Interview: Kara DioGuardi from American Idol

We had the pleasure of talking with Kara DioGuardi from American Idol about Ellen as a new judge, the Howard Stern rumor, and how she feels about contestants singing her songs.

Is there an Adam Lambert effect this year? Are there more really unique performers that you’ve seen?

Kara DioGuardi: I would like to say, and I’ve only been on the show two years, but I think that people were interpreting songs from the get-go in audition week. They weren’t just singing them the way they were sung by the people who originally recorded them. They were kind of taking some risks, and I like that, and maybe that is because of Adam, but that’s definitely a sign of good artists when they do something unique and different with material.

So far this year we’ve had a bunch of memorable songs that have come through. Obviously, “Pants on the Ground” was kind of a big hit already, but last night we had someone singing a version of “Straight Up,” and then someone also sang a version of your song, but can you speak a little bit about how you guys reacted to hearing those versions and if there are any other surprises in store tonight?

Kara DioGuardi: First off, tonight, I would be the last person to know what’s going on tonight. I have no idea. I see it when you see it, which is kind of fun. I also feel at times like a viewer as much as a participant because I don’t know what’s coming up.

In terms of that girl singing “Terrified,” I was absolutely shocked. I couldn’t believe it. It’s not a song that was released as a single. It’s something I co-wrote with an artist I signed to Warner Brothers, Jason Reeves, and it was a very special song for both of us. I put it up on my site I think last year. There was no music, there’s no way she could find the sheet music, so she went and she learned it on her own which I thought was pretty impressive to want to sit and watch that YouTube video over and over to learn it, and I think she did a really good job and a nice interpretation of it. I think she showed that she has a great range and sensitivity when she sings. I was pretty impressed by her, and the “Straight Up” was genius. That was just genius.

Is it odd sometimes when they’re singing songs you’ve written? Of course, because it’s like, “Wow, they’re singing my song. Oh my God, if it’s not good, what am I going to say?” It was so sweet of them to even want to do that, but you have to be honest, and if she hadn’t been great, I would’ve told her. And actually “Sober” was my song, too. That was sung by Mary, I think her name was, and I thought she did that pretty good, too.

Going off of that then, were there any other changes or expectations that you had going into this year that were different from last year?

Kara DioGuardi: I’m definitely more relaxed and more comfortable because I’m a little bit more used to being in front of TV. In terms of my expectations for Hollywood, I really kept them open because the panel’s been changing every week. Every time we had an audition city there was a new judge. With Hollywood Week, we had Ellen. So I just wanted to kind of keep open to everything and just be in the moment and try to be the best judge I could be.

Who do you think would be a good mentor this year?

Kara DioGuardi: There are so many good mentors. I really like Harry Connick Jr. I think he would be great, especially for standards or kind of maybe even jazz. I love Meatloaf. I think he’d be fun for rock because I’ve actually worked with him in the studio. We actually recorded a song recently, and I was very impressed with the way he sort of brought out a different side of me vocally. He kind of has a method acting background, and he kind of applied it to singing and performance. At first I was sort of like, “Whoa, guy, back up,” and then I kind of went with him, and it had a definite interesting result which I was kind of pleased about. I think those two would be pretty good.

Anything you could tell us about Idol Gives Back this year?

Kara DioGuardi: Hopefully that we’re going to raise a lot of money and do a lot of good. I’m always the last person to know, so I’ll know when the episode comes around.

I wanted to ask what your thoughts were on the rumor about Howard Stern possibly joining Idol next year. Do you think he’ll make a good judge?

Kara DioGuardi: Right now that’s a rumor, and I don’t really know if I can even speak on it. I don’t think he has musical background or any kind of music anything, and I think that if you’re going to replace Simon, you have to have that background. You have to be somebody who knows about signing great artists and being a part of their career from the very beginning to the very end like he’s done with people like Leona Lewis who he spotted early on and nurtured and turned … into …. I think that’s probably a precursor for whoever takes that position if they’re not a big artist who’s been through it themselves.

Just for fun if you could give Ellen a grade on her performance as a judge, what would it be?

Kara DioGuardi: I’m not going to give Ellen a grade on her performance. I think she did great.

What’s up with the VitaminWater cups replacing the Coca-Cola cups? Everyone’s talking about it.

Kara DioGuardi: I know. I think they own VitaminWater. I’m assuming that. I don’t think we slipped another brand in their place, so I think they own it.

Was it just like you guys got to the desk, and they were suddenly there and you didn’t even ….

Kara DioGuardi: Yes, they were kind of colorful, different.

There have been rumors of sort of … tension between Ellen and Simon. Can you speak at all about that? Is there any validity to those rumors?

Kara DioGuardi: I think you have to take any rumor you hear about American Idol with a grain of salt. They’re usually not true. Last year it was Kara and Paula fighting, hate each other. Kara sits in the corner. These things are just ridiculous. We’re all there to do one thing, and that’s to find the greatest contestant, the greatest American Idol winner that we can find, and that’s what the focus is, and I know Ellen and Simon both take that seriously.

What do you see as the biggest mistake contestants make during Hollywood Week?

Kara DioGuardi: The biggest mistake they make during Hollywood Week, it’s usually, if I were to look at this year, it’s definitely song choice. It’s that they take on something that’s way too big for them, or they go through the audition rounds and we praise them and say how great they are, and then they decide to completely change when they get to Hollywood Week. There was one contestant in particular who’s kind of a country singer that did that, and I was very disappointed because I had real hopes for him. He decided to do something completely on the opposite of what he should’ve been doing, so that’s usually the thing that kills them the most, that and the fact that they stand on that stage, and they can’t fill it up. They can’t perform. They can’t project. Those are the two things usually.

