From humble beginnings, Diane Warren has gone on to write hundreds of hit songs. Her secrets? Hard work, good titles... and no time wasted cleaning her writing room!
Photo: Mr BonzaiBorn in Los Angeles in 1956, to an insurance salesman father who supported his daughter's musical aspirations and a mother who opposed them, Diane Warren went on to become arguably the most successful American songwriter of the last 20 years. Her against–many–odds version of the American Dream began when the teenage Warren, after being given a guitar by her father, obsessively spent hours every day honing her craft in the garden shed. From her 15th birthday onwards she tried, with her father's help, to gain a foothold in the Los Angeles music machine, to be met for more than a decade with rejection after rejection.
It took until 1983, when she was hired as a staff writer by Laura Branigan's producer Jack White, for her efforts to get some recognition. Two years later, Debarge's 'Rhythm Of The Night' became the first Diane Warren song to climb high up the charts. Following this, her rise to the absolute top was fast, and she's managed to remain there without any sign of let–up. To date, Warren has had more than 100 songs in the US charts, performed by artists such as Aerosmith, Elton John, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Roy Orbison, Eric Clapton, Lenny Kravitz, Pet Shop Boys, Joss Stone, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Jessica Simpson and Mary J. Blige.
Although Warren has had a few uptempo hits, she specialises in romantic ballads, and her songs have also appeared in more than 100 movies, among them Ghostbusters, Space Jam, Prince Of Egypt, Up Close And Personal, The Preacher's Wife, Armageddon and White Men Can't Jump. In addition, she's notable for maintaining control over her own creations: since 1986, her songs have been published and promoted by her own RealSongs company. Billboard named RealSongs one of the top five music publishing companies of the US, and it's been called "the most successful female–owned and operated business in the music industry".
Despite her success, Warren remains relatively obscure to the public at large, having made a conscious decision to remain behind the scenes and not to be an artist in her own right. She appears genuinely shy and uncomfortable with the limelight, and has also remained resolutely single, making one wonder how she managed to become both a successful businesswoman and a renowned composer of love ballads. Her deceptively simple answer is the same in both cases. "I don't know what the process is," she says, "but the process is that I show up. This is what I always say: I show up. If you don't show up, nothing is going to happen. You have to get there. And I am excited to get here every day and can't wait to get to work. As long as I feel like that, things are cool."
"Showing up" may not sound like a magic bullet to many aspiring songwriters and musicians, but it's amazing how many of us dream rather than show up. By contrast, Warren knew from day one, even in her parent's garden shed when writing three songs a day ("they all sucked"), that 'showing up' is the First Commandment of Success. She continues to put the principle into practice at an astonishing rate, and still works 12 hours a day, six days a week, rarely taking a holiday. She says that she writes about a song per week, and she's built up a back catalogue of over 1000 songs.
"Yes, I am a workaholic," Warren agrees. "And it's hard to tell you what I actually do, because writing is a magical experience. I always try to be inspired, but of course some days you're more 'on' than others. On Sundays I try to take at least part of the day off. I don't come into the office, if I can at all help it. There's a place on the beach where I like to go to, just to get out of here for a moment. And then I hit it hard on Monday. But you know, sometimes I find myself writing on the beach."
"The office", as Warren calls it, is on Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood's main artery, and is the polar opposite of what you might expect. Glamour and luxury are in short supply, and Warren still works exclusively with a battered old Yamaha DX7 MkII and an antique handheld cassette recorder. "I've been writing in this room for 23 years now," explains Warren, "and it may be because of superstition, but I've never cleaned it and even now I just don't want to clean it. The shades are so old, they have turned to dust! I wouldn't even know where to begin to clean this room. It's comfortable to me. I have a couple of nice houses where I'm more comfortable than in my writing room, but this is where I make music. And I do have a good view over Hollywood. That's why I like it."
Warren moved into this room when she had her first major success, with 'Rhythm Of The Night', and it has been so important to her that rather than buy grander offices when the big money came rolling in, she simply bought more and more of the building around her, keeping her writing room at the centre. Today, the RealSongs offices house almost a dozen staff, plus two state–of–the–art recording studios where producers and engineers turn her songs into fully fledged recordings. RealSongs is a veritable hit–making machine, dealing all aspects of promoting, recording and administrating Warren's songs.
It's not only Warren's writing room that has remained unchanged for 23 years: so too have her working methods, locked in a time warp. Although she started out writing on guitar as a teenager, and still has an acoustic piano in her writing room, for more than two decades she's worked predominantly on her DX7 MkII, recording her ideas to a Sony TCS60dv Walkman. And that, in essence, remains it.
