Based on the acclaimed podcast of the same name, and from host Hrishikesh Hirway and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville, the Netflix original series Song Exploder features some of the world’s greatest musicians as they talk about their songwriting process and how they brought one of their hit songs to life. Interviews, archival footage, and raw recordings give the viewer an intimate look behind the ideas, music, and lyrics that come together to make a memorable song. Song Exploder Volume 1 premiered in October 2020 and featured Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M., and Ty Dolla $ign. Volume 2 arrived on Netflix just two months later, in mid-December 2020, and featured Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, The Killers, Dua Lipa, and Natalia Lafourcade.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Hirway spoke about how his own history as a musician inspired the idea for the podcast, making the mysteries of songwriting more accessible for people, how the TV series evolved, which musician flat-out refused to do the show, and much more.
COLLIDER: I absolutely love this show. Along with being a journalist, I’m also a huge music fan and concert photographer so this show is right up my alley.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: That’s awesome. Thank you so much.
You started the podcast that this series came out of because you wanted to learn the story behind songs and deconstruct the music-making process, but it’s one thing to want to do that and another thing entirely to actually find musicians who are willing to do that with you. What made you realize that there was really something there, and that it was a podcast you could do, but also that people would be interested in doing with you?
HIRWAY: The show really came out of my own wishes as a musician. I have been a working musician for almost two decades and I always wanted to be asked these kinds of questions. They’re certainly the kinds of conversations that I would have with other friends who are musicians, and I really, really loved getting the chance to ask them about how they made stuff. There are so many people who I actually know, but there are so many more people who I’d love to hear from and learn from, in that way.
But it really started from this idea of how I know what kind of work, thought, labor, and creativity goes into making a song, not just in the big picture, but in these tiny decisions that nobody ends up ever asking about or talking about. You never really get a chance to talk about some of the things that might be the most exciting moments in the actual work of making songs. I found that there weren’t really outlets to talk about those things and put them out and sit with the listener and say, “Hey, did you hear that sound? This is what you’re actually hearing, this is where it came from, and this is how I thought of it.”
It’s that feeling of show-and-tell and showing your work that I wished existed in the world. I wanted to be able to tell those stories about the stuff that I did, and I thought that if I felt that way, then there were probably other musicians who might feel that way too.
When you started doing this, did you have an initial dream wishlist of the first people that you wanted to talk to?
HIRWAY: Well, there was definitely a long wishlist, and there still is, of people who I’d love to talk to, but it was pretty different from the people who I thought I could first talk to. The people who I first started talking to were people who were closer to me, and who were people that I had experience with, either playing shows with or making music within my own career. But then, once the podcast started, I already knew there were people who dreamt of having on the show. The idea of a TV show, at that point, was absolutely inconceivable, but I did daydream about who might be on the podcast.
Who was the first one that you couldn’t believe you actually got to do the podcast?
HIRWAY: Yeah, there were a lot. At first, anytime anybody agreed to do it, I was so excited. I remember when U2 did the podcast, I was like, “What is even happening?!” I couldn’t believe that. They reached out to me to say that they’d be interested in doing the show after a year of the podcast existing. It was still very new and it took several months to actually make it happen. I actually didn’t tell anybody for months that it was happening because I just didn’t believe it myself until I got the actual interview audio in my hand.
All kinds of musicians are interested in getting to tell this kind of story with the nuts and bolts of not just the things that they do, but also why they do them. That was the thing that was the most interesting for me. What is it about your taste and your experiences, and what you were going through in life, that made you wanna make a song that sounded like this? The act of writing a song is so universal, but then what ends up coming out is so specific. I think that’s always fascinating.
Songwriting seems like such an elusive and mysterious thing. Trying to understand how an artist or band comes up with the music and the lyrics and figures out how to pair them together and turn it into a song seems like something you can never totally understand, and this show really sort of gets as close as I’ve ever seen to actually being able to explain that process and trying to bring audiences in on it. Is that something that you also think about a lot when you’re forming the questions that you want to ask?
HIRWAY: Yeah. There are two ideas that are at odds, a little bit, in this show. One is a desire on my part to let people know that songs don’t just magically appear out of thin air. There’s all of this work and all of these ideas that go that go into them. By doing that, maybe it’ll demonstrate to people that it’s accessible to everyone. It might make someone feel like they can go out and make something, which is the feeling that I hope people have when they watch the show or listen to the podcast. But at the same time, there’s also what you’re describing. There’s some layer in all of the different layers of things that are being pulled apart that’s just pure whether you wanna call it magic or talent or luck. That part can’t be transferred or necessarily understand. You can understand all of the other stuff around it, but one of the layers in there is talent and that can’t be deconstructed, really. But for everything else, I hope that people feel like it could be something that’s within their reach. You don’t know who’s watching or listening.
At what point did the idea of doing a TV series come about?
HIRWAY: It was about two and a half years into the show. I started getting emails in the late summer of 2016 from a few different production companies and platforms. They were all emailing and asking if I’d considered or if I would consider adapting Song Exploder into something visual. I was a little resistant at first because I didn’t quite trust all of the folks who were approaching me because I didn’t know them. Because the podcast had been such a DIY endeavor, I wasn’t really sure. And so, that happened for several months, where I’d get an email and be like, “No, I don’t think so.”
