Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren is surely the only one who thinks she is not worthy of receiving ASCAP’s Founders Award. Warren will accept the honor, handed out to pioneering songwriters for their exceptional contributions to music, at the rights organization’s annual Pop Music Awards on May 18 at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles.
“It’s strange. I feel like I haven’t achieved enough to get this yet,” she tells Billboard. “I feel like I’m just starting out in a lot of ways.”
She may feel that way, but since her first hit 34 years ago (Laura Branigan’s “Solitaire”), Warren, 59, has scored 32 top 10s on the Billboard Hot 100, including nine No. 1s. She’s written songs for a tremendously wide range of artists, from Whitney Houston to Elton John, Willie Nelson to Snoop Dogg. On top of that, she's received eight Oscar nominations, most recently in 2016 for “Til It Happens To You” from the campus assault documentary, The Hunting Ground.
For Warren, her songs have served as “passports,” she says, gaining her entry to corridors she would have thought closed to her. “I was like a juvenile delinquent college drop out that would never get to go to the White House,” she says, referencing her many trips to the White House under the Obama administration. “I get to meet all these interesting people with these songs -- new artists, different artists. Even right now I’m doing so many different things.”
Warren prefers looking forward than looking back -- she has new cuts coming on projects from Willie Nelson, Jason Derulo and Demi Lovato -- but she took a trip back in time to talk to Billboard about some of the songs that have meant the most to her over her prolific career.
“Rhythm of The Night,” DeBarge (1985): It was the first massive, worldwide hit that I ever had. It was the first of many hits I wrote on my own and that was the one that put me on the map. That will always remain special. I was such a fan of Motown so it was cool that my first big hit was on Motown. I remember going to Russia years ago with a group of songwriters -- I was talking to this Russian guy through an interpreter and he was asking me what songs I’d written. I brought [this song] up and he didn’t even speak English and he went “DeBarge!” and starting singing it. You realize that the power of music is unstoppable.
“Because You Loved Me,” Celine Dion (1996): That song was a cool way to thank my dad for believing in me. Even though I didn’t have the most perfect relationship with my parents, my dad was really supportive. Even though I wrote that song for Up Close and Personal, I got to tap into that. Writing that song I kind of surprised myself -- I don’t think I was as good as that song when I wrote it. I went to another level with that song. That song became this huge wedding song. I always felt subversive about that. People are getting married to it all over the place. It’s not "because you love me," it’s "because you loved me," but that was always kind of funny to me in a cool way.
“How Do I Live,” LeAnn Rimes, Trisha Yearwood (1997): It’s definitely my biggest hit, even though technically it wasn’t a No. 1 record. It sold 15 to 20 million singles. I acted really innocent, but I was kind of behind getting both versions out at the same time. LeAnn did a a great version of it for Con Air, but [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer wasn’t happy with it and wanted some changes for the movie. I was trying to tell LeAnn’s dad, Wilbur, "Just change it for the movie and you’ll still have your great record," and he said, "I ain’t changing nothing for those Hollywood people," so Jerry asked me if Trisha could sing it in the movie. I just kind of worked all the angles and they both put it out. I should have gotten an Oscar for that, just for that performance [Laughs]. I love both versions. Trisha won a Grammy for it, LeAnn had a monster hit all over the world.
“I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing,” Aerosmith (1998): People love that song. I remember Steven Tyler did some interviews and said, "Well, it’s the last time we’re going to sell out and do a Diane Warren song." Yeah, well, that changed really quick [after it went No. 1]. They did more songs of mine and it hasn’t hurt their touring. I think I said something to him like, "Dude, that’s mean. You don’t have to say mean s--t. It’s all good. We all did good with each other." I wasn’t even in a fight with him, I just remember calling him and he said "I didn’t really mean it." I’ve done other stuff with them through the years.
“I Was Here,” Beyonce (2011): It’s really become this graduation anthem, so it’s kind of cool for someone who got kicked out of two schools and barely graduated to have a graduation theme. I played it on the phone for Jay Z and he loved it. At the same time, I sent it to Simon Cowell, thinking it could be for Leona Lewis or Susan Boyle. Jay Z said, "I’m going to have Beyonce call you." It was on a Monday. The album was due to be turned in that Friday. She said, "I’m stopping my whole album and I’m coming to record the vocal." I was in the studio with her, and in the morning I got a rejection letter from someone at Simon’s office [saying], "This song just doesn’t go all the way for us." It was my favorite email to write back because I was like, "That’s ok. I’m in the studio with the biggest artist on the planet and it kind of went all the way for her. All good."
“Til It Happens To You,” Lady Gaga (2015): If I had to choose in my career what’s the most important song, probably it’s "Til It Happens To You" because that song had such an impact. It happens at least once a week someone’s going to call me or write me about what that song did for them. It helped give voice to people. It even gave voice to me. I was molested when I was kid and I never talked about it. Lady Gaga did such an amazing performance and really made that song her own. Without her, it wouldn’t have gotten heard, so I’m eternally thankful and I know it meant a lot to her as well. When I do a song for a movie, obviously the first thing it has to do is fit the movie, but the next thing I try to do is people can adapt it to be whatever they want it to be, like if you’re bullied in school or if you lost someone. The goal in that song was that it could be universal. That song won me my first Emmy, it got me halfway to an EGOT.
“This is For My Girls,” Various Artists (2016): What a cool f--king thing that is. I just went to a store and saw a card that’s a cartoon of James Corden, Missy Elliott and Michelle Obama doing my song. That’s f--king cool. I got to know Michelle Obama, who’s just an amazing human being. How cool to have Missy Elliott rap on my song? Janelle Monae, Kelly Clarkson, Kelly Rowland. It’s the whole Let Girls Learn movement. It’s a really empowering song. We license it a lot for commercials. I went to the White House for the [Obamas’] going away party and I had to clean up the lyric: "This is for my girls all around the world/ stand up hold your head up/ don’t take no s--t from nobody" to “don’t take nothing from nobody." I found Michelle and I said, "Can you and me sing it right now with the [original] lyrics?" It was awesome. We didn’t film that one.