Kara DioGuardi, Keynote Interview

Live, On Stage at TAXI's Road Rally 2007

Interview by Michael Laskow
Kara DioGuardi TAXI Interview
It's easy to admire Kara DioGuardi, not only because she's one of the music industry's most highly sought-after songwriters and producers, BMI's 2007 Pop Songwriter of the Year, and a Grammy-nominated songwriter with cuts on more than 100 million records by artists such as Celine Dion, Faith Hill, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Santana, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, Jewel, Pussycat Dolls, Katharine McPhee, Hannah Montana, Taylor Hicks, Bo Bice, Clay Aiken, Ashlee Simpson, Natasha Bedingfield, Hilary Duff, Jesse McCartney, Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias, Anastacia, Ricky Martin, Kylie Minogue, and many, many more!

She's also been awarded nine BMI Pop Awards, had 250 songs released on major labels, more than 80 on multi-platinum albums, nearly 50 international charting singles and her songs have helped propel over 38 albums into Billboard's Top Ten.

The reason I personally admire Kara is because she spearheaded the effort and donated money to build a recording studio for severely disadvantaged teenagers at Phoenix House in Los Angeles last year. I was honored to work with her (and West LA Music CEO, Don Griffin) on the project.

Kara isn't a 'take the money and run' kind of person. I was very moved by her determination, selflessness, and generosity in helping to improve the lives of those teens at Phoenix House. And for those qualities, I thought she'd be the perfect person to receive TAXI's first-ever Humanitarian of the Year Award at the 2007 Road Rally.

What follows is Part One of the Keynote Interview I did with Kara, on stage, immediately following her award presentation. I hope you enjoy reading it. — Michael

It's good to see you. It's been a few months.

You grew up in a really all-American, close-knit family—brunches every Sunday after going to church. And you come from a family of a lot of real over-achievers, so I've got to ask, did your parents freak out after you graduated from Duke with a poli-sci degree and said, "Guess what. I'm gonna be a musician"?

Yeah, they were a bit confused as to why they'd spent all that money.

How did you break the news to them?

Well, I said, "This is what I want to do." I started waitressing and I was in a garage band. They were a little taken aback by that. But what happened was that someone I went to school with moved into the area where I lived, which was Westchester, New York. She got a job at Billboard magazine, but decided to turn it down. So I thought, "Ah, if I can work in the music industry, maybe I'll do that. This'll get my parents off my back if I at least have a job, and I can work in the studio at night and do that whole thing." So, I went to work at Billboard.

I was 22. I can remember getting up at six in the morning and going to the studio until eight, then working all day, and going back to the studio every night. It was insanity. At 22, I'd never written a song, and I was looking for songs to sing so that I could shop an artist tape, and I couldn't find any. So, one day I decided that I'd have to write songs.

Did you read a book? How do you learn?

Looking back, I guess I've always been musical. I'd always heard melodies in my head. I remember listening to music and humming things that maybe were different than the song itself, but that inspired my own melody. And I was lucky enough to stumble across a few people who were very talented early in my career and they just inspired me. I would write songs and they would get rejected, and I'd keep going back time after time. I just kind of got better because for so many years no one was really interested, so it forced me to kind of re-evaluate and do it again. I wasn't big on re-writing. I was more one of those people that if they didn't like it, I'd just move on. That's more my personality. I'm not a hoarder; I love to throw papers away... So the idea of someone saying, "Oh, I don't like it," and then going back and rewriting it is not...

Did you start writing with other co-writers at that point? You had to learn the craft from somewhere. At what point did you start employing craft?

Well, I think that I didn't really understand what craft was in the beginning. I was all inspiration-based. I would just sing about whatever I was feeling and whatever I was going through. And then, through the process of people saying, "The chorus isn't strong enough," or an A&R person or a musician saying, "I don't know about that," you know, you sort of learn that what they're talking about is craft. I never read a book; I never went to a seminar; I would kind of look at other songs and think, "Oh yeah, that really pops there," and "That pre-chorus really sets that chorus up." I mean, you can look at songs and see why they're kind of perfect, or why they're kind of not.

Writing songs to me is much like going to the gym. I went to the gym for two years before I started to see any kind of definition. It's just this process where you just keep at it, then one day you just know that that pre-chorus isn't working and that the chorus lyric isn't strong enough. And you don't really understand why you know it—it's just that you've been doing it day after day and getting some feedback, and it starts to all make sense. That's what it did for me, because I've never been a great structured learner. I've always wanted to find it on my own.

Yeah, you must have been a terrible student to get into Duke. They take people who get C's, right?

I was an OK student, but I didn't love school because it was forced: "Read that. You'll do this or that." I was never really good with that, so this was really kind of a perfect career for me because I could feel whatever I wanted to feel, write about it, and sort of go on my own journey of finding out how to be a better writer and be more in touch with things. For me it was almost therapy in a lot of ways for what went on in my life earlier.

I know that your mom passed away about 10 years ago, and as well as you and I know each other, we've never talked about her passing. So, I hope I'm not getting too personal here. But I've often wondered, was her death this moment in your life where it made you reflect and realize the value of life and cause you to become as philanthropic as you've become?

I'm just in a period in my life now where I've done well, and there are certain things I want to start to do to give back more. So I try to speak to these things and do things to just get outside of myself, because for so many years you're in your own head writing, and it's all about you and how you feel. After awhile it's like, "enough"! I mean, 12 hours with myself is about as much as I can take. It's like, enough with me.

But, in terms of my mother, she was ill for most of my 20s, and it was really, really difficult. So, the thing I wanted to do was be an artist more than anything and that sort of took a pause because I needed to be there for her—and I would never have traded that for anything. But what it did do is make me pretty resilient, because if you can go through someone's illness, what is "I don't like that song"? Who cares? You don't like my song, big deal. I've got a mother who's dying... So, it made me really tough, is what it did.

