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“Dead,” says Diane Warren, one of the world’s greatest living songwriters, as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast and I ask her where she would be if she had never found a career in music. “For real,” continues the 62-year-old, who is nominated this year for the best original song Oscar for the 10th time, this time for “I’ll Fight,” a rousing anthem performed in the best documentary feature Oscar nominee RBG by Jennifer Hudson. “I wouldn’t be alive. Music saved my life. I don’t know how to do anything else. You know, my mom, it’s not like she was trying to be mean or something [in encouraging Warren to find another path]. What are the real chances that a girl with no one in the music business in her family is going to make a living making music, really? I mean, think about it. I know how lucky I am.”
Warren has been a one woman hit-machine for 35 years. She has worked with almost every major singer of that time span, from Cher (20 times, more than any other collaborator) and Barbra Streisand to Celine Dion (second most) and Whitney Houston to Beyonce and Justin Bieber. And it is thanks to her brain and heart that we have giant hits like “How Do I Live,” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Rhythm of the Night,” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” “Because You Loved Me,” “Don’t Turn Around,” “Un-break My Heart,” “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” and many others. The legendary music industry executive Clive Davis once said, “You know how people are always saying no one writes songs like they used to? Well, Diane is someone who does.”
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Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, JJ Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Carol Burnett.
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Warren was born and raised in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Van Nuys, the third daughter of an insurance salesman and housewife. When she was still just a kid, her older sisters introduced her to the music of the era, which ranged from The Beatles to Motown, and when reviewing records, she took notice of the names in between the parentheses that followed singers’ names — the songwriters — and knew that’s where she one day wanted to be. “I didn’t think for one second it would be cool to sing the songs I wanted to write,” she insists. “I didn’t have any desire to get on a stage or be in a group or anything like that. I always loved the idea of just being the one writing the songs.”
A juvenile delinquent, Warren had failing grades until her father offered her the incentive of a $500 Martin 12-string guitar. She also taught herself to play piano and began writing songs, and while she was still in high school her dad began taking her around to L.A.-area music publishers to pitch her work. After dabbling in college, but dropped out and landed her first job: writing songs for the German music producer Jack White, who commissioned her to pen lyrics for Laura Branigan‘s “Solitaire,” which, in 1983, became Warren’s first top 10 hit. She now had the resources to focus on writing for herself, and in 1988 established her own music publishing company, Realsongs.
The first movie Warren wrote a song for was 1984’s Ghostbusters, and she realized she wanted to repeat the process — while making sure that her tunes could also stand on their own. In 1985, she realized this vision for the first time with “Rhythm of the Night,” which was featured in the film The Last Dragon and also became her first independent hit all over the world, reaching number three on the charts. Over the ensuing years, she wrote songs of all sorts, for the movies and not, becoming most associated with the ‘power ballad,’ emotional, blow-the-roof-off songs that will live on for as long as people perform karaoke — songs like “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (for the 1987 film Mannequin), “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (for the 1998 film Armageddon) and what is still the most successful female-written song of all-time, “How Do I Live” (for the 1997 film Con Air).
It is rather remarkable to hear the writer of many of the greatest love songs of our time say that she herself has never experienced romantic love. However, that, she emphasizes, doesn’t prevent her from doing what she calls “Method songwriting” — “I feel it,” she emphasizes, and “when I’m writing something, I’m believing it.” But, while love songs are great, rarely if ever has she believed more in the importance and power of music than with the three calls-to-activism that have brought her the three most recent of her 10 Oscar nominations: “Til It Happens to You,” a song that was performed by Lady Gaga and featured in 2015’s sexual assault doc The Hunting Ground; “Stand Up for Something,” performed by Andra Day and Common in 2017’s Thurgood Marshall drama Marshall; and the aforementioned “I’ll Fight,” which profiles U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Warren, who has been called “the high priestess of heartbreak,” has had 32 songs crack the Billboard Hot 100 chart and nine top it; was the first songwriter to simultaneously have songs at No, 1 and No. 2 on the U.S. charts; and was the first songwriter to simultaneously have seven songs by seven different artists on the singles chart. She has personally won Grammy, Emmy, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards, each for different songs. And she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001. Indeed, the only major honor that a songwriter can ever hope to win which has thus far eluded her is the Oscar. That could change on Feb. 24 — but whether it does or doesn’t, Warren’s personal history suggests that she will be back in the running again very soon.
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek