Ninth time’s the charm, right? There’s no contemporary staple of the Oscars’ best song category like Diane Warren. Her previous near misses for the award include “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (performed by Aerosmith for “Armageddon”) and “How Do I Live” (a hit for both LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood, circa “Con Air”), prime examples of why she’s been the queen of the pop power ballad for more than three decades.
She’s currently up for “Stand Up for Something,” from “Marshall,” performed by Andra Day and Common (who shares the nomination for the rap he contributed). Like her nominated song from last year, “Till It Happens to You,” this gospelly social anthem has been picked up for causes beyond its nominal one, having recently been performed at ACLU and NAACP events as well as the L.A. women’s march.
As a college dropout who only had eyes for the Top 40, Warren was just looking for a cut, not a cause, in 1982. Finding her first publishing deal landed Warren her first Variety mention, inauspiciously buried in a very busy signings paragraph.
Do you remember the circumstances of your first mention in our pages?
I looked at my first time in Variety. It was a long f—ing time ago! Was that 1982? F—! I was 2 years old. Oy.
You signed your first contract with Jack White, but…
Yeah, the other Jack White [a German publisher]. Not the White Stripes. I was knocking around and hustling and trying to get people to sign me. Thousands of people can say no and one person says yes, and you’re cool. So it’s always about getting that break, and that was mine. Even if it was a bad deal, and even if it didn’t end all that well. He was producing Laura Branigan. I did a lot of songs for her, and then I became friendly with her. I have to say, she was a really underrated singer. I don’t think she got the respect she deserved, at that time, even. Anyway, my friend gave him a cassette of my songs, and from that he signed me – to a really bad deal. It was 100 percent of my publishing, which I don’t think anybody signs anymore. But through them I got not just a lot of songs with Laura [including “Solitaire”] but my first big [solo composition] hit, “Rhythm of the Night” [by DeBarge, in 1985].
How long before you formed your own company?
About three years. I left the contract, and every big company was offering me amazing amounts of money. I was offered amazing amounts of money, for somebody who was making $300 or $350 a week. It was like, oh my God, they want to give me that? But then they weren’t allowed to because he sued me. I was bummed. But my lawyer at the time said, “No, you need to start your own publishing company.” And I was like, no, I don’t want my own publishing company! Well, guess what? I started Realsongs, and I‘ve owned everything I’ve done since. So that was really the best thing I ever did. Then I negotiated myself with [White]. We never really went to court; ultimately we just sat down and worked it out. I’m very thankful to Jack. I just saw him last year; had dinner with him.
Do you feel like it took you a while to find your voice as a writer?
I never looked at it as finding my voice, because I think I’ve always had my voice. Finding a deal — that was finding my voice!
It sounds like your writing m.o. hasn’t changed much since ‘82. In terms of your work ethic, you think in terms of the writers of the Brill Building in the 1960s.
Yeah, I feel like I’m kind of that tradition in 2018. And even when I was starting out, I always wanted to go to work; I never wanted to write at my house. I rented a little office on Hollywood Blvd. I still come to my cubicle every day, nose to the grindstone, blinders on, trying to write a great song. I’m still in the place I’ve had for a long time, but I also bought a building a couple years ago, on Cahuenga. One floor is all studio, so I record there. I still haven’t moved my offices there. But I still use a Walkman and cassettes.
You still do all your demos on a Walkman with a recording function?
For real! Now cassettes are cool again. It always comes back around, doesn’t it? I never stopped using ‘em.
Isn’t it tough finding spare parts when a Walkman wears out?
No, I have a bunch of them here. I have tons of Walkmans here.
You stockpiled them?
Yeah, I kind of did.
You’ve always had this amazing work ethic as a songwriter. But you weren’t a good student in school, right?
No, I sucked. I hated school. I f—ing hated it. I got kicked out of two schools. Barely graduated high school. Dropped out of college. School wasn’t for me. I liked playing my guitar and smoking pot at school, though. That was fun.
With an attitude like that, maybe you should have gone into punk-rock. But you ended up gravitating toward love songs, even though you have or had a cynical attitude about a lot of things.
Yeah. I’m not cynical when I write my songs, though. I’m not. I’m the most uncyncial person when I’m writing a song.
Were you as confident and kind of tough talking in 1982 as you’re known for being now?
Yes, I was. [Laughs.]
Did that work out for you at the time? Once you’ve had some success, people say, “Yeah, she’s great, we love her, she tells it like it is.” But if you’re not successful, it can rub people the wrong way if you aren’t always kissing up.
You know, I never cared. I’ve always been pretty no bullshit… always been a straight shooter. If someone had a problem with it, I always thought it was their problem. But I mean, I’m a nice person. I’m not unkind or hurtful. I’m just honest. But not mean-ly honest. I don’t like people being like that to me, either —not honest. I work with a lot of big artists, and I always say I’m fame-adjacent. Being around it, it’s interesting to see how people react to that (fame). A lot of the people that work for them are kissing their asses. I’m just so glad I’m not one of those people, because I hate that.
Nowadays the big topic of conversation is how women are treated in the industry. The conversation has been focused more on movies and TV, but now it’s moving into music.