And then after she died it made me realize, "Omigod, I can do anything. So now I'm gonna focus all my energy on this and just attack it like crazy." So, I guess it did harden me, and I think that's a very important thing when you're pitching songs. When people are playing with your dream, you don't what them to be able to come in and just mess you up to the point where you don't even want to get out of bed. It's important to take their constructive criticism to heart, but, also you don't want to let them affect you so much that it keeps you from your dream. So, I guess I had that going for me. I was resilient.

You seem to balance the creative and business sides of the music business better than a lot of people.

There's a duality that sometimes becomes tiresome to live in because it's the part of music—as you all know—that being sensitive and being real and being open and being honest is what makes great songs, and you have to kind of protect that from everything else or else you become jaded and you can't tap into anything. It's just kind of a trick I learned and I don't really know how I did.

I think of myself as more of a survivor than anything, so it's kind of a survival technique. When you're trying to get your song placed and you're trying to break into this industry, it's so difficult. It is like you're a soldier; you just keep going; you don't let anything stop you. At least that's what I kind of did in the beginning. Now I look back and I don't know how I did it. But it was what I wanted to do and I didn't want anyone to tell me I couldn't do it. I think that was more of it that anything. I didn't like the word no. I've never liked no, and when someone said, "No you can't have my song to sing," I was like, "Really. All right, I guess I'll have to make my own songs then." And I did.

I've often told my wife and my closest friends that I wouldn't have the strength and the energy to start TAXI again today.

Thank God you did in the beginning... [Applause]

It's almost like a level of ignorance or stupidity. If I knew then what I know now, none of us would be in the room today. So, I'm glad that you found that in yourself as well.

I don't know if you feel this, but I definitely feel that early on in my career there would be these little moments that would happen and they could keep me going for like six months or a year—just like somebody saying something or one door opening and it really staying open. That's what it's really about. It's about finding those moments, and when you have them, holding on to them. People say, "Oh, that Grammy moment," but for me some of those moments were my first meetings when someone said, "I really like that chorus." That would give me enough fuel for four months to just keep going. Those are really the moments I remember more than anything, the first people that believed in me.

I believe the great songwriters are probably born with an innate gift, but they still have to learn the craft, which you did. At different stages have you written at targets? Have you just written whatever the muse kind of sucked out of you?

It really depends... let's say I've been doing some stuff for Disney, like Hannah Montana. They're very specific about what they want, so I have to think a lot before I start the song and what exactly they need out of it. So, those are not really songs where I go, "What do I feel today?" But most of the songs that I write, that's where I'm at. I mean, you've got to come up with stuff every day. I just have to be really in tune with what I feel. I try not to come in with lyrics or titles. I like to kind of just go with the room, depending on who's playing, because I'm really influenced by the music and my co-writer, because I co-write a lot. I don't like to write on my own. I've always been a collaborator, and that's really, I think, the trick in becoming a great writer—getting in the room with people who are better than you, or at least at your level. I used to say, "If I don't feel like I want to throw up, it's not a good sign."

Meaning that you want to feel a little nervous about being challenged?

Yeah. But I definitely try to approach my music with honesty, whatever I'm feeling to begin with. And then I have to sometimes move it into a direction where my craft takes over. I definitely feel that those songs that we all gravitate towards are the ones that really strike a chord in us and that are very honest and coming from a true place, as opposed to the more gimmicky thing—and I've had some gimmicky songs too. I've definitely had my hand in that. But, it's harder for me actually to be inspired these days because I've been doing it for so long. And how many different ways can you play the guitar? A lot, but you really have to seek out those unique co-writers and people who inspire you on a daily basis. David Hodges actually is one of them. I work a lot with him, and his voicings on the piano are just so incredible and so inspiring. I think that's and important trick or something to really keep in mind is that when you're not inspired, you should probably get out of the room. Nothing great can come from feeling bored while you were writing a song, and I try to remember that.

But, I guess the point I'm trying to make is that if you're sitting in a room and you'd rather be somewhere else, it's not a good co-write. And don't just push through it because you feel like you have to finish everything. I don't finish everything.

How many songs do you typically write in a year?

Well, I write a lot of songs in a year, but I'm trying to cut back on that because one great song can eclipse 80 mediocre songs that end up as album cuts. So, I'm trying to get really even tougher on myself. I also go through periods where I'm like, "Oh, am I that good?" I know it sounds strange to you, but I feel like I'm always evaluating myself. Am I current for the market right now? Has my day come that I should just sit in my house or go into the garden and do something else? I've been working for 10 years professionally doing this, and that's a long run for a songwriter. It really is.

It feels like you're still peaking.

I don't know if I'm peaking, but I'm definitely shifting, and I'm definitely starting to now see where the market is going, and there are things where I fit in and there are places I don't. So I have to make a choice. Do I want to relearn things? Because music is different. "Genie in a Bottle" was a big Pop song when I came up, and now it's "Umbrella," and there are a lot of differences between those songs. One is way more songwriter-y in terms of its lyric; it's more crafty. "Umbrella" is just a great concept; it's really smart. I wouldn't say that the lyrics are incredibly tied together, it's just real emotions. I think music is changing. The kind of crafty, songwriter-y, lyric-driven songs are different today than they were 10 years ago. The actual charts are very track-driven right now, which for me is kind of beneficial because that's the way I came up. But it's something to keep in mind—I don't know what everyone in this ballroom is trying to do musically—but Top 40 is very track-driven, and more than ever, producer-driven, I would say.

If you liked Part One of this interview, then make sure you read Part Two next month! The advice and insight Kara gives is truly priceless. —Michael

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