While the podcast series Song Exploder is coming up on its 200th episode, the video version of the docu-series heads into its second season, uncovering the process behind songs from Dua Lipa, The Killers, Nine Inch Nails and Natalia Lafourcade. For creator and host Hrishikesh Hirway, the next installment of the series, which is currently streaming on Netflix, is a culmination of months of work that began in the first season of the show.
“We actually started making all of the episodes at the same time, and we were finishing the second volume as the first volume came out,” he tells American Songwriter. The new episodes are a welcome addition for fans of Hirway’s 2014 podcast that last year became a visual series, exploring tracks from Alicia Keys, Hamilton, REM and Travis Scott in its first season.
“The lessons we learned really emerged over the months of making all of the episodes ,” he says, elaborating on the steps it took to create a visual version of the hit podcast series. “The thing that was hardest at first was trying to explain some of my creative instincts to the collaborators I was working with—the directors and editors,” he says. Hirway says that as they got to know each other, it became easier to translate what he was looking for, as he learned what the creative instincts of his collaborators were and how he could bring them closer together with his vision for the series.
“At the beginning, we were figuring out what the show would be, and it was slow going. Towards the end, we were moving much faster,” he says. But just like the podcast, the heart of Song Exploder remains delving, with passion and precision, into how a song that’s much loved is created.
This season looks at Dua Lipa’s “Love Again,” The Killers “When You Were Young,” Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” and Natalia Lafourcade’s “Hasta la Raíz.” Getting to travel to Mexico to film with Lafourcade, pre-pandemic, was one of Hirway’s personal highlights. “It was a wonderful trip, and Natalia set us up with her friends who have a macadamia farm. We stayed there, ate there, and filmed a lot of the episode there. It was so beautiful. These days, I miss traveling so much; so that trip is particularly precious to me now, but it will be a cherished memory forever.”
It adds a depth to understanding the Mexican singer’s writing process, allowing fans a glimpse into her world, a visual layer of knowledge that the podcast is unable to provide. Just like with the first batch of artists included in the series, Hirway’s decision about who to feature was a considered and thoughtful one. “Along with the artists in the first four episodes, I was trying to feature a variety of genres and backgrounds, as well as songs from different eras,” he says.
Transporting viewers to 1994, there’s a deeply personal interview with Trent Reznor about the circumstances in his life that led him to record The Downward Spiral and how “Hurt,” which was covered by Johnny Cash, came to be. There are moments when Reznor doesn’t want to share exactly why he wrote the lyrics he did, but with further nudging from Hirway, he reflects on the words in a way that has not really been seen before from other interviews with the NIN frontman and Oscar-winning musician.
Similarly, in talking to Ronnie Vanucci and Brandon Flowers of The Killers, there is a moment of surprise when a part of “When You Were Young” that never made it to the final version of the song is played for them, and for us—the audience. “Where did you get that?” says Flowers, indicating just how thorough the research is for the show. “A lot of it comes down to getting lucky with what was preserved from the recording process,” says Hirway. In preparation for each episode, he explains how necessary the multi-tracks of the original recording are to accomplish the show’s goal—“which is to reveal what really went into these songs, and let people in on those ideas and sounds.”
It’s up to the artists and their labels and managers to send Hirway what they’ve got, but the more they share, the more interesting an episode it makes for viewers and fans of the particular artist. “Sometimes I would get surprised by what came back,” says Hirway. “And if there are parts of a song that excite or surprise me, I always ask about those moments, in addition to whatever the artists are excited to talk about. In the case of The Killers, getting a track that I had never heard before and that wasn’t in the final recording meant I had to at least ask about it!”
As for how each episode plays out, Hirway says he never knows what each one is going to be until after the interviews. “The artist’s story is what defines what the episode will be,” he says. “So in the case of Nine Inch Nails, for example, there’s no way to tell the story of “Hurt” outside of the context of ‘The Downward Spiral’ as a whole, because it came at the end of the process and was inspired by wanting to respond to the other songs he had already made.” It’s for reasons like this that Song Exploder will likely continue to find more fans, for both its podcast and visual series alike.
Photos Courtesy of Netflix