Diane Warren: How I wrote I Don't Want To Miss a Thing, If I Could Turn Back Time and Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now
Talking power ballads with the legendary songwriter
Ultimate Power is a UK club night that plays nothing but power ballads and celebrates its tenth birthday this year. Co-founder Dave Fawbert spoke to Diane Warren - the undisputed Queen of the power ballad, to find out the secrets of her songwriting
You're responsible for pretty much half our playlist...
Oh shit, don't hate me!
Oh, it's amazing. This is our tenth anniversary, and we're amazed it's still going...
Well it'll always go, because you can't kill power ballads!
Exactly! We wanted to find out why these songs still so popular, so I thought who better to ask than the person who's written most of them! So I guess the first obvious question: what makes a great power ballad?
I think what makes a great power ballad is what makes a great song, you just have to have a song with a great melody, a great lyric - that helps - I mean I'm imagining the power ballads like I Don't Want To Miss A Thing where people are screaming them in karoake bars, singing them badly, drinking and singing them badly - they're just fun songs to sing really. They have melodies... the ones that have lasted are really good songs, you can't take that away. Even the cheesy ones, even some of my cheesy ones - I guess what makes it cheesy is it's relatable - I don't know.
Why do the slow songs have such resonance do you think?
Well I guess Un-break My Heart would be a power ballad - and it was a huge dance record too - so it was kind of both, but I think people just like to, when they feel bad, they want to... misery loves company you know! So something like Un-break My Heart you feel like shit and you're hearing the song and it makes you feel better like - I'm not the only one that feels like shit! And then the dance version you can dance to it, and you don't feel like shit anymore maybe and then it becomes something more empowering, you know. Just some of these songs, they're good songs, they're really good songs. It's just funny because even though I wrote I Don't Want To Miss A Thing - I can't relate [to it]... it's always funny to me because I wouldn't want someone to listen to me breathe all night - "I could stay awake just to hear you breathing" - I don't wanna do that, if someone listens to me breathe all night, I'm like, "Get the fuck outta here!" I'm like, "What's wrong with you? You wanna listen to me breathe all night? What the fuck?" Get outta here! But it really works well in the song.
While we're on that song - it's the pinnacle of the night...
I bet a lot of people sing that one, like at karaoke, really badly...
Oh but they mean every word!
Yeah, that's what's important, mean every word, even if you sing it badly! It's awesome, it's great.
What was the process of writing that song? How did it come about and how did it end up with Aerosmith?
Well that song, it was written for the movie Armageddon, back in the day, but where that song came from - where the concept came from - is someone told me there was an interview with Barbra Streisand and her husband and he had said how he doesn't like to go to sleep, you know, if he misses her and I was like, 'Wow that's a cool idea for a song if I can figure that out,' and that's where I got the title from. And I kept it in the back of my head and when that movie came round I thought, "You know, I'm gonna write this song because it could be about the end of the world - it could fit that storyline or it could fit this love story'. 'I could stay awake just to hear you breathing', I'm like, that's a really great opening line. Ugh! So I'm like cynical and romantic at the same time so I'm writing something like that, I'm really in it, I feel it - meanwhile I sleep with a cat! By the way, I like to listen my cat purr - that's kind of like listening to someone breathe! That's cool! I guess that makes me weird too but...
And so when I wrote the song, what was so cool about when Aerosmith did it, when Steven Tyler sang it, it became a different thing, because if you hear a girl singing that - when I wrote it I thought it would end up being like Celine Dion or somebody like that, you know, back in the day - I mean, who's a great singer - but it's so much cooler to hear someone like Steven Tyler - this gruff, macho rock star, this amazing tough guy - for him to say that lyric, it just brought a whole other dimension to it. I don't think it would have been the same hit, or the same standard, if it wasn't for someone like Steven Tyler doing that song.
That song in particular - the middle eight of that song is incredible...
They're important man, they separate the men from the boys.
The middle eight these days, they're not as important as they used to be - in the songs we play they're crucial, they're almost like mini songs within a song....
Yes - it takes it to another level. We call them bridges - there's a lot of lazy songwriting going on, but I still write bridges in songs - if they need it. There's a couple of songs I wrote that don't have one, but that's just because they don't want one - maybe the songs don't really need that because there's other things in it that kind of take up - maybe it's a little instrumental maybe... but on that song that bridge is really quite good, especially the way he sings it. And then it becomes a different thing, like so when you have Steven Tyler singing that song, it becomes the song that every woman wants their boyfriend or husband to sing, to say to them - meanwhile they're married to these guys that probably don't even look at them. So I'm glad that people relate to it.
One thing I have so much respect for - it would have been so easy to do a key change on the outro section - it could easily have gone up that step. How did you resist the urge, or did you just know it didn't need it?
I just didn't want to go to a key change... like Un-break My Heart has a couple - mind you, Un-break My Heart has really bizarre key changes - the key changes in that song don't even make sense, they're not regular key changes, they're just so bizarre - but yeah, if there was a key change in I Don't Want To Miss A Thing that would have sucked - it didn't need it. 'Cause where Steven, vocally, was taking it, he was taking it there anyway, he was doing all those really great vocal things at the end that were so amazing - I mean I think that's one of the best vocals of all-time.
How involved were you in the production of that song?
Oh I wasn't at all involved in it.
So when you got it back, what did it feel like?
