Songwriter Diane Warren on Oscar Chances and Why She Loves Lady Gaga

Already a legend, could "Til It Happens to You" be her first Academy Award win?

Songwriter Diane Warren and Lady Gaga are nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar for 'Til It Happens to You' featured in 'The Hunting Ground' documentary. Credit: Todd Williamson

On Sunday, Diane Warren will be up for her eighth Oscar nomination for her powerful collaboration with Lady Gaga, "Til It Happens to You." The simple, raw ballad soundtracks director Kirby Dick's documentary, titled The Hunting Ground, that explores rape on college campuses in the United States. For Warren, this could be the one that breaks her Oscar losing streak after being nominated for massive songs such as Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me," LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live" and Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Warren spoke with Rolling Stone about "real deal" Gaga, her Oscar history and her work with Big Sean.

How did you and Gaga come together to create "Til It Happens to You" for The Hunting Ground?
I thought she would be really the right person, the right artist. I couldn't think of anybody better, so I basically called her, and she was into it. I played what I had on the phone, and it could've gone either way. It could've been something too personal or she didn't wanna get near it, or it could've been something that touched her. It was the latter, and she was pretty emotional. I still didn't know if she was for sure doing it or would be involved. Then I thought, "You know what? I'm gonna fly out there. If she doesn't want to work on it with me, I'm gonna have some fun in New York for a couple of days. If not, this is gonna be the best thing I've been a part of." Fortunately it turned out to be that.

Both you and Gaga have had eclectic careers and a group of diverse people you've worked with over the years…
Well, here's the thing about Gaga. She's the real deal, an all-timer. She's no joke. This girl is gonna be around in 50 years. She's a seriously trained classical musician, trained vocalist. She has the goods underneath all the crazy Gaga stuff, which makes her Gaga as well, which is awesome. Underneath that, you have a real fucking amazing artist with the chops to last. Serious chops. She can tour along with Tony Bennett. If you can give me somebody in the current pop landscape that can do that, let me know. Or who can go and sing the National Anthem flawlessly, then a week later do a David Bowie tribute, and next week is the Oscars.

She's gonna blow people away at the Oscars. You know what's really weird? I was nominated a year ago for a song I did for a movie called Beyond the Lights with Rita Ora, and it lost. Gaga and I had already gone in the studio. She'd already made this beautiful, stunning record a few weeks before that. Anyway, so I just lost my seventh Oscar, and she came out and did The Sound of Music, and I tweeted. You can find the tweet, it's from February 22nd, and I said, "Just lost #7. I'll be back here with lucky #8 with the woman that's on stage killing it right now." Isn't that crazy?

The song is definitely one of Gaga's best vocal performances.
Isn't it amazing? I mean, this song became a Number One dance record, you know? A woman named Tracy Young did her remix and all these people started doing remixes. This is without any label support. The label really hasn't done anything, but the song has. This thing has got a life of it's own. Yesterday it hit 26 million views [on YouTube] and Gaga is not even in the video. It's starting to get all over on the radio, but literally on its own. This is a once in a lifetime record song, and it was never even gonna come out.

What do you mean?
It was only gonna be in the movie. There were no plans for this song ever to come out, but I believed [in it] from day one.

Before working with her, what was you first encounter with Gaga's music?
I loved her first album. I loved those first hits. They were just great pop songs, and to me there's nothing better than a great pop song. But what really blew me away was when I went to MusicCares a few years ago. It was when they honored Carole King. Gaga just sat at the piano and did "You've Got a Friend," and it was one of the best things that I've ever heard or seen. Ever. Ever.

I remember standing up in the middle of it. It was just so stunning. Everybody just stood up. It was like, "Oh my God! This is like… this girl is for real." We know she's for real but hearing that, wow. She doesn't need to wear a meat dress. You know what I mean? [Laughs] By the way, I'm an animal activist. I'd prefer tofu dress.

I remember telling her that night, "We gotta do something together. We gotta work together." And then this was the song. It was meant to be this song.

I know that immediately after the Oscar nominations, Linda Perry had offered some critiques on Gaga's involvement...
I don't even deal with that. Let's let the drama stay where the drama is buried. It's about what the song is doing and the message of it and how it's helping so many people and how positive it is. What Gaga brought to it is very valuable, and I'm not gonna let someone question that. If they want to, they can. But that's their thing, not mine.

How did you get involved with the The Hunting Ground and writing the song for the documentary?
A friend of mine, Bonnie Greenberg — who's the music supervisor on it – called me and was telling me about the film, and these girls' stories. It was infuriating to me, and it was just pissing me off with what goes on on these college campuses and what these girls had to go through. I had my own experience with my own molestation when I was younger, and it just pisses me off because it's such a terrible thing, especially when someone is young and they're innocent. I felt compelled to write a song and to get involved, and  it has become this anthem for this whole movement. It's really giving voice to something that was hidden and not talked about and in shadows and in closet. Three years ago, people weren't talking about it. The power of music and this song is making people able to talk about it.

