Song Exploder is a new documentary series from Netflix where a variety of music artists discuss the making of and story behind their songs. From conversations with host and executive producer Hrishikesh Hirway, to archival footage of the artists at work, each episode dives deep into how songs like R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and Alicia Keys’ “3 Hour Drive” came into existence.
Song Exploder is based off of the podcast of the same name. Originally premiering back in 2014, creator and host Hirway drew from his own experience as a musician in wanting to have conversations with some of his favorite artists and learn about how they worked.
“Most of the time, you never get to experience a song in any way other than the finished product,” he explained in a phone interview, “but as anybody who’s ever had to try and make a song knows there are so many layers and components that go into it, and so many little decisions and little creative obstacles that have to be overcome in order to get to that final product. That stuff so rarely gets talked about and definitely doesn’t get exposed to the audience. But I knew that that was sort of a crucial part of what the process is really like and really informs what it is that you’re hearing at the end. So, I wanted to I wanted to make a show that kind of let people into all of that.”
The idea of making Song Exploder a TV series was not Hirway’s initially. It came out of a period of time where he received many emails from different production companies and platforms, asking if he was interested in turning it into something visual. He turned them all down due to none of them feeling right, but over time, it became an idea he started to entertain himself.
“As I thought about it more, I started thinking about, well, who would I actually approach if I were to do this?” he said. “And, that’s when I talked to Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), who is a filmmaker who I’m just a huge fan of. He’s someone who is both, I think, just the best at making and telling music stories on film, but also he’s somebody whose work is very different, really unusual and unique.”
Neville, as it turned out, was already a fan of the podcast when he and Hirway met and discussed the idea. Once they agreed to do it together, they reached out to the former’s connections at Netflix.
The process of turning Song Exploder into a TV series was, in Hirway’s words, a very long one and not an easy one. “In this case, just because, for me personally, I tried to figure out how to do that because I’ve been working on a podcast for so many years and doing music before that. Really, I sort of think natively in terms of audio, I had a huge learning curve to try and figure out how that translates to TV.”
One of the changes made was the inclusion of Hirway more in the conversations with the artists, as opposed to how it’s done on the podcast where it’s just the latter speaking. To have solely the artist speak on camera made it appear more objective, as opposed to the more intimate feeling he and Neville were going for. “He was like, ‘I think the intimacy is really just going to come from the back of the conversation.’ And so, that was just what it needed. It took some convincing for me to be okay with it. But that’s how we did it. I think it ended up feeling right.”
Much like the podcast, the song of each episode is played in its entirety near the end. To accommodate them, music videos were made. Hirway explained how it was the production team who worked on them without any involvement from the artists, as a way of connecting the feelings to both the song and the interview, rather than just the song.
“It was sort of serving a purpose of underscoring both the song and the story that you had just heard,” he elaborated. “So, we were trying to follow a different motivation than an artist might when making their own music video. We also wanted it to be something that felt sort of gentle enough, that you could kind of sit back and really like, it’s not going to hit you over the head. It’s really about you absorbing all the stuff that you just learned about.”
Four music artists are featured throughout the first season of Song Exploder. Other than Keys and R.E.M., there’s also Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ty Dolla $ign. Much like the podcast, Hirway wanted to feature a wide variety of artists and a wide variety of songs. He also looked for artists who were very in tune with the creative decisions and approaches made with their songs, in order to make the show as effective as possible.
“I think with all four of those artists, it’s really clear there are people who are really thoughtful, really in sort of wrestling with how to best execute some kind of idea and turn it into something special or something new,” he said.
Hirway hopes that audiences will enjoy all four episodes, regardless of whether they are familiar with all the featured artists or not. “I have a different relationship with all of the songs that has ever been featured on Song Exploder. By the time the episode is finished, when you get to sort of live with the ideas and hear the stories behind them, I think it really changes your feelings about the song. If you liked the song already, you are going to fall in love with the song. If you don’t know the song, your ears are going to be open to it as a totally new way. I think that’s a really neat experience, to be introduced to a song in this kind of format. So, I hope that people are open-minded enough to try all four episodes.”
Song Exploder is now streaming on Netflix.