The Songwriter With a Golden Touch

What do Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Mary J. Blige and Reba McEntire have in common? They have all had Top 10 hits written by the same woman: Diane Warren.

Warren, 45, is a one-woman hit factory. She has written no fewer than 90 Top 10 songs, and 38 of her songs have gone all the way to No. 1.

Her first hit was an English translation of the French song "Solitaire," which Laura Branigan took to the Top 10 in 1983. Warren went on to write dozens of pop classics, like "Rhythm of the Night" for DeBarge, Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," Whitney Houston's "I Learned From the Best," and "Unbreak My Heart" for Toni Braxton.

Warren's songs have also appeared in more than 80 feature films and numerous television shows, and her music catalogue is worth an estimated $500 million.

Her hits span genres from pop to rock, country and R&B. Remarkably, they spring from someone who has no formal training in music. Warren, who cannot even read sheet music, doesn't even understand it herself.

"It's very magical to me," she says. "I don't know where they come from, really."

Growing Up Next to the Radio

Growing up in California's San Fernando Valley, Warren was obsessed with music. Her radio was tuned to Top 40 hits by stars like Buddy Holly and the Beatles, as well as songwriters like Burt Bacharach and Carole King. She started writing songs at the age of 15 in a woodshed in the back yard.

Her father, an insurance salesman named David Warren, loved her music and took her to auditions. But her mother, Flora Warren, did not think music was a viable career, and urged her to learn shorthand and typing instead so she could make a living as a secretary.

But Warren was determined to follow her instincts. Her commitment paid off, making her a huge success, and she has not slowed down since. She still works 16 hours a day and writes an average of one song a week. She says she has only had one vacation in her whole career — a 2 ½-day trip to Hawaii. Even then, she admits, she had a keyboard in her room.

"I'm more driven and I'm more crazy and intense than I was at 20," she says.

Her intensity carries over to the way she deals with stars. Warren recalls a recording session when Cher had sung several of her songs but was refusing to sing the one Warren believed was the best.

"I said, 'Throw the others out ... just trash 'em, because the only song that matters is the one you're not doing,' " remembers Warren, adding that Cher was "horrified" but agreed to sing it. The song was "If I Could Turn Back Time," and it went platinum.

How Does She Do It?

Warren writes in a cluttered, airless room on the eighth floor of the Hollywood Hills office of her music publishing business, RealSongs. She calls the room her "secret world," and says nothing has been moved or cleaned for 17 years because she is superstitious.

She says she often starts with a compelling title, then finds the lyrics and melody start growing in her head. A hummable "hook" is important, especially for pop hits.

Rather than writing melodies down on a score, she picks out tunes on a keyboard, then records them and plays them back over a cheap cassette recorder. "If a song sounds good there, it's a good song," she says.

Julie Horton, who runs RealSongs, believes there is something of the "idiot savant" phenomenon about the songwriter, comparing her to a child who suddenly starts playing Chopin or speaking a foreign language without studying.

There are hundreds of tapes of finished songs scattered around Warren's office. She admits that she hates parting with a song: "Once the song's gone to an artist, it's no longer mine ... I hate that — when it's out of my hands."

Love Songs, But No Love

Warren's mother, who is now 86, worries that her daughter is too wrapped up in her work, and says should think about having a family. "She's always, constantly thinking of a song," her mother says.

Warren admits that, despite the hundreds of love songs she has written, she herself has never been flat-out, head-over-heels in love. "I've fallen in love with music that way. Music is the love of my life," she says.

When she writes lyrics about love, Warren says she is sometimes actually thinking of music. An example is "How Do I Live Without You?," which was a No. 1 hit for both Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes. What Warren was actually thinking, she says, was, "How would I live without music?"

Warren's best friend is a parrot called Butt Wings, who lives in a specially designed bird guest room with two other parrots, Gatso and Casper. She says people have sometimes disappointed her in the past, hurting her emotionally, and that she has seen a therapist for years. "There's a lot of pain in my songs ... I tap into that when I'm writing," she says.

Warren has been named songwriter of the year four times by Billboard magazine and six times by ASCAP, the songwriters' union. She even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

All that is not enough for her mother, though. Asked if she was impressed with her daughter's achievements, Flora Warren replied: "[If] that therapist is really helping her, she should tell her to maybe have more friends or meet a nice man and live, you know, with a companion."