If you're a music lover who obsesses over your favorite songs but have little time to spare for podcasts, Song Exploder is the show for you.
Each episode of Song Exploder features a well-known musician describing the process of writing one of their songs and often breaking it down to its basic parts. At the end of every episode, listeners hear the final song and have a chance to appreciate the complexity of what producer Hrishikesh Hirway describes as “all of the tiny decisions” that go into making music.
Hirway, 36, started thinking about the creative process long before he recorded the Song Exploder pilot in early 2013. He began studying piano at 6 and moved on to play drums for bands in high school before majoring fine arts at Yale.
After college, he moved to Los Angeles where he now splits his time between his podcast, scoring movies, working as a graphic designer and writing songs as The One Am Radio, and producing beats for hip-hop group, Moors.
It’s obvious that Hirway is not one to deny a creative impulse. And for someone who never set out to create a podcast, he’s been able to accrue tremendous success with Song Exploder which he releases twice a month and now averages close to 100,000 listens per episode. In June, Song Exploder was added to the Radiotopia network is now a recurring feature on WIRED.com.
How did you come up with the idea for Song Exploder?
I think it was originally a passing thought, like, "Oh this would be a cool idea if somebody were to do this." But it just happened to come at a time when I made a resolution that I wasn’t going to drop ideas like that. Instead I would try and see it all the way through, or at least as far as I could.
Do you have to coach the artists you interview to tell compelling stories about their songs?
I don’t coach them any further than just asking questions. There are so many tiny decisions that go into coming up with a musical part and putting it down on tape that if I ask the right questions, I can really drill down into the details. There isn’t the same kind of pressure as there might be in a more narrative podcast or piece of journalism. If the song is good and there are interesting sounds in it there’s going to be something interesting to listen to.
When picking artists to interview do you consider what you think your audience wants to hear?
I do. I think my audience is definitely different than what I expected when I first started the show. I thought that the way people would use the show originally was as a music discovery tool and I realized pretty early on that people were more interested in the story. So for their sake I want to have a rhythm to the episodes where things don’t get too much the same, especially with anything indie rock. It would be easy for the show to be just white dudes with guitars 24/7. So say you’re going to binge-listen to five episodes, I would like those episodes to each feel diverse and unique.
You’ve interviewed some really big time artists like U2. How did you set that up?
Their publicist sent me an email asking if I’d ever be interested in doing an episode with The Edge or possibly someone else from the band. I think that was the fastest yes I’ve ever written back an email.
Was the actual interview different than you thought it would be?
Usually I have 60-70 minutes to do an interview and I cut that down to seven or eight minutes. In this case they were like, "You get 30 minutes with The Edge and 15 minutes with Bono." So I felt a little bit of pressure to really hone my questions. With Bono it was crazy because I was on my way to go play a show in Toronto so I was in my band mate's car driving to the airport while doing the interview over the phone. It was kind of a funny balancing act, you know trying to put my bag in the trunk without making and kind of noise so that was the most nerve wracking part.
Did you want to tell Bono, ‘Hey I’m in a band too!’
No, no (laughs). But there have been a couple of times where I’ll manage to get into a conversation at the end of an interview where we’re talking about music and I’ll send them a song or something like that. Jim James from My Morning Jacket somehow over email asked me about my music and I sent him some stuff and he said he really liked it so that was really cool.
Who would be your dream band to interview?
It seems like a real longshot but I would love to talk to Portishead about any of the tracks on their first record. It’s a record that really turned me on to the idea of how music sounds that made me really cognizant of all the decisions that go into production, even though I didn’t know the word "production" at the time. I think also talking to Richard James about an Aphex Twin song would be amazing.
What are you thinking in terms of the future of the show? What do you do from here?
The part that I’m less sure about with the show is all the stuff where I’m talking. It was not part of the original concept of the show and it’s the part that I am least comfortable with. I would like to get better at writing. They say you have to do something for 10,000 hours to become an expert and I haven’t hit 10,000 hours yet. So I’m hoping someday I’ll be more comfortable and get better or I’ll find somebody else to do that part for me.
Who are your hosting idols?
One person who’s really influenced Song Exploder is Nate Dimeo from the Memory Palace. He does such a beautiful job, his episodes feel like artwork to me. Like little beautiful creations that live somewhere between stories, poems and songs. That was something I had never heard before and opened up my imagination to what the format could be.
After interviewing so many musicians about their creative process is there anything that’s really resonated with you as an artist?
There hasn’t been a single episode where there isn’t at least one gem that I’m able to pull out of it. In a recent episode with Unknown Mortal Orchestra the singer-songwriter was talking about how he bought this broken synthesizer and he decided to learn how to fix it. I asked him how he had the confidence to do that and he said, "Everybody who knows how to do something didn’t know how to do something when they started." Maybe that seems like an obvious statement but I thought it was a really inspiring way to look at why you shouldn’t be stopped by doing something yourself. I think ignorance or lack of experience can be such a barrier for people, myself included. That resonated with me because with Song Exploder, I’m not a journalist, I don’t have any experience interviewing people, but if I let that stop me we wouldn’t be talking right now.