Song Exploder, a short docu-series that just arrived on Netflix, dissects the hit songs of popular musicians, tracing the path from first demo to chart-topping success. The four-episode show was adapted from the popular podcast of the same title.
Hrishikesh Hirway, the host of the podcast and show, sits with his laptop open, playing various demos as he guides the artists through their own songs. The show was created by documentarians Morgan Neville and Caitrin Rogers, and features Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M., and Ty Dolla $ign. Interviews with their various collaborators reveal how artists combine their talents and tastes to create one cohesive piece. The show offers an episode for every kind of music fan by stretching across several genres, including pop, broadway musical, rock, and hip-hop.
Hirway immediately reveals his intention to explore the emotional experiences of artists by beginning the first episode by asking Alicia Keys about the day before she began writing her recent release, “3 Hour Drive.” Reflecting on what led her to the studio, Keys explains that her son was just born and she was immersing herself in the writing process during a trip to London. The episode also gives the audience a peek into the collaboration process. Footage from the initial recording sessions shows Keys and her two collaborators, Jimmy Napes and Sampha, jamming in a small candle-lit studio. Hirway’s unsurprisingly smooth podcast voice probes Keys about how she approaches writing. He begins to break down the illusion of the unfailingly brilliant and inspired artist as Keys opens up about the anxiety that drives her in the studio knowing that “there’s a pretty likely chance that I’m not going to find the right words. I’m not going to find the right melody.”
Recordings of raw vocals and the simple chords that get lost in the layers of each finished song allow the artists to revisit their creative processes and show the audience the evolution of their work. In the second episode, Lin-Manuel Miranda traces the creation of his song “Wait For It” from his acclaimed musical Hamilton over the seven years he took to write the show. Miranda and his writing partner, Alex Lacamoire, talk Hirway through how they turned scattered iPod recordings done on the subway into full songs, and then adapted them to be performed onstage with an ensemble.
In the third episode, R.E.M. breaks down its career-changing hit “Losing My Religion.” During one light moment, Hirway plays a demo and reminds drummer Bill Berry of a hand-clapping track that was mixed in with the percussion. Berry’s face lights up as he reflects on the band’s fearlessly experimental approach to making the song more than 30 years ago. Song Exploder is full of little gems like this: the first versions of lyrics, lost demos, and clever production tricks.
Hirway doesn’t act as a ruthless interrogator trying to tease out industry secrets or controversy. He’s an avid fan, and a musician himself. In an interview with Indiewire, Hirway explains that he sees each podcast episode as “a portrait of an artist.” The Netflix series expands on this medium by showing the musicians “thinking about their work and considering their work,” adding a “completely different dimension to it.” In one contemplative moment, Michael Stipe describes the life of the fabricated character that “Losing My Religion” follows, and then admits that the song echoes some of his own experiences at the time. Primarily avoiding technical language about recording and sound-mixing, the show highlights the emotional arc of the songs and how they can come together in a second or after hours of spitballing random lyrics.
For the final episode, Hirway interviews Ty Dolla $ign and analyzes the song “LA” from the rapper’s 2015 album Free TC. Hirway breaks down all the forms that come together in the song, including spoken word poetry, electronic voice manipulators, and a string orchestra. As they move through the song, Ty Dolla $ign explains that the track tells a story about Los Angeles and his older brother TC, who has been in prison for 11 years. The artist knew the story he needed to tell with “LA” and he recounts his relentless search for all the sounds that came together. In every episode, the show comes back to the idea that for all the artists, the music they make reveals or provides some kind of direction in their life.
If you’re a music buff looking for insight into the creative processes of successful musicians, or if you simply admire the artists and want to hear them discuss their personal struggles and triumphs, Song Exploder offers a fascinating look at the songs you thought you knew.
Photo Courtesy of Netflix