It was last summer when Kara DioGuardi’s pastor asked her if she would help organize a singing contest in the small Maine town she calls home. The onetime “American Idol” judge immediately knew her answer: No thanks.
“I was like, ennh . . . nah, I don’t like to judge in a church. That just feels weird to me,” DioGuardi says. “And she kept asking and pressing and pressing, and I was like, you know what, if I’m going to do this, I’ve got to do it in a theater. And I can’t just have a little 20-person thing, because I know what’s gonna happen. Someone’ll show up and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, look what happened to her. She’s in a little town somewhere with 20 contestants, trying to do an “Idol” thing.’ ”
DioGuardi laughs at that last thought, but the concern was real enough that she was motivated to make sure that New England Sings — open to contestants ages 12 to 21 — had the polish and professionalism to stand on its own. With the event returning on Tuesday to the Ogunquit Playhouse for its second year, major sponsors such as iHeartRadio, and spinoff competitions, it’s hard to mistake New England Sings for a half-hearted attempt by a has-been to recapture her former “Idol” glory.
Not that DioGuardi is unaware of how her current chapter looks from the outside. After a songwriting career that made her a regular presence on the pop charts for over a decade — having written hits for Kelly Clarkson (“Heartbeat Song,” “Walk Away”), Pink (“Sober”), Christina Aguilera (“Ain’t No Other Man”), and Carrie Underwood (“Undo It”), among many, many others — she found that she wasn’t as willing to make the sacrifices needed to stay current in the business as she once was.
“I’m probably now 20 years older than these kids writing songs,” she says. “I had to make a choice: Am I going to do this every single day to the degree that I used to do it? If I do that, I’m going to lose my 40s, because I’m going to have to always stay young.”
So she did what she refers to as “the unthinkable for many people in my industry” and decamped for Maine, far removed from the music-business centers of New York and LA, to be near her husband and stepdaughter. “I’ve written for a long time, and as a songwriter, you could be writing, I don’t know, 300 songs a year,” says DioGuardi. “I definitely needed a break.”
She approached Berklee College of Music about teaching there, and the school was receptive. “So I went and I taught [pop songwriting], and I really, really enjoyed it. I ended up signing some kids from there and really loved helping people write songs, because I found that a lot of what I was doing was helping them find themselves.”
That was precisely what DioGuardi found appealing about helping to establish New England Sings and its attached nonprofit, Inspired Nation, as well as tethering both to a mission of youth philanthropy and activism. “It’s broader than music,” she explains. In addition to a $500 cash prize, the winner receives a Berklee Summer Sessions scholarship and gets to perform at a Dana-Farber Cancer Institute gala Oct. 21.
Ogunquit Playhouse artistic director Brad Kenney shares DioGuardi’s enthusiasm for the social mission of New England Sings. “I could hear the commitment in Kara’s voice and the people around her to, yes, do a singing competition, but it’s so much more than that. There was a great wish to coach philanthropy and to coach the strength of young people’s voices and the impact they can make,” says Kenney, who is one of the judges.
Part of nurturing those voices is providing a support system for them once the show has ended, something that bothered DioGuardi in her “American Idol” days. Speaking with an air of maternal conviction, DioGuardi says that she’ll remain available to mentor the New England Sings contestants, just as she has with her former Berklee students. It is, after all, why she let herself get roped into producing the event in the first place.
“I never thought I would be doing this, but maybe that’s why I did ‘Idol’ to begin with,” she says. “Maybe this is the bigger thing here that I’m supposed to be involved in. And so far I’m loving it.”
NEW ENGLAND SINGS
At Ogunquit Playhouse, Ogunquit, Maine, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. Tickets $15-$25, www.newenglandsings.org