Reality Dish Exclusive Interview: Kara DioGuardi of American Idol

A few weeks back, the newest American Idol judge, Kara DioGuardi, took part in a conference call interview with select members of the media including myself. American Idol currently airs on both Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. Eastern time for most weeks. Here are the highlights of the interview…

You said the other day about the guys this year having the edge and I’m wondering why
you said that and if there are any specific auditions that blew you away?

Kara DioGuardi: There are. I’m not sure I can get into which contestant or their names at this point, but looking at all the contestants as a whole I felt that the males were the strongest. That being said, there are one or two females that I’m excited about as well and I’m really just waiting for the show to roll out and for the next phase to kind of see who is going to end up on top.

Are there any difference overall from what you’ve seen of last year’s contestants that you can speak to?

KD: I would say that there is a uniqueness to some of the male contestants that’s different in terms of their voices and their songs they were picking and the general direction of what their record would be.

Are there any specifics that you can share?

KD: I don’t know if I can share specifics yet. I think you guys have to tune in and see what happens. What I feel very confident about is that the men in the competition, there are about five to ten that I think, at least five that are great.

You’re talking about the uniqueness of the kind of records they put out. Because you’ve been following the show from the beginning, remember it used to be most people were in a fairly standard pop range and it seems like in recent years the show has expanded to get more room for strong rockers on one side and for country on the other side. Talk a little bit about that, about the kind of expanding range of the contestants on the show.

KD: Well, we definitely saw that this year. I mean there were people who were doing country, there were people who were doing rock. There was a lot of soul influence, especially with some of these male contestants where there was a soulfulness in their voice. And it’s not even that I’m talking R&B, more on like the way Maroon 5 is soulful.

So that was different I thought.

The oddity of having the two-to-two ties and Simon gets the tie breaker. That’s a different kind of British take on democracy.

KD: Is that really democracy?

Did that happen very often and what was your impression of that whole two-to-two thing?

KD: Well, for me the thing that would happen is that the two of them would say yes at times; let’s say a few times this would happen where they would say yes and then it would come down to me because I knew he would say no probably so I had to make that critical decision there whether I was going to give them another shot or not.

And that was tough because you’re dealing with people that you’ve met for a few seconds of hearing them sing and you’re not sure if they had a bad audition or if you want to give them another shot. So, you know, I was put in that position a bunch of times.
So what do you bring to the judge’s table that American Idol did not have before?

KD: Well, I think what’s really unique about me is that I’ve worked with a lot of these singers that are out there that are great, from Christina to Pink to Celine Dion. I’ve been in the studio with them when they’ve actually recorded songs that we’ve co-written. And I’ve worked very closely with them in both listening to how they interpret the songs we’ve written and giving them guidance and support and I think that distinguishes me.

So, going back to the whole Simon gets to be the tie breaker, have there been a lot of disagreements at the table? Do you think with your addition to the table, does it heighten it a little bit more?

KD: Yes, because it comes down to that. It’s that at times I can, any of us can put through that contestant if we know kind of where he’s going to go. Sometimes we think we know and we know that if we say no that this kid may not get through. And in the beginning, you want to make sure that you’re putting enough people through so you have enough contestants. You know, you can’t just say no to everybody.

So you have to kind of think, all right, maybe this guy had a bad audition or maybe this girl, you know, there’s something interesting about her and give her one more shot or give him one more shot.

Do you think that maybe the standard is set a little bit lower this year because, you know, you guys were letting through a lot more people in the beginning?

KD: No, no, no. I think you misunderstood me. It’s that if we were just listening for the one, you know the Idol, just the Idol we wouldn’t let anyone through because if we only had one person through that would be nothing.

So, what I’m saying is that at times you want to make sure that you’re putting through enough people through the competition. It’s not about lowering; we weren’t lowering the standards. It’s that when you’re on the fence sometimes you go, all right, I’ll give that person another chance, which at times I did. When I would say, you know what, I’m not sure about you, there’s something there, I’m not 100%. I’ll give you one more shot at times. But you really have to see the different shows. It’s hard to really comment on unless you’re looking from city to city.