"It's funny that this interview is for a music technology magazine," smiles Warren. "I use really basic stuff. The DX7 is an old friend of mine that I've had forever. The acoustic piano doesn't really work any more, but I have two other pianos in the building, mostly to demonstrate my songs to artists. There's a drum machine, but I'd have to ask my engineer what it is. It's stuff that's been the same for a long time. Every now and then I get some new equipment, but it's not very often. I don't pay attention to what it's called."
One of Warren's two staff engineers, Mario Luccy, explains that Warren's room contains, in addition to the DX7 and the Sony Walkman, two Akai MPC2000 drum machines, two Roland SV1080 modules, a Korg Triton synth, a Tascam MM1 mixer, JBL Eon monitors and an M–Audio Microtrack portable recorder. And that's it. Keyboards and sound sources run through a MIDI hub so Warren can play everything live, feeding sounds through the mixer and monitors. The Microtrack is her only real concession to modern times: while her initial ideas are still recorded on the Sony, once the song is finished she'll record a live demo to the Microtrack, using its built–in mics.
The core of Warren's writing method appears to be to recognise the gold very early on, mine as much of it as possible, and then stubbornly hammer it into shape for the rest of the week that it takes her to write each song. She doesn't let the cassette recorder just run while she's doing stream–of–consciousness jamming, and she doesn't like to have endless half–finished ideas lying around.
"I only turn the cassette recorder on when I have something that's worth recording," she explains. "I know when something is great, and if it's not great, I don't want to write it. I start a lot of things, but I'm not going to put any more time into it if I don't think it's great. When I decide to complete a song, it takes me about a week, though I've had some songs that went a lot quicker and that felt like they were given to me. I think any time you come up with something that's inspired, it's a gift, isn't it?"
Beyond this, she insists, "I don't really know what happens. I just kind of do it. I'm just playing with chords or a phrase or something, and might hit on an idea. I love melodies. There's the time when inspiration hits, and then later you need to fill in the blanks and get as much of the song great and amazing as you can. A lot of that happens when you're not really thinking. That's the art. And then the craft comes in, which is to structure and finish the song. It's like a sculpture. You can't just have a big mound of clay. You have to play around with it and really turn it into something. Art and craft go hand in hand."
Talking about inspiration raises the issue of where Warren gets her initial lyric ideas from, particularly in the context of her being a single woman with a penchant for writing love ballads. "I'm my own person," replies Warren. "I've never needed someone to complete me. I'm in my own world. When I find someone who can put up with me, maybe... but I'm not looking. But I love people in my own way, and I've been hurt, I know what pain feels like, what heartbreak feels like. I have a good imagination as well, and I always have my antennas up for ideas. Maybe someone tells me about someone else's life and what they're going through. That happens all the time. A friend of mine once slammed the phone down on me saying 'I love you, goodbye!' and so I wrote a song called 'I Love You Goodbye' that was sung by Celine Dion. Most of my stuff is either mid–tempo or ballads, that's true. Ballads give me the chance to be emotional. I like singer songs, and they tend to be ballads. But I've had up–tempo hits also, like 'Rhythm Of The Night' or 'Can't Fight The Moonlight'."
According to Warren's main producer, Peter Stengaard (see box on the third page of this article), she delivers her demos to him played live in DX7/vocal arrangement, sometimes with canned strings and/or beats added, and often sounding distorted. ("She likes to play her stuff very loud, and the little microphones on her hard disk recorder are completely overloaded.") "I generally write with the same piano sound on the DX7," agrees Warren. "It's not about the sound for me, it's about the song. That being said, a different sound can fire a different song, and so sometimes I mix it up. The drum machine gives me a beat, that's all. Sometimes I program my own thing or find a loop that suits the groove that I want, sometimes someone helps me program. It depends on the kind of song that I write. It helps me to keep doing different stuff.
"In terms of harmony, I like to go to strange and interesting places, but the melody usually ties it together. It has to be interesting for me too, when I sit there working on a song for a week. I like interesting melodies and chords and stuff, as long as it's emotional. The trick is to make things sound simple, even if they may be harmonically complex. I've been inspired by a lot of people, like Burt Bacharach and the Beatles; they all had that gift to do the unexpected and yet make it sound so natural that you can't imagine that the song could have been any different."
Warren has mixed feelings about the way modern music is going at the moment, with the current charts dominated by harmonically simple hip–hop. "I can't get into staying on one chord for a whole song. It's kind of cool that they can do that in hip–hop, and I have a few songs that only have a couple of chords, but it's not really my thing. But when they borrow someone else's chorus, come on, what's that? The reason a song like that becomes a hit is because of the chorus someone else wrote, and the musicians, who may have come up with one of the instrumental hooks, aren't getting paid. I think that the craft of songwriting has suffered. I don't hear the kind of songs any more that inspired me when I started out. It's more about production today. It's like with special effects in the movies. It's dazzling, and may sound really cool, but I also want to hear a great and emotional story being told."
