Diane Warren is a living songwriting legend, whose music has been a healing power, a catalyst for change, and an endless source of inspiration for several generations of music listeners and creators alike. Her universally relatable songs have topped the charts for decades, have appeared in over 100 major motion pictures, and been performed by an extensive roster of musical icons, including Whitney Houston, Elton John, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Aerosmith, Beyoncé, Eric Clapton, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand, and countless others. Throughout her decorated career, Diane's deeply artistic work has garnered her numerous prestigious awards including a Grammy for "Because You Loved Me" by Celine Dion, an Emmy for "Til It Happens To You" by Lady Gaga, and a Golden Globe for "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" by Cher. In 2001, she was both inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and given her very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In our focused conversation, Diane reveals the creative motivations behind several of her most globally minded songs and the mindset it takes to build a legacy.
Congratulations on your ninth Oscar nomination for "Best Original Song". "Stand Up For Something" from Marshall has an incredibly potent message, illustrating a commitment to social justice, equal rights, and love in action. What specific inspirations did you draw from Thurgood Marshall’s life and career?
The song is a call to action. Thurgood Marshall was somebody who truly stood up. He stood up in a time where you were risking your life every day. Everything he did was for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. It’s a beautiful movie. He wasn’t a saint, he was a flawed person. I loved that the film showed all these sides to him.
Being Jewish, it was important to me to see Josh Gad’s character, Sam Friedman and the way he fought against anti-Semitism. I’m glad the movie showed that as well. In this age, Neo-Nazis are marching down the street in Charlottesville, not even bothering to wear hoods anymore. In 2017, they have the nerve to say “Jews will not replace us”. This is literally happening now. Time has passed, but nothing is any different. You realize nothing’s changed and if we don’t stand up, nothing will change. It all means nothing without resistance. What do you have if you don’t have your integrity?
Outside of the movie, this song is about standing up for rights. Animal rights, human rights, civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, religious rights. Any rights that are under attack. I’m leaving out a lot of others, but all our rights are under attack and we don’t have the option to sit by.
The treatment for “Stand Up For Something” recalls 1960’s soul music and channels resonances from classic protest songs. What themes from this era of music informed your creative process?
It’s interesting. I was going for that sound. When I wrote it, my intention was to write a song that could have been written in that ‘60s era. I listened to a lot of songs like “Change is Gonna Come” because I felt like it would help me to tap into that same inspiration and create a song to march to, a song to change the world to. I wanted to write something that could have been sung by Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin. I came up with the line “It all means nothing if you don’t stand up for something”. I scribbled that onto the script after reading it. I thought if I could write that kind of song and make it modern, it would turn into something truly special. After that, I thought “why wouldn’t we put a rap verse on a song like this?”. Rap didn’t even exist in the 60’s, so taking this kind of song and adding a modern rap would make it fresh and amazing. That’s how the idea of including Common came about.
I was also trying to capture something from an era of unrest. Civil rights, horrible racism. Songs have the power to change things, the power to inspire people to want to change and stand up. This song is so timely, even more so now than at the end of 2016 when I wrote it. We don’t even have an option to do anything but stand up. Every day, there is another tragedy. Look at what keeps happening all over the country. People even have to stand up for the right to go to a concert without being afraid. We have to change the gun laws. Now is the best time to stand up. Music wakes people up. Once you're woke, you don't go back to sleep. That's how I look at it. I think people are waking up now.
Hip-hop titan, Common is a co-writer on “Stand Up For Something”, as well as a featured artist alongside soulful songstress, Andra Day. I read that he became involved with the project after you happened to be sitting in front of him on a flight headed to Sundance Film Festival. Can you tell us about your experience with the two of them to complete this moving piece of music?
Common has something to say. He’s so eloquent. I knew him from back when he beat me the seventh time I was nominated at the Oscars for my song “Grateful” from the movie, Beyond The Lights. Common and John Legend were nominated for “Glory” from Selma and of course, they won. We met at that time and talked about doing something together. While working on this song, I thought “you know what? This should be the song we collaborate on.”
