Song Exploder is a podcast hosted by the American musician and composer Hrishikesh Hirway. In each edition he interviews a musician about a particular song they wrote, cutting out his side of the conversation to allow the artists themselves to unwrap the story of their chosen song and show the finer details that lie within. The 15-minute shows provide a fascinating and insightful glimpse into the workings of a huge range of musicians – here are 10 highlights of the series, which has been going since January 2014.
1. MGMT – ‘Time To Pretend’
In which Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser cringe at their regrettable decision to wear druid capes on national television – an inside joke that got out of hand. The pair made the sounds for this track on a laptop at college, writing the lyrics according to what they label an “ironic mission statement” that ended up making them mega-popular. There’s also information about how they worked with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann to hone the track for the album – including adding an instrument called a Thingamagoop, and speeding it up to the same speed as Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’.
Best detail: Incredibly, ‘Time To Pretend’ contains a tiny piano homage to ‘Dancing Queen’, hidden in the mix. Listen in at around 3.53 and kick yourself for missing it before.
2. Kelela – ‘Rewind’
The LA-based alt-R&B singer-songwriter wrote these lyrics about a friend’s experience of going back into a club to find a girl she’d been hanging out with all night, only to never see her again. Kelela employed several producers to mix various versions of the song – Miami bass sounds, reverse samples and explosions were requested – before merging various elements of each producer’s work into the same track.
Best detail: The finishing touch to the track, from Ariel Rechtshaid, was the clave – a percussion instrument consisting of two wooden sticks.
3. Courtney Barnett – ‘Depreston’
Melbourne songwriter Barnett was looking around a house in Preston when she came up with the idea for this song, which is kind of about snooping in someone else’s home and kind of about the crushing weight of mortality. Given the delicate subject matter, producing a version that Barnett was happy with was no easy matter: eventually she used brushes for the drums, kept the guitar and vocals minimal and even cut out her idea for a big swelling vocal group at the end.
Best detail: Turns out the song is actually about a house in a completely different town, because Barnett had seen a few houses and got mixed up – but she’d already written the song by then, and Depreston was a name her friends already used for Preston, so she kept the name.
4. Björk – ‘Stonemilker’
Icelandic music legend Björk wrote ‘Stonemilker’, from the album ‘Vulnicura’, after walking along a beach and realising she needed clarity and simplicity in a relationship that wasn’t working. When recording she waited for the perfect microphone to record every detail in her voice to make her sound like a “really high-definition human.” She also let electronic producer Arca have an equal hand in making the song, adding soft production to keep it light.
Best detail: Björk did two sets of arrangements for thirty strings players – so sixty strings lines in total – to give the sound of the strings a “panoramic, smooth, cream-like perfection”.
5. Carly Rae Jepsen – ‘When I Needed You’
The closing track on Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Emotion’ started life as a minor-key demo made with Tavish Crowe, with lyrics about refusing to change for someone else. Later, Dan Nigro and Nate Campany brought her a major-key track, which fit with the original vocal melody she’d written. In order to balance the positivity of the music with the negativity of the lyrics, she then sought out Ariel Reichtshaid, who added huge drum fills, bell sounds, and also tweaked the progression of the bassline to bring lightness and darkness to the song in equal measure. “It was a combination of sweetness and desperation,” he says here, “which I really think does encapsulate Carly’s vibe.”
Best detail: Jepsen was very reluctant to belt out the song’s huge “Hey” moment, but Reichtshaid convinced her to keep it. Good decision.
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6. CHVRCHES – ‘Clearest Blue’
CHVRCHES write songs in a pretty unusual way, it turns out. After they put together a track, Martin Doherty sings a vocal line they’ve come up with, but using nonsense words. Then Lauren Mayberry writes lyrics, sometimes based on stuff in her notebook and sometimes simply based on what it sounds like Martin is singing. Vowel sounds Doherty has sung – vowels that ‘fit’ in a certain part of the melody, as Mayberry explains – often make their way into her lyrics. Those lyrics here were meant to be for a love song, but it didn’t turn out that way.
Best detail: CHVRCHES make rules – on ‘Clearest Blue’ it was to make a laid-back track with two chords. They broke the rule.
7. Grimes – ‘Kill V Maim’
“You make cute music” was the friend’s faux-pas that pushed Grimes to make ‘Kill V Maim’. She was horrified, and wanted to prove that she could make something to soundtrack an action sequence in a film (something she’s actually done since, for Suicide Squad, with ‘Medieval Warfare’). The song used a tuned-down guitar instead of a bass. But as well as guitars she built up the track with forty drum tracks, and well-disguised crowd cheering noises, to make it “a banger”. Then she put all that together with lyrics that mashed ideas from The Godfather 2 with vampire movies like Twilight. It was writing in character – something she’d practiced when writing for other people – that helped the most with coming up with something so heavy. “It was a huge door for me… suddenly you don’t have to feel self-conscious.”
Best detail: For the ‘B-E-H-A-V-E’ part of the chorus, she recorded herself about 50 times, having to later go through them all to find the ones that were off-key. Some of these she auto-tuned, while some were fine. “When you’re working with 50+ vocals it’s like if a light-bulb burns out on the Christmas tree lights and you have to figure out which one it is.”
8. KT Tunstall – ‘Suddenly I See’
The Scottish singer’s first big hit is about Patti Smith. While busking for money, Tunstall found herself looking at Smith’s ‘Horses’ cover and drawing inspiration from it. After recording a demo of ‘Suddenly I See’, she found herself a producer, Steve Osborne – who’s also worked with New Order and Elbow. He found her live show much more interesting than her demos, so he shifted the recording focus, altering the drum parts and setting her up with an electric guitar.
Best detail: Tunstall used to record her demos on Logic, a piece of MIDI-sequencing software.
9. Ramin Djawadi – Game Of Thrones Title Theme
How do you go about soundtracking a huge series like Game of Thrones? German-Iranian composer Ramin Djawadi had no idea that it’d become such a huge deal, but he still put a lot of thought into writing the theme, which was an unusual length – 2 minutes, rather than the 15-second intros that are normal for TV. After seeing the visual effects for the title theme, Djawadi started thinking about journeys and far-off locations, building the whole thing around a minor-to-major strings riff to hint at the show’s prolific backstabbing. For the main melody he chose a cello for its huge range, mixing darkness and light into the theme.
Best detail: Djawadi used a dulcimer and a small Scandinavian harp to create the shimmery final notes of the theme: they’re meant to hint at no single location – it’s a mysterious end, which Djawadi describes as a question.
10. Iggy Pop – ‘American Valhalla’
“This episode contains explicit language”. That’s Iggy! ‘American Valhalla’ was based on what Iggy describes as “a shitty demo labelled ‘shitty demo’”, which Josh Homme sent him. The title came from a conversation between the two: Homme described Valhalla as the best place for warriors to go after they die, and Iggy asked if there was an American version. They refused to use cheap production tricks to bring home the message. “The words hit hard”, says Homme.
Best detail: It’s Iggy’s last work for a reason, he says: “I can find more pleasure in witnessing things and being in a situation – a nice sky, pretty clouds, a beautiful sight – I like to bear witness more and more and be less like ‘I’m getting this’. Those are the things to me that go with the idea of a paradise.”