Reflecting on the place of publishers and songwriters in today's changing music world, Diane Warren points out that RealSongs did not come into being by some grand design of the businesswoman in her. Instead it was a matter of turning adversity into advantage. The adversity in question was a lawsuit she had in 1986 with the first establishment person who recognised her talents, producer Jack White. "It forced me to keep the publishing rights to my songs, and I never looked back, because all of a sudden the songs became big hits. I wasn't going to sign them to another publisher after that.
"Yet I would say that a songwriter starting out today probably still initially needs to sign with a publisher, just like a scriptwriter needs an agent. You need to get your foot in the door. Bands and artists can get exposure in other ways. They can use the MySpace or live route to get noticed, but they also still still need record companies to get them to the next level. Record companies and movie studios will have to reinvent themselves because of the download thing, but it doesn't make a great difference for the publishing industry. If people hear a song they love they'll still want to buy it and own it, whether it's on a watch or a telephone or a computer. So as a songwriter and a publisher, I'm not affected. I'm affected when people download stuff for free. That's not right. I can't walk into a store and simply walk out with a jacket."
As part of its hit-making operation, RealSongs has two Pro Tools-equipped studios within its walls, where Warren's basic piano/strings/vocal demos are turned into something close to the finished article. One of these studios is semi-permanently manned by producer Peter Stengaard, also an accomplished musician and songwriter who counts Lindsay Lohan, Donna Summer, Ashanti, Jojo and Tami Chynn among his credits.
"Diane will hand me her lyrics and her recording, which immediately gets transformed into an MP3. I never use what she has recorded, and start from scratch in rearranging and recording the song. Of course, if there's an instrumental line in her demo that's part of the song, I'll incorporate that. The song is completely finished when I get it, but sometimes I'll interpret a little bit. Most if the time I know the artist that she pitches the song at, so I try to make something that fits that. I might change the tempo or the key or make little changes in the chord structure. As a writer myself, I find that you tend to write slower than when you are producing a song. When you write you try to maintain an overview of the song, and when you record it you often realise that it has to be a bit faster.
"To keep the costs low, I'll program drums and play guitar, bass and piano. I rarely get outside musicians in. As long as you have some real guitar on the rock stuff, you're OK. I often like to dirty things up a little bit, because Diane writes these beautiful big songs, and I try to give them a bit of an edge. She pretty much leaves everything up to me while I do this. It takes me two or three days to create and record an arrangement, and then I'll play it to Diane. She has a good ear for production as a whole. She won't comment on details but she'll let me know in general terms what she wants changed, and then it's a matter of translating that into a technical thing, like change EQ or perhaps take the guitars in the chorus down a bit."
Some labels decide to re-record Warren's songs from scratch, but in other cases, Stengaard's productions have been used as the backing track for the final release, such as on Lindsey Lohan's 'I Decide', Jojo's 'Exceptional' and 'Note To God', and Ashanti's 'Shine'.
"We are trying to get as close to a record as we can," says Stengaard. "Nowadays people can't really imagine what it's going to sound like unless it's fully produced. Diane's competition is delivering fine-tuned polished tracks as well, so we have to do the same. I'll use session singers, and in some cases I get to record the actual artist. I also mix here, normally doing all my rides in the box and then sending subgroups to different channels on the Euphonix, where I treat them with outboard and the amazing Euphonix EQ. Many major labels send the song to be mixed somewhere else, and because I've played and arranged everything I'm usually quite happy to let it go and for someone else to have a different take on it. But nowadays, when you're working on computers, you're basically mixing a track while recording it. At the end of my tracking session I'll have built something that sounds like a good mix. With the backing track already sounding good, it's often only a matter of overdubbing and treating the vocals the way you want, and riding them in relation to the backing track."
"The interesting thing about this song," remarks Diane Warren, "is that it broke two artists, Toni Braxton and Il Divo." Warren is no stranger to her songs being covered more than once, and 'Unbreak My Heart' is one of her most successful efforts. Released in 1996, it was a number one in countless nations, among them the US, where it held the top spot for 11 weeks. It made Toni Braxton a superstar and remains her signature tune. Warren hadn't written this song with a specific singer in mind, and according to Warren, Braxton initially "didn't want to do the song. She hated it. But I was there for her vocal performance in the studio, and predicted that she'd win a Grammy for it. And she did."
