Songwriting Idol

Brenda Pike
December 17, 2012
Kara DioGuardi speaks at a Berklee clinic.
Kara DioGuardi
DioGuardi's Hit Songwriting class
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson

This semester, a select group of Berklee students experienced the high-pressure world of pop songwriting firsthand, in a class called Hit Songwriting with Kara DioGuardi. The former American Idol judge and cowriter of such hits as “Sober” (Pink), “Good Girls Go Bad” (Cobra Starship), and “Pieces of Me” (Ashlee Simpson) flew into Boston once a week to share her music industry savvy and hear students' efforts. More than 160 students applied for the class by submitting an artist’s statement, two songs, and five titles and concepts; just 27 made it in.

Collaboration is the norm in commercial songwriting today, and this class was no exception. Each week throughout the semester, the class was broken into groups of two or three songwriters and a producer, and each group wrote and produced a song based on a prompt DioGuardi gave them: a title, a concept, or a bit of lyrics. The following week the songs were played in class and critiqued by fellow students—and DioGuardi.

Many students had never cowritten before, and even those who had were nervous at the prospect. Singer-songwriter Jess Newham had already done some country writing sessions, but wasn’t confident in her ability to deliver. “This class totally shifted how I felt about it,” she says. “Now I have an arsenal of things to cowrite with.”

Writing with others is different every time, DioGuardi shared, depending on the artist and the producer, but one thing is always the same: “You have to be part psychiatrist. You have to know when to listen and when to interject.”

You also have to be completely open and honest. DioGuardi warned students that labels look for “artist songs” rather than stereotypical “songwriter songs”—one is from the heart while the other is from the head. So a lot of good songwriting is about knowing who you are and what you’re feeling, she emphasizes: “Your perspective is money.” Or, as electronic production and design major Axel Ulfson puts it, “You have to put your soul out there.”

To elicit such emotion, DioGuardi tries to make the classroom a “safe space” for students. “Sometimes they end up turning into a therapy session,” laughs Newham. Songwriting major Tanja Utunen quotes DioGuardi as saying, “The class ain’t over until somebody cries.”

A song a week is tough. DioGuardi was writing up to a song a day at the height of her career, when her time was focused entirely on songwriting. Today, business interests and personal life pull her out of that creative space, just as students’ other classes and responsibilities do. That’s what makes discipline so important, and singer-songwriter Tim Gerard found the assigned text The Creative Habit by dance choreographer Twyla Tharp especially useful in keeping him on track.

Still, students got frustrated at what they could get done within the one-week time frame. Melodies are usually great, but “lyrics don’t quite make the connection,” says Utunen. “If you had another week it could be better.” DioGuardi said that she experienced the same frustration with deadlines—now, listening to Kelly Clarkson’s “Walk Away,” she can’t help but think that the word “attention” should really be “intention.”

To combat this, some groups have continued to work on their songs after class is over. Gerard, Sarah Walk, and Ethan Thompson were part of a team in class who had such a great connection that they’re still writing together weeks after the groups shuffled.

Other students have even gone so far as to form writing camps to work on new songs together. One such was started by Utunen and her roommate Francesco Martinez (who coincidentally ended up in the class together). They reached out to Ulfson, Newham, Jarred Barnes, and Madison McFerrin after hearing their work. “We’re trying to keep the class going,” says Ulfson. “There are lots of talented people, and I want to work with as many as I can.”

Many strangers at the beginning of class became fast friends by the end. “You get to know everyone really well, really quickly. You really find people that you love,” says Newham. “We live, eat, sleep with this group for weeks,” agrees Martinez. “They’re some of my best friends at Berklee.”

DioGuardi advises students to keep up these connections: “Keep an eye out for people who are talented, meet your community, work, and also put your stuff out there, so when you leave here, you’re ready to hit it hard.”

DioGuardi encouraged producers to be involved in the writing from day one, and songwriters to get more comfortable with the technology. Newham sees it as a way to “protect [her] baby.” DioGuardi herself first became involved with vocal production for the same reason, and now co-owns the publishing and production company Arthouse Entertainment.

The collaboration between songwriters and producers is certainly not a first at the college, but it's been especially fruitful. Martinez, a film scoring and electronic production and design double major, remembers doing a commercial production project once, but found it hard to involve a songwriter and vocalist, because he just didn’t know any. “Now I know 20,” he says.

Grading is a difficult prospect for a class like this. “There are only As and Fs in the music industry,” says DioGuardi. “Top 20 is not going to define a career.” Since there are fewer album sales now—“it’s really all about the singles,” she says—it’s increasingly difficult to make money in the business if you’re not at the top of the field.

In the end, says Newham, “it feels like a real job as opposed to school. It’s not about pass or fail, but about whether she’s going to make a call for you.”