Oh, it’s just beginning. This is worse than any of ‘em, this business. I think there are a lot of people in this business now shaking in their pants, waiting for what could happen to them. It’s a reckoning right now. It doesn’t work anymore. Women were afraid and they’re not now.… Were you going to bring up “Til It Happens to You”?
Yes. That song [sung by Lady Gaga and nominated for an Oscar in 2016] got out ahead of the #MeToo movement, and you…
…started the conversation, or helped it get out. Because when I wrote that song for [the documentary] “The Hunting Ground,” people weren’t really talking about sexual assault that much. I mean, it was still in the shadows, wasn’t it? I think it helped a little bit to get that message out.
Coming up, did you experience sexual harassment?
I didn’t deal with a lot of it, because I didn’t work for companies, and all I cared about was my songs, so I probably didn’t notice it. I did notice the engineer/producer beating off in front of me. I was 19 or 20, playing my guitar, eyes closed, and when I opened them, I saw that. I said, “I guess you really like the song. And I guess I should leave.” I don’t even know if the guy is still alive. I’m certainly not going to talk about it right now, because why? I handled it myself; I left. What are these guys thinking? Why do you do that? It’s not sexy! It doesn’t turn us on!
Since ’82, your methodology has stayed pretty much the same, but so many things have changed. Now we have the co-write epidemic.
Yeah, if you look at the writing credits on songs, you see, like, eight writers. Well, what exactly did you guys do? It’s not what I’m into. I co-write on occasion. I just think it’s about writing a great song. I don’t know if eight people always write a great song. It can be a great record, too. It’s kind of funny. Sometimes someone will produce a song of mine and they’ll want writing credit for producing. “We did the music.” No, you did the track! I wrote the music. I wrote the chords. I wrote the melody. Isn’t that weird? That means that every cover of the song that someone does on YouTube their own way will be a new writing credit, right? It’s not really what I call songwriting. I guess it’s a different form of it. I like to have a great song that sounds great on a guitar or piano. That’s how a song has to stand, right? Because it can be the best record in the world — and I love great records, you know — but sometimes it’s a great record and it’s not really a song. I prefer the ones that are both.
It sometimes vexes people, with the Grammys, the split between Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
If you look back on the ones from the past that won Song of the Year, yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve been up a lot for Song of the Year. But I only won one Grammy, one time, for song from a movie, “Because You Loved Me” [sung by Celine Dion for the film “Up Close & Personal”]. I’ve been nominated 15 times. I just lost my 14th. That’s okay. It’s fun to be nominated.
Do you feel like in the early ’80s it was much more common then than now to see solo writers?
Even in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was always on my own island. I didn’t see a lot of people writing songs by themselves. Even through any era. Even at the Brill building people didn’t. Goffin/King, Mann/Weil, Bacharach/David, those were all teams. Me, it’s always been me, and an occasional co-write. I mean, technically, “Stand Up for Something,” Common wrote the rap on it.
People who write songs by themselves…
It’s like unicorns. We exist!
Since the dawn of the singer/songwriter era, maybe most solo writers have ended up thinking, “Well, I should be singing them too.”
I never really wanted to do that. Although I was thinking of maybe doing something [a solo record]. I have a really cool studio with a live room. I could do strings. Maybe I’ll just do something, I don’t know, just for the f— of it. Who knows? Not because I want to sing, because I suck.
That 1985 DeBarge song you mentioned was your first soundtrack-based hit. Now you’re up for a best song Oscar for the ninth time.
Yeah, it’s crazy, right? I love it. And by the way, it’s never less exciting. I think I was more excited about getting nominated for “Stand Up for Something” than I’ve ever been in my life for getting nominated for anything.
I heard Andra Day sing it at the L.A. women’s march downtown, so the song is finding different applications beyond the film (“Marshall”).
Wasn’t she amazing? That’s the thing. It’s being embraced by #timesup and #metoo. It’s being embraced by the NAACP; Andra’s and Common’s performance there was insane. It sounds like it was written for that. At the ACLU, they sang it there. “CNN Heroes” adopted the song. Stand Up for Cancer is doing something with it. It has this amazing life, and I’m so proud to be a part of that. Wherever it’s being performed, because it is stand up for something, whatever you’re standing up for. That’s why I think #Metoo and #Timesup has embraced it, too, because standing up for something is standing up for yourself, as well.
You’ve had more social consciousness songs than ever recently, especially for films. Are you always trying to do something that will stand on its own apart from the theme of the movie, though?
That’s always my idea when I do a song for a movie. Obviously the most important thing is it has to work within that movie, but the fact that a song can have a life outside of that movie is really important too. See “Till It Happens to You” –I wrote that for a film about sexual assault, but I kept it open enough where I don’t ever say what the “it” is that could happen to you. With that song, people used it for anti-bullying, and someone did a video with gun violence that was pretty heartbreaking. So it related to so much more than what it was written for. And the same with “Stand Up for Something.” It had to reflect Thurgood Marshall, who stood up at a time when it was pretty dangerous to do so. Who knew how timely it would be now? Timely because, literally every day, our rights are under attack — human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, civil rights — it’s all under attack in the era we live in. So we can’t afford to be passive. And the song’s a call to action.
You’ve been nominated for an Oscar three out of the last four years.
I think I’m the most nominated woman in Oscar music history now. Maybe this year I’ll actually win. That would be cool.