It’s a frigid winter day in a diner near New York City’s Union Square and Emily Warren is sipping on a coffee as the lunch bustle of waiters and customers zip around her. It wasn’t far from here where Warren attended New York University's Clive Davis School of Music, daydreaming a career in music armed with a ton of talent but little prospects, her only connection to the music industry being her lawyer father who played in a band.
“It’s funny, actually,” the cheery Warren says in between sips. “During my freshman year, I remember [mega producer and Dr. Luke protege] Benny Blanco came in and spoke about what he did and how he got his start. After that, I went to my dorm and started making playlists based on songwriters and producers and what each of them sounded like. It’s crazy when you don’t know about that, and then you suddenly learn. It was then I started to realize there was this whole world of pop songwriting.”
Today, Warren is moving to the top of that world thanks to a recent array of radio hits from the Frenship track “Capsize” (Warren’s first credited vocal effort) to frequent collaborator The Chainsmokers’ smash “Don’t Let Me Down” (Warren is credited as co-writer and sang on the original demo before vocalist Daya was swapped in). In fact, days after our conversation, unbeknownst to her, another Chainsmokers joint effort, the infectious “Paris,” was unleashed. “It’s hard to explain what it’s like hearing one of my songs on the radio,” she explains.
“Every time it’s like a full body takeover, just a shock. It’s so weird knowing that multiple people are hearing something you wrote. I remember I was driving to pick my friends up from the airport in L.A. I turned the radio on and it was the chorus of ‘Capsize’ with me singing and I started hysterically crying. I had to pull over because I couldn’t see. I called my dad and was trying to tell him what was happening, but I just couldn’t stop crying and he thought something was wrong.”
Despite being just 24, Warren has years of experience flexing her musical muscles, dating back to when she was a kid taking piano lessons while growing up in New York’s Upper West Side. “Me and my brother were trying to learn Beethoven and we were almost going to give up until we got this teacher, Jen Bloom, who was showing us more contemporary stuff. At the end of every lesson, she’d play us a song on her Walkman or one that she had written. I remember realizing that people wrote songs and how sick it was that she would tell a story and make a song.”
While Warren was attending New York’s prestigious Trinity High School, she founded a band dubbed Emily Warren and the Betters. “My time at Trinity was interesting,” she remembers. “It’s not such an art school; you basically go there to prepare to attend Harvard or Princeton.” As her band became locally popular, Trinity teachers grew annoyed with her dedication to music over academics. “I’d have to ask for extensions on homework because I had shows to play and they were not cool with that most of the time.” When Warren began applying to schools, she set her sights a short train ride downtown to NYU. “I remember [teachers] at the time saying that I wasn’t going to get in anywhere,” Warren says, who wound up getting accepted to the school based on her music. “It was kind of like a 'fuck you' to all of them.”
Emily Warren and the Betters never took off in the way they had hoped and as soon as college hit, the act that Warren was cultivating throughout high school split up. “When I got to school, I had this initial reaction that everyone else had their shit together and I felt like I had lost it all,” says Warren. As a result of her dejection and desperation, she scoured her contacts to find someone, anyone who she could reach out to in the industry. “I remember looking in my email to see if I knew anyone in music. Rhea’s email address popped up.” A former intern for Atlantic Records, Rhea Pasricha had seen the Betters at a small gig years earlier and said they should stay in touch.
As fate would have it, Warren reached back out to Pasricha on the exact same day she had started her new job as an A&R at producer Dr. Luke’s Prescription Songs. Pasricha, hungry for talent and remembering her initial positive impression of Warren, had her fly out to Los Angeles to visit the team and sit-in on some sessions. “They first said they wanted to wait until I finished school to sign me, but two weeks later Luke called me and was like, ‘I know we said we wanted to wait but we want you now.' I was like, ‘Yes!’ It was just crazy. I had nothing going on, no cuts, and they signed me in the summer of 2013.”
Warren wound up returning to school to finish her senior year and it was on her graduation day from NYU when she wrote “Capsize” with the pop duo Frenship and frequent co-writer Scott Hoffman. “On the way to that session, my grandma had called me and left the sweetest message about how proud she was. I wound up playing it for everyone in the room and we all started crying. We started talking about her and how she had an amazing relationship with my grandpa, where they were so in love up until he died, and how she was a quiet rock throughout all of it. That sparked all of these conversations about Frenship’s relationships about how there are things left unsaid but you have to put a face on it and act like everything's fine. That song is everyone’s own story and it’s just really honest.”
The release of “Capsize,” the first to credit Warren as a vocalist, quickly altered the trajectory of her career. “I was saying for a long time that I didn’t want to be an artist because it was really helping me get my foot in the door as a writer and helping me get in the room with other artists, since people were concerned about that. A lot of times because I was saying I wasn’t an artist, people would take me off of songs and put not as good of a vocal on it. But Frenship kept me on.”
Though she’s not credited as an artist, Warren’s voice can also be heard on “Paris,” as well as a variety of other Chainsmokers songs. It was a collaboration she was initially skeptical about. “We kept getting asked to pitch songs to them and it was just so funny that the ‘Selfie’ guys wanted to do song-songs. It was just bizarre… I remember people thought 'Selfie' was kind of a joke.” After their first session where they created the future smash “Don’t Let Me Down” (a song inspired by getting lost at the Coachella festival), Warren still had her doubts. “We left the session and were walking down the hallway to the elevator and Scott was like, ‘Was that good?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, I think he really likes it?’ Drew [Taggart, of The Chainsmokers] heard us and he opens the door and goes, ‘It’s a fucking smash! Everyone loves it! It’s gonna be big!’ I would have never have guessed what would happen with it.”
Thanks to her recent line of radio smashes, Warren is now in the same distinguished pop songwriter club that Benny Blanco spoke about when she was just a student back at NYU, and is quickly morphing into another one of Dr. Luke’s proteges. Despite the recent controversies surrounding the mega producer, Warren has only positive sentiments when it comes to working with him and his team. “The one thing with Luke is that he doesn’t sign anyone that he wouldn’t want to hang out with. That’s really important to him. I have nothing but nice things to say about everyone who works and is signed there. We’re a family and if you talk to anyone else, they’ll tell you the same.”
Now she’s continuing to write, albeit for herself. Buoyed by her successes behind the scenes, Warren is currently crafting her debut studio album as an artist. “I love both writing songs to get my story out, and writing with other people and helping them get their story out,” says Warren, who after our interview hopped on a flight to London where she continues to craft her album. “I’ll get messages all the time about how these songs help people get through stuff and make them feel a certain way. It’s great.”