You know last year was the first year for instruments for contestants and I was wondering if that really made people stand out, being able to play an instrument?

KD: I love when people play instruments. It just adds another component to their artistry and it kind of shows another side of them as a performer. So, I really encourage that. And there are a lot of people that really fall apart, too, when you take their instrument away from them, so I love it. I love when someone can come on that show and just jam out.

Are you still working with other artists even though Idol is keeping you pretty busy. I was wondering what else you’re up to?

KD: Yes, actually I haven’t slept today. I just flew in; I was working with Colby Clay in Hawaii so I’ve been up almost 48 hours now. So, I’m still trying to keep it going.

Obviously, this is your first year there, but as far as you can tell, how has your being part of the mix changed that dynamic that you’re aware of? Or, how have they told you it’s changed things?

KD: Well, I think there are times that definitely Paula and I have kind of, well I guess everyone has seen that bikini promo I’m assuming, you know, where we kind of side against the guys, they’re maybe looking at the girls or whatever and they want to put someone through and we’re just like, forget it. So there’s a little girl power going on.

And also it’s just a change so with any kind of change it brings out a different dynamic on the panel. You know, in the beginning it was a little unnerving. I didn’t know where I was going to sit. I didn’t know when I was going to speak. So these kinds of shifts in something that’s been so, just the way it’s been for so many years has really added a new dynamic I think.

You knew Paula before. But you didn’t really know Simon and Randy, right?

KD: Well, I knew Randy from in the studio. I’d see him in the studio and we’d kind of high five in the hallways. But I didn’t know him the way I know him now.

How would you describe, if you don’t mind, just a few words about each of the other judges? I mean, how would you describe them having spent so much time together now?

KD: I would say that Paula has a lot of heart. I would say that Simon pretty much tells it like it is. Sometimes he can be pretty harsh, but he’s usually right. And Randy is just, he’s the diplomat.

And how about yourself?

KD: I think I’m a combination of all of them. I do like to say it like I see it. I don’t really mince words, but I do feel I have a heart and when you’re dealing with creative people that have some talent you want to make sure that you encourage them, but also if they don’t have any talent you want to discourage them because you don’t want them to waste their time.

So, I may say things that are negative, but I always try to do it with some heart and some understanding of what it’s like to be on the other side of the table.

What kind of faux pas did you make because you’re the newbie and maybe didn’t know how things worked?

KD: You know, I think I would talk over people a lot because I didn’t really know when to talk. When do I speak? Who is speaking now? Who is going now? So, that kind of stuff. I think that was my biggest faux pas to be honest. And some of my looks in the beginning. I didn’t get them all right.

Some of your looks?

KD: The make-up and the hair; it took me a minute.

And did the other judges make you go through any kind of initiation?

KD: Not really, no.

You just described Randy as the Dog, Paula is the Sweetheart; Simon sort of has been called the Meanie. How do you think you’ll be seen or described by the audience after they get to know you?

KD: I think they’re going to see somebody who is pretty feisty and opinionated, but is also coming from a good place, trying to help these contestants and impart my own experience to them so that at the end of the day whether they win or they lose they’ve learned something.

Do you think you’ll have a signature line? Anything that we can count on you to say repeatedly?

KD: You know what, I’m working on it. I’m not sure I have the line yet, but give me some time. It won’t be within a month.

After the sampling of seven audition cities and Hollywood who do you tend to agree with the most among the other three judges and who do you tend to disagree with most?

KD: You know, there have been times that I’ve agreed and disagreed with all of them. It’s hard to really say. You have to take situation by situation and city by city, but I definitely can sometimes see where Simon is coming from. I may not have said it quite the way he said it, but I also do believe in second chances early on and I know that if I hadn’t had a second chance a lot of times I wouldn’t be where I am today. I definitely grew as an artist and as a songwriter and sometimes you see potential in people and you have to think past some of the maybe mistakes they made because they were nervous or whatever, so I do believe in second chances.

But third chances, that’s another story. Can I just say one thing? Someone said what’s my line? I would say right now my line that I would tell these kids is be you. Don’t try to be anybody but you.

