For podcaster Hrishikesh Hirway, it all changed with Bjork.
Hirway had been hosting "Song Exploder" for two years, inviting musical artists across genres to each break down the making of a song. As his 60th guest, Bjork wasn't necessarily the biggest of them all, but she held the top spot on a list of dream guests Hirway mentally drafted when he started working on the podcast in 2013. The episode, on which she dissects both the original and strings versions of "Stonemilker," marked a turning point for him.
"When she actually did it, it opened the door to some feeling of what was possible with the show," Hirway reflects. "This daydream, this thing of impossibility, had actually happened."
"Song Exploder" took off. Currently, in its seventh year, it has amassed nearly 200 episodes and consistently ranks among the top podcasts on Apple and Spotify. Loyal listeners have been privy to the inner workings of chart-topping pop singers and indie crooners alike, ranging from Selena Gomez to Big Thief. Then-Fleetwood Mac vocalist Lindsey Buckingham and Yo-Yo Ma showed up in back-to-back episodes two years ago, the latter for a special installment on his love of the prelude to Bach's "Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major."
Hirway's "unwritten agenda," as he phrases it, is to demonstrate how fascinating the creative process behind music can be, regardless of whether the song is one listeners would normally go for. Now, he aims to captivate the visually inclined masses with a Netflix series adaptation of "Song Exploder," out Friday.
The series — currently streaming on Netflix — arrived with four diverse episodes starring Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ty Dolla $ign and R.E.M. While Hirway is physically present in each one — he normally edits himself out of conversations on his podcast so only the artists' voices remain — he and fellow executive producer Morgan Neville ("20 Feet from Stardom") channel the podcast's in-your-ear intimacy with tight framing and narration. Keys leads a discussion of her song "3 Hour Drive," juxtaposing her exploration of motherhood with featured artist Sampha's recent loss of his mother. R.E.M. revisits "Losing My Religion," the unlikely 1991 hit built off a mandolin riff.
Some of the best music out there came together relatively quickly and with ease, Hirway says, noting that the success of a song doesn't always depend on it having a compelling backstory. But the success of "Song Exploder" does. Hirway works with artists to determine which of their tracks holds the most personal significance, and which stories have the ability to act as a "keyhole into how an artist's mind works."
"There are only 12 notes and a certain number of ways chords get put together and sounds get put together in Western music, and yet all of these songs end up being these unique creations," Hirway continues. "It's the result of all of the atomic decisions and experiences that have happened to an artist, that lead them to express one idea one way versus another person expressing it in a completely different way."
Miranda approached Hirway ages ago about doing a "Song Exploder" episode on "Wait for It," a song Leslie Odom Jr.'s Aaron Burr performs in the first act of Broadway's "Hamilton." Hirway later read an interview in which Miranda referred to it as one of the best songs he's ever written, which, especially given the artist's prolific nature, piqued Hirway's curiosity. Setting aside Miranda's other work, the "Hamilton" soundtrack alone contains dozens of original compositions. What made "Wait for It" stand out to him from the rest?
Scheduling conflicts delayed their plans, which Hirway returned to once he secured the Netflix deal. Miranda, joined in the episode by "Hamilton" music director Alex Lacamoire and stage director Thomas Kail, recalls recording the refrain via voice memo on his way to a party in Williamsburg, singing into his phone about how "death doesn't discriminate" so he wouldn't forget it later on. He and Lacamoire, also the orchestrator, touch on how an anomaly in the opening piano melody was inspired by Jonathan Larson's "Tick, Tick ... Boom!"
A musician himself, Hirway knows what it's like to be asked about compositions on a superficial level. "Song Exploder" instead dives into the artists' motivations, their failures, the technical problems they overcame. His challenge as a podcaster, and now as a television producer, is striking a balance between illuminating and approachable. He doesn't want to dumb anything down but, given Netflix's wide reach, needs the series to present information in a way that would engage a casual viewer.
"I've always had this idea in my head, knowing that my parents listen to the podcast," he says. "I think of it as the mom test. I want to make sure that an artist's ideas are being conveyed in a way that's honest to how they're thinking about it, while ... losing the jargon around it, if there is any."
Netflix lends itself to bingeing more than a podcast does, and Hirway hopes his accessible approach creates a low barrier of entry to each "Song Exploder" episode — and, afterward, to expanding what they listen to. Once they finish the show, maybe Keys fans will find themselves seeking out R.E.M.'s other work or vice versa. They might play a few of the 193 podcast episodes waiting for them online.
"You can look at a cross-section of episodes and feel like there's a really wide range of music," Hirway says. "The real hope is that people will stay for every episode and learn about new music that way."
Editor's note: For more about the podcast, see PODCASTING: No TV needed — 7 podcast ideas for music lovers.