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“Every time I sing that song it’s difficult for me,” says music icon Lady Gaga as I sit down with her and seven-time best original song Oscar nominee Diane Warren at Gaga’s Malibu estate to discuss “Til It Happens to You,” the song they co-wrote and Gaga performs in Kirby Dick‘s Oscar-shortlisted documentary The Hunting Ground, which highlights the epidemic of sexual assault on American college campuses. “But it’s healing people,” Warren reassures her. “Absolutely,” adds Gaga.
(You can play and read the conversation below or by clicking here you can download it and past episodes on iTunes — recent guests include Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Charlotte Rampling, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Olivia Wilde and Benicio Del Toro.)
On paper, the two women look like an odd couple. Warren, 59, is more than twice the age of Gaga, 29. Gaga rose to fame as something of an exhibitionist, while Warren generally prefers to blend in with the crowd. Gaga, who has flowing blonde hair, presents herself rather regally, while Warren, who has short black hair, loves few things more than a good curse word. And the list of differences goes on.
But they also share quite a bit in common. Both dropped out of college and essentially lived hand-to-mouth in order to pursue their musical dreams. (One of Gaga’s three jobs was as an exotic dancer, and Warren was delivery person.) Both survived sexual assaults and then kept their pain and anguish to themselves for years. And both now believe that it is their duty to share the story of their experiences through song because music has the power to change the world.
Initially, The Hunting Ground‘s filmmakers weren’t sure they even wanted an original song in their doc, but executive producer Paul Blavin consulted the veteran music supervisor Bonnie Greenberg, who approached Warren. Warren put together a few ideas and then reached out to Gaga, who she did not know personally, to see if there was interest in a collaboration.
Warren, who writes songs but never sings them publicly, nevertheless gave Gaga a little vocal tease of her ideas. “It was just beautiful,” gushes Gaga, who says she cried upon hearing it. “Then we met and I started to play it and sing it and I would say, ‘Diane, what do you think of this?’ ” She continues, “She took what she already had, and then she gave it to me and she said, ‘Make it yours.’ ” One of Gaga’s major contributions, according to both women, was taking a song that was somber throughout and making it increasingly triumphant and defiant as it progressed. Warren was thrilled — “She had this whole vision for it,” she marvels now. And, in Gaga’s words, “It became two women together, standing strong.”
During the conversation, Warren shares that she was molested when she was just 12: “It’s all about trust, you know? My thing was [perpetrated by] my best friend’s dad from the time I was a kid. And it f—s you up. It’s f—ed me up to this day. I don’t know if any amount of therapy helps it.”
Gaga, meanwhile, was raped at 19. “I was already Lady Gaga when it happened,” she says. “It was someone that I knew, and it was done to manipulate me in conjunction with money and my music, and it was terrifying.” She continues, “It’s something that changed me forever, and it made me question everything about what I had done to be where I am today. I thought to myself, ‘Did I do something wrong to bring this on myself? What did I do?’ “
This, The Hunting Ground shows, is not an uncommon reaction by victims of sexual assault. “I choose to wear these clothes, and I choose to dress this way and sing about sex, and you sort of wonder if you’re implying to people that it’s okay,” says Gaga, whereupon Warren forcefully emphasizes that nothing justifies sexual assault. Gaga agrees, but says, “I am so sick of people walking in and out of my life telling me that I’m ‘gonna be okay,’ because I am still in so much pain that you can’t understand.” She chokes up. “The person that I’m singing to is the person that wants to heal me — I’m telling them that they can’t.”
(“Til It Happens to You” is the most personal song either woman ever has written or performed, supplanting for Gaga the song “Speechless” and Warren’s “When I’m Back On My Feet Again,” which were about their respective dads. An earlier advocacy song by Gaga, “Born This Way,” is one she remains particularly proud of and is the namesake of a foundation she runs with her mother: “What that song did, if anything, is forced people and the radio to play the words ‘gay,’ ‘straight,’ ‘bi,’ ‘transgender,’ you know? That was the first time [those words were] on the radio ever.”)
Gaga says Warren first crossed her radar when she heard the song “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which she calls “a tremendous song,” adding, “It made me cry every time I heard it” and was “one of those moments that changes your perspective forever about music.”
Warren, for her part, says she “was so impressed” with Gaga ever since the release of her first album in 2008. “She’s not only a great singer, she’s a great songwriter, she’s a great performer, she’s a great everything.” She adds that Gaga’s work with Tony Bennett and performance of Carole King‘s “You’ve Got a Friend” at MusiCares convinced her that Gaga is “one of the best artists that’s ever lived on the planet.”
Gaga says she’s eternally appreciative that Warren appreciated something from the start that others did not. Most people fixated on Gaga’s David Bowie-inspired appearances (“I thought it was interesting to dress like a fashionista and kind of envelope myself in this plastic image and sing things that are very heartfelt and wrap them up in something kind of not heartfelt,” she says), but not Warren. “She saw in my first album a songwriter when most of the world saw a pop star. I’ve been since that first record trying to show people that I actually wrote all of that and came up with the ideas and that it wasn’t marketing strategy and that I wasn’t put into a machine and this is the artist they created.” She adds, “This is my heart and soul.”
Musically, they’re very different, which makes their collaboration interesting. “We’re both very tough nuts to crack,” says Gaga. “She has her way and I have my way. My way is really free and her way is much more disciplined and regimented. We work well together, but we have to come to agreement. That is the nature of harmony.” Gaga generally takes a long time to complete a song, Warren just a week. (“I just love her work ethic,” Gaga gushes.) Warren likes simple chords, Gaga does not. Adds Warren, “What we have in common is we’re passionate about our art.”
“F—, I’ve been doing this a long f—ing time,” says Warren with a laugh, “but I still love it.” She elaborates, “I love writing songs. I put my blinders on and I go to work. The business I could do without a lot of times, but I deal with it because it’s the business I’m in.”
Gaga concurs, venting to a degree she rarely, if ever, has before: “What happens is when you start out and you start to become big, your career is accelerated into an oblivion by the world and also by many people around you. It takes some time to weed out the good and the bad people, to take notice of the ones that have been there your whole life that are going to now betray you and steal money from you. It’s like, I can’t even begin to tell you because the truth is it took me now almost eight years to be sitting here with you as a grown woman and to know everything inside and out of my business and have full control over everything — my money, my happiness, my schedule, my body, everything is mine.”
She continues, “I think I’ve done my best artistically over the years to stay true to myself and be authentic, even when there were a lot of people around me that were pulling me in a million directions. I think my work always reflected that. I think you can see in my work when I was being pulled around — you can see it in the imagery. It’s totally explosive and all over the place. When you see me constantly changing my look all the time, for myself, I can look at it and see that I’m not centered in my humanity, that I’ve become like a doll that’s trying to just stay in the game. And when I’m with myself now, I have a much more holistic approach to each day — I don’t allow anyone to tell me where I’m going to go, who I’m going to shake hands with, what I’m going to do.”
She adds, “One of the scariest things about this business — and what’s crazy — is that the bigger that you get, you start to realize that sometimes, when you shake people’s hands, you’re making other people money. You know? There’s so much business going on around you, and people are in the business of you, and you don’t even know. You become a product and then you have to sort of go, ‘Who’s selling me today? Is it you?’ And some people never figure it out and what happens is they are rotting in a hole of people that are just taking off the top.”
What Gaga and Warren have figured out is that they need to continue to focus on what brought them this far, their music, and use it for as much good as possible.
The Hunting Ground was released by Radius-TWC on Feb. 27. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best documentary feature and ‘Til It Happens to You’ for best original song.
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