What aspect of the live shows are you looking forward to most, since all these, obviously, have been taped?

KD: Well, just what’s going to happen, I mean, just being in the moment and there’s absolutely no way to edit it or do anything but watch it and react. It’s going to be that thing where, ooops, or I said something great. We’ll see.

What was the experience like working with Carrie Underwood?

KD: Well, she recorded a song that I co-wrote called “Sometimes You Leave”, which was released I think through Walmart on one of these cards, but I never was in the studio with her. I co-produced “Walk Away” so I worked closely with Kelly, so maybe that’s what it is.

Oh, okay, so you never really worked with Carrie.

KD: At times you’re giving songs to artists and you may not be in the studio producing it. Other times you are producing it. With “Walk Away” I had a very close relationship with Kelly. I wrote six songs, co-wrote six songs on “Breakaway” and co-produced “Walk Away”.

Simon had commented that you and Paula were ganging up on him at auditions. What do you have to say about that?

KD: You know, when he deserves it we give it to him. And believe me, he deserves it sometimes.

Are there any former Idol contestants that you would like to work with or write a song for that you haven’t gotten the opportunity to yet?

KD: Yes, I really like Daughtry. I would love to co-write with him. At one point it looked like he was going to do a duet on a song that I had written, but it never happened. So, if he’s out there and he wants to do a co-write, please call me.

Just also to follow up on another thing that you were talking about earlier, which was your relationship with the judges, what about Seacrest because I know just from watching the previous audition episodes that he’s there. Do you get much of a chance to interact with him?

KD: I do and you know he’s just been a doll and very supportive and very encouraging. So I have nothing but great things to say about everybody. They’ve just been great to me in terms of behind the scenes and being supportive.

What do you hope you get out of it, I guess for your own career and your own work? Is this something to raise your profile for a reason? I don’t want to be as crass as to say, you know, is there an agenda here, but what can you see as the end result being for you as a songwriter and producer?

KD: You know, I never in a million years imagined that I would be a judge on American Idol. So, when I got that call it was really an honor and in some ways I felt like I hit the lottery and I didn’t even really think about what is this going to mean? I just said yeah, I’ll do this, of course. I mean I’ve been involved in so many of these kids’ careers and this is what I do every day. I look out for talent. I help them in the studio. I produce them. That’s my life. I live for that and it just felt like a natural extension. That’s it on television and the biggest TV show with so many viewers, wow. I don’t know what to say about that. It was an honor to be called and I’m looking forward to making this year as great as it can be and finding the best talent out there and giving my spin on why I think they’re great or why they’re not.

Has there ever been a part of the whole Idol run maybe in the early days, because you’re somebody who came up really in a very rock and roll way, kind of slugging it out, doing your own thing, where you looked at it and said, oh my God, this is hokey and what is this? Or did you always kind of get it?

KD: In the beginning when I heard about it I didn’t really understand what it was and I wasn’t sure; it sounded kind of like Star Search. I didn’t quite understand it. But once I saw the show I thought it was incredible. I mean I think that if you have to slug it out or you get lucky, it doesn’t matter. If you’ve got talent and you’re going to be somebody who is going to make their mark and have great music out there, you know, kudos to you no matter how you break in.

So I don’t begrudge anyone because they didn’t have to go through seven or eight years of slugging it out and this show gives kids that would never have an opportunity to be in front of professionals that opportunity and I think for that it’s incredible. And it’s about dreams and helping people realize them.

Did you have a problem getting a balance as far as what you felt you could say to contestants? Did you feel like you went a bit too far in the beginning and kind of pulled back? How did you work that?

KD: Well, in the beginning, at times, which was kind of what I was trying to say before, when we would get into a situation where I knew Simon was probably going to say no and if I said no the kid would go home, you know I do believe in second chances, but I would always tell them, look, you’re on thin ice here. If you don’t get it together it’s not going to work out for you.

And perhaps I would put them through or not put them through, but I would always tell them the truth and then have a heart and not just dash their dreams because you never know with people. And that was what I was saying before. I was told I wasn’t a good songwriter; I wasn’t a good singer, for years. And it was my dream and I kept going and going and going.

