The Writer’s Block: Diane Warren on the Frustrations and Fruition of Songwriting

“I write something, just for me,” Diane Warren tells American Songwriter. “I write songs for myself.”

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Perhaps the main ingredient of her songwriting, her recipe has earned Warren nine No. 1 songs and 32 Top 10 hits, Grammy, Emmy, and Golden Globe awards, an induction into the Songwriter Hall of Fame, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As one of the most celebrated songwriters in music, her songs have been featured in more than 100 films and have received 13 Oscar nominations for Best Original Song beginning in 1987 and every decade since—“Because You Loved Me” from Up Close & Personal, “How Do I Live” from Con Air, “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” from Armageddon—with her most recent Academy Award nod for “Somehow You Do,” performed by Reba McEntire in the movie Four Good Days.

To top off her contributions to the big screen, Warren recently received an Honorary Oscar during the 13th Governors Awards on Nov. 19, 2022, making her the first songwriter to ever receive the Academy accolade.

Collaborating with everyone from Cher, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Carlos Santana, John Legend, and more throughout her career, Warren released her debut album, Diane Warren: The Cave Sessions Vol. 1, in 2021, featuring even more collaborations with Celine Dion, Darius Rucker, Maren Morris, Ty Dolla $ign, Luis Fonsi, Rita Ora and Sofia Reyes, Celine, Jon Batiste, Pentatonix, and more.

Warren recently spoke to American Songwriter about how songs typically fuse together and why some songs need a few minutes or years to be ready.

American Songwriter: Are you constantly writing? How has your process changed over the decades? 

Diane Warren: I’ve just done the same thing I’ve always done. I just think I’m better at it. I’m always working and learning. Every song I write, I learn something, so it’s basically my same process. I’m in my car in front of my office right now, and when I get off the phone, I’m gonna go right up and start writing and just creating these little worlds, which I love. I guess it’s like a screenwriter that writes a script, and you get the best actors in the world to bring your words to life and then you have something that connects.

AS: How much time do you need with a song before it’s ready?

DW: I spent a lot of time on every song. It can take three and a half to four minutes, a week, or years. Lyrics take me a longer time. I’m such a perfectionist with both words and music. I’ll sit with a song for a week, just to make it as great as it can. Right before you called me, I was working. I was sitting on my piano trying to think of this verse, and it’s driving me crazy. I had this song for probably a year and a half, maybe a couple of years. I have a lot of songs like that, that are just waiting for that right moment.

AS: You said you have all these stories and songs. Do you find yourself pulling from within or looking outside for these stories now?

DW: I’ve never pulled anything from my life. If I pulled from my life, it would be pretty boring. I don’t really think about it. I just keep my antennas up, and there are always ideas. 

AS: After working on your debut The Cave Sessions Vol. 1 (2021) did you recognize any difference in writing a song for yourself as opposed to other artists?

DW: The Cave Sessions for me was mainly me acting like a DJ, curating an album with so many different artists. Every genre of music was on that. I just write songs. I write something, just for me. I write songs for myself. 

AS: Your 2014 song with Paloma Faith, “Only Love Can Hurt Like This,” recently had a resurgence on TikTok (and was even performed by Kelly Clarkson on her talk show), which led to the release of another stripped-back version. How did this song make such a big return after nearly a decade?

DW: I was saying to somebody yesterday that a great song can be done in a million different ways, in different tempos. If the foundation is there, you can do all kinds of stuff to it, and the song is still going to be great. This song is obviously really touching people, but I know nothing about TikTok.

AS: Do you think you’re closer to finding that verse you were looking for earlier?

DW: I don’t know. It’s frustrating. I’m just going to keep banging my head against the wall. 

Photo: Erik Melvin

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