Then, occasionally there’d be somebody who I’d engage with a little bit further and have a few phone calls or maybe even have a face-to-face meeting to listen to what they were saying, but the pitches just didn’t sound right to me. It wasn’t until 2018 that I actually thought about it as, what would the show be? Rather than reacting to somebody else’s pitch or somebody else’s approach, what would the dream version of it actually be, if I were to start from scratch, with a blank piece of paper? Once I did that, I got a lot more excited about it. And then, from there, I ended up connecting with Morgan Neville because he was somebody who I was genuinely excited about the idea of working with. Morgan is a legend. When it comes to making music documentaries and things that feel like they shouldn’t be able to be made, he can do it and I think he really likes the challenge of real constraint, and how that leads to creativity and doing things that are really not done in the usual way. So, I asked him if he might be interested in talking to me, and it turned out that he already knew the podcast and had listened to a lot of it. We talked one day, and by the end of the meeting, we both were like, “Yeah, let’s do this together.”
How do you line up the artists for the TV show? Do you pick the artists and then decide which song you’ll talk about, or do you pick the song first and then approach the artist? Do you ever have artists that don’t want to talk about a specific song?
HIRWAY: Oh, definitely. For example, with The Killers, they had already been on the podcast, so I had a little bit of a relationship there to be able to approach them again. I pitched them the idea of doing the show and their first response was that they enjoyed doing Song Exploder the podcast, but for the TV show, they didn’t wanna do “Mr. Brightside.” And that was like, “Okay, fair enough. That’s an easy place to start from.”
That definitely happens, where artists are like, “I’ve talked about this song a lot.” I wanna make sure that they feel excited about the conversation and go into it feeling excited. It definitely starts with the artist first, and sometimes I might have a song or a set of songs in mind, and then we’ll go from there. With Nine Inch Nails, I specifically asked if Trent Reznor would be open to talking about “Hurt.” That was my opening pitch, and luckily he said yes. With Dua Lipa, we had been talking to her for a while and things got complicated with trying to film during coronavirus, but when it finally made sense that we were logistically gonna be able to actually pull it off, she felt strongly that she wanted to do “Love Again” for the show, and that sounded good to me.
How much do you know about your subjects going into an episode?
HIRWAY: One thing that was really nice was that I had interviewed all of those artists before, for the podcast, so I wasn’t going in totally blind and I think that helped. In the first set of episodes, it was my first time interviewing Alicia Keys and Ty Dolla $ign. It’s still a delicate conversation because I’m asking them to talk about stuff that maybe they’ve never talked about before. A lot of times, the reason why people write songs is because they’re using that as an outlet to engage with thoughts or emotions that they don’t feel comfortable articulating in some other form or in conversation, so I feel really grateful for how generous all of those artists were.
You also have a really good group of artists that are very different from each other. Do you consider that diversity, especially when you only have four episodes in each volume?
HIRWAY: Definitely. There’s a feeling I have that anybody can appreciate creative work, regardless of what the product actually is. There’s something really fascinating about human invention and creativity, and how people come up with an idea and then realize that idea. But the only way that you can prove that is by saying like, “Hey, here’s that kind of story with an artist that you may love,” and then if it’s successful enough and they like it enough, maybe they’ll give a chance to another episode with somebody they don’t know at all or don’t know well, and they’ll find out that still is true. The only way to put that theory into action is by having a really broad set of artists.
Also, people have such specific tastes when it comes to music. If someone were to look at a roster of artists and see people that they didn’t know, they might say, “Oh, this is a show that’s clearly meant for a different audience.,” and it’s not. The idea is that the show is really meant for everybody. Start with your favorite artists, and then watch the rest of them. That’s my hope, at least. I do also like the idea that Song Exploder could be a way for people to discover new music. So often now it’s about an algorithm that’s based on things that you already are listening to and it’s not as easy to just be introduced to something that might be completely outside of your own tastes or the things that you think are your tastes. It’s harder to just get something completely new introduced to you, so I thought that might be something that people could get from it too.
You play the full song at the end of the episode which allows for a really interesting perspective after hearing the story for that song. Do you find that you end up having a new perspective on the songs after doing each of these interviews with the artists?
HIRWAY: That is really the point of the show. That’s the ultimate thing. After you watch this, you’re gonna experience that song in a completely different way. I know that’s true because that’s what happens to me, every single time. I end up falling in love with every song that’s been on Song Exploder. Even if it’s a song that I already love, I fall in love with it even deeper. When I’m listening to it, I hear those little sounds or I hear one lyric, and I think about the thing that they said about what inspired it. It feels like something that you thought was 2D, suddenly you can see it in 3D. That’s such an exciting feeling for me, and that’s honestly what I hope people get when they watch it and hear that song at the end. That’s the moment of discovery for them. There are all of these moments of discovery throughout the interview process, but it’s all in service of this song at the end. When you hear the song at the end, your ears have opened up to all of these different, new ideas.
Is there anyone that you tried to get on the podcast or the show that has just said no because they don’t talk about their music or there were scheduling issues?
HIRWAY: One person where I was definitely told, “There’s no way this will happen,” was Prince. When he was alive, it was just, “He will not talk about his music in that way.” I think it was the idea of letting the deconstructed version of the song be out there. When he was alive, he was very protective about every single piece of his music. He was very precise about how he wanted all of that stuff disseminated. So, he was an artist where it was a no.
Aside from Prince, is there an artist who is no longer with us that you wish you could have done the show and asked about a specific song?
HIRWAY: There’s probably an endless number. One of my big inspirations, as a songwriter and an artist when I was first making music, was Elliott Smith. On the album Either/Or, he played all of these different instruments on it himself and double-tracked his vocals. I looked to the way that he wrote songs and recorded them as a model for myself, but I never heard him talk about his process in this kind of way and I wish I could have. His music was really meaningful to me.
An unfortunate DC trend, revisited.
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