Song Exploder brings a tight focus – literally – to one song at a time, as host Hrishikesh Hirway breaks it down, piece by piece, with the artist until the audience knows everything that went into the music and lyrics. After getting a glimpse at the creation process, we hear the complete, finished version of the song.
In the series’ first episode, Hirway interviews Jimmy Napes, Alicia Keys, and Sampha on the creation of ‘Three Hour Drive.’ Interviews are cut with footage from the session in which most of the song was written and recorded, and a story unfolds: Sampha had just lost his mother, while Alicia Keys had just become a mother again. The song is meant to express the love, longing, and transitional nature of that mother-son relationship.
Episode two covers Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Wait For It’, the song that defines antagonist Aaron Burr’s character in Hamilton. The story of writing the song is short: it all came out in one go on the subway. So, Miranda talks about its inspiration while Alex Lacamoire, music director & orchestrator, discusses how he developed the song’s sound for a cast and Thomas Kail, director, contributes his directorial perspective.
In episode three, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills discuss ‘Losing My Religion.’ Unlike the other episodes, this one puts thirty years between the song’s creation and the reflection, and the result is more general perspective and less memory. The men talk about the meaning of the phrase “losing my religion,” how they developed the words and the musical ideas, and how the song’s instant fame impacted each of them in the short and long term.
Ty Dolla $ign’s ‘L.A.’ rounds out episode four. The first track on his album ‘Free T.C.’, this song begins a tribute to Ty’s older brother, T.C., who was 11 years into a 67-year sentence for a wrongful conviction. This song is all about their hometown. Ty Dolla $ign talks about the musical layering of instruments like the talk box, and the flexitone alongside more traditional bass and guitar, and his love for collaborating with his favorite artists. “The regular ear might not even know all of that,” he says, “but shout out to the people that do, this is for you.”
Because Song Exploder features a mix of musical genres, most potential viewers will find at least one episode that really speaks to their taste in music. But, beyond that, the series gives an inside glimpse into the technical and emotional process that artists undergo when they create and produce music. For people who love art or creativity in itself, this is a fascinating watch.
Though each episode focuses on one song, themes emerge. For example, almost every artist in some way refers to the practically invisible musical layers or emotional meanings in their music. Though these additions make all the difference to the creators, they know that listeners may never hear them, or may create their own meanings. Though host Hrishikesh Hirway doesn’t editorialize or draw connections between artists, he keeps interviews similar enough between artists that the viewer can start to draw connections of their own.
Although these broader questions go unanswered, the content is interesting for fans of the specific artists or of music in general.
Song Exploder offers a fascinating exploration of artists’ processes in a variety of musical genres. Devoted fans will be delighted to see their artist breaking down beloved songs, while those unfamiliar with the work will find plenty of interesting content around the creation of music itself. This series is definitely worth a listen and a watch.