Meet Emily Warren: The Unsigned Pop Star Breaking All of the Rules

Emily Warren photo credit to David O'Donohue

Gliding down the low-lit Forest Hills Stadium stage in a black dress and flower-dappled kimono, Emily Warren emerges from the fog-shrouded shadows for the final show of The Chainsmokers’ Memories Do Not Open tour. Drew Taggart strums a baby blue guitar, tantalizing the audience with a few picked notes, and then, like clockwork, Warren’s gossamer vocal adds to the driving beat.

“Crashing, hit a wall,” she begins for the final time, launching into “Don’t Let Me Down,” the summer-long smash that nabbed The Chainsmokers 850 million streams and 52 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, which Warren co-wrote after a particularly disorienting visit to Coachella. Warren’s version differs from the final Daya variant–her expressive vocal cloaks the song with a darker undercurrent and an insistent command over the backbeat–a gravitas that permeates through much of Warren’s own music. As fog machines jet into the audience and red streamers descend from the sky, Warren smiles at the 14,000 seat, NYC arena, which she has lifted into a fist-bumping sea of sweaty euphoria.

It’s an appropriate reveal for the Grammy-winning songwriter, who told me just a year ago that hearing “Don’t Let Me Down” on the radio induced a “full body takeover.” At that time, the songwriter had two songs of the summer, The Chainsmokers cut and “Capsize” by Frenship, in addition to songs written with Melanie Martinez, Jessie J, Fifth Harmony, and Shawn Mendes. A year later, “Don’t Let Me Down” has gone five times platinum and Warren has released an astounding 22 more songs (Noah Cyrus, Dua Lipa, and James Blunt have all sought collaborations), including four additional songs on The Chainsmokers’ new album, and an uncredited vocal feature on radio hit, “Paris.” She has practically become the third member of the band, performing “Paris” on SNL and Good Morning America as she launches her own artist career with her debut single, “Hurt By You,” which she released in May.

“Even these days afterwards are still just surreal.”

When I catch her on the phone a few days after the Forest Hills concert, Warren is already in another songwriting session, but has still not fully absorbed that last show. “It was another ‘full body takeover,’” she explains. “I’m still coming down from all that… it was like an insane experience. Even these days afterwards are still just surreal.” The NYC stop was special for Warren, who originally hails from Manhattan, and graduated from NYU two years ago. Her family and friends were all in the audience to support her, making for a night that felt like “more than life” itself.

It’s a night that almost didn’t happen. In theory, Warren’s transition from songwriter to performing artist should be simple; one would think that the music industry would support artists who have both the talent to write their own songs and the unique vocal chops to perform them live, but that is often not the case. Although the industry has begun to give more of a spotlight to the creatives behind pop hits–most recently with pop writers like Sia, Julia Michaels, and Bibi Bourelly launching into artist careers–there’s still major resistance from the powers that be.

Warren personally met friction from The Chainsmokers’ record label during the final writing stages of the Memories…Do Not Open record, which features Warren’s vocals or writing on five tracks, nearly half the album. From Warren’s experience, this didn’t surprise her. “With most other projects, when you start to get multiple good things with them, they kind of start pushing you out,” she explains, glossing over the typical process for co-writing tracks for an artist’s album (often referred to as a “project” within the industry). However, Drew Taggart and Alex Pall of The Chainsmokers fought against their label to keep all four of Warren’s co-writes, including her two vocal features (“My Type” and “Don’t Say”), arguing that there was no need to have another artist feature on songs that were so distinctly her own. Then they invited her on tour, a move practically unheard of within the industry.

“We have to be united in spreading good vibes ourselves in order for that to trickle down to the radio and into other people’s lives.”

“Honestly, it’s a huge testament to Drew and Alex. They really put a lot of faith in me, and I haven’t seen much of that really outside of their camp–just good people acting like friends,” she explains. It’s behavior she herself has adopted in the writing room and in her own artist career. “The way they treat everyone around them makes the actual creative environment much better. I think it’s so important for an artist to be writing with people that are their actual friends. We have to be united in spreading good vibes ourselves in order for that to trickle down to the radio and into other people’s lives.”

Warren’s first solo release, “Hurt By You,” came out of a writing session with her own friends, Scott Harris (songwriter behind hits by Shawn Mendes and Alessia Cara, and co-writer of “Don’t Let Me Down”) and Nick Ruth (collaborator with Nick Jonas and Carly Rae Jepsen). “Hurt By You” is deeply personal, tracking the moment in Warren’s life when she decided to let her guard down and enter a relationship with her current boyfriend, despite the seemingly inevitable prospect of emotional pain. The song juggles a desire to rush into love with the knowledge that the relationship could end in betrayal, bolstered by a gorgeous performance by Warren who can, like Sia, re-purpose an earthy vocal crack into a rhythmic propulsion or, like Mariah Carey, gently taper off at the end of phrases into a sparkling falsetto. It’s a hit-worthy combination that nabbed the song 1 million Spotify streams and spots on the Global Viral and US Viral charts within one month of its release, even before its recently released music video.

This is a recurring theme in Warren’s work, a sort of anti-synthetic creation approach that results in autobiographical writing and hits that take off. “[When] you have a relationship [with a co-writer], the songs can be deeper because it’s someone you trust that actually knows you,” she explains. She points to recent album songwriting sessions with her friend, Britt Burton (with whom Warren wrote Jessie J’s “Masterpiece” and Noah Cyrus’s “Stay Together”) where Burton was able to fill in details of Warren’s personal life as they worked through some issues that Warren had faced a year ago. “She was remembering things about my story that I didn’t even remember. It was so sick. She actually knows me and [that] makes songwriting that much more special.”

“We really have to understand something if I’m going to have to write lyrics about it… and we evolve because of it.”

Phil Leigh, Warren’s boyfriend and the subject of “Hurt By You,” also worked on the album–he’s one half of the songwriting and production duo Mac & Phil (they’ve created hits with James Arthur, Emile Sandé, and Ella Henderson). Warren describes working with her significant other as “trippy” at first, but eventually therapeutic. “The conversation that’s required to write a song–going into the depths of something and understanding a concept from every side–is really healthy for us. We really have to understand something if I’m going to have to write lyrics about it… and we evolve because of it.” They wrote at least two songs together on Warren’s upcoming debut album, including “I Don’t Think You Want This,” their first together, and a second song that samples the sounds of a recent trip they took to Amsterdam, what Warren calls a “personal snapshot.”

But this is only a glimpse at the many creative friendships Warren has in the industry, ones that are launching her artist career despite the fact that Warren remains unsigned to a record label. On her “Write On Track” Spotify playlist, she’s chatted through the process behind songs she’s written for others, and it’s clear from her phone conversations with Shawn Mendes, Becky Hill, Sophia Black, and others that Warren is a highly valued and respected artist. When she released “Hurt By You,” she was met with praise from many of them on Twitter. “I was so taken… All these artists that I’ve worked with were tweeting about it and I didn’t ask them. I was just like oh my God. This is amazing.”

Note: Transcribed quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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