just happened, How about standing up for the fact that we don’t want to be shot in schools or when we go to concerts. Standing up against gun violence.
What’s interesting about the song is that when I wrote it for Marshall. He stood up and it was dangerous for him as a black man to stand up. I wanted to capture the essence of those 60’s protests songs like A Change Is Gonna Come or People Get Ready, those songs that you hear and they made you want to change the world. Those songs inspire you. That era was turbulent and those songs are resonating. We still haven’t changed that much fifty years later, we’re still dealing with race and civil and human rights issues. The fact is that here’s a song written for a character in that era and a song written inspired by the ’60s and resonating in 2018.
To have Common come along and rap was a mash up of decades of style. It was a fresh approach.
How did you get involved in writing a song for this movie?
I met Reggie Hudlin and I was nominated for Til It Happens to You with Lady Gaga and Reggie was co-producing the Oscars that year. I saw him a few times and we really hit it off.
I was having dinner with a friend of mine and she mentioned that her cousin had written a movie about Thurgood Marshall and Reggie Hudlin is directing it. I said, “I know Reggie. I was hanging out with him and I’m going to call to see if he needs a song.”
I called and he told me he’d love it. He sent me the script and I wrote down, “It all means nothing if you don’t stand up for something.” It’s simple but it has something to say. I thought if I could find a way to write a classic, I want to write a modern call to action, an inspiring song. There hasn’t really been many of those. In the ’60s there were many great ones usually done by great artists. Think of Respect by Aretha Franklin, she sang it and became so powerful. There were songs that were about time being hopeless, but there’s hope. I wanted to write that. I came to work and listened repeatedly to A Change is Going to Come. I didn’t want to rip it off, I wanted to capture that era. I closed my eyes and thought, what if I could write those words right now.
I wrote the chorus in one pass. I wrote the music and words,
You can’t just talk the talk/
You got to walk that walk, yes you do/
It all means nothing/
If you don’t stand up for something.
That could be a love song. It could be a song you singing to yourself. It could mean so many things. I called Reggie and he loved it. The first verse came really quickly, but the rest of the song was really hard lyrically to get right. I sat with it and sat with it. In the midst of writing it, I thought that I was writing what was probably one of my most important songs. In any song I write, I don’t want weak lines. I want this song to be something that could be in 1965 or in 2065, I want it to be a classic and took such great care with it.
You do the best that, do the best that you can do/
Then you can look in the mirror/
Proud of who’s looking back at you.
It took me a couple of days because I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t find a way to say it. That’s my favorite line in the song.
You do the best to do the best that you can do. As long as you’re doing that, you could be proud of looking in the mirror. Standing up for something is standing up for yourself too. That’s why the #MeToo #TimesUp movement are so important and they’re all embracing the song too. It’s kinda cool.
I think as you say, the song will resonate not just now, but in twenty years time as a solo entity, not just as a song from the film because it is so lyrically powerful.
I think it could well do that.
I like “All the possessions anyone can ever have/But it’s all worthless treasure/true worth is only measured”
And the bridge too, self-respect and dignity without that, you don’t have a thing. That’s where the self-respect comes in.
Once you crack the lyrics, what about the melody?
The music was the easy part, that didn’t take a long time. It felt like it was gifted to me. The hard part was getting the lyrics right.
How long did it take to write?
The second verse flowed, but it was that first verse. I screamed at it, “You little bitch, I thought you’d be so easy.” I realized that nothing comes for free. It was going to make me work at it.
But, it’s quite a tune.
It’s so exciting to see people respond to it.
Talk about Common getting involved in it. You’ve become so perfectly matched.
Common and I had talked about doing something together for a few years. What happened was I was talking to Andra’s manager who was talking about putting a rapper on it and I thought that would be cool. Common would be perfect, there’s nobody better than him and he’s just so eloquent. Not even a week later, I was on the way to Sundance and it was one of the few times I had bought a first class ticket for myself. I’m glad I did that time, because he was right behind me. It was insane and I told him I was thinking about him and how I wanted him for this song. I was thinking about the chorus. I apologized to everyone around me and sang the chorus and he loved it.
As soon as I got off the plane I sent it to him, and he kept calling me. I thought he didn’t want to do it, but he said, “I really want to be a part of it.”
So, my producer and he got together talked about making some changes and he did this amazing rap. It was this great mashup of styles where it’s modern but it’s also retro, but not quite retro.
When you’re doing a collaboration, how do you know you’ve hit that right spot?
It tells me. I knew when I was done, I looked over every line, but it felt right. I felt I had this great responsibility where I knew it had to be as great as it could be. I had to stand up for the song.
I wrote the song from the script. I hadn’t seen the movie. When I saw the movie, there was a demo in the movie, and I didn’t even know Andra was in the movie.
That’s so wild.
Between that and running into Common. It’s meant to be.
You’ve collaborated with Lady Gaga and Common.
Yeah, how great was her Oscar performance?
It was phenomenal to see her and hear her just nail that song and that note.
When she hit that note with the kids on the stage. It was incredible.
That’s another song that is still resonating and it’s another classic.
Beyond that, it really helped start the conversation about sexual assault. I really believe that. Music is more powerful than anything.
Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with?
I just love working with great artists. I love working with the people I work with or working with new artists. I’m always looking for new challenges when it comes to music.
Who do you listen to?
It’s funny because I don’t go home and listen to music because I do it all day long. I’m here from 8.30 in the morning until night so when I go home I don’t listen to anything. I do check everything out to be aware of what’s going on and to keep my finger on the pulse.
You’re a workaholic.
I don’t write for twelve hours but I am a workaholic. I do other things, usually eating. [laughs].
Eating and playing with your kitty.
I bring her to work. She goes to the car and sits with me when I have coffee. She sits in the car and will get a suntan if it’s sunny. She lays out there.Is your cat a Sphynx or a Cornish Rex?
She’s a Sphnyx. She does the same thing and lays in the sun.
Mouse is a Cornish Rex and it’s not really fur that she has, but she’ll find that sun spot.
Yes, Gia does that too. Gets her tan or will lay by the heater if it’s on.
Okay, let’s do this. You did a great piece in the LA Times recently about your Oscar-nominated songs. Let’s do a one-word or few-word free-association game.
Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now
Didn’t anybody think it was weird that the guy was fucking a mannequin? [laughs]
Because You Loved Me.
A song that was written to thank my dad for believing in me.
How Do I Live?
Pissing off Jerry Bruckheimer and everybody else because two artists did the song.
I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing
Someone that would not want to hear someone listen to them breathe all night and writing a song about staying up and listening to someone breathe all night.
Music of My Heart.
Wes Craven. NSync and Gloria Estefan in one movie.
There You’ll Be.
Jerry Bruckheimer making me rewrite the song twenty times and it was good the first time. It ended up being pretty close to what it was at the beginning. [laughs]
Wish there had been more support for the movie and the song. Very proud of the song.
Til It Happens To You.
So proud that this song helped bring sexual assault out of the shadows and got the conversation. People still walk up to me and tell me what the song means to them. It also resonates beyond that. It could be about so many different things, it could be about bullying, losing someone and can move past sexual assault.
Stand Up For Something.
The song I’m most proud of. To see the effect it’s having and to see it resonating with what’s going on right now is very satisfying.
That’s the thing, your music resonates and so many go beyond the meaning or original intention.
I do that deliberately. What is it? It could be stand up for something, there’s so much to stand up for. You stand up for bullying and standing up for yourself.