Started in his bedroom six years ago, Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder has grown to become one of the world’s best-known music podcasts. The premise is brilliantly simple – an artist deconstructs one of their songs, and retells the story of how it was made. The very first deep-dive was indie-pop outfit The Postal Service talking about 2003 track ‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’. And since then, across almost 200 episodes, some of music’s most notable names have graced the show; from Lorde dismantling ‘Sober’ through to U2 picking apart the foundations of ‘Cedarwood Road’. Appearing on it has become something of a rite of passage for musicians – a bucket list item.
But now the idea has now been rewired, from your headphones to the TV in a new mini-series for Netflix. Volume 1 comprised of four slickly produced bitesize episodes – none more than half an hour, with the wide variety of artists listeners have come to expect from the podcast. Each one features in-depth interviews with the creators, and concludes with the complete version of the track set to unique visuals.
The second series took things further by featuring the likes of Dua Lipa, The Killers and Nine Inch Nails. Basically, the show is a songwriting geek’s goldmine, and these are some of our favourite takeaways from the episodes so far:
Alicia Keys feat. Sampha – ‘3 Hour Drive’
There wasn’t a plan for Sampha to be on this track from Keys’ recently released album ‘ALICIA’. Having started writing sessions for the project, she’d flown to London to kickstart the process and work with a smattering of collaborators. Footage from the sessions show blues-y crooner Sampha was a peripheral part of the process until he began singing. “It was a mirror,” comments Keys about the song, and its eventual, key chorus line, “You give me life”. It’s about the same emotions from two different perspectives; for Keys that of new motherhood; for Sampha the passing of his mother.
R.E.M. – ‘Losing My Religion’
Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Bill Berry and Peter Buck return to the inception of one of their biggest hits – a success they admit is still baffling to them. It wasn’t until about a year after he wrote the famous mandolin riff that guitarist Peter Buck realised it was close to something from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for the David Bowie movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.
“Please don’t sue me,” he jokes. The lyrics, written using a dictaphone and a typewriter, Stipe reveals, were heavily influenced by The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’: “the most beautiful, kind of creepy song.” Back in 1991, their record label wanted ‘Shiny Happy People’ released as the first single from the album ‘Out Of Time’ – and the band insisted on ‘Losing My Religion’, thinking it was more esoteric and showcased an experimental change of direction. The video and the track was a smash, and “I was suddenly famous” Stipe recalls.
Ty Dollar $ign – ‘L.A.’
The first track on the singer, songwriter and producer’s debut album for a major label
‘Free T.C.’ in 2015, ‘L.A.’ is an ode to Ty’s hometown. “Someone’s getting fired,” he jokes as Hirway plays him the stems from the song in the studio. “Nobody has my files”. Aside from the stories of getting Kendrick Lamar to record a verse (“He was in a studio around the corner”) and Brandy to perform backing vocals, there’s the story of spending $75K (“that I didn’t have”) on “the greatest of all time” Benjamin Wright, the composer who throughout his legendary career has devised string arrangements for everyone from The Temptations to Outkast. It was all part of Ty’s ambitious plan to create a song that had “different explosions at different times”.
Lin-Manuel Miranda – ‘Wait For It’
One of the centre-piece songs from the stratospherically successful musical theatre production Hamilton, songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda revisits not just the tune but the location where the idea was born (the historically significant Morris-Jumel Mansion, in northern Manhattan). The track, written from the perspective of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s political opponent Aaron Burr, was completed on the New York subway. Miranda was travelling to a friend’s birthday drinks singing into an iPhone. He stayed for half a beer, before turning around and getting back on the train to finish it. Miranda reveals he loves the song so much it almost convinced him to play Burr instead of Hamilton in the production when it finally opened on Broadway, after he spent more than five years working on it. Oh yeah, and The Roots’ Questlove was in the room when the cast album was mixed saying “turn up the fucking drums!”
Dua Lipa – ‘Love Again’
An episode in which Dua Lipa reveals that she may consider adopting an alter ego of some sort – a la Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce – but, for the moment, she’s sticking to writing about her own experiences. Rewind to the day ‘Love Again’ was conceived and the pressure was on – producer Stephen ‘Koz’ Kozmeniuk admitting it followed an unfruitful spell in the studio.
