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The Ballad of Diane Warren, Songwriter

November 26, 1994|DENNIS HUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Diane Warren, a hugely successful songwriter who's had 25 Top 10 singles, is convinced there's something almost supernatural about her career choice.

"It wasn't a choice, actually," says Warren, whose compositions have been recorded by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Michael Bolton.

"I think I willed myself into being a songwriter. I was in love with the idea of being a songwriter when I was 11--drawn to it in some way I really don't understand, before I really knew what it meant. Maybe it's some weird mystical thing--who knows? Anyway, I got serious about songwriting when I was 14--writing three songs a day. Unfortunately, they all sucked."

Since then she's honed her skills just a bit. The 38-year-old Valley Girl, who writes both lyrics and music, has an impressive list of credits dating back to her first hit, Laura Branigan's "Solitaire" in 1982--her big break after years of rejections.

Her hit-list highlights include Michael Bolton's "Time Love and Tenderness," El DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night," Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," Bad English's "When I See You Smile," Celine Dion's "If You Asked Me To" and even Milli Vanilli's "Blame It on the Rain." Her latest single is "Dream Away," the theme from the new Macaulay Culkin movie "The Pagemaster," performed by Babyface and Lisa Stansfield and expected to be a big year-end hit.

Just what makes Warren so good?

Producer David Foster, who has recorded several Warren compositions, including "Dream Away," explains: "She takes everyday situations and turns them into hit songs. She takes the stuff we all relate to on a daily basis and puts it to music and creates a very good song.

"When I've recorded her songs, there's always some little magical turn that really heightens the song for me. Part of what makes her so good is sheer hard work. Without a doubt she's the hardest working songwriter I've ever met."

Most days, the prolific Warren can be found at her office in the Valley, working on songs--ballads mostly.

"I'm not that into up-tempo stuff," she explains one night during dinner in West Hollywood. "I like those big, dramatic ballads with the pretty melodies--ballads that give you a really soaring, uplifting feeling."

Although she's written in different genres, like pop and rock, she has a distinct favorite. "I love R&B more than anything," gushes Warren. "I write a lot of R&B-styled music because I think that kind of music is filled with more feeling than any kind of pop music."

That passion for R&B--classic Motown music in particular--is traceable to her early addiction to Top 40 radio, which she cites as her major songwriting influence. "As a kid I didn't have a lot of friends," she recalls. "The radio--Top 40 radio--was my main friend. I'd lose myself in those songs. They had such incredible power over me that they made me want to write songs with that kind of power to move people."

Clearly, songwriting is more than just a job for Warren.

"I'm possessed, obsessed about songwriting," says Warren, clenching her fists for effect. "I never really wanted to be a singer--like so many other songwriters. I'm strictly a songwriter. And if I couldn't write songs I'd probably jump off a bridge."

Because of that obsession, Warren, who grew up in the Northridge/Van Nuys area, regards her days at Birmingham High and her tenures at Pierce College and Cal State Northridge largely as a waste.

"I didn't learn much," she says. "I was consumed with trying to be a better songwriter. People ask me about my life goals, and the answer is simple--I just want to be a better songwriter. I'm striving to do that all the time."

And she prefers to do it alone. Although she's done some collaboration--with Michael Bolton in particular--Warren doesn't like it that much. "I like the writing process--even though it's painful and torturous at times," she explains. "When I write with other people the experience is different. You have to compromise, which I have problems with. I'd rather listen to my own mind."

As much as she loves songwriting, Warren admits it's not all fun. There are some headaches--like rejection for instance.

"It really sucks ," she says, spitting out the words. "When I was starting out, my songs were getting rejected all time before I got the break with writing for Laura Branigan. Even now everything I write doesn't work. Rejection hurt then and hurts now."

Songwriters get lyrics changed all the time, but Warren still isn't accustomed to it. "I'm so fussy, so meticulous about every line," Warren explains. "If somebody indiscriminately changes my lyrics and melody, it drives me crazy."

Although her obsessive approach to composing has made Warren rich, it does have one particular drawback.

"I don't have much of a life outside of writing," she admits rather ruefully. "I go to work everyday and write and write and write. I've never been married because I'm not good at relationships. Whoever I'm with is always going to be second to what I love--which is songwriting."

Although she seems gregarious and perfectly at ease, Warren insists she's not a "people" person and is always just one step from being a hermit. "I'm a real loner," she says. "A lot of the time I hate dealing with people. What I really love is animals. I have lots of them. I feel closer to animals than people most of the time."

Guess what keeps her from slipping into the life of a hermit.

"If it wasn't for songwriting, I might just shut people out," she admits. "But people provide a certain stimulus I need to write. I might be happier sitting around my house with cats and parrots all day, but it would hurt my songwriting--and if I wasn't writing good songs I'd probably go nuts."

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