Interview: Hrishikesh Hirway Explodes Song Exploder

  • 10.01.2023

How are great songs born? What’s it like to put a track together, part by part and piece by piece? Song Exploder opens up the creative process behind some of the most famous music of all time – and has become one of the most established always-on podcasts in the business. As the series approaches its 10th year, Novel’s Andrew Dickson spoke to creator and host Hrishikesh Hirway about what it takes to keep the podcast fresh, why musicians are like superheroes and why books are ready to be blown up too

'Sometimes a vignette is much more interesting' ... Hrishikesh Hirway
'Sometimes a vignette is much more interesting' ... Hrishikesh Hirway

Anyone who loves music has probably had the fantasy of what it would have been like to step inside the recording studio where a favourite song was cut or sit behind the mixing desk with a producer. Why does that instrument sound like it does? How many takes were needed to nail that particular backing track? And what would it be like to listen to the unmixed feed from a sound booth containing a great vocalist such as Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin, and hear history being made?

If you’ve even a passing interest in questions like this, you’ll understand why Song Exploder (Radiotopia/PRX) has become a much-loved fixture of the podcast landscape. Pretty much every two weeks for the last decade, a different musician, band or composer has come on to talk through the creative decisions behind canonical tracks: Dua Lipa on “Levitating”, Björk on “Stonemason”, Arcade Fire on “Put Your Money on Me”, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac on “Go Your Own Way”. Altogether there are nearly 250 instalments in the back catalogue. So successful has the series been that it has generated a Netflix incarnation (even starrier) and, now, a literary spinoff, Book Exploder.

The mellow-voiced man behind it is – perhaps unsurprisingly – a composer, performer and producer himself. Hrishikesh Hirway had the idea for the show soon after moving to LA to work in music, and his own expertise into what it takes to put music together feeds the fascination of Song Exploder. Often little much more than 15 or 20 minutes long, weaving together interviews with clips, isolated tracks and interviews, each episode is as painstakingly crafted as the song that inspired it. By the time the full, mixed track is played at the end, you’ll never hear that Roland drum machine the same way again. And Hirway has spun other podcast gold, too – the fanmaniac West Wing Weekly podcast and, more recently, Home Cooking with Samin Nosrat.

Andrew Dickson: Hrishi, Song Exploder has been running for nearly a decade and it's become this huge thing – a Netflix series and now a spinoff podcast. But it’s such a simple idea, right. It’s almost amazing that no one had done it before. Where did it begin?

Hrishikesh Hirway: There’s a magazine I’ve loved for years called Tape Op . It’s about recording, but as opposed to interviews with huge producers working in these million-dollar studios, it focuses on artists and musicians working out of their bedrooms or in garages. I found it really exciting to read about how some artists I really admired made their work, in ways that seemed approachable. Also, it was just the sort of thing that I loved talking about with other friends who were making music. I’d go to someone’s studio and they’d be working on a song, and I’d sit down next to them and listen and ask them, “What’s that? How did you make that?”

AD: It seems an obvious question, even if you don’t make music yourself – anyone who loves music wants to know how it comes together.

HH: Right. And the strange thing was that much of the music press didn’t really write about that, in fact still doesn’t. If you’re lucky enough to be an artist who has press and gets interviews, the questions that you get are a little bit above the surface of the song. The journalist will ask about your life, or maybe you’re talking about an entire album. To me it felt like there weren’t really any contexts in which you could talk about the granular decisions that are the actual work of making a song. There wasn’t a place to say, “Well, I wanted to create a particular feeling in this one moment, and this is how I did it, and here’s the sound that came out.” I was really trying to serve my own interests in terms of the kinds of stories that I wanted to hear. I just felt like – well, maybe it’s up to me to try and make this.

AD: Were there other podcasts that influenced you or which you were listening to at the time?

