Diane Warren Wants to Taste Oscar Gold. And Frankly, She Deserves It.
The songwriting legend is up for her 13th Oscar—with zero wins. She talks to Marlow Stern about penning hits, working with Beyonce and Gaga, and why “it’s a weird time for music.”
“I love when people go, ‘I went to sleep, and my manager called me in the morning to break the news…’ No you did not, you fucking little liar!” exclaims Diane Warren.
The legendary songwriter behind hits like Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me,” Brandy’s “Have You Ever,” Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart,” and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” recently received her 13th Oscar nomination for the song “Somehow You Do” from the film Four Good Days, about a mother (Glenn Close) trying like mad to get her addict daughter (Mila Kunis) off heroin. And in what has become a ritual for the 65-year-old songwriter, Warren pulled an all-nighter with her friends the day before the nominations.
“We have sleepless sleepovers,” she explains. “I stayed up all night and counted the minutes until the nominations. I thought I was screwed, because two songs I didn’t think were going to get nominated were, and some prognosticators had us 14th on their lists, but we were the last name they read out. Honestly, it was one of the best moments of my life.”
Warren says she was inspired to write the ballad “Somehow You do” by the movie’s “hopeful” ending, and then “this whole other layer came into it as well, which was what was going on in the world with COVID.”
Warren received her first Oscar nomination for Best Original Song—for the tune “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from Mannequin—34 years ago, and the fact that she hasn’t taken home the hardware yet has transmogrified into a cruel joke. Warren is one of only three people alive with 13 or more Oscar nods and no wins, alongside sound mixer Greg P. Russell and composer Thomas Newman. She’s beyond overdue.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
I’m curious what the process is like when you pen a hit song for a film.
Sometimes they’ll ask me to read a script or I’ll see an unfinished movie. With Four Good Days, I saw a rough cut of it. I always prefer if I can see something, because I have fucking ADD, and it takes me a couple of days to read a script. It’s almost a subconscious thing of what I want to see in that movie.
What was it like collaborating with Reba McEntire on “Somehow You Do?”
When I do a song for a movie, whoever is singing the song is like casting a role in the movie. Whoever sings the song has to fit in the movie. With Reba, her whole vibe is resilience, positivity, and strength. She’s a survivor—and a badass. And it’s in her voice. You hear it in every note. And she’s someone I can imagine Glenn Close’s character listening to. It felt authentic to the movie, and the song. Reba could have been in Four Good Days.
You’re such a legend that you can write a song for a movie and then go out and cast the A-list singer you like.
They have to agree—but usually they do. With last year’s “Io sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead, Laura Pausini was just the perfect match for Sophia Loren’s strong character. Or Lady Gaga with “Till It Happens to You” [from The Hunting Ground]. There was no better artist for that song than Gaga. In her life she was a survivor of sexual assault, so she was an authentic voice for that.
That was such a powerful performance at the Oscars. Joe Biden introduced it and then Gaga came out and unleashed this jaw-dropping rendition surrounded by survivors.
That was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen. Just the power of that. I was sitting in the audience and all the biggest stars in the world were wiping tears from their eyes. I was like, wow, what a moment. That was the year I thought I would win. [Laughs] That performance knocked everybody out, then it went to commercial break, and then it was, “And the winner is…” Fuck! But what a performance. I don’t know how she hit those high notes full-voice. And the bravery. That was before a lot of people were talking about sexual assault.
Gaga had just given an interview at the time with Howard Stern about being sexually assaulted, and we had talked about collaborating together, and when I was writing the song I was like, “Oh my god… Gaga. This is her song.” I called her and played it for her, and she was crying. And then she sang the shit out of it.
This is your 13th Oscar nomination. How do you feel about the Oscars these days?
Oh, I love it.
Because as a viewer—and a fan of yours—there are several times you should have won. “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” “Because You Loved Me”…
“Because You Loved Me” was the other time I thought I was going to win. That and “Till It Happens to You” were the times I remember being really bummed out. But being nominated—they pick five songs and you’re voted on by the music branch of the Academy, and if you look at that branch, it’s the best of the best. And it’s not like the Grammys where there are a hundred categories. It’s one category with just five songs, and those five songs are out of hundreds of songs from hundreds of movies. To say mine has been one of those five songs not one time, but thirteen times? I’ll never not think that’s the coolest thing in the world.
I also think that “Can’t Fight the Moonlight”—from Coyote Ugly—not only should have been nominated, but won. That song absolutely slaps.
Thank you! I love that song. One of my favorite songs ever I wrote for that movie, “Please Remember.” Oh, “Can’t Fight the Moonlight.” But it’s OK. I’m not complaining. Did you know that my first nomination was 34 years ago?
For “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” right?
I know. I wrote really good songs when I was three, right? [Laughs]
I remember being at Sundance and seeing Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s wonderful version of it in The Skeleton Twins.
I loved it. Loved it. They said, “We don’t have much of a budget…” and I said, “It’s my honor. Take it.”
I read that you work really long days as a songwriter and even tend to bring your keyboard around with you.