Literally not even a week later, I’m on a plane going to the Sundance Film Festival. When I have to buy my own ticket, I don’t opt for first class because I’m usually too cheap to do that, but this time, I was like “I’m just gonna do it”. So, I’m on the plane and right in back of me is Common. It was weird. I literally turned around and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I was just thinking about you for this song.” I sang him the chorus and he goes “I love that. When we land, get the song.” I sent him the song and the next day, I had all these missed calls. Finally, we talked and he goes “I have to be a part of this song. Can I please?”. What he came up with was fantastic. It was so inspired. We both believe the song's bigger than us. I felt when I wrote it that it would be a really important song, so I wanted everything to be perfect. When Common wrote his rap, he felt the same way and really took his time with it. It is just phenomenal.
At first, I thought the song would be sung by a male singer and Reggie Hudlin, the director was like “No. I want a female singer.” My response was “Ok, there’s only one person. That’s Andra Day.” She loved the song. Luckily, she did the song and they’re really happy with the response. When I wrote the song after reading the script, I didn’t realize she’d actually be in the movie as well. When they put the demo in the film, it was like “Wow, this is crazy”.
Your original music has been featured in over 100 motion pictures. What initially attracted you to writing songs for film? What do you perceive to be the core differences between composing material for the silver screen and working on designated artist projects?
You know, it starts with the same basic premise. I try to write the greatest song possible. When it’s for a movie, it’s different because you want to write something that captures the message of the entire film, especially if it’s an end credits song. I have a computer in my brain, so when I see a movie or read a script, I just let it sink in. I think of what I want to hear at the end of the movie. Once I conceptualize it, I think of what will bring it all together. A song can really elevate something.
My first big hit from a movie was “Rhythm of the Night” performed by DeBarge from Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. My first Oscar nomination was for the film, “Mannequin”, which is about a guy who has a sexual relationship with a mannequin. The track was called “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”. It was actually used as their wedding song.
When it comes to writing, can you describe your creative work flow? Do you have any engrained habits or specific rituals to initiate the process?
I show up. It’s simple as that. I show up and get to work. I don’t know what my process is except for that.
Your Oscar-nominated song "'Til It Happens To You" in collaboration with Lady Gaga, received widespread acclaim and became an anthem for victims of sexual assault and people who have suffered grievous loss. Did it feel prophetic to have released this song ahead of the last Presidential election and the newly reinvigorated women's movement? In your opinion, what about this song makes it resonate so deeply with so many?
Music is so inspirational, you know. I am so proud of the fact that it got the conversation started about sexual assault and gave it some ammunition. That led to the Me Too movement. This song really opened up the door and it’s a great thing. It even got me to be able to talk about my own experience with something like that. I know the power of a song and it has the ability to change the way people see and understand things. I believe “Til It Happens To You” changed the dialogue and did just that. It’s a very personal song and it really affects people. Even before the Oscar performance and in all of the rehearsals, Gaga was afraid. It was painful for her.
There’s a reason for what this song has become. Within the context of The Hunting Ground and the topic of sexual assault, this song has real meaning. It can change shape to be about anything. It can be about being bullied. It can be about losing someone you love. It can be about depression. It can be about whatever you are going through that's really hard for you to handle. It's got you at the lowest possible place that you can be and the people around you are trying to do the right thing and be a friend. I’ve been on the other side of this before. I’ve done that with my friends. I think that’s why this song connected so deeply with a lot of people. It’s angry. It says “Who are you to tell me how I feel? Who are you to tell me it’s getting better? No way. Until you walk where I walk, it’s all talk.”
In a way, this song and “Stand Up For Something” are almost part of the same narrative. It’s the next logical step. You go from being upset to taking action and exacting the change you need in your life.
"Grateful" from Beyond The Lights acknowledges the joy and pain of lives lived fully. The path to becoming one of the most celebrated songwriters of all time surely has not been without obstacles. What personal experiences of yours contributed to the story of this song and what has kept your inspiration flourishing over the years?
