About Song Exploder
Song Exploder is a podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made. Each episode features an artist discussing a song of theirs, breaking down the sounds and ideas that went into the writing and recording. Hosted and produced by Hrishikesh Hirway.
Kenny Beats is a hip-hop producer who’s been making beats and producing songs for other artists since 2010. He’s got a long list of collaborations, with rappers like Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs, and Denzel Curry. In 2022, he did something he wasn’t really ever expecting to do, which was to release an album of his own. The album is called Louie, and it’s a tribute to Kenny’s father. I talked to Kenny about the song “Still,” the first song he made specifically for this project. It features guest vocals from JPEGMafia and Omar Apollo, and a sample from gospel singer Linda Kemp. Louie includes a lot of tracks where you can hear Kenny’s dad’s voice, and even though "Still" isn’t one of them, as Kenny explains, his relationship with his dad is embedded in the song’s DNA. For more, visit songexploder.net/kenny-beats.
Last month, in January 2023, Kimbra put out her fourth album. I was listening to it, and it made me want to go back and revisit her Song Exploder episode from 2018. Here it is: Kimbra is an artist from New Zealand. Her first album came out in 2011, and in 2013 she won two Grammys for her collaboration with Gotye, the multiplatinum hit song,” Somebody That I Used to Know.” In this episode, Kimbra breaks down her song from 2018, “Top of the World,” a song she also made in collaboration - this time with artists Skrillex and Diplo. For more, visit songexploder.net/kimbra.
MUNA is a trio from Los Angeles, made up of Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin, and Naomi McPherson. They’ve been making music together since 2013, when they met in college. