‘Song Exploder’: How a Podcast All About Listening Became Netflix’s Next Great Music Show

Translating a podcast to a TV screen is a multi-pronged challenge. For a show like “Song Exploder,” hosted in its audio form over various stretches of its nearly seven-year run by Hrishikesh Hirway, that transfer of ideas meant going from listening to seeing in more ways than one.

Luckily for Hirway, when it came to the start of each episode of the new “Song Exploder” Netflix documentary series, he already had a solid foundation. Like so many other aspects of the TV project, it was a matter of building on what was already there.

“The theme music for the TV show is actually the same opening from the podcast, but with other stuff added on top of it,” Hirway told IndieWire. “The theme on the podcast is a pretty simple thing, a little synth part and a drum part. I kept them and added orchestration on top of it, violins and horns, to make the TV show version. It felt like what the TV show was, taking this existing thing and then adding on to it and expanding.”

The thematic backbone of “Song Exploder” is in many ways a built-in hook all its own: artists take apart songs new and classic as a way to give a better understanding of what inspired all the separate pieces. The bassist heard a rhythm they liked on the way to the studio? Here’s an isolated stem of the lick that made the final mix. The lead singer was reflecting on past traumas and insecurities around the time of recording? Here’s a vocal track with all the lyrics that came from those feelings.

In some ways, the star of “Song Exploder” is that set of stems, each song’s bare building blocks, played by themselves. Wanting to foreground the artists and the work itself, Hirway cut down his on-mic involvement for the podcast to some bookending bits of context. It works incredibly well in 20-minute listening doses, but even with a dense back catalogue, none of those episodes could really stand as a proof-of-concept for what a “Song Exploder” documentary series would look like.

SONG EXPLODER (L to R) ALICIA KEYS and HRISHIKESH HIRWAY in SONG EXPLODER Cr. MATT SAYLES/NETFLIX © 2020

Alicia Keys and Hrishikesh Hirway in “Song Exploder”

Matt Sayles/Netflix

So Morgan Neville — director of “20 Feet from Stardom” and the “Song Exploder” episode tracking the genesis of the “Hamilton” song “Wait for It” — insisted that Hirway be an active and visible part of the series’ unpacking conversations. A major part of the show is watching people listen to those stems and process them in real time. (In one of the season’s more memorable moments, Ty Dolla $ign is genuinely surprised to be hearing his own voice played back for him.)

“I’m always playing stems for the folks that I’m interviewing. One of the things that the show does is it kind of breaks the fourth wall of how I make the podcast,” Hirway said. “Morgan loves that. He wants to pull back and show you the seams, show you the edge of the set, so he can let all the nuts and bolts show.”

Of course, Hirway isn’t the only person on screen in these interviews. Hirway worked as much as he could to weave an emotional core into the “Song Exploder” podcast, as he did in different ways as one of the hosts behind “The West Wing Weekly” — having the added visual layers of a TV show gave him narrative devices he wasn’t able to utilize before. In an episode featuring Alicia Keys and Sampha, the audience gets to see footage from the writing session that eventually led to creation of the song “3 Hour Drive.” That then dovetails with each musician playing melodies on a keyboard near where Hirway interviews each of them.

“The added dimension of someone’s face is such a game changer. For the podcast, one of the things that I don’t really get to have in the toolbox is silence. There are times when I might have a gap or something, but I find you can’t really linger in moments when there’s nothing to look at,” Hirway said. “I think of each episode as a portrait of an artist. It just happens to be that the the lens that we’re looking at the artists through is the work of making a song. And so to make that portrait even richer, to be able to show them thinking about their work and considering their work, I think that adds a completely different dimension to it.”

As with the original incarnation of the show, “Song Exploder” on Netflix features a balance of recently crafted tracks and some of the touchstones of bands’ discography. The one big look back in this first season fixes its gaze on “Losing My Religion,” the song that launched R.E.M. toward megastardom in the early ’90s. There’s a fascinating underpinning in the episode as it notes both the feelings and choices that frontman Michael Stipe and drummer Bill Berry can remember distinctly and the facets of the song that have slipped from memory in the decades since the band recorded it.

“I always include that any time that ever happens, either on the podcast or the show. I find it really delightful to see an artist be surprised by their own work or to remember something that they’ve done,” Hirway said. “I love the idea that an artist can have a different relationship to their work than what you might expect. There’s so much stuff that goes into it that there might be things that they’ve forgotten that they’ve done. To me that just deepens the sense of how much a song is a cumulation of those moments and those decisions.”

SONG EXPLODER (L to R) HRISHIKESH HIRWAY and ALEX LACAMOIRE in SONG EXPLODER Cr. ERIC VERAS/NETFLIX © 2020

Hrishikesh Hirway and “Hamilton” orchestrator/musical director Alex Lacamoire

Eric Veras/Netflix

An element of the show that was able to be ported over directly to the TV show is Hirway’s introduction of the full song at the end of each episode, heard “in its entirety.” It’s a perfect opportunity to hear the synthesis of all these disparate ideas as they’re woven into the full tapestry. While the podcast uses this as a chance for the listener to block everything else out and concentrate on listening, the TV show can’t just cut to four minutes of a blank screen.

So instead, Hirway and Nicola Marsh (who directed all of the season’s non-“Hamilton” episodes) enlist visualizations, each tailored to the song at hand. Some of these involve on-screen lyrics, others feature more abstract representations of the ideas that the artists themselves have just outlined.

“We knew that the format of the show is tightly contained, that it’s about the making of a song. Each song is so different. How do we reflect that in the show itself?” Hirway said. “We wanted to present something that felt like it was born out of a response to not just the music, but also to the interview. We didn’t want it to feel like we were trying to somehow compete with music. We weren’t making music videos, but this accompanying piece to expand on what you had just seen.”

As the TV version of “Song Exploder” was beginning to prepare for production, Hirway’s fellow Netflix host Samin Nosrat was launching her food series “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” The pair’s longtime friendship ended up being another invaluable resource through making the TV series. (Back in late March, Nosrat and Hirway also launched the delightful “Home Cooking,” a podcast that takes listener questions about and adjacent to cooking during quarantine.)

“Samin has been maybe my greatest ally on the sidelines of this Netflix process. Having made ‘Salt Fat Acid Heat,’ her show had just come out. The number of times that she was my emotional support lifeline during the process are too many to count,” Hirway said.

In the broadest strokes, “Song Exploder” remains a show that can capitalize on someone’s fandom, but isn’t reliant on it. If this show is your introduction to Ty Dolla $ign or you’ve been listening to his mixtapes for nearly a decade, the hope is that you’ll arrive at a greater appreciation for the work, whatever avenue that takes.

“I wanted to free the show from the expectation that every song was going to be something that everybody was going to know. Here’s a story that’s so compelling that even though you didn’t know it, by the time you get to the song, you’re invested in it,” Hirway said. “For me, the show is about the feelings that are tied into the artistic intention. I’m way more interested in that than what setting on the 808 you used or what salacious gossip was going on behind the scenes with the label. I like talking to people about their feelings, and I like talking to people about music. And so this is the show that lets me do both.”

“Song Exploder” is now available to stream on Netflix.

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