HH: Two shows in particular. One was WTF with Marc Maron , and the other was The Memory Palace by Nate DiMeo . What I loved about Marc Maron’s podcast – which is really just a longform interview show – was that, whenever he talked to a comedian, that it felt like they were talking  in their native language. There was no code-switching, dumbing down for an audience who maybe might not get it. The Memory Palace was inspiring in a different way: it was mind-blowing for me because it was just so beautiful, as beautiful as some of my favourite songs in fact. It was in the form of this person speaking and telling a story, and the episodes were really short. There was something there that appealed – the idea that podcasts could be whatever you wanted. You could have a 90-minute conversation on WTF and you could have a six-minute episode of The Memory Palace, and both were great. And so in March 2013, I thought, I’m going to just try it. Song Exploder launched in Januay 2014.

AD: Seeing how things come together behind the scenes is always interesting, isn’t it. Everyone loves a glimpse behind the curtain.

HH: It’s funny; there are another two things that I loved as a kid that came to bear on Song Exploder. One is the kind of video that I would see on kind of educational TV growing up, where they would go inside the crayon factory and they’d show you all the machines and the pots of pigment, and then you’d see how how that was shaped into a little crayon, how the paper was wrapped around it, and then put into a box.

The other thing I loved was superhero origin stories – the idea of somebody going from maybe an ordinary life into something extraordinary. Great musicians are like that. When you hear somebody’s isolated vocals – like Whitney Houston , Freddie Mercury or someone like that – and where all the production is stripped away, everything that feels familiar, you’re left with this gleaming little component in the middle. It really is like witnessing someone with superpowers right in front of you. [laughs] If you were to walk down the street and suddenly someone on the sidewalk flew, that’s what it’s like.

Hirway interviews Alicia Keys in a still from the Song Exploder Netflix series
Hirway interviews Alicia Keys in a still from the Song Exploder Netflix series

AD: You realise the obsessive amount of care that goes into tiny moments in so many songs: a particular transition, or the reverb behind one instrument.

HH: As an artist and producer, I knew firsthand what it felt like to labour over a specific section of a song. Not even the chorus, but, like, just the sound of the guitar in the chorus. There would be so many creative ideas and small technical decisions at every step of the way. It would mean so much to me. But then ultimately, you put out the song [laughs] and a lot of those decisions get washed away. People aren’t going to notice that part because it’s just one of a myriad of parts, or people aren’t necessarily taking the time to pay attention. Or maybe there’s simply no context to talk about that stuff.

AD: Always-on interview shows have become such a staple of the podcast world. Is Song Exploder an interview show, do you think?

HH: Not really, actually. When I began, I didn’t try and present myself as an interviewer or as a journalist or anything like that – really my job is to be like a music producer. It’s not my song, and it’s not my story, but it’s my job to help craft and arrange all the different parts into something that serves what the artist is trying to communicate. What I’m most interested in is using a song as a sort of lens through which you can get a miniature  portrait of who the artist is. It’s not supposed to be some kind of all-encompassing biography, but I rarely find that all-encompassing biographies are that compelling. Sometimes a vignette is actually much more interesting. And it can tell you something about your own life too.

AD: OK, let's talk about your process. Once someone’s agreed to be on the show, how do you put it together? Where do you start?

HH: One of the prerequisites of Song Exploder is that we have access to the isolated tracks from a recording – we need to hear them in order to be able to hear how the song is put together. Sadly, that’s not always possible; maybe they don’t exist any longer or have been destroyed, they’ve been lost in a fire, something like that. Some of those cases are real heartbreakers:  “Weird Al” Yankowicz has an original song called “Dare to Be Stupid” . I was introduced to him and his manager and I was excited about that possibility, but then they told me they no longer have access to the original recordings. So that happens sometimes.

AD: That’s sad.

HH: Yeah. Anyway, before we get into the conversation, I spend a couple of days in the stems – those isolated tracks. By that point I’ve already listened to the song several times, but there’s nothing really like getting those isolated parts; it’s just a completely different experience. That gives me lots of ideas for things I’d like to explore, and really we just go from there. I’ll start to ask them specifics about this part of the song, or this moment where this thing happens, and how did they make that? And more importantly to me, why did they make that? What was the creative impetus for writing something that felt like this? Or writing a lyric like that. That’s what we talk about for an hour or an hour and a half.

