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It took time for ex-‘Idol’ judge to find her groove

In her memoir, "A Helluva High Note," former "American Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi writes about experiences that inspired her songs and more. Here, she writes about her family and her "reluctance to shine." Read the excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Former “American Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi has made a career out of being a hitmaker — her songs have been recorded by stars such as Pink, Carrie Underwood, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Celine Dion. But she wouldn’t have reached such success as a songwriter, artist and producer without stumbling along the way and getting through dark times. In her memoir, “A Helluva High Note: Surviving Life, Love, and American Idol,” she writes about experiences that inspired her songs and more. Here, she writes about her family and her “reluctance to shine.” Read the excerpt:

Chapter One: Spinning Around

Spinning Around

“I’m spinning around,

move out of my way...

I’m breaking it down,

I’m not the same.”

I’ve always had a fascination with objects that spin around with incredible precision but still maintain a hint of chaos. Objects such as carousels or tops. I even enjoyed spinning myself.

As a kid, I remember going to my ballet class with Mrs. Beavis. (I swear that was her real name!)

She had a long, swanlike figure that made you immediately feel like you lacked any sort of grace, which, of course, we all did at eight years old. I hated the pliés, the grand jetés, the fifth position, but when it came to learning fouettés, where you spin around until you are on the verge of throwing up, I realized that I had found my move and I busted it out as often as I could. I loved the sensation of whirling around in a controlled state knowing full well that my ass could be laid out on the floor at any minute. I didn’t have a clue that I was physically acting out what would be the first twenty years of my life. I would spin for a long time until I hit the bottom and had to stop, reevaluate, and pick myself up off the ground.

I was born on December 9, 1970, in White Plains, New York. I really did a job on my poor mother, who suffered from toxemia during her pregnancy and had to have an emergency C-section, as both of our lives were at stake. She said I came into this world with a vengeance and a mission. Although it would take me a minute to find my groove, she was right.

Music was the universal language in my family. I cannot remember a day when I didn’t hear it. Whether it was my nanny Mary, my maternal grandmother playing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on the piano, or my father’s mother, Nanny Grace, singing “When the Red Red Robin” or my mother blasting Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on the oldies station in her Ford Pinto. (I loved that car but could have done without her smoking with the windows rolled up. It was so "Mad Men.")

My mother’s family consisted of many aspiring opera singers and musicians. My great-grandfather had made quite a lot of money in the stonemasonry business, helping to build many of the oldest buildings in New York City. He rewarded his children with trips to Italy, where they would study music and voice. The star of the family was my great-aunt Theresa, who as a six-year-old was even praised by the Italian composer Respighi, at St. Cecelia’s Conservatory of Music in Rome. Years later she would find herself playing alongside Charles Mingus. As the story goes, she liked a recording she had heard of Lennie Tristano, a famous blind pianist, so she wandered into his midtown studio and introduced herself. All these jazz heavyweights like Charlie Mingus, Stan Getz, Max Roach, and Bud Powell were there, stoned and laughing, as my prim and proper, red-lipstick-wearing, Jackie Kennedy–pillbox-hat-toting, walking dichotomy of an aunt asked to play a four-hand with Tristano! She let loose and tore it up that day, and became friends with all of them, including Mingus, with whom she eventually got the chance to play.

Most of my grandmother’s brothers and sisters wanted to make a living from music. It was their passion. But only my aunt succeeded in that goal. There were even rumblings that one great-uncle fell gravely ill with depression because his dream of being an opera singer was never realized. These Pizzutellos (my nanny’s maiden name) were sensitive, and rejection cut the deep at the core. Unfortunately, success in music, or any field for that matter, is about taking the chances, absorbing the blows, and staying in the fight. Come to think of it, maybe I’ve been channeling a bit of my aunt Teresa all these years.

By contrast, my father’s family wasn’t trying to break into the music business; they just LOVED music. They were especially attached to the Rat Packers — Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin. My grandfather would pull up in his blue ’65 Caddie smoking a cigar with the eight-track blasting Sinatra’s “My Way.” My grandmother loved to sing and dance to whatever was playing. She was four feet ten inches tall and always wore a five-inch heel. Talk about calf muscles. I learned every nursery rhyme I know from her.