When I get notes — hundreds of notes — it always reads "what happened to me." It becomes a song about anything traumatic you go through, whether you're bullied, depressed, maybe you lost your job, maybe you're suicidal, maybe you're sick. Gaga brought this warrior sensibility to this. She made such an amazing record. She produced that herself. She starts out so vulnerable and it keeps building and it gets more pissed off until the end where she's standing there with the machine gun and you're not gonna fuck with her. [Laughs] 

It's so defiant and the video that Catherine Hardwicke did is genius too because it follows the same course where you see all these poor girls and the aftermath. At the end, you see them marching down the hall and the looks on their faces, it's like, "You're not fucking with us. We're not victims." That's pretty powerful.

Yeah, the intent of the song is clear but also extremely malleable...
I do that on purpose, by the way. With any song I write, I want it to be whatever you want it to be about, you know? So for some songs, it can be about whatever you want it to be about if you go through something that's tough. That just becomes your song. 

Would you say that this song has elicited one of the most powerful responses from people listening to something you've written?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Of all the songs I've done for artists and written in my life, I have never, never gotten this kind of a response. It's really healing people. It's really helping people. I'm hearing from everybody. People I grew up that lived on my street, Vice President Biden. He was talking to me about [the song] with tears in his eyes. It's very humbling.

Let's talk a little bit about your personal history with the Oscars. This is your eighth nomination...
Yeah, eighth: Haven't won yet, but let's see what happens Sunday. Hopefully it changes. [Laughs]

Is there a song that you wish had won above all the others? 
The one I, in all honesty, thought I was gonna win and I was hoping to was when I did "Because You Love Me." Every other one I was nominated for I was kinda like "All right, um… I'm probably not gonna win this one." Especially last year up against "Glory." "Because You Loved Me" is a song that has really lasted. When you talk about songs that have different meanings, here's a song Michelle Pfeiffer was singing to Robert Redford's character who'd passed away. Then it becomes a wedding song.  Songs have all these lives and become what you never thought it would be.

I remember when I took Clive Davis as my Oscar date that year ,and I was really bummed out, so I ate like two orders of French fries that night. [Laughs] I drowned my sorrows in French fries. I remember the cameras were on everybody's faces, and I went "Fuuuck!" And of course the cameras were off because they don't give a fuck about you at this point. You don't exist. Not to be cliché, it's still pretty fucking great to be nominated. I mean, think of how many songs come out in a year. Grammys are great, but there are like a million Grammy song nominations. And then there's only one Oscar song nomination. That's pretty awesome.

What drew you to the world of writing songs for movies, and how did that come to be a part of your career as a songwriter?
I just like songs, that's my main thing. My first big hit was the song called "Rhythm of the Night" that was actually from a movie called Berry Gordy's the Last Dragon. That was a powerful movie. I don't know, I think some of my songs are cinematic, and I think I'm good at that. I think I'm good at kind of tapping in to the emotion of the movie. Like we were talking about before, also making it where it's not so spot on so that it can be about whatever you want it to be about outside of it.

I know that you've been working with a few newer stars lately, like Nathan Sykes...
Yeah, I'm working on Nathan's record. I just did a couple of really great songs on Big Sean that I'm excited about.

And I know you've also been in the studio with Zendaya...
I did two really amazing songs on Zendaya's record. I'm really excited about that too. It's all different, and the Big Sean stuff is really different. I love it. I think one can be Song of the Year. It's the biggest hit ever. There's a lot of fun stuff that I'm doing. I'm working with Paloma Faith again, and I wrote her biggest hit last year. She's really great. I did some stuff with Adele that I hope sees the light of day. There are a couple of great songs that I know she still loves. I had a lot of stuff going on. I don't even know what I'm doing. I'm just excited. I just love doing this.

And are you gonna be working with Gaga anymore?
Yeah, we've done a few really great songs. She's great to work with, man. We're so different. Our working styles are different. She'll make me more weird, and I'll make her less weird. Even though I'm probably more weird than she is, if that makes sense.

What can we expect on Gaga's performance on Sunday for the Oscars.
Well, you can expect for her to blow your fucking mind. [Laughs] Just look back to last year, you know with The Sound of Music. I think she's gonna take it to a whole other level. I kind of know what the show's gonna be like. It's gonna be so powerful and mind-blowing and she's gonna knock it out of the park as she always does. I mean, that's what she does. I can't wait to be sitting in that audience a year from when I tweeted that I'd be back with her in the stage singing it, and it happened. It's crazy. Isn't that crazy?