The new Netflix documentary series “Song Exploder” takes viewers through the process of making a hit song, such as those by R.E.M., Alicia Keys, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Song Exploder” debuted as a podcast in January 2014 and has released nearly 200 episodes to date.
Host and creator Hrishikesh Hirway, a self-taught musician, tells KCRW that he wanted to learn the story behind songs and deconstruct bands’ music-making processes. Thus, the podcast was born.
He acknowledges that there are plenty of hit songs out there, but they don’t all have great origin stories. “The show is about music, but really the thing that fuels it is the story.”
At the start of his conversations with artists, Hirway says he uses matter-of-fact questions to loosen them up and ease any self-consciousness.
He then asks artists which instruments they played first and why they chose those instruments. Musicians then often deconstructed both the tracks and themselves.
“There's something that you learn about a person's practice and a little bit about their life just in that first decision,” Hirway says. “If you can go step by step into what they did, you'll end up learning about what worked and what didn't work. And then you can ask them, ‘Well, why didn't that work? Or where did that come from?’”
Natalia Lafourcade’s “Hasta La Raíz”
Volume two of the Netflix series features Nine Inch Nails, Dua Lipa, and Natalia Lafourcade. Lafourcade’s episode focuses on her song “Hasta La Raíz,” and features interviews filmed in her Mexico hometown.
“The last time I interviewed her, it was when she was here in LA. This was the chance to get to see [Mexico] and show the viewers what the context of that song was, because that's a song that is informed by where she's from,” says Hirway.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Wait for It”
In episode two of “Song Exploder,” Lin-Manuel Miranda breaks down writing the song “Wait for It” from “Hamilton,” his Broadway musical that won several Tony awards and a Pulitzer.
Miranda explains that he was struggling to characterize Aaron Burr, who ultimately kills Alexander Hamilton in the production.
“The breakthrough for unlocking Aaron Burr's character came when I learned that Aaron Burr's wife Theodosia is 14 years older. … She was married to a guy fighting on the other side of the war. And Aaron Burr basically waited for that dude to die or fall out of the picture. And I was just like, imagine Alexander Hamilton waiting for anything. ... It's a complete difference in temperament. Then the challenge of the game … [was] how do you dramatize waiting?”
Podcasting v. “Song Exploder”
When Hriway isn’t working on the podcast or TV show, he works on his own music. That includes his band The One AM Radio.
“This podcast was sort of supposed to be a side hustle to that, and it ended up taking over,” he says. “I was having so much fun with ‘Song Exploder,’ I started making other podcasts. And then [podcasting] ended up taking up a bigger piece of the pie.”
“It was something that felt within my reach. I was able to put out the first episode entirely with what I had at home. So there's something really liberating about that. Once you realize how accessible it is, you're like, well, I'm really I'm really enjoying this. And all it takes is a good idea, the willingness to see it through, and in the case of some of these other podcasts, a partner to make the show with me.”