Kara DioGuardi: The Billboard Cover Story
Kara Dioguardi

Let's coin a new term to describe Kara DioGuardi: Instead of a multihyphenate, she's a mega-hyphenate. The songwriter-producer-publisher-A&R executive-"American Idol" judge starts 2010 with a slate of songs to write, artists to develop and exasperated sighs to give fellow "AI" panelist Simon Cowell.

In 2009, DioGuardi wrote songs for new albums from Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, Miley Cyrus and Cobra Starship; in addition, as senior VP of A&R at Warner Bros. Records she added J.R. Rotem's Beluga Heights imprint to the Warner roster. All of this came on top of her ongoing duties as co-owner of music publisher/management shop Arthouse Entertainment, which just signed hitmaker Mike Elizondo.

One reason for the stuffed-to-the-gills résumé is DioGuardi's voracious interest in the music industry -- she started out as an administrative assistant at Billboard 10 years ago -- but it's also a reflection of the ever-changing dynamics in the industry. Music executives now need vast reserves of business acumen to survive and a willingness to adapt to new opportunities. "Music has never been bigger," she says. "Music is huge. But the business is in trouble."

Billboard: What are your songwriting sessions like?

DioGuardi: I have such a strange job. The other day I was in Nashville and I worked with Darius Rucker -- I've never met him -- and we had that commonality because he's seen me on TV and he can be like, "Oh, you're cool," and I can be like, "I love your records." But it's basically, "Hey, nice to meet you, now take your clothes off."

You have to look for where we can come together as two people who have experienced similar things. There isn't a person in this world that hasn't had their heart broken, or fallen in love, or been hurt by or helped a friend. So you find that common denominator and you build from that.

You went from writing songs for yourself to perform to writing songs for others to perform. What kind of transition was that?

When I first started writing it was not personalized. It was always kind of telling the person what they were doing instead of looking at what I was feeling. And as time went on, part of what drove me was that with music I could almost heal myself and figure out what I was going through in my life. My mom had been sick for years and my parents had kind of a wacky marriage. It really became my therapy. And that became a really important skill later on when I had to work with other people because what I would have to do is help them pull out their stuff.

I'm not the greatest player -- I'm definitely not technically brilliant by any means in terms of the musicality, writing notes or anything like that. But I'm really good at the feel of it, knowing when it's right and knowing when somebody I'm working with isn't telling the truth.

Besides Darius Rucker, you've been in session with a lot of country acts recently: Rascal Flatts and Dierks Bentley among them. Is songwriting different for that genre compared with pop?

It's lyrically heavy in a way pop music isn't. It's got to be the perfect way to put it, but it's also got to have emotion [that resonates]. It's poetic in a way that pop music isn't. It really tests me. It makes me go back to songwriting 101. It's not just describing an emotion at face value, it's more like, "Here's the emotion -- how do I say it in a way that's interesting, so that someone gets what I'm trying to put across but it's also a twist on it?"

[For instance], "I Hope You Dance"? What an incredible metaphor. I hope you take that risk, I hope you take that chance, I hope you live life to the fullest. The way they paint that picture, when they get to the chorus you know exactly what they're talking about. I'm very drawn to the genre because I feel like I've become a better writer by going down there, and I'm always learning in the sessions.

What was your big break in songwriting?

I went through years of rejection, and my first thing was Kylie [Minogue recording "Spinning Around" in 2000]. I didn't know who Kylie was, and I was heartbroken that Paula Abdul wasn't going to do it. I was thinking, "Kylie Minogue? Who's Kylie Minogue? I got to make some money or I'm going to have to go back to my real job."

And then I saw her ass in the video -- she had these hot pants on and the video was sick -- and I was like, "OK, I like Kylie Minogue. I'm going to make some money here."