Oscars 2015: Diane Warren on 'Grateful,' Kanye, her latest nomination

Songwriter @Diane_Warren on her seventh Oscar nod: "This time I was thinking I didn't even have a chance"

Glittering trophies cover many of the available surfaces in Diane Warren’s spacious Hollywood office.

There’s the Grammy Award she won in 1997 for writing Celine Dion’s wedding-reception staple “Because You Loved Me.” There’s the Golden Globe she took home with “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” the power ballad she penned for her friend Cher to sing in 2010’s “Burlesque.” And there are the dozens of gold and platinum plaques she’s been presented with over a three-decade career as one of music’s most successful songwriters – the mind behind such monster hits as Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” Toni Braxton’s “Un-break My Heart” and “How Do I Live” by LeAnn Rimes.

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What there isn’t, at least for now, is an Academy Award.

A six-time nominee – or six-time loser, as she refers to herself -- Warren, 58, is up for her seventh Oscar on Sunday for “Grateful,” a sweeping ode to self-empowerment from director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights.” The movie stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni, a Rihanna-esque pop singer chafing against the strictures of her celebrity; Rita Ora performs the song over the movie’s closing credits, as she will on Sunday’s live Oscar telecast.

With stiff competition from Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” and especially “Glory” – John Legend and Common’s Golden Globe-winning anthem from “Selma” – “Grateful” is perhaps the long shot in this year’s original song race. (Its low profile as a recorded single hasn’t helped.) But in a frank conversation this week, Warren insisted the song has connected with those who’ve heard it.

You know, “Grateful” doesn’t strike me as a word—

That you’d hear and it would inspire a song?

It’s kind of ungainly.

It’s a weird word. I like it, though -- it’s so positive. Sometimes I see titles, and I saw that title after I saw the movie.

This movie must have spoken to you. It takes place in your world.

It’s great. Critics loved it, and people saw it for the weekend it was out. I mean, literally, you blinked and it was gone, which is a shame.

Why did it disappear so quickly?

I don’t know. I’m not on the movie side of it. I just think it probably could’ve been marketed a different way. It’s sad. There was a time when word of mouth could build something, especially a really great movie that maybe takes a minute. Let people talk about it, you know? Let it find its audience. Instead, it doesn’t hit a certain amount of money, it’s gone from theaters. It’s so unfair.

A movie has to be an instant success now to survive.

And not everything is. Some things take time. Everybody that saw this movie loved it. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, she was amazing, and she’s not even a singer. She’s more believable than some people who come in my studio.

What’s your take on how the movie thinks about pop? I think it’s really smart about some things but less smart about others. The idea, for instance, that Noni has to step away from the clothes and the pageantry to really express herself – that seems pretty naïve to me. I don’t think Rihanna views spectacle as an impediment to her artistry.

Right, Rihanna wants to do more. But Noni is a different character; she’s not Rihanna. You can see in the movie how she could kind of go along with it, and then even kind of get into it because she’s becoming a star. But then it’s: Wait, how did I get here? This isn’t who I am.

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“Grateful” isn’t sung by Noni in the film, but were you sort of writing the song from her perspective?

Yeah. I wanted it to be that moment where she’s just grateful, even for all the painful stuff she’s gone through, because ultimately she’s stronger for it. She really has to go through a lot to find out who she is, to find her own voice. But I also wanted to write a song that people could embrace outside the movie.

You’ve clearly had success doing that in the past. “Because You Loved Me” doesn’t make me think of “Up Close & Personal” at all.

No, and you don’t think about “Armageddon” when you hear “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”

Do you know who’s going to end up singing these songs when you’re writing them?

I just try to write a great song. I’m not pinning it to one person, although there are times I do, of course. In this case Rita was Gina Prince-Bythewood’s choice, which I was cool with. And when I heard the record I was like, “This is a total hit.”

That hasn’t happened, though. The record’s hardly been promoted.

