Writer’s Room: Kara DioGuardi Talks About The Gift of Collaboration

Written by Kara DioGuardi

Videos by American Songwriter

It was my last year at Duke University when I ditched my pursuit of a law degree for the dream of becoming a recording artist. When I graduated, I was very excited to share this news with everyone but my parents. As you can imagine they were not impressed with my decision or my inability to give them a concrete roadmap of how I was going to go from being the lead singer of a garage band named Gramma Trips to an opening act at Madison Square Garden while they were still breathing.  

While I sang mostly ’70s and ’80s covers in my band, I needed original material if I was to be considered an artist by a record company. The only issue was none of the successful songwriters (who I didn’t know) were going to give a 15-pound overweight (by industry-standard) artist—who still lived with her parents and thought Ann Taylor was edgy—their songs to record. Like most people who begin their songwriting journey, I thought, “How hard can it be to write a hit song? I’ll just write something that sounds like what’s on the radio, right?” (Wrong!). Since I didn’t know the chords to my melodies and I couldn’t produce records, I needed to find a collaborator. Trying to find one when you are not in the music industry mix isn’t easy, and 30 years later I’m sad to say it’s still difficult.  

As fate would have it, a co-worker at the restaurant where I worked part-time heard me singing and introduced me to a manager who eventually connected me with producer Dave Cintron, my first collaborator. 

Dave lived in a house behind a chain fence in the Bronx with two Doberman pinschers and his “crazy (his words) ex-girlfriend.” As we got closer to the door, the dogs were barking and I thought, “Is this a message? Should I not collaborate?” Looking back, it foreshadowed the discomfort and fear I would experience during my first collaborations. 

My first songs were HORRIBLE. Song number 1: You’ve got to show me, show me, show me what you have inside of you. The guy I was referring to in the song didn’t need to show me anything. What I needed to do was face the fact that maybe he didn’t want anything to do with me. The song should have been about the disappointment I was feeling. I was uncomfortable with my emotions, so my song lyrics were trapped on the surface and didn’t show the depth of my hurt. I needed a co-writer to push me to really feel my emotions so that I could find the words to capture them in a relatable way. With every co-write, that process became easier. The first few times felt like when I began going to the gym in my early twenties. I was awkward and self-conscious but the more I trained my collaboration muscle, the easier it was to be vulnerable and open. My sessions with Dave were some of my favorites because I realized how much more fun and inspiring it was to write with others than by myself. 

I had to write hundreds of songs with many people to grow my craft. It’s the songs that no one’s ever heard that were the building blocks to my hits. Songs like Pink’s “Sober,”  Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It,” and Christina Aquilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” would never have existed without the trial and error of the songs that came before them.

Songwriting has always felt like therapy to me. At times I was the therapist for my co-writers and vice versa. I believe that the best songs come from a place of truth and every co-write is an opportunity to connect deeply with another about love, life, pain, and joy. My collaborators inspired me through their musical choices, sense of humor, life stories, comfy couches, and open hearts. They challenged my perspective and encouraged me to dig deeper. The more encouragement and acceptance I got from my collaborators for telling my story, the more I accepted who I truly was.  

We are in a unique historical time with more access to artists and other music creators than ever before. Music creators are finding each other without having to go through the music industry. As I’m writing this, I’m hoping to help the democratization of the music industry by co-founding Briidge, a music platform that helps creators connect through matching their skill sets, location, and personality. Powered by psychology, Briidge allows creatives to determine how, when and whom they want to collaborate with; giving them total creative freedom and the ability to share information that will shape their lives and careers.

For anyone who is reading this, who’s on the fence about collaboration, I’m giving you a gentle nudge. Go on and try it… I am sure you will see it for what collaboration truly is… a gift.

Photo courtesy of Kara DioGuardi.

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