As for Dua, she was “going through some shit”. “I was at the point in a long-term relationship with someone who I guess was quite dishonest with me, and I was like, ‘I need to be released from this’,” she says of the song’s inspiration.
And the track’s slightly unlikely musical blueprint? Jamiroquai’s ‘Cosmic Girl’. Also, the recognisable sample of Al Bowlly and Lew Stone & the Monseigneur Band – made famous by White Town on ‘Your Woman’ in the ‘90s – was one of the last ingredients. Interestingly, the delicious line… “I sink my teeth in disbelief”… co-writer Chelcee Grimes fought to come out, but Dua stood firm. “‘Love Again’ is a testament to the fight and fire that I feel like I had,” she asserts, “and needed to be found again.”
The Killers – ‘When You Were Young’
Hard to overstate the significance of what became a crowd-thrilling staple in the Las Vegas band’s hit-stuffed catalogue. Powered by the success of singles like ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’ from their debut album ‘Hot Fuss’, they admit they wanted LP2 ‘Sam’s Town’ to be even bigger. “We wanted to play in stadiums,” shrugs drummer Ronnie Vanucci. “I remember, at the time, it was not cool to want to have that size.”
It was ‘When You Were Young’ that propelled that ascent. Written when Flowers was 24, it’s about returning to their Nevada roots following a dizzying world tour (“we didn’t have passports before that first album”). The theme? Redemption, and Flowers’ rejection of rock‘n’roll’s alluring vices. “Excess and debauchery had been glorified and glamourised for so long,” he says. “We got thrust into it, and I realised right away that wasn’t for me.”
And two great facts: the descending keys into the bridge are, they acknowledge, an explicit nod to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’. Plus, the original recording had some weird chanting on, that – fortunately – producers Alan Moulder and Flood talked them out of keeping.
Nine Inch Nails – ‘Hurt’
In the most moving Song Exploder so far, Trent Reznor unpacks the story behind the closing track on NIN’s classic album ‘The Downward Spiral’. The slow-burning song, he says, was deliberately in contrast to the frenzied music that comes before it: “‘Hurt’ was an afterthought. It felt like it could be a little coda to the end of the record. It reflects back with a sense of loss, regret and longing that might make the whole record feel more powerful,” he recalls.
Viewers learn that it was written on piano but then performed on guitar, and that the distressed production was deliberately “dusty and damaged” in an attempt to conjure the uneasy atmosphere used in the subliminal sound design of films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead. And while Reznor won’t be drawn on his favourite lyric, he remembers getting goosebumps writing the autobiographical line “what have I become?”
The track wasn’t just totemic back in 1994, but also almost a decade later when ‘Hurt’ was covered by Johnny Cash – a version, Reznor admits, arrived at a significant time, when he was struggling with insecurities about his career, abilities and relevance: “that song reared up again to let me know things will be okay. It felt like a friend. Like a hug.” And if that resonance doesn’t touch your soul, the footage of NINs performing the track live with David Bowie will.
Natalia Lafourcade – ‘Hasta la Raiz’
Mexican songwriter Natalia Lafourcade may not be a familiar name to followers of English-speaking music, but she’s a huge artist in Latin America. ‘Hasta la Raiz’ is homage to her native city of Coatapec, Veracruz. She shot to fame at 17, before that popularity got too much and she moved to Canada. ‘Hasta la Raiz’, released in 2015, is something of a homecoming. Written with guitarist Leonel Garcia the backbone of the song is Huapango – a folkloric rhythm native to Mexico. “I wanted,” she says, “to write a song about all the things that built me as a person”. Including the traumatic stuff, like her recovery from falling off a horse aged six and music providing therapy.
Despite the song’s success – the album it featured on went to number one – Lafourcade explains that the track came from a place of newfound freedom: “Not thinking ‘this is going to go on the radio’ or ‘this is going to go commercial’ – it was more free.”