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Kara DioGuardi: The Reality Rocks Interview

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Kara DioGuardi had a little difficulty finding her way on American Idol last season, but much of that was not her fault. Idol was already a well-established institution, with the roles on television's most-loved show already rigidly defined: Simon Cowell as the Mean Judge, Paula Abdul as the Nice Judge, and Randy Jackson as The Dawg. Kara's straight-shooting but subtle style just didn't seem to fit in right away. And when the coronation song she co-penned for last year's winner, "No Boundaries," was poorly received by the public, many Idol fans questioned if Kara belonged on the show at all.

Well, question no more, haters. In her second season as an Idol judge--a crucial season considering the absence of Paula, the addition of new judge Ellen DeGeneres, and the imminent departure of Simon--Kara has totally come into her own. Her opinions--drawn from years of experience as a superstar songwriter, record producer, A&R exec, and even lead singer for the band Platinum Weird alongside the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart--are solid and strong; her personality is finally coming through; and she is (to use an important word in the Idol lexicon) very likable.

I recently had the chance to chat with Kara about her challenging first Idol season, the exciting developments in store for Idol season 9, and what else she's got going on in her very busy career, including a Folger's jingle-writing contest. And she was refreshingly forthcoming--proving that when it comes to Kara DioGuardi interviews, there are no boundaries.

REALITY ROCKS: I think you've really come into your own this season on American Idol. Do you feel more confident in your role on the show now?

KARA: Definitely! I mean, last year was disastrous at points for me. It was just so difficult! The transition from behind-the-scenes to being in front of 25 million people was very hard and challenging. I think that the idea that there was a camera on me when I was speaking...I was frozen at times. I couldn't even get my personality out. I was just worried about making sure that my criticism was accurate and on-point, instead of being able to loosen up and just be myself. This year, I feel more like I can do that, and every time that I'm with the judges on the panel, it feels more natural to me.

REALITY ROCKS: Now, you co-wrote Kris Allen's coronation song "No Boundaries" last year, and it got a lot of criticism. Was that hard for you?

KARA: You know, that song got so much flak. I know it did not come off well. I'm not going to lie here. The thing is, if you'd heard the demo, you wouldn't even recognize the song. The problem is when you write those songs, you're writing them in a vacuum. You don't know who's going to win. The song was better for a female voice. It was not written for a male voice. It just wasn't. And when it went to be translated, it was a disaster. And those guys [Kris Allen and Adam Lambert], as great as they are, it was the wrong song--like a complaint we make every week when we talk about song selection. Just the wrong song. It should have never have been what they sang, and unfortunately, looking back, part of it too was I so in the middle of that Bikini Girl stuff. I wish I had maybe gone and said, "Wait, let's try to switch this." And you know, I wasn't the only writer, but everyone wants to come down on me. People have been SUPER-critical. And I understand. Look, it wasn't a good moment. Believe me, I wasn't like, "Woo hoo! How great!" It was a moment in my career that I've never had. I've never been so confused and so like, "Whoa, what just happened?" I want people to know that I've also written some really good songs. Not every day does that bus come by, and I had a bad day that time.

REALITY ROCKS: OK, so obviously Simon Cowell is leaving Idol after this season. Is that going to affect your role on the show? I almost feel like you could become the new "Mean Judge"!

KARA: [laughs] Oh, no!

REALITY ROCKS: I mean that in a good way. There's got to be one judge who's tough and really tells it like it is, and that could be you!

KARA: Well, I'll never be Simon, in the sense that, you know, what I love most when I listen to him is [speaks in British accent]: "It was just AWFUL." It's the way he emphasizes it and the words he chooses; they're like five minutes long with the way he drags it out. [British accent again] "It was absolutely...appalling." And you don't know if he's going to say it was great or if it was just horrendous, because of the time he's taking to say it. And I love that about him. But I definitely can be critical and hardcore, because I know what it takes to be a star in the music industry. And so does he. You do feel for these kids; you want to help them, you want them to achieve their goals. But the reality is a bunch of them are never going to do it. And when I think, "Wow, Simon's been doing this for nine seasons"...my first season I was so struck by the contestants' stories. You kind of fall in love; you have a soft side for these kids. They're not exactly the normal kids I work with that have had training or have signed six-figure deals. So when I talk to those [more experienced] kids, I'm definitely harsher than I am on the show, because they've been paid a lot of money and they have experience, and they're EXPECTED to deliver. But at the same time, once people leave American Idol, they're in MY world now. And it's tough in the music industry: You've got to compete with people like Gaga and Katy Perry. So people on the show work their butts off--which is why that Andrew [Fenlon] guy [the auditioner in Boston who got impatient after having to wait] irritated me.

