The podcast Song Exploder lets your favorite musicians tell you how they made your favorite songs. Now, host Hrishikesh Hirway is showing you that story, via a new version of the show adapted for Netflix. Each episode starts at the beginning — the very first moment of inspiration. Then we get to see each layer: the percussion, the bass line, the lyrics.
“I think one of the things that always been really important to me about Song Exploder is the feeling of intimacy that you get from the artist when they’re talking about what inspired their song and the decisions they made to bring it to life,” Hirway says. “And there is, you know, this inherent intimacy in listening to somebody’s voice in headphones while you’re listening to a podcast — I think that’s why people love them so much. There’s another kind of opportunity for a different kind of intimacy when you actually can see the person’s face, when you can see them talking about these same kinds of experiences.”
NPR’s Rachel Martin spoke with Hirway about what it was like transforming his hit podcast into a TV series. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Martin: It’s an eclectic group of artists and songs that you picked out — all of them are so different. I want to start with Lin-Manuel Miranda, with whom you profiled the song “Wait for It,” Aaron Burr’s big anthem in the musical Hamilton. This is a guy, a composer, who’s been interviewed so many times. What was going through your mind when you thought, “I want him in this show?”
Hrishikesh Hirway: He had said in another interview that it was maybe the best song that he’d ever written. And for somebody who’s so acclaimed and who’s written so many songs, that’s a claim that I really wanted to investigate.
Right. There’s a great part where he’s telling you how he came up with the chorus to “Wait for It.” He’s on a train, he’s going to a birthday party in New York.
Yeah, he had been working on the music for the song already. And he was recording stuff into his phone at the time, and got so excited about what he’d come up with that he ended up going to the birthday party, saying hello and then leaving so that he could get what was in his head on paper. That’s sort of the heart of what the show is, is a kind of feeling of show and tell — trying to use the way the song is built, the different layers of the tracks, as evidence of what the ideas were in the song. So anytime that there’s a chance to get a primary source, that’s really the magic of the show.
That song, obviously, is built around a very specific, iconic story in American history. Your episode with Alicia Keys really is about the opposite: It’s the song “3 Hour Drive,” which is brand new, basically — it just came out. Can you tell us about how that piece came together?
You know, that song was actually a couple of years ago. She told me about that track and what inspired it and how there was sort of, really personal stories about birth and death that went into it. I think generally, musicians are asked about their work in a way that’s really big-picture, and that ends up being kind of general. Being able to talk about the specifics of a song and the specific small decisions that went into it is a way to get a different kind of portrait of an artist — something that I think actually ends up, potentially, revealing things about them that you wouldn’t see otherwise.
Does the audience need to know the song for them to enjoy the process of putting it together though?
I mean, the whole thesis of Song Exploder from the beginning has been that you don’t. In some ways, I think that it’s actually a great way to be introduced to a song. I find that if you already like a song when you go into an episode, chances are you’ll end up falling in love with that song. People have to learn about songs somewhere, and so why not in the context of hearing the artist talk about how it actually came together?
I love your opening line in the narration of the episode about R.E.M.‘s “Losing My Religion.” You say, “It’s hard to imagine a time when ‘Losing My Religion’ didn’t exist.” Why did you want to pick this song?
Like you said, the Alicia Keys song just came out. I didn’t want it to just be about new music — I also wanted to feature songs like “Losing My Religion,” where it just feels like it’s been part of the cultural tapestry for me, it feels like, forever.
But then, how did you come away from that conversation? Because in the end, we learn that song wasn’t necessarily about anything. I mean you’re interviewing Michael Stipe and the other members of the band. Michael Stipe can’t remember writing the song. The bassist is like, I don’t know, I was just trying to come up with a bass line that I could stomach playing. I’m paraphrasing there, but this feels like such a different episode because there almost wasn’t as much significance as we, the audience, imbued on this song after all these years.
Well, I don’t know about “as much” significance. I think a different kind of significance. What I, at a superficial level, had thought was some kind of political protest song or something like that, ended up being about insecurity. It’s a love song, an unrequited love song, that Michael Stipe wrote. And I really appreciate having that kind of insight into it.
The universality of those things really does come out of some specific feeling or experience. The way you connected to it is through something that you felt yourself, that came from something they felt. I was trying to get him to connect those dots. And that’s definitely the most fun part of my job.
LaTesha Harris produced this story for the Web.