James A. Lovell once wrote, “There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen and there are people who wonder what happened… and the most successful people are the ones who make things happen.” Diane Warren is a songwriter that makes things happen. Wikipedia can provide you with a rundown of all of the things she has made happen to date and a google search will lead you to a list of the details…a fairly complete and almost up to date list of songs she has had cut. It’s a long list of the “A” list of contemporary popular singers in the world and it spans almost every genre, almost every kind of song (not just the American romantic conversation) and many decades.
There are successful writers who love to talk about the process of writing and about their work and others who look like they would rather be doing the work rather than just talking about it and Diane Warren impressed me as that second kind of writer. Because of that she has outworked every other songwriter in her draft class and continues to dominate the contemporary music market. She has created a legacy of success in a business where most writers and many publishers are still not certain what a pop song should even sound like.
One of Diane Warrens mantras, that came up again and again during our interview was that she “shows up” to write. She puts in the time and does the work.
She often writes from a concept. She wants her songs to tell a story, she works a lot on the lyrics and she has completely mastered the single intent lyric; she gives her songs a single unified emotion giving that emotion the greatest chance to be powerful. However, in almost every other craft element of writing she is pointedly and intentionally, unintentional. She is a natural organic talent, able to write songs that sound natural and conversational, probubly because, in her case, the process does not need to be over analyzed and overworked.
Diane has her own ear for knowing when a song is great but she also has a small network of friends that she can “test drive” a song with. During our time together she laughed that she had taught her trainer at the gym how to critique a song and he was eventually able to discuss the merits of a particular verse concept or chorus hook of her newest song with a fair amount of confidence.
She is very excited right now about the song “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” that she wrote for Poloma Faith. It has a lot of the swagger and groove of some of my favourite Motown classics but is also very fresh and “of today”. Like many of her songs it is completely comfortable and evocative at the same time.
As great as it is…and it is great, this will probably not be Diane Warrens best song ever, since she continues to work at writing more songs and better songs everyday… it may not even end up being her best song this year.
Since I usually write about process and craft I thought it would be interesting to look under the hood of “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” and see what writing elements help make it great.
In an analysis of the lyric of this song, it is interesting right away. She uses an odd number of lines in verse one to create an uneasy feel that matches perfectly with the emotion expressed in the lyric. She uses an internal subtractive rhyme (mean/me) , an offset line and then a perfect rhyme (much/touch) to close off the section.
In the chorus she ends 3 lines with the word “this” in a balanced 4 line section but varies the 3rd line with the perfect rhyme word “kiss” which makes the chorus very sing-a-long friendly as well as super catchy. She adheres to the rule of 3; not having more than 3 lines say the same thing to break it up and make it more interesting for the listener. Not all songs follow that rule but it helps the chorus in the case.
Verse 2 opens with a perfect rhyme (away/stay) , has the same offset line in the 5 line unbalanced matching form and ends with an additive rhyme (go/soul). The 3rd verse features an assonance rhyme of “skin” and “this” (matching vowel sound but not related consonants), an additive rhyme (go/soul) and moves the offset line to the bottom making it unbalanced but the line then does double duty as a tag.
In the final chorus, the form shifts from a single 4 line form to 3 groups of 3 lines with the last line of each group being perfect (this/kiss), assonance (this/skin) and then perfect again (this/kiss).
What makes this form and rhyme scheme work so well is that it is consistent in the same way a conversation or story has continuity but there are shifts and variances that stretch the listeners perception of what to expect which makes the song sound fresh and not predictable as you listen through…also like a conversation. A great balance of comfort and challenge for a listener; who will require a balance of those elements to enjoy the song through repeated listens.
The analytical concepts used here in the study of the lyric form of “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” are derived from the book “Writing Better Lyrics” by Pat Pattison (www.patpattison.com).
A question I get asked by songwriters all of the time is whether successful songwriters make these decisions knowingly or intuitively and in many respects the answer to that is of little use to the songwriter asking it. If any songwriter has the natural organic ability to write great songs or, on the other hand has a more clinical approach, it will not change the outcome of the writing, or help anyone else improve. I believe that if you can just write you should just write and if craft ends up being more of a help and not just a distraction to making writing happen then go learn some craft.
What can be learned from Diane Warrens approach to writing songs is simply that when you are a person that shows up and makes things happen….great things can happen.