As much as music was a part of my life growing up, I’d be lying if I told you that I knew I wanted to be a singer from the minute I could form a sentence.

While I loved singing and dancing, I also loved playing barkeeper downstairs in my parents’ basement, where I used Monopoly money as currency and handwritten menus my dad copied for me at his office to list the daily fare. I would arrange folding tables into four or five stations just like in a restaurant and I’d play all the roles, from waitress, bartender, owner — and my personal favorite, money changer. I would even bust out a song now and then so my joint was a bit different from everyone else’s. Truth is, I was a “hyphenate” even back then — a creative and businessperson all in one. I knew it at an early age, so why the hell did I let others convince me differently? Ah, hindsight is always 20/20 — I wish I’d bought shares in that little company named after a fruit a lot sooner too.

I don’t even remember when I first realized I could sing, or more importantly, when my father first realized I could. It was probably in church. I was raised as a Catholic and Catholics are unfortunately forced to sing way too high at mass every Sunday. God created altos, mezzo-sopranos, and sopranos, but you wouldn’t know it from the sounds emanating from most choir lofts! Every song is written for a soprano. Man, that hurts your vocal cords when that’s not your natural range. When I go to church now, which is infrequently, I am so self-conscious about my singing because despite my accomplishments in the music business, I’m not an opera singer. That just ain’t my thing. One of these days I’m convinced that some parishioner is going to turn from her seat in the pew in front of me and ask, “Do you actually think you can sing?” And to that, I will proudly reply, “Only in God’s eyes.”

Unfortunately, these highly melodically structured hymns, along with my family’s favorite popular ballads and songs, many of which were from Broadway musicals such as "The King and I," 'Annie Get Your Gun," and "Flower Drum Song," became the catalog of music that I would have to perform on command anytime and anywhere. When my father began asking me to sing at family functions, I did not like it at all. I would instantly go into a six-year-old’s version of a panic attack. While I loved singing, I hated performing. Something about being onstage for all to see deeply frightened me.

My father, being quite an accomplished and driven man himself, would hear none of that. He enjoyed being in the limelight, as his later career in politics would prove. My reluctance to shine made him put me on the spot even more relentlessly. We would be enjoying a lovely meal when all of a sudden we’d hear the tapping of my father’s spoon against his glass. When he had everyone’s attention, he’d announce that I would be singing Bette Midler’s “The Rose” (the only song we both liked) or “Getting to Know You” (my grandpa John’s favorite song). Despite my embarrassment, I was the dutiful daughter who did what I was told. No child wants to disappoint her parents, or worse, think that she is the cause of friction between them. My parents, who were a classic example of opposites attracting, were already prone to fighting, so I felt pressed not to add to their tensions. But even after I sang, they’d invariably argue, sometimes publicly, as my mother told my dad to leave me alone and my father ignored her. In fact, this would often make him push me more. He’d tell me that I was wasting my gift by not sharing it.

This torture went on for years at charity dinners, local political fundraising events, and especially at family gatherings. I would spit out my food midbite when my father would surprise everyone, including me, with an announcement that I would be performing shortly. The worst was at our country club where we were the token Italian Albanians. He’d sneak over to the accordion and upright bass players and ask them to encourage me to sing with them. But my nerves were most frayed when he would tell me in advance that I was going to have to sing. I would barely sleep the night before. Then I’d spend the whole time in the bathroom warming up until they called for my performance.

I hated the fact that every event that should have been great fun for a little kid was somehow tainted with anxiety. All I focused on when I was up in front of an audience (even one filled with loving family and friends) was the prospect of messing up. I was a perfectionist seeking approval. All that mattered was that I did a good job in my mind and in others’, namely my dad’s. It felt too much like I was in a dog-and-pony show. Naturally, I ended up resenting my father and my voice until one day I just stopped singing. Now, of course, I can acknowledge that in many ways, my father’s insistence actually prepared me for the most stressful, on-the-spot gig ever — "Idol"! But back then, I had simply resolved never to be a singer, ever. I ceased loving music, and sadly enough, I ceased dreaming about a career in it, too. I remember looking in the bathroom mirror and asking God to take my voice away. Thankfully, God doesn’t answer all of our prayers.

From “A Helluva High Note: Surviving Life, Love, and American Idol” by Kara DioGuardi. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of It Books.