Maybe the show sounds technical when you describe it like that, a bit inside-baseball. But I find that behind a lot of that stuff there’s something more akin to like pure feeling. If you can bring that story out, that’s my favourite part of making the show.

AD: The best way to get an artist to talk is often to ask them why they did one little thing. And though there are nearly 250 episodes of the show now, I guess that’s what keeps it fresh. Because the songs are different, the podcast is different every time.

HH: You know, one of the things to ask is a big question – a question about a song’s meaning or the intent behind it. That’s really difficult to answer. So the way that Song Exploder works is that it’s actually just a series of little questions. Why does the snare drum sound like this? Why  do you use that particular keyboard sound? After several minutes of small questions, I find that an artist is able to start talking about the bigger things. A lot of musicians are quite shy, or concerned how they come across. So it’s easier to begin with those questions, they’re just factual. And they often don’t get asked them.

AD: It encourages people to open up, I guess.

HH: It’s kind of a sneaky way of operating! In the accumulation of those small details, sometimes you get to something really profound or really personal.

AD: You say that making the podcast is a bit like being a music producer and of course you’re a musician yourself. How long does it all take to put together? What’s your timeline?

HH: Not including all the back and forth and negotiation with artists and so on, it takes about three weeks to do an episode. Maybe two weeks is hardcore editing. [laughs] Sometimes it feels a bit like a detective mystery. You’ve got a document that went through the shredder, and then you have to try and put it back together again and make it make sense.

Dua Lipa backstage
Dua Lipa backstage

AD: Tell me about Book Exploder, which has recently finished its first season . In one way, it seems fairly straightforward – a version of Song Exploder, but for moments in novels or short stories. Was it always an ambition of yours to extend the franchise to another genre, as it were?

HH: My favourite author is Michael Ondaatje and in addition to his novels he wrote a book called The Conversations  in which he had several conversations with the acclaimed film editor Walter Murch. There’s a specific passage in that book where they’re discussing the Elizabeth Bishop poem “One Art”  and how it went from the first draft to the final draft. That was another huge inspiration for Song Exploder; because it, it did show the sort of beauty in the, the implicit story between drafts there, you know there’s, there’s something that an artist can tell you, but also there’s just, you just can’t get a lot when you hear, when you hear the original iteration of an idea trying to be expressed, and then you compare it to the final version of the idea, there’s just like a wonderful narrative arc built right into that.

Anyway, one time I got asked if I’d interview Michael onstage in Los Angeles, and around the same time I happened to get introduced to the writer Susan Orlean  by a friend. It turned out she loves Song Exploder. She’d been co-hosting the podcast Cry Babies, which is a great show, and by weird coincidence it was meant to be her interviewing Michael and she couldn’t do it. Anyway, she came over to my house one day and we had a really long conversation and I said to her, ”Hey, what if we made this as a podcast and you were the host?” That was four years ago. Because of the pandemic and many other things, it took us a long time to assemble the first season.

AD: It’s a very transferable idea, really – and again it’s fascinating to focus on process, on the relentless detail and craft that goes into writing.

HH: When you talk about process, people think it’s going to be a conversation about ritual or something – “oh, this is the kind of coffee I drink and this is the typewriter that I sit at.” That stuff is important. But it’s also about process in a different form of the word – how did you process the raw material for whatever came out into the final product? That’s really just about creativity and how people’s brains work. I think that’s endlessly fascinating.

AD: You weren’t tempted to host it yourself? You wanted to let Susan lead?

HH: I’m interested in having conversations about anything I love or am excited by, whether it’s a film or a book or anything else. But once I met Susan, I felt that we could make something together that would be more legitimate than anything I could do on my own. It needs to be a writer talking to another writer; you need to have that degree of trust that someone else understands what you’re doing.

What I was saying about Marc Maron back at the beginning of this conversation was that the reason why I felt like the conversations he was having with comedians felt fresh and new was because you didn’t feel them putting on a mask or changing their posture. It’s just a real conversation. And I think that’s what works about the show.

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