This week marks a milestone for Hrishikesh Hirway. The music producer celebrates the 100th episode of his successful Song Exploder podcast, a fun project he began in 2014 that has now become a must-listen for melophiles.
“I don’t know if it’s entirely sunk in yet,” Hirway tells EW of the occasion. “I look at it in disbelief because that seems like a lot more than there have been.”
Around 20 minutes long, each podcast episode features an artist or musical act that puts one of their songs under the microscope to give the listener an intimate auditory tour, from the backstory of its creation to the intricate assembly of its arrangements. What enhances this podcast is that rather than inject himself into the conversation, Hirway takes an unconventional backseat that allows the guest to narrate the creative experience of developing a song.
“I don’t have a background in journalism at all and when I started the show I never interviewed anybody before,” says Hirway, who is one-half of the hip-hop duo MOORS alongside Atlanta star Keith Stanfield. “My background is in music and graphic design. I have always thought about making things from that perspective and so Song Exploder felt like that to me, where I’m designing this thing around this person’s words and their music. So as a good designer, my presence is in how the product is made, not actually having my voice in there.”
What transpires is ear candy for listeners. To mark episode 100, which features indie rock band Dirty Projectors, Hirway “explodes” his 10 favorite episodes thus far and explains why each holds a special place in his heart.
There’s one specific moment in that episode that I love in particular that I thought was a really good representation of what Song Exploder could be. There’s a point in the song when she sings, “To write it away or cry it away,” and then in her backing vocals she sings, “Don’t you cry it baby.” I had asked her about that because I was curious about the perspective shift, singing from “I” to “you.” She said that those vocals to her represented the voice of her mom and the voice of her aunties telling her to get back up, consoling her, and telling her to get back to it. When that album came out there was a lot of discussion about the power of it and how it was such a powerful piece of art for black women and the sense of community and sisterhood that it created and represented. This is a very specific detail that represents that in a very beautiful way, in a musical way, where that idea of community and family comes out not just in the words but in the music, singing with herself in three-part harmony, and also the production. That for me is the podcast at its best, or the truest fulfillment of what it’s supposed to do.
She is one of the most important artists in my life as a musician. She was on my wish list when I first started the show so I had pretty high expectations for her. And she surpassed them completely. She had an ability to talk about the arc within her music from an experience that she had, to the feelings that she had about that experience, to the music that she made as a result of those feelings and how those feelings were represented. In a way that was so articulate, it just demonstrated how much of a true artist she is. She’s the dream guest for Song Exploder because every musical idea, every production idea, there’s a rich basis for it and she can draw the line and connect the dots between all of those.
Doing that episode just completely changed my conception of that band and how Rivers Cuomo writes. He uses spreadsheets to track lyrical ideas and he catalogues all his lyrical ideas by the number of syllables and whether or not they begin on an accented or unaccented syllable, or end on an accented or unaccented syllables. It’s meticulous and scientific, and that was just completely revelatory for me. The experience of making that episode was great too. He spent almost three hours with me at his house showing me every permutation of the song, he gave me all of his working materials. He opened all of the spreadsheets in front of me. It was fascinating.
As somebody who came to L.A. to score films, the decision-making process and music-making process was something I really wanted to have be part of the podcast. House of Cards was relatively new, and season 2 had just come out and I was watching it. I loved the opening theme — it’s probably my favorite aspect of the show. The composer of House of Cards, Jeff Beal, is the first person that I ever cold called for the show – and incredibly he said yes. One thing that was so nice was doing an episode about a TV theme so early on in the show’s history that helped people understand what the scope of the podcast could be.
The song, which is about the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, is heartbreaking. John Roderick of The Long Winters is an incredible storyteller, and you hear him talk about how he tried to imagine the perspective from inside the shuttle itself when he was writing the lyrics. When the song finally plays it’s very hard not to be devastated by it. It’s already a very sad song but hearing his take on it, it just kind of gives it an even bigger emotional charge. I found myself, while editing the episode, getting choked up a few times. That was kind of a devastating episode for me.
I love this episode because it demonstrates the power of rules and what happens when you have to pit imagination against rules. The band has set rules for themselves. There’s two producers who make the music, and Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) writes lyrics. The producers had set up an obstacle for themselves where none of the drum sounds in the song could be actually made with drums or drum machine sounds. They had to find other ways to create those sounds: by breaking a cinder block, crushing a beer can, spraying a can of compressed air. Then the rules for Daveed are that he can never rap from the first person, which is what all rap is. He can never say the word “I,” which is incredible. That’s hard enough to do for one song but their entire career is based off that. I think that band is amazing.
This is my favorite movie of last year. I thought the score was a huge part of it and also kind of an unexpected choice so I was very curious about it. What I love about this episode is that the music is beautiful but it is as much about process as it is about the music as well. The composer, Nicholas Britell, talked about how he used chopped and screwed techniques from hip-hop and applied it to this small orchestra set up. So as the movie goes along and the character Chiron gets older, the pitch of this theme gets lower and lower because [Nick] is actually taking the same audio and then pitch shifting it to be slower and lower down. It’s an example of a composer who really understands all the tools he has at his disposal, not just the classical instruments but the modern production techniques that come out of working off of a computer.
I love this episode because I was really moved by how openly Thao spoke about her father and the difficult relationship that they had. The fact that she was able to turn that into a song was awesome but the fact that she spoke so candidly about it with me was really special to me. The song was inspired in part by the book, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and that in turn inspired me to go out and start reading that book too.
She’s an artist who I was absolutely unaware of though she is a huge star. This is a song I would’ve never have heard had I not done the podcast, and I love this song. It’s just something that was not at all on my radar but it’s very important to me that Song Exploder is a framework for people talking about music regardless of what the genre of music is and where they’re from and what the actual end result sounds like because I think there are these interesting stories about creativity and inspiration that come out of it. Making that episode was fascinating for me. I went to see her play in concert after doing the interview and it was one of my favorite live shows of the year. Now I’m a huge fan of hers.
This was an episode that was personally revelatory for me. As somebody who is making my own records and records for other people, I was obsessed with the drums on Writer’s Block, the album from 2006. I thought they sounded so good that I had always assumed that they were the result of some really brilliantly calculated production techniques, but it ended up being the result of making the best of a low budget situation. They lost their shirt on the last [album], they made this one really cheaply and recorded in a practice space. The space had terrible acoustics so they couldn’t record cymbals. They just decided not to record cymbals and just record the drums of the drum kit there. As a result, they were able to get this very dry, small sound that I just thought was this really fancy situation but it was actually just them trying to do the best with what they had at hand. That blew my mind.
In addition to his work on Song Exploder and MOORS, Hirway is also the co-host of The West Wing Weekly podcast (alongside actor Josh Malina) and the host of Google Play Music’s new podcast City Soundtracks. Come June, ESPN will launch 30 for 30 Podcasts which will feature Hirway’s reworked version of the network’s signature theme music.