It’s funny, former “American Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi said, how each decision in life informs the next, how the choices and ambitions of youth weave like threads to create the durable cloth of adulthood.
“Life is an interesting quilt,” DioGuardi said, talking with Seacoast Sunday from her spacious home on the banks of the York River. “You never know what’s going to happen next, yet when the quilt is done it makes complete sense.”
Ten years ago, DioGuardi was already an extraordinary songwriter at the peak of her creativity. Her first No. 1 single — “Spinning Around” performed by Australian singer Kylie Minogue — came out in 2000 when she was nearing 30, old in an industry that adores teen pop stars. That year of 2007, performing rights organization BMI named her Pop Music Songwriter of the Year, because her songs had more airplay than of any other songwriter.
The list of people she’s written for or collaborated with is stunning: Jessica Simpson, Enrique Iglesias, Celine Dion, Pink, Natasha Bedingfield, Kelly Clarkson, Ashlee Simpson, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera, to name just a few. And yet eight years ago, when she was tapped to be a judge on “American Idol,” she had already hatched an escape route to Maine — to leave the trappings of “Tinsel Town” behind for what she calls “a more authentic life.”
Now 46, she is preparing to launch the second annual New England Sings performing competition at the Ogunquit Playhouse Oct. 10. It is for her, at this time in her life, an important thread in the weave, one intertwining with the choices she’s already made — to guide young, talented performers, to give back to New England, to create a venue for local families like her own to enjoy time together and to further the charitable works of organizations who work with youth.
“I want to make sure that if we’re using the talents of youth, we’re going to give back to their generation,” she said. “If we as adults would just pay attention to them, they have so much to teach us. They drop gems all the time. You just have to be there to listen. After all, we’re leaving the world to them.”
It’s been a calling for her for many years, one that has led her to become a visiting scholar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, to form a publishing company to nurture young singers and songwriters, to become involved in work to end child sexual abuse and to open music studios in five drug and alcohol halfway houses run by New England-based Phoenix House.
DioGuardi said it took her until she was in her early 20s before she found the courage to leave behind the Type A, Westchester County, New York, preordained professional track in which she grew up. “What was important when I was growing up is that you get in the best schools so that you can become a doctor or lawyer,” she said. “The end result was more important than the process.”
Her father, Joseph, was a partner in the accounting firm Arthur Anderson and a two-term congressman, serving from 1985-89. Her mother was a homemaker “who told me to make sure you marry someone who can provide for you.” Although she had “a big voice” as a child, she said she was terrified to sing publicly because it made her stand out. “And my friends were telling me you have to blend in,” she said. “Later, I said, ‘Why did I ever want to blend in?’”
As a pre-law student at Duke University, “I started getting really depressed. And part of it was that I was not being true to myself. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to pursue music. When I told my mother, it was like her worst nightmare,” she laughed.
She landed a job at Billboard magazine, working days and writing songs at night.
“Here I was, a girl living with my parents in Westchester County. What did I know about life? But the more I wrote, the more I knew who I was and what made me tick,” she said
Before long, she headed to Los Angeles to become a full-time songwriter and was soon finding success. She wrote or co-wrote more than 300 songs that have been released on major labels, including 50 that landed on the Billboard singles chart, and more than 1,000 songs in all.
“I was all about the work. I was writing every single day, and it was paying off,” she said. As performers starting coming to her, she said, “I could tell them about my story and they would say, ‘I feel that, too.’ You can spin those themes of love and loss, but I’m always looking at it from what I’m feeling, what I’ve gone through today, and how that informs me. I think I even stayed in bad relationships so I would have something to write about,” she said with a laugh.
She found she most enjoyed working with performers who were also authentic, naming Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Christina Aguilera. “I enjoy working with artists who are not afraid to speak their truth.” In fact, she said, the song she most enjoyed co-writing was “Sober” with Pink. “I loved that song. We had incredible chemistry when we wrote it. Both of us have had issues with food, or alcohol or love as a crutch. So we were coming from a place that was very real to us.”
When she was asked to be on “American Idol” in 2009, she joined Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul — the triumvirate who had been together for the first seven seasons. “Idol was a total challenge for me. It was live television. I was joining a group of people who were beloved, and I was breaking that up.
“A lot of times it was not authentic. I’d hear, ‘Can’t you be more positive? Can’t you smile more?’ Simon would say, ‘Kara, it’s a TV show.’ But I came from the industry, and it was frustrating not to mentor these guys in a way that would help them.”
But in retrospect, she said, “I thank God for ‘Idol.’ I’m very comfortable and completely myself giving speeches before 10,000 people. And it gave me a platform to do all the things I’m involved with now.”
Even before “American Idol,” DioGuardi was escaping to Maine whenever she could — at first at a summer home in Prospect Harbor. There, she met husband Mike McCuddy, a carpenter building the house next door and a former art teacher at Orono High School. They were married the same year she started on “Idol,” and by 2010 had purchased their home in York.
Their son Greyson was born in 2013 via a surrogate. That same year she had a hysterectomy after learning she was a carrier of the BRCA gene, which is linked to hereditary ovarian and breast cancer — both of which run in her family. In 2015, she had a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy, which led to her working to raise funds for the York Hospital’s Breast Cancer Living Well program. (She said at a 2014 fundraiser, “Don’t feel sad. I’m getting new boobs.”)
She’s not writing songs very much anymore, although her teaching, publishing and charitable work keeps her plenty busy. Mostly, though, she is reveling in being a mom and living in a place she loves. York has been, for her, a godsend.
“I love York. The quiet is so good for my brain. If you’re born here, you really appreciate what this life is all about,” she said. “If you come here, you’ve been to the city and make a decision to relocate, to come here for a very specific type of life. It creates camaraderie. There’s no sorority thing here. You’re not keeping up with the Joneses. You’re not saying, ‘What are you wearing? Where did you buy it? Why can’t I have it?’ I have made really good friends who nourish my life. I feel like it’s impossible to leave York once you live here.”
Go & Do
New England Sings will take place Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 7 p.m. at the Ogunquit Playhouse. Judges are DioGuardi, Playhouse artistic director Brad Kenney and Bonnie Hayes, chairwoman of the songwriting department at Berklee College of Music. Contestant applications are being accepted until Sept. 30. Finalists will be invited to perform. Tickets range from $15 for early birds online to $100 for admission and a VIP reception before the performance. Children under 5 are free. All of the money raised is going to nonprofit organizations that work with children and youth. For information, contestant applications, tickets and more, visit newenglandsings.org.