So what made this song so phenomenally successful? Warren's trademark key changes, which refresh the listener's ear each time they occur, may be one pointer. It turns out that it was also written using one of Warren's main approaches, which is to begin with a good title, and then very single-mindedly expand from that. The title provides part of the 'hook' for the song, instantly transmitting a concept into which the listener can project his or her own experiences. "Yeah, the first spark was the title, which I thought was really cool. No, I wasn't suffering from a broken heart when I wrote it, but of course I know what it feels like. Writing a song like that is method songwriting, like being a method actor. I'm in character when I write the song and I'm playing a part and feeling everything. It was a relatively simple song to write, and it doesn't have a lot of words, so one challenge is to make sure that every line has significance. That's the case in every song, of course, but in this case I had to tell a story in very few words, so it was even more important."
Regarding the music, the verse of the song is in B-minor, and Warren goes into the chorus holding the last chord of the verse, which is an A. A-major is also the first chord of the chorus and is, from a harmonic perspective, used as dominant to modulate to the key of the rest of the chorus, D-minor. Using the 'A' chord as a bridge in this way wrong-foots the listener. The verse and chorus appear to run into each other, and the listener initially hears 'Unbreak my...' as part of the verse, and then retrospectively realises that the phrase was part of the chorus once the word 'heart' has been sung. Warren repeats the four notes of the 'unbreak my heart' melody four times in each chorus, anchoring it as the main hook.
"I started playing around with some chords using a guitar sound on my DX7, and I was messing with that key change until I knew I had something amazing. In fact, I think I initially worked on the last two lines of the verse. I did this song backwards. I do all kinds of weird things. Then I hit on the key change and thought 'Wow, that's fucking cool.' It was a very inspired song."
'Unbreak My Heart' has a very traditional structure, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-bridge-chorus, but Warren applies one more harmonic twist to keep the listener's attention. At the end of the second chorus she uses a B-flat and then an E-flat chord for a classic II-V-I into A-flat minor for the acoustic guitar solo. At the end of the solo a D-flat minor-to-G-flat sequence functions as another II-V for a return to the B-minor tonic for the last bridge.
"Putting the solo in A-flat minor was part of the craft, because I had to figure out a way of going back to where I was going. Do I know anything about music theory? Not much. I work mostly on feel. I can't read music, but I know a little about chords and things. I had one music class in high school, with an excellent teacher, but didn't pay any attention. My friend Ron Fair took the same class and did pay attention [and went on to become one of America's prime arrangers, producers and record company moguls. PT]. But in my case, I just picked up things along the way. Without craft it can't be art and without art the craft doesn't mean anything. In the case of the modulation for the solo in 'Unbreak My Heart' the craft became art, because that modulation turned out to be very beautiful."
Released in 2000 by Leann Rimes, 'Can't Fight The Moonlight' was another monster hit for Diane Warren, reaching the top spot in the UK, the US and various other nations. It's unusual for Warren in that it's an up-tempo track, yet, like 'Unbreak My Heart', it's written with great singularity of purpose, panning out from the title. It too has a traditional structure (verse-bridge-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-instrumental-bridge-chorus-chorus repeat) and contains several unexpected modulations that heighten excitement and hold the listener's attention.
In particular, the verse and bridge are in C-minor, and via another II-V-I sequence (E-flat to A-flat 7th to D-flat minor) the chorus is moved up a half step to D-flat minor, creating tension and expectation, while at the end of the chorus, a G-flat minor to A-flat 7th sequence leads back into C-minor for another verse. The instrumental is in C-minor and leads to another half-step rise for the final bridge–chorus sequence, with the final chorus ending up in D-minor.
Warren: "I wrote this song for the movie Coyote Ugly, and I had to be very quick. They literally planned to release the movie just over a month later and the song had to be written and recorded, and the ending of the movie re-shot. I don't know how they did it, but they did. I think the chorus came first. Again, I liked the title, and had it before I had the music. I like titles! The key change between the verse and chorus was probably a matter of inspiration and craft at the same time. I definitely wrote it that way. Perhaps I was in a key-change mood.
"Another weird song of mine is 'Set The Night To Music' [first performed by Starship in 1987, and again by Roberta Flack and Maxi Priest in 1991]. The verse is in F and the chorus in E, but it works. Another weird key change is in 'Blame It On The Rain' [a US number one for Milli Vanilli in 1989] in which the verse is in B-flat and the chorus in E. I was bored writing the verse and my hand slipped and it sounded so cool, so I kept it. I guess you could say it was a lucky mistake. But I don't believe that there are accidents."
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