I’m always inspired because I want to accomplish something better and I’m always striving to write great songs. As far as “Grateful” goes, I really believe in what that song says. Even if you have to go through a lot of pain, if you learn from it, you’ll come out on the other side a lot stronger. Without going through the tough times, you wouldn’t end up in the place you’re meant to be. I firmly believe in the line “Grateful for the wrong ones, ‘cause they led me to the right ones”. You have to endure.
You wrote "I Was Here" for Beyoncé, which The United Nations used to launch World Humanitarian Day with its music video. How did this elegant and earth shaking anthem come into existence?
I was waiting for a friend of mine to come over to my house and he ended up being three hours late. I had my guitar out and I came up with the line “I wanna leave my footprints on the sands of time”. I thought “Oh, that’s a really great line”. I almost always start with the chorus, but this was the opening line of the first verse. When my friend finally arrived, I thanked them for being late instead of being mad because I felt like I was on the path to writing my best song. I was so thrilled with it.
I thought it could be a good fit for a couple different people, but the main artist that came to mind was Beyoncé. A lot of the time, my songs can go in a lot of different directions. I also thought to send it to Simon Cowell for Susan Boyle, Leona Lewis, or someone from that camp.
I sent my rough guitar track of just me performing it to Simon. He’s a friend of mine. I also reached out to Jay-Z on the phone, told him about the song, and played it for him. He said “Ok. Stay where you are. I am going to have Beyoncé call you in half an hour when she gets off the plane.” She literally called me and I played her the song over the phone on my guitar. She told me that her album was supposed to be turned in that Friday. This was on a Monday. She said she would stop her whole album to record the song that Wednesday.
The crazy thing was that on Thursday morning, I woke up to a rejection e-mail from Simon Cowell’s people with the comment “Oh, this song’s okay. It doesn’t go all the way for us.” It’s still my favorite e-mail because the night before, Beyoncé nailed the vocal. It was like “That’s okay. I was in the studio with the biggest artist on the planet last night. Funny enough, it went all the way for her.” Then the video came out and a billion people saw it that day. It’s still one of my favorite songs.
When you began your career as a songwriter, did you ever imagine that your music would obtain such profound global impact?
I always knew I was going to be successful. There was no plan B. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be successful. I always thought my songs were going to become big at some point. Maybe not to this extent because you never know how things will end up exactly, but I certainly foresaw that I would be a successful songwriter because I was never ever going to stop. I don’t have it in me to ever give up. To this day, I’m the exact same way.
Has your perspective evolved regarding the power of music for social commentary and activism over the course of your career?
Yes because I’ve witnessed it with the songs I’ve written and seen the power they have manifested. It’s amazing. Talking about “I Was Here”, that song has gone on to become a graduation standard at schools all over the place. The funny thing is that I was kicked out of two schools. I didn’t even graduate. It’s kind of ironic.
Songs can change the world. They change the conversation of the world. Changing the conversation is how the world changes. That starts the domino effect.
How do you perceive the contemporary music landscape? Are there notable differences from when you first began? Who are some of your favorite artists right now?
There is a lot of great production out there. There is still some really good music and some great songs being put out.
I will say that I’m not hearing great singers coming out of our country. The best singers are surfacing in the U.K. and other places. I am excited by people who can really tell a story. As a songwriter, I love voices. I am always looking for singers. We have Adele. This guy, Rag'n'Bone Man. I absolutely love his voice. We also have Andra Day. To me, she is just as good as Adele.
As one of the most prolific and famous songwriters of our time, to what do you owe your success and what are some of the things you are still looking to accomplish in your career?
I owe my success to my talent, but without the hard work, I would have nothing. That’s really it. I’ve never stopped being excited about writing great songs.
The future holds more songs and working with more artists. Who knows what could happen? Anything could happen. I am always looking forward to doing great work and sharing it with the world.
Tune into ABC on March 4th at 5 pm for the 90th Academy Awards to cheer Diane on!
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Ruby Gartenberg, Paul Goldowitz
Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Diane Warren and Jeff Sanderson of Chasen & Co.