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How Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway created a hit podcast and TV show around deconstructing creativity

His ability to unpack a piece of music—teasing out a song’s emotion and technical qualities—is reaching wider audiences through Netflix.

How Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway created a hit podcast and TV show around deconstructing creativity
[Photo: Davis Ayer]
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Musician and former graphic designer Hrishikesh Hirway is the brains behind Song Exploder, a seven-year-old podcast with more than 75 million downloads that invites musicians to break down the creative process behind songs, from Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” to Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.” Last year, it became a two volume, eight-episode Netflix series, featuring artists such as Dua Lipa and Lin-Manuel Miranda, which brought Hirway’s unique ability to deconstruct a piece of music—teasing out the emotion behind songwriting and production, not just its technical particulars—to a wider audience. In addition to his music-focused hits, Hirway has produced other podcasts—including Home Cooking, co-hosted by chef and author Samin Nosrat, and The West Wing Weekly with Joshua Malina—and is developing more TV shows.

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Fast Company: What gave you the idea for Song Exploder?

Hrishikesh Hirway: As a person who made music, I was always trying to figure out how other people made their work, and what I could learn from it. I would read magazine articles and interviews with some of my favorite artists, and I found those really inspiring. But I was like, I want to hear it. I want to have a more tactile experience.

You turned down a number of offers to turn Song Exploder into a television show before you inked a deal with Netflix. What changed your mind?

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One thing that was holding me back was a sense of DIY pragmatism. I tend to think of things in the scope of what I can do on my own, because I know if I can do it on my own, I don’t have to worry about asking for other people’s permission. But a friend of mine was making a Netflix series that I was doing the score for [comedy-drama “Everything Sucks!”], and he encouraged me to give that up. He was like, “What would the show be like if there were an infinite budget, if you could do whatever you wanted?” So I started with a blank page and I wrote what I thought the show could be.

One of the most striking things about the Song Exploder podcast is its intimacy. How did you translate that to the screen?

The final version of the show is, in a lot of ways, a departure from the thing that I had gotten excited about. I was coming at it [how] I had approached the podcast, which is partly as a musician, and the other part of it was kind of filled in by my experience as a designer. My original version of the show was much more formal and a lot more design-y, and [director Morgan Neville] kind of pushed at a lot of that stuff. It took many months for us to peel back some of the assumptions that I had made about what the show ought to look like. Some of those things were kind of quantitative—not as many graphics as I had originally imagined—and some of them were really qualitative. He had to talk me into being in the show; that was a really hard boundary for me to cross.

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How did you decide which artists would be in the show?

One of the things that I wanted to carry over was this sense of breadth—that it would cover different genres and eras and artists. [It’s] sort of an unwritten thesis of Song Exploder that the process is interesting in itself. It’s not just limited to your favorite song. It’s seeing how somebody’s mind goes from nothing, to coming up with something that is a piece of creative work out in the world. All the obstacles that come up, the technical challenges, the tiny creative decisions—that adds up to an interesting story.

Read more about Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 2021

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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