Netflix’s ‘Song Exploder’: what we learned from the hit podcast turned miniseries

Alicia Keys, R.E.M. and Ty Dollar $ign all featured in the show's first season

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 features 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 show is a songwriting geek’s goldmine, and these are some of our favourite takeaways from the episodes so far:

Episode one:
Alicia Keys feat. Sampha – ‘3 Hour Drive’

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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.

Song Exploder
Alicia Keys told presenter Hrishikesh Hirway about her new track ‘3 Hour Drive’. Credit: Netflix

Episode two:
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.

R.E.M.
R.E.M. backstage in 1984. Credit: Netflix

Episode three:
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”.

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Ty Dolla $ign
Ty Dolla $ign spoke to ‘Song Exploder’ about his hit track ‘L.A.’ Credit: Netflix

Episode four:
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!”

Song Exploder
Lin-Manuel Miranda stars in the series’ final episode. Credit: Netflix

‘Song Exploder’ is streaming on Netflix now

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