Since 2014, Hrishikesh Hirway has been diving deep into the creative processes of musicians through his podcast Song Exploder, having them deconstruct how they brought various songs to life. In October 2020, Hirway launched a TV adaptation of the podcast, a docuseries on Netflix. In the first batch of four episodes, he unpacks the making of career bests by Alicia Keys, REM, Ty Dolla $ign, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. He had been fed up after years of ignoring emails and calls to bring Song Exploder to TV and seeing derivative shows that “were trying to capitalize on the same idea as the podcast.” He recalls in a conversation with Hyperallergic, “I was trying to make the argument that original audio content would be really compelling, and nobody believed me. Video wasn’t something I could make by myself, but audio was. So I decided to focus on the podcast, but I’d constantly see someone else come up with their version of a deconstructed interview and go UGH!”
He changed his mind after talking with his friend Michael Mohan while working on the score for Everything Sucks!, a series Mohan created for Netflix. Mohan asked him to visualize the show of his dreams. “He told me to just let my imagination run wild and try it out as an exercise, and that Netflix’s resources would allow me to have a real budget. I ended up spending the next few days working on a treatment for what the show could be. After putting that down, my feelings about the show completely changed. It became something I was very excited to make, and I started thinking about all the ways it could be unique and interesting.” Soon after, Hirway got in touch with filmmaker Morgan Neville, who had worked on the Netflix docuseries Abstract. After spending a few months refining their initial treatment, they pitched a Song Exploder show to Netflix.
Talking about the transition from musician to podcaster to TV producer and host, Hirway says, “It felt like I was trying to build a house for myself out of a life in music, and just as I was starting to work on the second room, I discovered a hidden door that I had not built myself. And when I went through it, it led to this whole other part of the house that I didn’t even know existed. I thought I’d looked at the blueprints and it turns out there’s a whole other section that I’m still discovering!” The process and research for the show is the same as the podcast. “I live with the song for a long time as soon as I get the stems and go through them microscopically, looking for things I find interesting or unusual that make me curious to find out more. I then work on a set of questions about the song. There’s always two parts: How did you make it? and more importantly, Why did you make it?” He tries to understand if there’s a reason “why the artist is attracted to that kind of sound, why they might want to tell this kind of story or pick an emotion.”
One of the big differences is that at times in the show, the lens pulls back a little bit and the viewer gets more context about what the song meant for the artist. “And of course, a huge difference is the camera being there!” The camera-shy Hirway was originally not meant to host the series. “Morgan had been pushing for the idea that I would be on camera, and I was pushing for the idea that I wouldn’t. He felt that bringing out the full conversation was what would be special about the show. And I really wasn’t convinced, because it’s the opposite of how the podcast is made.” He’s definitely more comfortable with the audio format (he hosts several additional podcasts, like The West Wing Weekly, Home Cooking, and Partners). He worried that the cameras would make the artists and himself feel self-conscious. “One of my jobs is to get people to forget that they’re talking in front of a mic or camera. So I was surprised that having all the apparatus of the show didn’t end up changing the feeling of the interviews … a few hours into a conversation, we’d finish talking and realize, ‘Oh yeah, we’re on set!’”
The show captures many raw moments with the artists, from Ty Dolla $ign talking about writing “LA” for his brother, who was falsely incarcerated, to Michael Stipe listening to the original vocals of “Losing My Religion” decades later and feeling suddenly exposed. Talking about this vulnerability, Hirway says, “I think the most important quality I can bring to the conversation is empathy. That’s what lets them feel ‘Oh yeah, I’m being heard and understood.’ It’s like being in the passenger seat as they’re driving and say ‘Yeah, I see the landscape.’ But you also have to be the navigator with the eye on the map, and you can’t be so overwhelmed by the landscape to tell them that this is the exit.”
With the success of the first set of episodes, Hirway is stoked for the next, and shares that the four featured artists are Dua Lipa, Nine Inch Nails, Natalia Lafourcade, and The Killers, all of whom have previously been on the podcast. “It felt like a nice advantage in this set of four that it wasn’t my first time talking to them. They knew me a little bit and I knew them.” Hirway views this phase of his life as a “statistical anomaly” — “I have not known what path I’m on for most of my life. So this too feels strange, and I’m surprised by pretty much every part of it!”
The first volume of Song Exploder is available to stream on Netflix. The second volume releases December 15.