It's midafternoon as songwriter Diane Warren sits at an electronic keyboard in a cramped office in Hollywood, a room so cluttered with stacks of demo tapes, microphone stands, notebooks, pencils, guitars and other tools of the trade that she refers to it as "the Cave."
A shy woman with short, cropped hair and a quick, nervous smile, Warren is possibly the most successful songwriter of the '90s, thanks to such hits as "Un-Break My Heart" for Toni Braxton, "Because You Loved Me" for Celine Dion, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" for Aerosmith and "How Do I Live" for both LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood.
She wrote most of her hits in this room--and she seems desperate for another one this afternoon.
Warren has been here since 8:30 a.m., stopping on the way in from her West Hollywood home only to pick up a cup of iced mocha with an extra shot of espresso.
To save time, she had lunch brought in--a vegetarian order big enough to also cover dinner because she's planning to be here until 9, when she'll head home and think some more about the new song before going to bed around 11. She then plans to get up the next morning and rush back to this good-luck office to resume work on the new tune.
Some urgent, on-deadline song for a big-budget movie?
"No, no," Warren, 42, says with a self-conscious giggle. "This is the way it is for me. It's here . . . in the Cave. Twelve hours a day, six days a week. People are always telling me, 'You need a social life,' but I've never had much of a life. There are times I wish I [could] relax a little more, but I don't know how. . . ."
She pauses then adds, "Well, that's not true. I did take some time off last year. I went to [Miami's] South Beach for two days."
In many ways, Warren, whose music is distinguished by sweeping, seductive melodies, is a throwback to the Tin Pan Alley era, when writers wrote songs and singers then sang them.
The pictures on the sheet music may have been of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, but the words and music were by Cole Porter or Irving Berlin.
Those old ways changed in the '60s after the Beatles and Bob Dylan made everyone in rock want to write and sing their own songs. Even writers who had the kind of mainstream touch that would have made them successes in the Tin Pan Alley era, such as Carole King, Paul Simon and Neil Diamond, set their sights on recording careers.
Warren, who began pitching her songs to Hollywood publishers while she was still a student at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, has had many opportunities to join the world of singers, and has even been offered her own record label.
But she refuses to do anything that would take away from her writing--a preoccupation that amazes, and sometimes troubles, her close friends.
Even when she's out of the Cave, she's often thinking about music. If she gets an idea in the car, she'll call home on her cell phone and sing it into the answering machine. She keeps notebooks handy around the house, and she usually begins Sundays--her day off--fiddling around with some new composition rather than simply enjoying the view from her Malibu condo retreat.
Work . . . work . . . work.
In her pursuit of another hit song, Warren has sacrificed everything from relationships (the last one broke up six years ago) to the kind of name recognition most pop artists crave.
"The thrill is in sitting down with a blank piece of paper and coming up with ideas and then seeing someone in the car next to you at a stoplight listening to your song on the radio," she says.
Sure it happens, she adds.
"I'll honk at the stoplight and yell, 'I wrote that.' I've done that a bunch of times. Mostly people go, 'Yeah, sure,' but sometimes people actually believe me."
Warren may not be recognized when she pulls up at intersections, but the San Fernando Valley native is paid handsomely for her anonymity.
Being the songwriter of a worldwide hit can easily mean $1 million in record royalties and performance fees. A blockbuster could double or triple that sum--and Warren has had lots of blockbusters, including "Un-Break My Heart," one of the most stylish pop tunes in years.
Consider: Every time someone buys a copy of Braxton's 1996 recording of the song, Warren receives 7.1 cents, the songwriting royalty set by U.S. copyright statutes. Each time you hear the song on the radio or on television or in a club or at a football game, she's also adding to her income.
In the case of "Un-Break My Heart," she has earned nearly $1.2 million in the U.S. alone for the first 18 months of the song's life. Broken down, that's an estimated $504,000 in recording royalties (based on 4.8 million album sales and 2.3 million singles sales) and $695,000 in radio, TV and live performance fees. With foreign sales and airplay, that total could easily reach $2.5 million to $3 million.