A conversation with Kara DioGuardi: Part 1

A conversation between Leslie Stifelman and Grammy-nominated, platinum hit songwriter, singer, and former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi 

In the Musical Exchange Songwriter Series, we explore the craft of songwriting through regular interviews and short videos with songwriters who share inspiration and advice, from professional songwriters who reflect diverse musical styles and approaches to the art of songwriting.

View Part 2 of this conversation.

Leslie: Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?

Kara: I’ve never thought of my lyrics as poetry. To me, I speak in a very colloquial way. When I read my songs, I almost want them to feel conversational, as if I’m in the room with somebody talking about whatever I felt—my pain, my joy, my sorrow, my hopes.

Songwriting for me has really been a journey into understanding my emotions and who I really am. It’s been the best therapy I never paid for. In many ways, it’s just me understanding my own feelings and emotions.

Leslie: Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognized song structures such as rhyme schemes, choruses, hooks, and bridges, or do you think songs should be like free verse?

Go behind the scenes with Kara DioGuardi.

Kara: I definitely feel there should be some structures. There should be some rhyming pattern, and there should definitely be a hook. But I’m not a stickler to anything. If somebody has a beautiful melody, beautiful sentiment, and it doesn’t rhyme every other line or even every two lines—to me it is more about whether the song is honest. Is it expressing a universal emotion in a unique way?

And yes, there are definitely certain patterns and certain structures that need to be followed. I would say, though, the most important thing is that the hook of the song is strong.

Leslie: What is a hook?

Kara: A hook is the chorus. When I was at Duke, I was pre-law, and you would have to present your teacher with your thesis—basically, outline the main theme you would be arguing and then show how everything around it would support that main theme. I kind of look at songs like that. The chorus is the crux of the issue you are dealing with. You are in a good relationship, you are in a bad relationship. You are feeling happy, you are feeling sad. What is the main theme here? And then the verses support that. The bridge can be almost a diversion from everything. It can take you into a fantasy world of what you hope for and what you wish for. Perhaps creating a more universal view—maybe taking it away from just the first person, to “we” instead of “I.” You can have a little bit more liberty with the bridge. 

Leslie: Do you think you need to set up the hook?

Kara: I’m not saying you have to have a pre-chorus all the time, but melodically you have to set it up so that you know when the hook comes in.

Leslie: Do you write the chorus first?

Kara: Sometimes I write the chorus first. Like when I wrote “Undo It” with Carrie Underwood and I had the chorus idea in the shower. And then together we took that chorus and built around it. There are other times that I start with a verse.

Leslie: Where do you draw inspiration from when you write songs?

Kara: Music is where I go to figure out where I am emotionally. I never realize what I’m feeling until I get into a room and start writing. I don’t even know really what I’m speaking about because, again, music to me is therapy. So I’ll go in a room—like with “Walkaway” with Kelly Clarkson, I just started “… you’ve got your mother …” (sings verse). I didn’t really know what I was talking about and then halfway through I realized, oh I was really mad at the guy I was seeing, and I didn’t even realize how mad I was until I started writing. 

This is why I encourage young writers to always keep journals. I always tell writers who are setting out into the professional marketplace, keep a journal, keep a Dictaphone near you because you never know when an idea is going to come to you. There are so many times when I’ve had these ideas that if I didn’t have a Dictaphone, I wouldn’t have had the first kind of buzz of songs that I’ve gone on to write. And also, you could overhear somebody and it can spark an idea.

Music sometimes comes to you very quickly, and other times it’s a theme or something you want to write about. I remember with “Come Clean” with Hilary Duff, I was going through a very difficult period where I was working with very big industry professionals, yet I felt like I wasn’t being true to myself and wasn’t writing from a pure place. I was just trying to get on the records, and they had a different idea of what they wanted to do than I did. And I kept saying I kind of want to come clean; I just want to do what I want to do. And that Hilary Duff song for me in some ways was about letting go of all that and just doing what I wanted to do. Going out to L. A. and writing with pure songwriters and not writing to tracks but starting from the ground up. And being honest with myself about, you know, its great to be on projects, its great to make money, but I have to do things for my soul as well.

Leslie: Do you write the melodic material as well as the lyrics?

Kara: Melody is where I come from because I’m a singer, and for me, my voice is my instrument, so the lyric and the melody almost always come to me at the same time. I also really love to be inspired by whoever is playing the music in the room. Like when we wrote “Undo It,” I had most of the chorus figured out (sings) “She stole my happy, you made me cry …” I had all of that. Then when I got into the room we figured out the chords and the background.

Leslie: How do you know when you’ve finished writing a song?

Kara: The problem with the industry is that sometimes there are severe time constraints. Usually when you are with an artist you have to finish a song within a one-day or two-day period because they often have to go back out on the road.

For my songs, I kind of read it down. I like to read my lyrics out loud and make them feel conversational. Then if they feel honest—like something I would say to someone or something that someone would say to me—that’s a good barometer for whether they’re done.


View Part 2 of this conversation.

Kara DioGuardi is an accomplished songwriter, producer, music executive, and TV personality. As one of the most successful contemporary songwriters in the world, Ms. DioGuardi’s songs have appeared on more than 160 million albums. She’s had more than 316 songs released by major labels, 150 songs on platinum-selling albums, and has enjoyed more than 50 charting singles. Her credits include successes and collaborations with artists such as Pink, Katy Perry, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Carrie Underwood, Enrique Iglesias, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker, Faith Hill, Santana, and many more.

Ms. DioGuardi is also an established record producer, record executive, music publisher, and author. As executive vice president at Warner Brothers Records, Ms. DioGuardi has signed artists such as Jason Derulo and Iyaz. Her publishing company, Arthouse Entertainment, boasts hits from Bruno Mars, Carrie Underwood, Cee-Lo Green, Eminem, B.O.B., Travie McCoy, Flo Rida, Whitney Houston, and Sean Kingston. Additionally, Ms. DioGuardi was a judge on seasons 8 and 9 of the hit FOX show American Idol and was recently featured as the head judge on Bravo’s songwriting reality show competition, Platinum Hit. In the fall of 2011, Ms. DioGuardi made her Broadway stage debut as merry murderess Roxie Hart in the Tony Award–winning hit musical Chicago. Ms. DioGuardi is an active supporter of, and builds recording studios at, Phoenix House, one of the nation’s leading non-profits dedicated to leading individuals, families, and communities affected by addiction from disrupted to productive lives.  


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