I start out really early. I get to work around 9-ish—I’m not someone who stays up all night—but if I travel somewhere, I do love to have a keyboard or a guitar, because I always need to be able to write. It’s like breathing to me.
What was it like working with Beyonce on “I Was Here” for her album 4?
It was great. I have to say, it was my first time working with Beyonce, and I sent the song to Simon Cowell, because I know him. And then I thought it would be great for Beyonce, so I called Jay-Z and played it for him, and he said, “Stay by your phone. I’m going to have Beyonce call you.” She called me a half hour later and I played her the song. The album was supposed to come out a few days later and she literally held up the album. She came in and recorded it a couple of days later and watching her work ethic—she just sang the shit out of that song for three hours, had a dinner break, and then came back. I was like, why are you coming back? Those are the best vocals ever! And she said, “I can do better.” That’s the difference between a star and a superstar. The best part? I got a rejection later a couple of days later from Simon Cowell. He said the song “didn’t go all the way” for him. And I wrote back, “Oh, that’s OK. I was in the studio with the biggest artist on the planet and it went all the way with her!” followed by a smiley face
You’re of course a legendary songwriter, and I’ve heard criticisms of Beyonce that she’ll tweak a word here or there and give herself a co-writing credit—and thus also a big piece of publishing.
She didn’t do that with me. But there’s a saying, “Change a word, get a third.” I don’t go for that. I’ve done it before with other people and I don’t do that anymore. It’s not fair. And I’m not talking about Beyonce, because my experience with her wasn’t that.
There are also artists like Kanye West, who credit up to 25 writers on a song.
I know. I don’t get it! What do they do?! You look at some songs and see 9, 13, 20 writers credited on a song and think, “What did they do?” They must have a hell of a time splitting that shit [publishing] up. I suppose they sample a lot of stuff, which adds a bunch on there.
I’m curious what songwriters think about Ed Sheeran, because he’s been accused of ripping off a bunch of his hit songs at this point.
He’s really good. Listen, there are only so many notes. Sometimes I’m writing something and then realize I’m ripping myself off. It happens.
I thought it was odd when all these artists went after Olivia Rodrigo’s publishing.
Some of the stuff that’s fucked up is when it’s sonically, the sound of a record. With “Blurred Lines,” that isn’t the same song as Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” If you play it on the guitar, it isn’t the same song; but sonically, the records are similar. And that begins a slippery slope. It’s a weird time in music where it’s kind of a land-grab. Although there was that Ed Sheeran one [“Thinking Out Loud”] where he played it live to the same chords as the Marvin Gaye song [“Let’s Get It On”] which, yikes, don’t do that!” But that’s also a chord progression, and you can’t copyright a chord progression. So, what are we doing here?
You also wrote a song for Michelle Obama, “This Is for My Girls.”
Yeah. I was asked to give her a song, and I already had the song and thought it was prefect. Who was on there? Zendaya, Missy Elliott, Kelly Clarkson, Chloe x Halle. It was pretty cool. Michelle is awesome. I love her. I got to know her a little from that. I actually got her to do Carpool Karaoke. She didn’t want to do it and kept turning it down, and I got invited to something at the White House, and her assistant said, “Don’t you dare bring up Carpool Karaoke. She doesn’t want to do it.” So, naturally, the first thing I said was, “You’ve got to do Carpool Karaoke.”
One thing you did that was ahead of your time was hold onto your publishing. And now, we’re seeing nearly every big artist sell off their publishing.
Everybody! I’m, like, one of the last people that hasn’t, man. It was kind of an accident. I was in a lawsuit many years ago with a publisher and I couldn’t sign with anybody, and my lawyer said I needed to start my own company. I didn’t look back once I did that. So now, I own all my songs and most of them I’ve written by myself. It’s a really valuable catalog and people throw all kinds of silly money at me to sell it, but the way I look at it is it’s my soul, and my soul is not for sale at any price.
I heard that big artists like Springsteen and Stevie Nicks are selling their publishing to avoid Biden’s pending capital gains tax hike.
I heard that too. Because people like Springsteen and Stevie Nicks aren’t cash poor. I’m not saying anything bad of them because that’s the choice they’ve made, but I couldn’t do it. But they’re paying a fuck-ton of money for that stuff now. It’s like the Wild West.
What’s it like being a songwriter in 2022 as far as royalties and all that go? Are y’all being treated fairly?
Well, it would be nice if streaming paid more. I mean, look, I’m fine. But people coming up aren’t. It’s got to be more fair to songwriters and publishers. It’s got to be.
There was that recent tiff between Damon Albarn and Taylor Swift, where Albarn took shots at Swift’s songwriting because she shared writing credit on a number of songs.
[Laughs] Yeah, what was that? That was crazy. I think he had to walk that one back. Yeah, that wasn’t cool. Co-writing is still writing.
I read that you haven’t been in a relationship for thirty years, and that it was a conscious decision on your part. I’m curious if a part of you is living vicariously through your music?
I do. I’d rather just write about it than live it. I’m a loner, basically. It’s too much drama. I’d rather have it in my songs. It’s vicarious. It’s almost like I get to be that character for that song, and then I’m another character.