Diane Warren grew up in the San Fernando Valley listening to top 40 radio. Little did she know then that she would one day rule the charts. With nine songs peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Warren has locked up the charts for years with her ballads of love and heartache.
To honor her achievements, Warren will be the recipient of the inaugural Hollywood Reporter/Billboard Film and TV Music Career Achievement Award.
Here, she sits down with Billboard to talk about music, movies, TV and how a Valley Girl became a songwriting icon.
What are you working on now?
Oh, God, I’m working on so many things. I just did a song for Jennifer Hudson and for the Pussycat Dolls. I have a great song Whitney Houston’s doing that I think she’s going to sing as her comeback song. It’s called “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and I really wrote it for her-and I don’t really write songs for people a lot of times, but I wrote that for her. She sounds great from what I heard.
I’m also working with Tokio Hotel. I just did a song that Akon did, I did something that Sean Kingston’s doing, and I’ll be working with Leona [Lewis] and Chris Brown on their upcoming albums.
How about on the film music side?
I just did something real big for Jerry Bruckheimer’s new movie “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” It’s a really cute movie.
How does that work-do you read the script and write the song?
This time I saw the movie. I’d always rather see the movie because I have ADD and reading a script is hard. [With a script] it’s like, “And then we cut to . . . and then we . . . da, da, da . . .,” and it’s like, “Oh, God, just get to the end, let’s write the song already.” I saw the movie a few weeks ago and went back to my office and wrote a really cool song. I’m excited and he loves it-Jerry Bruckheimer is kind of hard to please. He knows what he wants and he’s really smart. I’d rather have that-at least there’s a point of view and a vision.
It’s interesting how TV and film have become major places to discover music. It seems like radio is kind of falling by the wayside.
Radio is so fragmented and there’s only certain things radio is going to play. But people like a lot of different kinds of music and they still love songs. [Placement in TV and film] is important because it’s getting to the heart of America and the people.
And you have songs from movies that have hit and then rebounded in TV to hit again.
“There You’ll Be” is a hit again in England. Here’s a song I wrote for “Pearl Harbor” that was a massive worldwide hit for Faith Hill seven years ago. I was talking to somebody about it and they said, “Did you write ‘There You’ll Be’?” and I go, “Yeah,” and he told me where to look on [U.K. talent competition show] “X Factor” and he says, “Your song’s in the top five.” I go, ‘What? Seven years later?”
Well, what it was, was that this young girl who auditioned with “There You’ll Be” and her mother had passed away and she was talking about it and it was really emotional. One of the judges-not Simon [Cowell] of course-this woman judge cried and then they played a tiny bit of the Faith Hill version. It was really touching, and now it’s on the top five. That’s the power of a great song and a touching performance. It’s never going to stop. What’s never going to stop is people touched by a great song, however they do it or see it. When something is undeniable it’s going to resonate.
It’s funny, I was working and the TV was on and “Coyote Ugly” [for which Warren wrote four songs] was on. And I turned the channel and the song I did for “Star Trek: Enterprise” was on right when I turned the channel. And I’m like, “Oh, my God, two of my songs were just on!” . . . This is so cool-I worked on it in my little room and somehow that got into the world.
You’re friends with Simon Cowell, and besides being a judge he’s executive producer on “X Factor.” Have you talked to him about it?
I think he’s out of town but I will give him a call. I mean it’s cool-but he didn’t do it on purpose. It just happened. It just shows you the power of it.
What’s your creative process like? How do you know when a song is done?
I’m writing some of my best songs right now. I know when I’m done because it tells me that it’s done. It’s weird; they have their own mind. I’m not one of those people that rewrite constantly, I just know when the song is done-but I’m going to get it as perfect as it can be till then. To get the lyrics exactly right, I guess that would probably be the hardest [part]. That’s why I’ll spend a day on a couple of lines sometimes-it’s my one chance to get something perfect. But then of course it can get fucked up by the producers at the top of the company. When I’m done with it, it’s perfect in my eyes, and then it’s not up to me anymore. Sadly.
How has technology affected songwriting?
The power of the single has always been there, since the ’50s and the early ’60s, before there [were] “album artists.” It was always about the single and really, people still want to buy a song they love. Nothing has really changed, except now a lot of people don’t really pay for it.
People [have] always wanted a song and a lot of times it was [on] crap records-an album that’s a bunch of fillers that some artist got a publishing deal for and wrote most of the songs, and maybe the songs sucked and aren’t up to par. They weren’t quality. Why is somebody going to spend whatever they’re going to spend if there’s only one good song or two good songs?
Then the record company starts taking the singles off of the market, and it’s bad timing because the Internet happened and Napster. People are going to find a way to get what they want. So you stop a single, they still don’t want to buy an album with a bunch of bad songs on it, so they’re going to find a way to get that song.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I’m always inspired. I love the [pressure] to write better songs because I think I’m writing my best songs now-but maybe I’ll be writing better songs in a month. It’s exciting and to me it’s always about learning-it’s so different from Tokio Hotel to Jennifer Hudson to Sean Kingston.
You’re deeply involved in a number of charities. What’s close to your heart right now?
I give a lot to animals-whether it’s PETA or Best Friends [Animal Society]. Whenever I hear anything about animals, I want to give to it because I love animals and they don’t have a voice.
I also give to something called the Dream Foundation, which grants terminally ill adults their last wish. It’s heartbreaking. I remember this one woman-her dream was to [record] in the studio. She was so cool. We had a limo driver and we took her to a really nice dinner, and she came and did “Un-Break My Heart” and Toni Braxton called her. She was just this really tough woman. She passed away.
Why haven’t you ever performed your own work?
I have really bad stage fright.
But your job still requires you to do these promotional appearances.
I wrote this song that’s the big peace anthem for [Israeli president and 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner] Shimon Peres’ [Center for Peace] and I heard . . . not only that it’s going to be the grand finale song for this event, but that they want it to be the theme song for the whole peace movement in the Middle East. [Elliott Yamin performed the song at Liel Kolet at the Oct. 27 event.] I have really bad stage fright, but isn’t it just an amazing honor? The fact that the song I wrote is going to be this theme of the Middle East peace movement. I’m so excited about it because it goes beyond the record business. Maybe it can change something.
What is the song?
It’s a beautiful song and it’s called “I Wish That.” [recites lyrics] “And I wish that there would be no wars/And I wish that no one had to hurt no more/And I wish that everyone could see/Only love is worth fighting for. [The song will appear on Yamin’s forthcoming album.]
That’s quite an honor. But then again, honors are nothing new to you.
I’ve had so many milestones, I guess. Whether it’s being in the Hall of Fame or having a star on Hollywood Boulevard. I remember having No. 1 and No. 2 records on the chart [in 1989] with [Milli Vanilli’s] “Blame It on the Rain” and [Bad English’s] “When I See You Smile.” There’s always been cool things happening. So many great things are going on. It’s so exciting.