I’d have to agree with that. Anytime I’ve written a nominated song, they’ve all been career songs. ’N Sync did a song called “Music of the Heart” with Gloria Estefan. Then ’N Sync’s album came out like a month and a half [after the Oscars] and it sold 2 1/2 million copies in a week. I’m not saying it’s because of that song, but I’m not saying it’s not because of that song. [The Oscars exposure] could’ve opened up a whole new audience [for Ora]. That’s the most-watched thing on the planet; everybody watches the Oscars. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t embrace that.

If we accept for the sake of argument that “Grateful” has been somewhat undervalued--

But it got nominated! The songs that didn’t get nominated this year are, like, Coldplay from “Unbroken.” That was a huge movie. What about Lorde with “The Hunger Games”? What about Lana Del Rey [with “Big Eyes”]? God knows what Harvey [Weinstein] spent on that. All those movies had huge budgets. And that’s leaving out Patti Smith. There’s a ton of people who probably assumed they were getting nominated. Now me? A few years ago I won the Golden Globe with “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.” And then the song didn’t get nominated [for an Oscar], which was kind of shocking, because I think that was probably the time I was the front-runner to win. This time I was thinking I didn’t even have a chance.

Which kind of makes it even weirder that this song – the one that could really use the push – has hardly been hyped. The nominations were announced more than a month ago. That seems like plenty of time for the promo machine to rev up. 

I’m telling you, I don’t get it. And it’s a hit record!

You mean it has the makings of a hit record.

To me it does. It’s like a mass-appeal record for this girl that hasn’t really broken here. Again, I’m not in that part of the business. Maybe they had a certain budget for the soundtrack. But I think they probably had a budget for Rita, for her new album. I don’t want to stay on the negative, but I have to say I’m kind of surprised. This has never been my experience. Before it gets nominated? I get it. The movie kind of came and went, as great as it is. But the song got nominated! Lorde didn’t. Coldplay didn’t. Patti Smith didn’t. Lana Del Rey didn’t. But this song did! Do 10 different remixes. Get Iggy Azalea to pay Rita back for [Azalea’s song] “Black Widow.”

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Good idea.

I suggested it.

“Grateful” is up against some high-profile songs, including “Glory,” which many consider to be a lock.

I know. And I’ve lost six times. But, look, not to be clichéd, but getting nominated was a win for me. I hadn’t been nominated in 13 years. And this is a song that I don’t know who heard it, from a movie that I don’t know who saw it. But, yeah – look at the competition.

On the other hand, look at Beck. Very few thought he’d beat Beyonce for album of the year at the Grammys.

I was about to say. That’s cool when it’s unexpected. And he’s a real artist. Good for him.

I think Beck’s win reminds us that these contests come down to voters’ personal convictions. The Kanye West part of you wants the award to recognize the most important work, the work that made the biggest impact. But often that’s not what happens.

But it’s not up to Kanye West. That was Beck’s moment, you know? Just shut up, dude.

In a way, though, didn’t Kanye’s stunt kind of help Beck? It certainly made his win a much bigger story.

And he helped Taylor Swift a few years before that. That was like the best  thing that ever happened to her. What I want to do is take Kanye with me [to the Oscars]. I’m like, “Kanye, if ‘Glory’ wins, I want you to jump up there.”

“I’m-a let you finish, John Legend and Common, but Diane Warren had one of the best original songs of all time.”

That’ll be the first and last time I’m ever on that stage.

Twitter: @mikaelwood


Dianne Warren's Oscar-nominated songs

"Grateful" from the film "Beyond the Lights (2014)

"There You'll Be" from the film "Pearl Harbor" (2001)

"Music of My Heart" from the film "Music of the Heart" (1999)

"I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" from the film "Armageddon" (1998)

"How Do I Live" from the film "Con Air" (1997)

"Because You Loved Me" from the film "Up Close & Personal" (1996)

"Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" from the film "Mannequin" (1987), shared with Albert Hammond

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