The Writers Round With Kara DioGuardi

The songwriter, producer, entrepreneur and former “American Idol” judge has had more than 320 songs released by major labels including Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It,” Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” and P!nk’s “Sober.”

Written by Annie Reuter
The Writers Round With Kara DioGuardi
Kara DioGuardi; Photo credit: Rachel Deeb

Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey. This month, Kara DioGuardi sheds some light into her life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of her many hits including Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It” and “Mama’s Song,” Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” and The Band Perry’s “Postcard From Paris.”

While pursuing an artist career in her mid-20s, Kara DioGuardi was flown to Nashville by a producer to record some country demos. The New York native looks back at the experience in disbelief.

“Now knowing what I know, what a ludicrous thing because my story has nothing to do with the fabric of country music, which is storytelling,” she tells Sounds Like Nashville. “For me to tell the story of a certain place and not ever been there seemed so opposite to who I am now and what I know about country music so that didn’t really work too well.”

DioGuardi returned to New York and continued writing songs for herself. She’d go on to see success in the pop world, penning songs with Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson and P!nk before returning to Music City years later to work with Carrie Underwood, The Band Perry, Rascal Flatts and Ingrid Andress. She’d eventually help artists across multiple genres tell their stories and guide their careers through her own publishing house and artist development/production company Arthouse Entertainment, but first she had to learn how to write her own story.

In college DioGuardi planned to pursue a law degree but the passion wasn’t there. She knew she was creative and wanted to explore an artist career, but she hadn’t written any songs. At that time, artists needed to create a demo tape that showcased their music and personality, so she started writing.

“My first song was horrible,” she recalls with a laugh. “It was called ‘Show Me Love.’ It was about this guy who I liked, and it was this tortured relationship, and I was saying how he needed to let down his walls. I should have been talking about myself in the song.

“The number one mistake young songwriters make is they’re writing about something they know nothing about. Write about your own feelings. That’s where the songwriting became my therapy because as I became a better writer, I started to really look at myself, my emotions, what I was feeling and write songs from a place of honesty.”

DioGuardi continued to write songs in her 20s while she worked at Billboard. She started as an assistant to Timothy White and Howard Lander at the publication before she joined the marketing team and became a sales executive. She’d get up in the morning before her job at Billboard and head to the studio and return there after work to hone her craft as a songwriter and an artist.

“It was the best education because I learned so much about the music industry,” she said of her time at Billboard. “All the executives that my bosses used to have meetings with were the same executives that I eventually ended up doing records for.”

As her songs got passed around, people would ask if their artists could record them. U.K. singer and actress Martine McCutcheon was one of the first to record DioGuardi’s songs for her 1999 debut album You Me & Us. As more artists recorded her songs, DioGuardi left her job to pursue songwriting full-time. She no longer desired to be an artist and instead traveled to New York, Sweden, Miami and Los Angeles to study songwriting and production and attend writing sessions.

“It was really more suited to my personality because I like to jump around a lot; I like to jump from genre to genre, I like to jump from song to song,” she says of songwriting. “The idea of singing a song over and over and over every night — it’s not really my personality so I think I ended up doing what I was meant to be doing.”

Soon DioGuardi would find herself in the same room as Carrie Underwood, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson and P!nk. She wrote songs for each artist while also leaving pieces of herself within each creation. She says Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” is one that holds more meaning to her now than when she first wrote it.

“We were writing about Christina’s first husband then, but I played it at my wedding, and it says what I would say about my husband,” she says, before relaying a memory about the recording session. “Ain’t No Other Man’ was funny because while Christina was recording the vocals the producer was smoking pot and I got a contact high. She was asking me stuff and I was like, ‘What? Where are we?’”

DioGuardi has countless tales from her writing sessions like the time she wrote “Sober” with P!nk while drunk on wine. She’s also had several songs recorded by Clarkson including “Gone,” “Walk Away” and “Heartbeat Song,” and recalls one session where Clarkson stood up to a disrespectful producer.

