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Hall of Fame Songwriter Diane Warren on Her Writing Process, ‘Til It Happens To You,’ and Her Passion for Animals

Photo by Emily Shur

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Hall of Fame Songwriter Diane Warren on Her Writing Process, ‘Til It Happens To You,’ and Her Passion for Animals

When it comes to legendary songwriters, a few names naturally come to mind. And when you narrow it down to songwriters of the last 30 years, one name stands above all the rest: Diane Warren. There is no doubt you’ve listened to and even obsessed over a Warren-written song. She has penned hits for everyone from Aerosmith and Lady Gaga, to Cher and Celine Dion. Her songs have defined a generation, and Warren has become one of the most sought-after songwriters in the industry. In 2001, 18 years after her first hit, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Warren spent her days listening to the radio, dreaming that one day it would be her songs flowing through the speakers. Music was always in her household, her parents and siblings played instruments, and as the baby of the family, Warren began writing songs at the age of 11. She didn’t start to write seriously until she was 14. Warren claims music and writing saved her life back then. In 2016, she shared her story of being molested at the age of 12, and turned that pain into the poignant song “Til It Happens to You,” which was released by Lady Gaga. Later in life, she would become one of the countless women sexually harassed in the music industry.

Her passion for music is apparent, Warren created The Diane Warren Foundation in hopes of spreading music to children who might not have the opportunity to learn. Her foundation, with the help of the ASCAP Foundation and the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, supplies sheet music, band arrangements, folios, and method books to schools in need. We spoke to Warren about her process, “Til It Happens To You,” and what other causes she is passionate about.

What inspires you to write?

I love writing songs.  I just love to do it.

Do you remember what your first song was about? 

I can’t remember but even if I could, I would try to forget.

You have a massive catalog of hits, so some may assume you don’t get writer’s block. Is this something you still encounter? Any tricks you use to overcome it? 

I don’t get writer’s block much, to be honest.  I might get stuck on a song here and there, but I work through it.  I walk away for a minute and let the song figure itself out.

Sometimes with great success comes great pressure. Do you ever feel pressure when you are writing a new song?

I think I always keep myself under pressure to come up with something better than I’ve done. So, I am always under pressure but it’s my own pressure.

Are there any songs that you felt particularly proud of that did not get the exposure you would’ve liked? Is there a song that you wish more people would hear? 

There’s probably a bunch of those.  Sometimes they tend to find their right home in the future.  Someone else records the song and it ends up having another life.  My Beyoncé song, “I Was Here,” got exposure on its own.  It’s been licensed everywhere in TV, movies, and commercials.  It became a graduation anthem. The United Nations even used it for their World Humanitarian Day.  So, it’s possible for a song to get exposure when it isn’t a single or number one on the charts.

You co-wrote “Til It Happens To You” with Lady Gaga and it is used in the film “The Hunting Ground.”  What was the process of creating that song like?

I called Gaga and played her the song as I had it, which she loved.  I flew out to her in New York and she really made it her own.

“Til It Happens To You” elicited an incredibly strong response from me and many of my peers had a similar reaction.  Was it emotionally difficult to write?

It was an emotional experience after I wrote, because not only did it help other people who were sexually molested, but it helped me.  I remember sitting in front of a room of people, I’ve never talked about being sexually molested and all of a sudden I blurted it out.  So, the song ended up giving me strength.  And it transcends to other issues too – not just sexual assault.  It was used for bullying, losing a loved one or dealing with anything heartbreaking.

What’s your favorite part of the songwriting process? 

Coming up with a great idea.

I admire that you started “The Diane Warren Foundation.”  Can you tell our readers about some of the organizations you support? 

I help elderly people but mostly I am involved with animal rights causes.  I’m an animal activist.  Whether it’s Humane Society or Mercy for Animals, which is one of my favorites.  I really want to help farm animals because I think it’s a horrible situation for those animals.  I help with a lot of rescues and getting animals out of kill shelters to save their lives.

Can you tell me about any projects that you are currently working on? 

I’m working with a lot of artists but I’m really excited about my song, “Stand Up For Something,” in the film about Thurgood Marshall called, Marshall. Andra Day and Common sing it and I think it’s the best song I’ve ever written for a movie.

What advice or tips would you give to young writers who are just starting out? 

Work hard. Develop a thick skin. In anything that’s a competitive endeavor, you have to work harder than anyone else.  You have to take the time and effort in order to be great.

What advice would you give someone who is overcoming a parent who may not support them pursuing a career in a creative field?

I had one of those. Just prove them wrong.

Do you have advice you live by? 

Just show up and do the work.

Lastly, what women have inspired you along your journey?

Carole King as a songwriter before she even made her records because I loved the entire Brill Building.  All the great singers like Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield inspired me too.

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Annie is a photographer and artist currently residing outside of Philadelphia. She has a degree in media design from the MTSU School of Journalism and got her start doing graphic and merchandise design for the NYC theatre community. She spends most of her free time traveling to theatre, concerts, or creating art. She has an unquenchable thirst to explore all things abandoned and old. Annie also answers to the name of Yoda (a favorite nickname amongst family and friends)

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