So, if you’ve got some talent nobody can tell you that you can’t develop that into something if you work hard enough. And I don’t want some kids to have at least something going on to feel crushed and not follow their dream if they have some ability.

Given that the show is about giving a deserving talented singer a big break that they need, I wanted to know if there was a pivotal person in your life who most inspired you or influenced you or motivated you or helped you or changed you or redirected the course of your career in a remarkable way? Who comes to mind when I ask that?

KD: You know, I had a lot of, I like to call them my angels out there, that sort of guided me and gave me the encouragement I needed in the beginning, which is what I’ve been speaking about a bit, which is when you have talent it’s very difficult in the beginning to be recognized.

You’re developing your skills, you’re learning the industry and when you find people who champion that; I have two people that come to mind, Larry Flick who worked at Billboard and listened to my first demo tape and set me up with a guy named Clive Lieberman, who was a publisher at the time at BMG who then set me up with a bunch of co-writes that eventually led me to be on some big records and those people would take the phone calls with me where I’d be on the other going oh, I don’t know if I can do this; it’s so hard.

And they would encourage me and keep me going. And that’s a big part of why I’m here today is that they were on the other end of the line saying you can do it, keep going when I had those few moments of doubting because we all do and we’re human, but at the end of the day I knew where I wanted to go and I was going to get there.

And if you didn’t have them and if you didn’t have that opportunity would you still be, I mean, would you be happy playing music for five people?

KD: I wouldn’t be happy being broke, personally. I like to eat so I’m not sure, you know? I would probably want to have a job where I could support myself so playing to five people, I’m not so sure that would be the job.

Earlier you were talking about the past Idols that you’ve worked with and was there any particular one that really stuck out as just a gem to work with?

KD: Well, I love Kelly because I could just sing anything or tell her to sing anything and she could sing it. So she was feisty, she put her personality into the songs and for the style of writing that I was doing at the time, that rock/pop angsty stuff, she was just perfect. And she was great to co-write with and I had an incredible experience with her.

Do you guys hang out after the cameras stop rolling or does everyone kind of split up and go their separate ways or have you kind of developed a camaraderie and a friendship with everyone?

KD: You know, there were a few nights that Randy, I think one night in particular, Randy, Ryan, Paula and I had dinner and I do see Paula probably more than the other guys. But, yeah, we definitely hang out during lunch, we talk. It’s very pleasant. There was never any weirdness. Again, they were very accepting of me.

Of course, in the beginning there were those moments when I was explaining, okay, when does she speak, where does she sit, what is she wearing? Those kinds of things, but they banded in about two, three cities.

Another question; you kind of mentioned this earlier that at the beginning you weren’t really quite sure if you were getting the hair and make-up right. How have you adjusted to things like all the hair and make-up? Have you hired a stylist? How are you kind of getting into that whole in front of the camera?

KD: I do have a stylist. I can’t tell you how many times I looked in the news and saw that one picture of the four of us and just wanted to shoot myself because I feel like I looked like Peg Bundy. So, yeah, I’m definitely, that first city I had never worked with the hair guy or the make-up; it wasn’t so much the make-up, the hair, so it was pretty big hair. I think those days are done. I’m going to keep the hair not so big.

Did Paula or Randy give you any helpful advice about working with Simon and what was it?

KD: Just they said, be me. I mean at one point Paula was like you need to be yourself because in the beginning, the first city, you know, I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes in the beginning, which is really not my personality. I usually just from the get go say what I feel and do what I want, not in an abusive way, but that’s just sort of the way I am. I’m opinionated.

In the beginning I was just a little bit like, oh my God, there are all these cameras, all these people, what’s going on here? And Paula turned to me and said, “Um, are you going to be you?” Kind of like that and I got the message. It was back to my old ways.

Have you been personally trying to fit into the show while also working to shake it up and enhance it? Can you speak about that balance a little bit?

KD: It’s something that took a minute to, again, be yourself and also find a place within the show where you weren’t at all detracting from the people around you or inhibiting them in any way and it’s something that I’m still working on, but I think I’m there. I hope you guys think so, too.

Check out American Idol on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.