Photo: Mekael Dawson
Diane Warren Offers Candid Advice To Budding Songwriters, Reflects On Her Beginnings: "I Got A Lot Of Doors Slammed In My Face"
If Diane Warren were to publish a manual of creative advice, it'd probably be as thick as a tract and be titled "Try To Suck Less."
Over the years, the GRAMMY winner and 15-time nominee has been as prolific as all get-out, but it hasn't led to even a little bit of flowery self-regard. Instead, Warren's blunt axioms match her nervy, intense personality.
If you want to write songs, she says, do it or don't. Try to get better at it. And believe in yourself, damn it.
"I've never had a real problem with believing in myself. Even when I didn't have a reason to — even when I sucked," she tells GRAMMY.com. "But you've got to have that, too. You've got to believe, man."
After decades of writing hit songs for superstars like Beyoncé and blockbuster films such as Armageddon (she single-handedly penned Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"), Warren finally gave her voice the spotlight on her debut album, 2021's The Cave Sessions, Vol. 1. Featuring luminaries from Carlos Santana to John Legend to Ty Dolla $ign, the record capped off an astonishing year for Warren.
For newer songwriters checking out the Recording Academy's new Songwriters & Composers Wing in search of sage advice, here's what Warren has to say about her bullish creative mindset and the artist she "can't f***ing believe" recorded her song.
What are some helpful tips for emerging songwriters?
Keep working hard. Keep pushing your stuff. It comes down to being great at what you do, and then working hard to get your songs heard. If you're an artist, playing everywhere. I think clubs are back open, right? Just build an audience however that people build an audience these days.
It seems like record companies don't just sign someone that hasn't put in [the work]. You have to build yourself to a certain level before a label will even look at you.
What do you remember from your own beginnings, when you were trying to get heard?
I just knocked on everyone's doors. I knocked on publishers' doors. I got a lot of doors slammed in my face. I don't mind. It's cool.
What was the first big door that was opened for you?
I was signed to a guy that produced Laura Branigan back in the day. His name was Jack White — the German Jack White, not the White Stripes' Jack White. That was the first artist to do my songs. I was signed through him to Arista Publishing — somebody over there named Linda Blum.
She got me involved in writing the song "Rhythm of the Night" for DeBarge. That buffed me up. That was the first song where I wrote words and music by myself. That was the first big hit I had, and it kind of opened doors. Nothing like a hit to open doors! That's the way it is.
After that, what was the first big hurdle you faced?
There weren't really big hurdles. I just kept trying to write great songs. I guess there were hurdles, but I didn't pay attention to them. I just went on, moved on, pushed on.
Where did you get your boundless confidence?
I've never had a real problem with believing in myself. Even when I didn't have a reason to — even when I sucked, when I started out. But you've got to have that, too. You've got to believe, man. You've got to believe in yourself. You do.
What about when someone is feeling self-doubt? How do they push through that?
I don't know. Maybe their songs suck — I don't know! I don't know how to give an answer to that. Just make your songs not suck.
Maybe it helps to look at the greats — Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach. Maybe steal something from them and remix it.
Or come up with your own s***! Even better!
The Beatles borrowed from other songs all the time.
Right, or they'd be inspired by something. I did a song for Ringo last year called "Here's to the Nights," and Paul McCartney is singing on it. I have two Beatles singing on my song, which is f***ing unreal. I still can't believe it. Other people were singing on it too, but… Ringo and Paul!
Ringo's a great guy. I don't know Paul that well, but I admire the s*** out of both of them.
I didn't know you wrote "Here's to the Nights." That's a great one.
Thank you. Isn't that cool? The whole concept was my idea because Ringo asked me for the song. I have songs that are waiting for a home. They're just kind of there because they're great songs. And I thought, "Oh, I have an idea. Ringo, let's get some old friends and new friends to sing this song with you."
So, of course, I was thinking of Paul McCartney. He reached out to Paul, and Paul was the first person to say yes. And then, we have FINNEAS, Chris Stapleton, Larry Kravitz, Sheryl Crow, Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh on there. But the meat of that is Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, so that's pretty f***ing awesome.
How did you come up with the germ of that tune?
I just liked the concept: "Here's to the nights we won't remember/ With the friends we can't forget." It's kind of a pub song — an anthemic, pub kind of song.
Did you have an out-of-body experience when you realized a Beatle wanted to record your song?
I did. I still can't believe it. It's still "pinch me." Even if I watch it now, I'm like, "F***. I can't f***ing believe that." The little-kid me — wow.
Are you working on anything right now that you're especially psyched about?
There are a million things I'm working on. Movie things. I've been nominated for 12 Oscars, so I'm going to try again this year. There's another song I wrote for Reba McEntire called "Somehow You Do" for a Glenn Closemovie, Four Good Days. It's a great song and a powerful movie.
I'm just doing that and working with artists — tons of artists. I'm just doing what I do.