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If you spent any time at all making out in a car or a wood-paneled basement in the ’80s or ’90s, inelegantly fumbling in the dark with bra clasps and button-fly jeans, chances are that at some point a Diane Warren song came wafting over the radio, and even though you probably weren’t really paying attention to it, it provided the all-important aural backdrop to your obscenely horny teenage makeout session.
Though she’s essentially unknown to the general public, Warren is the writer behind more than a hundred Billboard chart songs, many of them the heart-swelling, tear-jerking love anthems that today appear on not-available-in-stores power-ballad compilations. She created the tracks that propelled dozens of artists to superstardom, from groups we can hardly remember (Boyz II Men, The Scorpions, Heart) to ones we can’t avoid (Jessica Simpson, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey). Cher’s infamous singing-to-sailors-in-my-panties video for “If I Could Turn Back Time” began with Warren. “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” performed in 1987 by Starship (who stopped shortly thereafter) is Warren’s handiwork as well. When “Blame It On The Rain” launched Milli Vanilli toward the Grammy that ultimately felled their careers, they might have blamed it on Warren instead. Her songs have been in movies like Mannequin, Coyote Ugly and Con Air. Belinda Carlisle’s “I Get Weak,” Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around” are all Warren’s. So are the most recognizable songs from Meat Loaf, Michael Bolton and Tiffany. And there are so many more.
A workaholic who’s devoted her career to musically facilitating the love lives of millions of strangers, Warren is a paradox. She turned fifty last month, and yet she’s never been married and she’s never been in love. She works all day long in a small, dusty office with a keyboard and a guitar, penning the love songs that, in accumulation, now earn her royalties of around $20 million dollars a year. A rapid-fire talker with a Valley Girl accent, she spoke to Nerve about being the most famous, most anonymous musician in the industry, and why not having anyone to sing to is okay with her. — Arianne Cohen
Your songs are catchy. Do they get stuck in your head?
Yeah, they stick in mine, too. It was really crazy last night. At two a.m., a song I’m writing came into my mind and I couldn’t go to sleep for over an hour.
I read once that you’ve never cleaned your writing office.
Yeah, I’ve had a room for twenty-one years that I’ve never cleaned. Some people call it the Cave. I just call it my writing room.
Why haven’t you cleaned it?
You know, it’s just too much of a mess now. I don’t like moving things around. Mainly I’m superstitious. But at this point, it’s just too much to even deal with. Papers. Tapes. Cassettes. And cockroaches, probably. Dust. Phone messages from 1985.
How many songs have you written in the Cave?
I kind of lost count. Maybe a couple thousand.
What is your writing process?
My process is this: I show up, I sit down at the piano or the guitar and see what happens, you know? I always say it’s like method songwriting. While I’m writing that song, I’m feeling that emotion. I write every day.
Am I interrupting?
Yeah, bye. [Laughs] No.
So why are most of your songs love songs?
Love makes the world go round, I guess. I don’t know anything about love, really. It’s not from personal experience. I just like to write emotional songs.
What do you mean that it’s not from personal experience?
Well, I haven’t fallen in love before, really.
Not really. I’m in love with music. I try to come up with [song] ideas, and I never really analyze it. My shrink finds it interesting.
What does she say?
I can’t say.
She’s the one who can’t say. You can say whatever you want.
[Laughs] She’d say that it’s an interesting dichotomy. Di-chotomy, Di being my name.
But your songs do give the impression that you know quite a lot about pining for love and unrequited love and the loss of love.
You know, I’ve had my heart broken before. It doesn’t have to be from a love relationship. And I know about pain. It’s like, you don’t have to jump off a building to know what it’s like — you can kind of imagine what it’s going to feel like without having to go through it. That’s a bad metaphor.
No, it works quite well, actually.
That could be a good metaphor for love. It’s great, you’re flying and then all of a sudden . . . oh, splat! Maybe that’s a good metaphor. That’s “Un-break My Heart.”
The song “Un-break My Heart” was like the anthem of my high school swim team. Nobody was particularly heartbroken, we just liked kneeling on the pool deck and belting it out.
Thank you. Thank all the swimmers. I’m so glad they didn’t drown. [Singing with opera-singer voice] Un-swimmm my laapppps . . .
Why have you never been in love?
I’m probably too selfish and too self-obsessed with my music. I mean, all I care about is my music. Really, it’s true. It’s what I live for. See, my assistant’s sitting here going, “Yeah, it is true. She doesn’t give a shit about me.” [Assistant laughs]
Do you date?
Not really. I’ve been in a few semi-serious relationships. But I don’t like all that dating stuff.
I don’t know. It’s, like, too much work.
But you realize that you’re responsible for millions of couplings. You write the anthems that other people listen to on their dates.
That they fall in love to. That they get married to. That they date to. Cry to. I know, it’s weird.
When was your most recent relationship?
Oh, years ago. It didn’t work out.
