Song Exploder is an immensely satisfying podcast with a deceptively simple premise. Created and hosted by musician Hrishikesh Hirway, each episode features an artist breaking down one of their tracks, from Robyn on Honey to Ramin Djawadi on the Game Of Thrones theme. Hirway conducts the interviews and normally edits himself out, mixing the artist’s words with sections of the track to create an small aural history.
The podcast, which debuted in 2014, is now a Netflix series. Long-time listeners will note a few differences—the episodes are 30 minutes, slightly longer than the podcasts, and Hirway isn’t edited out—but the basic impulse is the same. Being able to see the singers react to stems (isolated vocal or rhythm tracks) is especially rewarding. “Don’t you love a stem?” a delighted Alicia Keys asks. Hirway replies, “That’s the whole show.” Ty Dolla $ign asks Hirway how he got the tracks and says, “Somebody’s going to get fired.”
There are four episodes: Keys on 3 Hour Drive (2020), R.E.M. on Losing My Religion (1991), Lin-Manuel Miranda on Wait For It (2015) and Ty Dolla $ign on LA (2015). It’s an eclectic lineup, R&B to indie rock and hip hop, one that the podcast’s listeners will be used to. As a lifelong fan of R.E.M., I'm especially grateful for the elegant deep dive into Losing My Religion, but all the segments are insightful and smartly directed by Morgan Neville and Nicola Marsh.
Hirway uses video the way he uses audio samples on the podcast—to tell a story. In the Keys episode, you see the song evolve through footage of them messing around in the studio, from the decision to have co-writer Sampha sing with Keys to the revelation that both of them should sing the same verse one after the other. There’s a wordless moment on the Miranda episode, with the star of Hamilton and orchestrator and arranger Alex Lacamoire hearing Wait For It, conceivably for the thousandth time. But when it nears the end, the chorus swells and the singer pauses before delivering the titular phrase. Miranda makes a gesture like “wait for it” and Lacamoire throws his hands up when the line is spoken. Whether podcast or series, Song Exploder has always zeroed in on the joy of music-making.