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Friday, 18 March 2011

Songwriter Spotlight: Diane Warren

Last post I talked a little about one of my influences, Harry Nilsson, a man who rarely seemed to stick to a formula, and whose maverick style was both the making and the breaking of him.

He had success as a songwriter with One (Three Dog Night) and Cuddly Toy (The Monkees), but while his songs were (in the first half of his career) generally delightful, and sometimes great, they were often without any sort of commercial potential, and it was his voice that really made Nilsson a star.  Like Randy Newman, one of the truly great popular songwriters, he had a tendency to subvert his own material with his off-the-wall and quite dark humour.  Newman once said:

"If I could write “I Love You Just The Way You Are,” I’d have been happy to have done it. But I would have written the whole thing, and at the end, I’d have gone, “you stupid bitch,” and blown my chances."

One person, though, who seems to have always resisted the "quirky" and got stuck into the business of songwriting is Diane Warren.


She is one of the big influences behind why I chose to write a song a week, rather than any other fundraising activity.  This is a woman who, by all accounts, works from 8am til 6pm, five or six days a week, just writing songs.  It will generally take her a week to finish a song, from the first words/notes to the final demo recording, and she appears to be a total recluse with little social life, who never gigs, and rarely gives interviews.  But look at the results:
  • Unbreak My Heart (Toni Braxton)
  • Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now (Starship)
  • If I Could Turn Back Time (Cher)
  • I Don't Want To Miss A Thing (Aerosmith)
  • Because You Love Me (Celine Deon)
  • Don't Turn Around (yes, the Aswad one)
  • How Do I Live (LeAnn Rimes or Trisha Yearwood, whichever you prefer)
And so on and on and on.  Don't Turn Around, incidentally, was one of the big songs in my childhood - I just hated the fact that the singer wasn't fighting for his love to stay with him, even though it was clear he still wanted her.  Really stuck with me.

These are great songs.  Hardly any of them are my cup of tea, to be honest, but they all work beautifully.  Some people get sniffy about people like Diane Warren, saying the songs are "formulaic" or that they all sound the same.  Bollocks.  Just about every song is written to some sort of formula, even if it's in reaction to one.  I'll write more about formulas another time. And these songs aren't all simple I-IV-V chord progressions either - the chord changes in How Do I Live, for example, are ingenious, changing key from verse to bridge to chorus without you realising what's happened; no clunkiness at all. 

And as for the accusation that they all sound the same, I'd say that Warren is one of the smartest songwriters around.  By honing her craft, working on songs she loves and that mean something to her, she has made herself the go-to woman for this sort of track.  If she wanted to start writing electropop floor-fillers, I'm sure she could, and she'd probably do it well... but there are other people around who are doing it better, and Warren knows that.  In the meantime, she's made this sort of song her own.  You know you're a great songwriter when somebody says "We need a [your name] type song for the album".

It's not easy to write a song that's clever, effortless and accessible all at the same time such as Don't  Turn Around or How Do I Live.  At some point this year, I am going to try and write a Diane Warren type song... and I bet I won't be half as good at it as she is!

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