How Netflix's Song Exploder got 'unbelievable access' to Alicia Keys
Midway through the premiere of Netflix's new music docuseries Song Exploder, Alicia Keys bursts into a smile that lights up the whole studio around her. The smile is casual. It appears as Keys is asked by her frequent studio partner Jimmy Napes if she should add U.K. crooner Sampha to the vocals of her new song "3 Hour Drive." Keep in mind, Sampha is in the studio with them. He's quiet, but off-camera he's listening in on their conversation at that very moment.
Keys' answer comes swiftly.
"I'm going to suggest that he sing the whole s---," she says with authority.
Song Exploder is a delightful stop on the couch of your favorite music artists as they dissect the music that means so much to them. And to fans, too. (Lin Manuel-Miranda dissects Hamilton's "Wait for It" in episode 2.)
The four-episode batch of Song Exploder is out now. Each episode is around 20-30 minutes and features compact, delectable interviews from artists like Keys, rapper Ty Dolla Sign, and R.E.M, who talk all things "Losing My Religion."
Song Exploder gets personal with the artists and their music alike, ala MTV's Unplugged, but nothing reaches the access host Hrishikesh Hirway gets with Keys in that first episode. Hirway began talking to Keys last August, asking if she had any early voice memos or demos that could bring the audience back to when she was writing one of her songs.
Not only did Keys have voice memos, her team actually proposed using hours of footage from her recording sessions of "3 Hour Drive" that they just happened to have shot. "It was an unbelievable treat," Hirway tells EW. "It was an unbelievable piece of access that we got. It changes the nature of the episode completely."
Hirway, a producer and songwriter in his own right, has gotten celebrities like Keys to open up about their most personal music process in a never-ending hunt for the next earworm, first on his popular podcast of the same name and now on Netflix. On a recent podcast episode with Dua Lipa, for example, Hirway got the pop star to spill about a donut run that inspired her single, "Levitating."
Hirway tells EW the TV show began as simply an extension of the podcast. On the first call with Keys, however, he already knew he had struck gold. "She said, 'I've listened to a bunch of episodes of the podcast, and I'd really love to do it.' That blew me away,'" Hirway says.
Hirway's process for interviewing artists is unique. Instead of getting into the business of it all first, Hirway takes a step back and establishes his music knowledge by asking what songs on their album mean the most to them and where the inspiration came from.
In the case of Keys, "it felt very clear immediately during that call that '3 Hour Drive' would be the one we need to do," Hirway says.
"3 Hour Drive" is a luscious ballad of love and loss, but one that isn't complete without its vocal counterpart: a South London Sinatra by the name of Sampha. Born Sampha Lahai Sisay, Sampha is an expert vocalist and producer who hit the scene in a big way after being featured on Drake's 2017 album More Life. Sampha's debut album Process that same year won the U.K.'s Mercury Prize.
On the same studio tapes where we hear Keys falling in love with Sampha's talent, we also see Keys and Hirway start conversations about how wild a moment this is for Sampha. "3 Hour Drive" was written with Keys' children in mind (think the lyrics "You give me life"), but in the studio, a certain magic morphed the meaning into slowly becoming about Sampha too. Sampha's mother had been diagnosed with cancer in 2010. She died in the fall of 2015.
"You give me life for me meant my sons," Keys tells Hirway in the episode. "And you give me life for him, meant his mom."
"There is definitely an energy that you're sort of letting out," Sampha says in an interview with Hirway in the show. "I feel like it's a lot of pent-up stuff. The mic captures that."
Listen to "3 Hour Drive" below, and watch Song Exploder on Netflix now.
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