REALITY ROCKS: I liked him!

KARA: Really? How could you?

REALITY ROCKS: The reason I liked him was I was completely convinced that his attitude was just an act, to be comedic. It seemed like he was just trying to get his 15 minutes of fame by having that attitude. I thought he was funny.

KARA: Yeah, he may have been. But at the same time, with him saying, "Oh, I've been waiting so long" and all that, I was like, "Oh, really? That's your issue? You've been waiting?" So I just wanted to send a message.

REALITY ROCKS: You definitely did! You did not hold back!

KARA: Yeah, we're not interested in that! Plus, he was kind of creepy--and he was rude to Simon! I have no beef with the guy, but if he had won, and that was really what his personality was like in real life...boy, we'd be in trouble!

REALITY ROCKS: Yeah, he'd be hard to work with in the studio. Which beings me to another point...I think you have a different interest in or take on the show than the other judges, because you actually end up writing songs for the singers who get record deals from American Idol. Along with "No Boundaries," you wrote songs for Adam Lambert and Allison Iraheta's albums. Do you approach the show with that in mind? Obviously you don't want someone to win who will mangle your songs or not sell records.

KARA: I never really look at it that way, because whether I write the songs or not, I'm cool--I just want them to have the best songs they can have. The thing that's tricky is sometimes the best voices--just because someone hits the big notes and sounds amazing--it doesn't necessarily mean they make the greatest artists. I can make the argument that people who don't have the biggest ranges but have very unique voices, even if they may be pitchy at times...with the right record that's really unique and distinct, they can have big hits. Look at someone like Ke$ha. I wouldn't say she's got the most rangy, incredible voice, but she's got a thing. She stands for something, and people are buying into that. Whereas sometimes when you get these divas that are really good singers, but they're kind of blasé in personality or they don't have anything to say or their songs are middle-of-the-road...well, I'd rather have someone who's quirky and has an interesting tone.

REALITY ROCKS: I'm glad you say that, because I think that American Idol has this rep for churning out these wannabe Mariah/Celine types, when my most favorite singers just in music in general are quirkier ones that I fear would never even make it past the Idol auditions--like Robert Smith of the Cure.

KARA: Well, it would be difficult for someone like that. First of all, I wouldn't see someone like that coming into the competition because I don't know how they would work in Group Week. Those kind of people don't conform, which is what makes them so great, but it would be hard. But I also think you have this new trend of singers, where people used to come in singing Mariah Carey and now they come in singing Adele! "Chasing Pavements" and this jazzy kind of Duffy/Amy Winehouse stuff is the "new Mariah." When I was younger, you sang "Vision Of Love." Now you sing [starts singing]: "Should I give up, or should I just keep chasing pavements?" So it's a whole new thing. That's why I could make the argument last year for Megan Joy: "You're a package artist, you have an interesting tone. There's something cool about you. You are by far not the greatest singer, but you're interesting."

REALITY ROCKS: So are we going to see more of those types of quirky singers this season?

KARA: I think you will! And you're going to see a lot of great women, too.

REALITY ROCKS: That's what everyone's saying--that it's going to be a more female-dominated season, finally.

KARA: I think it could be a really interesting year, I really do, and I'm excited about it!

REALITY ROCKS: Despite your issues with "No Boundaries," which you wrote before you knew who was going to sing it, you did get to write for Adam Lambert and Allison Iraheta too. It must be very exciting for you, once people from American Idol have gotten record deals and you know who you're writing for, to get to work with them on their albums.

KARA: Yes, I'm just so happy that we found two people like them last year. And hopefully we're going to find some great ones this year.

REALITY ROCKS: So tell me about this other talent contest you're involved in, this Folger's "Best Part Of Wakin' Up" jingle-writing competition.

KARA: I partnered up with Folgers to do a contest, basically to do a remake of the 25-year-old jingle and put your own twist on it, make it your own. The winner will get $25,000 and possibly be in a commercial, and the five finalists will be flown to New York City to perform it in front of me. You can go to www.bestpartofwakinup.com to get the information. The idea is basically for you to take that jingle and play with it.

REALITY ROCKS: So what advice would you give to people who are entering this contest--or really, what songwriting advice would you give to aspiring artists in general?

KARA: I would say you have to have a definitive point of view. You have to make it interesting, so that it stands out and it doesn't sound like anything else.

REALITY ROCKS: That sounds like good advice for anyone going on Idol as well. Thanks!

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