I still remember to this day when I first heard it - Matt Serletic produced it and I remember they sent me a CD and I remember sitting and listening to it and just literally being just... like falling off my chair almost - it was that great. Because I literally hadn't heard anything - the only thing I'd heard was teaching the song to Steven at the Sunset Marquee, at the villa there's a piano there, where he was staying and just sitting at the piano hearing him sing that. I mean, I still get chills when I think of that because it was so amazing to hear song just come alive like that - and then when I heard the record it was like, "Oh shit, this is the best fucking thing I've ever heard!" That's the best thing I've ever heard of any of my songs in my life, it was just spectacular.
So would you say that's your favourite recording of a song you've done?
I'd say certainly that one is. Another one that I love which falls under power ballad is my Lady Gaga song, Til It Happens To You, which is kinda becoming a standard as well for a different kind of thing. So that's one of my favourites as well. I don't think you get a better vocal performance...I would say to be honest Steven Tyler vocal on I Don't Want To Miss A Thing and Lady Gaga Til It Happens To You are probably my favourite two vocals I've ever heard - like I've ever heard, not even just my songs - but there's certainly been other ones, all the Celine stuff, Toni Braxton... I'm lucky to work with such amazing singers.
Another huge song - Cher If I Could Turn Back Time - again another incredible vocal. You co-produced this one...
Yeah, well, I didn't really... Guy Roche really produced that, he really did most of that, but I got her to do the song when she hated it. I mean she just despised it. She just was not gonna do it. I've told this story before, but she was in the studio doing another song of mine, she'd recorded a bunch of them, and I said Cher you've got to do Turn Back Time and she was like, "No, I hate it, I'm not doing it" and so I literally like grabbed her leg, she was sitting on a chair, and I said, "I will not let go of your leg until you say you'll try it" and she goes, "Fuck you Diane, I'm not doing that fuckin' song, I hate it!" and I was like, "Well, I'm not letting go of your leg until you at least say you're gonna try it. It doesn't hurt you to try it". You know what, she goes "Fuck you, OK" so I let go of her leg, she went in the studio and I remember that look on her face like, "You bitch, you were right!" you know - that look, it's like, "Uh-huh, yeah I knew it, I know I'm right! So shut the fuck up and listen to me!" And that's the song she'll be known for. And it was so perfect for her, because she was dating really young guys... it just fit her. That was her song. And sometimes you just have to fight. I don't mind fighting for something I believe in, in fact I don't even know how not to fight for something.
What I love about that song - everyone knows the chorus, in fact everyone knows the whole song but - there's quite a lot of unusual little things happen. It opens with half a chorus - what was the idea with that?
It just felt like it should do that. It was a cool way to start the song, and that little guitar thing - it just pulls you in - you hear that on the radio - duh, duh-duh - it just pulls your ear in, anything that pulls your ear in, and then just like cutting to the chase of what the song was about - and then the camera - it's like a camera, the camera rewinds it just goes back and it's like, "Okay, what's going on here" - it's just a fantastic record.
Several times in the song, it just moves on to the next section just slightly earlier than you expect - like in the choruses...
You know what's cool in that song? It changes key on the word 'reach', 'If I could reach the stars' which is such a cool thing. It really works. And the video - the video's so iconic like when she's straddling a cannon. And I remember back in the day on MTV, in a different time, when that considered too risque to play in the daytime. So that was only getting played at midnight which of course makes everybody want to see it more. It's weird to think that that was risque right? With what goes on now. I don't know if this is true but someone told me that the navy - recruitment, more people joined the navy after that! You know it's like, "Oh you get to see Cher humping a cannon on a ship. Join the navy!"
Another huge, iconic song we play - Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now - a genuine duet, and again, this is something you don't get much of these days - is it harder to write a duet?
You know, there's not a lot of them but they can be cool if they're cool, you know? - you can still do 'em. That song wasn't really written as a duet, it just turned out when Starship did it - it was Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas - you had the male and female vocal and it really worked out. And that key change is kind of cheesy, going into the guitar solo that they put in there - but it works, it's so cheesy that it's good.
It's so life-affirming...
Yeah, yeah, it's a cool song, it gets a lot of mileage, it doesn't go away.
You've said in the past, you prefer to write alone - what is the reason for that?
I just think I write better songs by myself to be honest. I like the process, I like what I do, I have my way, you know? I'd rather just go with my vision and take that as far as that needs to go. I can write with people, but it's not my favourite thing to do. I did some great songs with Adele actually, we wrote together - that she still loves, supposedly, she said she still loves them - so I hope they see the light of day because a couple of them are really great songs - and one's a great power ballad!
I can only imagine! She's kind of the torch bearer for the new era - Hello is incredible...
You should do a mashup of that and the Lionel Richie one!
The final question - when you sat down to write these songs did you ever think people would still be singing them 20-30 years on... they're going nowhere...
Yeah, they're gonna be around. I want all my songs to be forever songs. I mean how cool is that? And you kind of wonder how much of what's out now is gonna be around forever? Some of these records are really cool records, but are you gonna sing them in karaoke bars? You know what I mean? Some will and some won't but I have a lot that are so I'm really proud of that and I'm continuing to write songs that hopefully will have that legacy to them - that's pretty cool, it's fuckin' cool! And they get covers, and they become... people cover them in different ways, in different styles - the song has to be a substantial song to do that, so I'm proud of that.
Sorry one more - how hard on yourself are you when you're writing?
Very. Very. I beat the shit out myself but that's OK. I do, I'm really hard on myself.
But that must be hard - do you ever think maybe I could get away with it?
I try not to, you know? I really do try as much as I can to make it as great as I can - and not like "oh that'll be OK, that sucky B section" - I'm like, no it's gonna make not like the song if I do that. I want to love everything I write.
For more information on Diane Warren, visit realsongs.com
(Image: Emily Shur)