“I always loved Kelly’s feistiness and her ability to say what was on her mind,” she says. “I have this great story when she was working with me, and this producer and the producer was not being very nice to her. He was being condescending and a real jerk and she got up to go to the bathroom and never came back. She became my hero right there.”

One of DioGuardi’s early country co-writes was with Underwood. In six hours, they penned “Undo It” and “Mama’s Song,” both included on the singer’s 2009 album Play On. DioGuardi says she came in with several ideas that day because “country music was not my forte.”

“I wanted to be really respectful of the people in the room and at least bring something in that hopefully would open up the session but not do it so that they couldn’t have their input and make changes,” she says. “The songwriters [in Nashville] are unparalleled. When I was writing country songs I was astonished by the level of heart and craftsmanship that went into these songs and the discipline of these writers and their absolute unparalleled way of storytelling. I’m in awe of it.”

DioGuardi recalls getting an idea in the shower the morning of her writing session. She recorded it on her Dictaphone ahead of meeting with Underwood, Luke Laird and Marti Frederiksen.

“I was so happy that when I played the idea, she’s like, ‘I really like that’ and then she started vibing with it,” she says. “That same day — this is actually one of the best days in my career — the guys stepped out of the room, and we started talking about the guys we were dating. She was dating her husband then and was talking about him in a way that I thought, ‘Oh this could be something special.’

“Then we started talking about weddings and how it’s so weird how the dad always walks the bride down the aisle but what about the moms? How the dad does the dance, but what about the moms who taught you everything from what it’s like to be a woman to everything else? I just lost my mom and that’s how we got onto ‘Mama’s Song.’ In a span of six hours, we wrote those two songs.”

DioGuardi also penned “Postcard From Paris” with The Band Perry’s Kimberly, Neil and Reid Perry and Jeff Cohen. She remembers Kimberly knowing exactly what she wanted to write that day as she brought in part of the song already written.

“We were just trying to help her with her vision for what she wanted to say,” DioGuardi recalls. “Because Jeff and I know each other so well it was really easy to do that because we had a comfortability with each other. … Whenever I’ve written in in the country market, I’ve always thought that I’m a visitor and I need to be respectful of the world that I’ve been entered into and not overstep my boundaries. You can still have a melodic sensibility as a pop writer in country, but you have to be really careful with the lyrics because they are telling a certain type of story.”

Throughout her time writing in the pop and country world, DioGuardi has learned that living life goes hand in hand with writing a great song. “You have to go out there and get your heart broken, fall in love and experience life,” she says. “If you don’t have those experiences, how are you going to write anything that’s meaningful?”

She continues to teach these life lessons to a new crop of songwriters and artists through Arthouse Entertainment. Founded 20 years ago, Arthouse Entertainment initially formed to publish DioGuardi’s songwriting catalog and has since branched into a home to develop artists and songwriters. The company also launched as a way to give DioGuardi the production recognition she deserved when male producers left her name off the credits.

“It was more looking at the power I had in that moment when I was one of the most sought after writers and saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to turn this into something that benefits me but other people as well. I want to try to disrupt the way things are going on because it’s not cool,’” she explains.

DioGuardi’s hope was to find talented artists who didn’t have access to producers and to write and co-produce them and help them get a leg up on the industry and their careers. Ingrid Andress, Jon Bellion and Mark Holman are signed to Arthouse.

“A lot of women now are doing these songwriting and publishing ventures,” she adds. “I hope they were inspired by what I did because at the time nobody was doing that. It was all men and I think that what you’re seeing with women now [they’re saying], ‘I have to take control of my own thing here because if I have wait around for people to give me what I deserve I may be waiting around a long time.’”

DioGuardi has found herself returning to Nashville more frequently over the past eight years while working with Andress. While she runs Arthouse as well as writes, produces and mentors others, DioGuardi says she still finds inspiration in Nashville as the city remains a significant marker in navigating her early career as an artist.

“I’m in awe of Nashville for so many reasons but one of them is that they champion the song,” she says. “They understand the power of songs to bring people together, to help people celebrate the greatest of times and mourn their love losses and other things in their lives and I cherish that. I think they’ve been so far ahead of the curve of understanding that without a great song there is no artist.”