Emily Warren was always front and center. At least, that’s how it was during middle school, when the young singer-songwriter convinced her brother’s friends to be her backing band.
But after writing nearly a thousand songs over the past dozen years, the pop artist has mostly been behind the scenes as a collaborator. Now, though, she’s finally getting her moment to shine — solo — with the Oct. 5 release of her debut album, Quiet Your Mind. Warren’s writing is a through-line across many of the biggest smash-hit songs of the last five years for artists like Shawn Mendes, Little Mix, Camila Cabello and David Guetta. She was behind The Chainsmokers and Daya‘s Grammy-winning triple-platinum track “Don’t Let Me Down,” helped put together Dua Lipa‘s chart-topping “New Rules” and both wrote and sang on viral hit “Capsize” with L.A.’s Frenship. A writer known for her deftness at bringing emotion into electronic tracks and writing hooks with vulnerable punch, Warren’s solo work now sees her also explore a more organic pop sound rooted in honesty.
Born and raised in New York City, Warren started young with piano lessons. But Bach and Beethoven were not her style; she nearly quit. Luckily, her parents found her a different teacher with more of an eye to popular music and songwriting. Warren’s first song, she tells TIME, was all about an early crush — which crashed and burned after a friend showed the boy in question the lyrics. “That was brutal,” she says. But it didn’t deter her from continuing to put her feelings to music.
As luck would have it, Warren’s dad was in a band and helped her record an EP when she was still in eighth grade. In high school, she convinced her brother’s friends to play at her first live show in the West Village, paying them with babysitting money. That band, dubbed Emily Warren and the Betters, lasted through high school before breaking up.
But things didn’t really take off until college, when she arrived at NYU Tisch School’s Clive Davis Institute knowing that music was her future, but uncertain of its shape. At first, she dismissed the concept of writing for someone else. Things fell into place, though, after an initial studio session with Scott Harris, a well-known writer for stars like Shawn Mendes.
“The first session we had, I was not speaking at all because I was so upset I was there,” Warren says. Fortunately, Harris decided to give her a second chance. Their ongoing collaboration has produced everything from “Don’t Let Me Down” to a number of songs on Shawn Mendes’s Handwritten to the bulk of her new solo project.
She signed to Dr. Luke’s Prescription Songs publishing company in 2013, graduated in 2015 and has been the featured vocalist on tour with The Chainsmokers for years. “A lot of time you have success with people and then they go off to work with others that they couldn’t work with before, but they continue to keep me close,” she says of the popular duo.
Warren recognizes that pop has not always been hospitable to women, but she’s noticed that she doesn’t have to fight as hard to get her voice heard anymore. “My mom used to say that sometimes being the only female was an advantage,” she says. That’s rung true for Warren. Not only has she seen the environment shift towards more sensitivity for what’s being said in songs, but she also has found herself in demand as a female writer — and enabled her to use pop as a platform. “There are songs I hear on the radio that I’m shocked by,” she says. “I try to make an effort to be on the right side of history.”
For Warren, the most important part of songwriting is finding what’s “painful or uncomfortable” and digging into that, no matter the consequences. “Those are the songs that really hit you when you need it; those are the songs I want to be a part of,” she says. That’s the story of “New Rules.” Produced by Ian Kirkpatrick, the song started out as a cathartic exercise for Warren and fellow writer Caroline Alin the day the two met. Alin was confessing to Warren details of a toxic relationship that she was stuck in. “So I was like, let’s write the song that stops you from doing that,” Warren says. It was an unusual song — it didn’t have a normal chorus — and even the writers pretty much forgot about it until six months later, when Lipa and her team chose it as a lead single.
To Warren, it’s a good example of how many pieces have to fall into place for a song to succeed. She points to the voice and persona of Dua Lipa herself, the strong aesthetic of the accompanying music video and the perfect timing — at the peak of a feminist moment in pop — all as contributors to the track’s hit status. “I don’t think there’s any expiration date on songs,” she adds. “The ones I believe in, one day they’ll come out and it will be the right thing.”