It seemes like every judge on the panel has a role, and with Paula gone, how do you think the roles have changed?

Kara DioGuardi: Paula was very nurturing, and I think, at least for me during the audition rounds, I try to give kids the benefit of the doubt and try to give them another shot when they had some modicum of talent. In the beginning phases, you kind of just got to say can they hold a tune? Can they sing? Or else we’re not going to have any contestants. Remember, we have to have I think it’s 170. If you judge them the way you would during the final rounds of the competition, we’re not going to have any kids because there is that learning curve. There is that growth that goes on throughout the competition. At least for me I felt I was a bit more supportive in the beginning rounds than maybe I would’ve been in the previous year.

My one question for you is how do you think Ellen will or has changed the dynamic of the judging panel this season?

Kara DioGuardi: I think the dynamic is something that grows over time. To kind of speak about right now would be problematic because, again, we’ve only had one week under our belt. When I speak about the dynamic, I spent five days with her for many, many hours. What you’re seeing is an edited down version of what happened, and there are specific reasons why the producers put certain scenes in and certain scenes aren’t put in. I think the dynamic will develop over the season. I think that’s what’s going to make it such an exciting season that it’s very unpredictable. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m just very excited to see it through and find a great winner.

I know you made the comment earlier that you felt that Ellen did a great job last night, right?

Kara DioGuardi: I think she did. When I say last night, I mean I think she did a great job during Hollywood Week. How it’s edited and what you see is very different from my experience. I remember what led up to the kind of the jokes about the kids not wearing shoes. I remember just thinking that she was funny and also was critical and had heart. I was very pleased with her and having, I mean, it’s such an honor to sit next to her.

A lot of the producers, and Randy Jackson in particular, have been saying things like they would really like to see a girl win this year, and we’ve certainly seen a lot of girls with wonderful talent sort of front and center in the edits so far. Do you have a preference one way or another?

Kara DioGuardi: I would love to see a girl win. I think that this year, or especially what’s going on in music currently, it’s the women’s movement. You’ve got Taylor Swift. You’ve got Beyonce. You’ve get Kesha. You’ve got Katy Perry. You have Lady Gaga. You have these very unique women at the forefront of the music industry that all have their own voices, that all have their own styles, and I think that just looking at the pool of talent we have this year, it’s similar to that. They’re unique. They’re different. They have a voice, but I also do think that the men are very good, the ones that we do have. They may not be as different as the women, but they’re solid singers. I do think it’s a lot easier to break women than men, actually, in terms of their records once the show is done.

Speaking of unique female singers, you must’ve been thrilled when Colbie Caillat won those Grammys for her album since you had so much to do with it.

Kara DioGuardi: Yes, I was so happy for her. I think she’s underrated as a singer. I don’t think she gets enough coverage. She’s got an incredible voice. The moment she comes on the radio you know exactly who it is. She kind of has so much emotion, and I think that makes for the best singers.

How are you doing this season?

Kara DioGuardi: I’m good. It’s hard these calls because you don’t want to reveal too much, and you feel already a real, it is almost a passion for a bunch of these contestants, and you just want to make sure that when you’re talking about the shows you don’t say anything that would hurt another contestant or keeping them from going where they need to go. You’ve just got to be careful. That’s why I’m a little guarded about talking about the contestants because I want to give them all a fair shot.

You do feel more comfortable though.

Kara DioGuardi: Yes, definitely. That was very scary to go from behind to the scenes to in front of 30 million people. I think that people thought I was very serious last year, like I didn’t maybe have a sense of humor. I feel like I do, that actually I’m more of a goofball than probably anybody on that panel.

Last night the talent was so great. I don’t know if it was just the way they edited the show, but like, American Idol goes acoustic. This being the show’s ninth season, do you think at this point having that additional musicality really helps the contestants?

Kara DioGuardi: Oh, 100%. There are so many contestants that when they come in on the audition rounds, I’ll ask them, “Do you play? Do you usually play an instrument when you perform?” They’ll always say yes, and those are the ones that look so uncomfortable when you take their instrument away from them. They need that. It’s part of who they are, and it’s part of their performance, and when you take it from them, … lost, so enabling them to bring that guitar or bring that piano into the Hollywood Week just shows you a different side them.

When people are singing your song, do you find yourself a little bit more critical of their interpretation or their performance, or is there a little bit more like a quiet bias?

Kara DioGuardi: Well, when they sing my songs, I’m always … because I don’t know it’s coming, so it always takes me a little off guard, and then with Didi, it was a very different interpretation than mine. It took me a second to be, like, “What song is that?” Oh my God, that’s “Terrified.” When I was listening to it, I thought, “Okay, wow. This is very interesting what she brought to it,” and I really could appreciate it.

At first it’s that second of what’s going on here. This is very strange. How’d she find that song? By the end of it you’re either digging it which in Didi’s case I was, or you’re not, and you don’t want to be bias because they sung your song. You have to tell the truth.

I want to get your thoughts, how did you think Carrie Underwood did during the National Anthem? She actually appeared to sing it live and not lip sync it, which most people seem to do nowadays.

Kara DioGuardi: Kudos to anybody who sings that song live. It’s just the scariest thing to do. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that, but, wow, that is a rangy song. If you could imagine standing in that stadium and knowing that every eye is on you, wow. I don’t know. It’s pretty crazy to think that she was a girl from a small town a few years ago. This was her dream and to be in that position. That shows you the power of the show, what can actually happen. Kudos to her for singing live.

Have you ever done it yourself?

Kara DioGuardi: I have, yes, at many legion clubs and things back in Westchester County. I can’t say it was anything as fabulous as what she did, but scary still.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

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