Boy, you’re getting personal. Because, um, because it just didn’t. And we went our separate ways and I was more into my music and I still am. Really, I have a one-track mind.
Or an eight-track mind.
Twenty-four track. Fifty-two track. Ten-thousand track. And none of them are people.
Have you ever written songs that are reflective of your life?
[Laughs] A song about workaholics wouldn’t be an interesting song. One of the songs I wrote and have coming out is called “I Belong to Me,” by Jessica Simpson. Which is ironically not on her album, because they threw it off right before the album came out, and then they found out it was the hit. But that’s one of the closer songs to me, because I feel that. I don’t need someone to complete me. I complete myself. I don’t believe that you need a person to complete you. That’s my philosophy.
Do you regret not having a partner?
No, I don’t. I’m very self-sufficient. I like my own space. I mean, why does everybody need to be with somebody? I don’t understand that. I really don’t. You know, somebody doesn’t complete you. Like my song [“I Believe in Me”], you know? It’s like, dude, I don’t need you to complete me. I make a good living. I don’t need to deal with anybody else’s problems. I have enough of my own.
You’re often the hidden creator working behind famous people. How do you feel about that?
I’m fine with that. I don’t want to be in the spotlight. I have stage fright. It’s nice that people know my name and know my work, but I don’t have to be a recognizable face. Can you imagine living like that? I see artists, I’ll be out with them, and there’s the cameras and this and that. I’m like, “No thanks.” No one’s doing that with me, thankfully.
Perhaps that’s because the famous people are out while you’re doing their work for them.
Exactly [laughs]. No, they’re bringing songs to life. That’s their job. Their job is to be in the public eye, and that’s not mine, and I’ll happily give them that job. Leave my name on the check, thank you.
Is it true that you bring in $20 million a year in royalties from old songs?
It depends on the year. I’ve had good years like that before.
You’re also one of the most dominant women in the music industry.
Well, I never looked at it like I’m a woman. Being a “female songwriter” is ghettoizing. Tell me how many guys do what I do, write by themselves and have their own publishing company and have this many genres of music. I’m not saying that to brag, but that’s a fact. Either the song’s good or not, and it’s not because I’m a woman.
Do you have any qualms about your songs being used in commercials or movies?
If it’s a commercial, it has to be the right commercial. I have no problem with songs in commercials. I mean, I’m an animal lover and I wouldn’t want [them used in] anything that would harm an animal. As for movies, I like my songs being used in movies.
Can you predict which of your songs will make the charts?
You know, you never know. I could say that this song sounds like a hit, but I can’t ensure all of the fifty other things that go into making it one will happen. Will it be promoted? Will it be recorded right? Will it be sung right? Will radio want to play it? Will there be ten other songs by bigger artists out that week? There’s a million things. I know when they sound like hits.
What’s a song that you really loved that you thought would make it but didn’t?
I have so many of them. “Painted On My Heart,” when The Cult did it for Gone in 60 Seconds. A song The Pretenders did called “Loving You Is All I Know.” “We Can,” by LeAnn Rimes for Legally Blonde. You know, there’s a lots of songs that I was kind of shocked they weren’t hits. They just sounded like hits. But if they’re not promoted . . . Everything has to kind of fall together for it to work.
What makes a good love song?
It’s what makes a good song. It has to make you feel something. It has to have a great melody, and a lyric that you can relate to, and they have to flow together and feel right.
You seem to have tapped into the sentiment of the masses when it comes to romance. Are you sensing into what society is feeling, or are we following your lead?
I don’t think about it. I just write what I want to hear. I don’t think, Is this mass appeal? I’m not consciously thinking like that. Anytime you do conscious thinking, it gets contrived.
You were on American Idol for a night that featured your songs. What was that like?
It was fun. I had a great time and the kids were cool. And it was neat to have a night of my songs — that was awesome. The show is such a pop-culture phenomenon, and to be part of that was cool. I just remember being really nervous.
Let’s play a game. Tell me the perfect Diane Warren songs for the following scenarios.
Ready? A lunch date.
I wouldn’t even know what a lunch date is.
It’s like an exploratory lunch. It’s sort of serious, but because it’s lunch, it’s not so serious.
Okay. “I Belong to Me.” You’re not sure about them yet.
A dinner date.
“I Could Not Ask For More.” Because you know you want to eat, but you don’t want to get stuffed.
The post-date makeout session.
Well, if you want to be really needy, it could be “How Do I Live Without You.” But it wouldn’t be me saying any of these. I would be like, “Get out of here.”
“Too Lost In You.”
I’m trying to think of a song about getting out or leaving. I don’t know. [Asks assistant] We think “Rhythm of the Night.”
All four of these songs you chose are about both romance and sex at the same time. In your opinion, are these things inseparable?
I don’t know much about either of them. I guess it depends on what you want.
So when you say you’re a romantic, what does that mean?
I’m a cynical romantic. Deep inside, I guess I believe in love. Or something like that.
© 2006 Arianne Cohen& Nerve.com