Diane Warren Talks Transforming Into 'DJ Diane' for Her Debut Album

Diane Warren
Mekael Dawson*

Diane Warren

When you hear Diane Warren talk about her life and career with an unwavering self-assuredness, you start to understand how she's been successful in a career like songwriting for so long. In the same way that she just knows, for example, that her pet cat named Rabbit is the reincarnated version of her old cat, Mouse -- "She waits for me by the shower, she licks the water off my feet like Mouse; It's not a coincidence," Warren says -- she just knows how to write a damn good song. Having penned hits for everyone from Lady Gaga to Aerosmith to Beyoncé to Celine Dion, sometimes she even knows when a song is good before the artist does (Cher, for instance, originally disliked "If I Could Turn Back Time," which became a No. 3 Hot 100 hit for her). "I just want to go, 'trust me, f-ck. I know what I'm talking about,'" she laughs.

After more than three decades of writing music for other people, Warren decided it was about time she make a project under her own name. Enter Diane Warren: The Cave Sessions Vol. 1, her debut album released Aug. 27 and comprised of 15 original tracks performed by the likes of John Legend, G-Eazy, Santana, Ty Dolla $ign, Maren Morris, Rita Ora and many more. She sees the record as leveling up her status from songwriter to DJ -- no, not the kind that spins turntables in nightclubs, though she would like to get a huge gold chain. "Don't think I won't," she jokes. Instead, the new album is an experiment in doing what artists like David Guetta or Calvin Harris do, crafting songs under their own names with featured artists performing them, just with emotional power ballads instead of EDM ragers. "It's me being DJ Diane, doing what DJ Khaled does without yelling my name at the beginning of the record," she says. "I just thought, why the f-ck can't I do that too? Why can't I do the songwriter version of that?"

It's a new approach to her craft, but not much has really changed. She's still creating songs and recruiting superstar musicians to sing them, always striving to make the best music possible and never running out of ideas -- in fact, she wrote more songs than her label would allow on Cave Sessions Vol. 1, so definitely expect a Vol. 2 in the future. What's different now is that she gets to be the star of the show instead of remaining backstage, where she's comfortably been for her entire career. She even made her very first music video appearance for the "Seaside" video, starring Rita Ora, Sofia Reyes and Reik, playing the part of bartender. "I'm not used to having my name on something," she says. "I keep forgetting that this is my record."

Below, Billboard talks with Warren about putting together her debut album, building a career that lasts and more.

How did you decide to make an album of your own? Did you know when you were writing these songs that they would be going on your album?

No. I had the John Legend song, which kind of almost started it all, because he kept saying he was going to use the song and I kept giving it to other artists and then having to pull it away from them for John to do and he kept never doing it. It's one of the best performances and songs I've ever heard in my life. I was like, "I'm determined to get this song heard." And then at the same time, I was thinking, "Yeah, why can't I do the DJ Diane thing?" And it kept shifting 'cause I kept writing new songs.

How did you go about selecting artists for the record?

I just met John at the Oscars, where he won and I lost for the 12th time. (Laughs.) And I met Pentatonix through my dentist, of all people, and I wanted to do a song with them. I love Maren Morris, and I wrote "I Save Me," and I didn't know her but I reached out to her on Twitter and sent her the song and she loved it. I'm a fan of James Arthur's voice, and when I wrote "You Go First," I really wrote it with him in mind. There's artists I really wanted to have on here. What I had fun doing was putting together, like, G-Eazy and Santana. You wouldn't think they'd be on the same song. Or giving Ty Dolla $ign "Drink You Away," which is basically a hip-hop country song. I love doing that, and it really created magic.

A couple people said no, and it's like they did me a favor because I found somebody that was better for the song. That happens to me a lot in my career. If someone doesn't want to do something, you might be bummed out for a minute and then it's like, "Thank you so much, 'cause someone way better and way bigger ended up doing this song."

Was writing for your own album different from writing for other artists?

No. It's the same thing, trying to write a great song and trying to find the perfect artist for it. It's like casting a part, and sometimes you go with the really obvious choice and sometimes you'll go with something that is totally weird and left field. Ty Dolla $ign is an example of that, you know he's never done anything like that, it's so f--king cool. The thing about this record is it's almost like a greatest hits album of songs that haven't become hits yet. I guess what makes it different is that I put it all together.

You’ve written so many commercially successful songs in your career. Are charts something you take cues from when writing?

I try not to. A lot of times people don't even remember what a No. 1 or top five song was, and I've had songs that weren't even top 10 songs that people remember. Of course, I want everything to be a hit. I can't measure what a hit song is; I can tell when it sounds like one, but it's not up to me. Hopefully people love it, but you just have to let it do whatever it's going to do. I just try to write the best song I can write every time.

You've said in the past that you're always striving for longevity in your career. Do you see this album as another push toward longevity, or more as a chance to flex your skills a little bit?

I'm in for the long game. I'm not going anywhere, this is what I do. But yeah, this record was just a chance to show what I do. It wasn't an accident that there was this variety of genres -- I wanted it to be a microcosm of my career. You wouldn't know the same person that wrote "Seaside" wrote "Drink You Away" or "She's Fire." It's just cool to remind people all that I can do. And the songs are pretty good, too. 

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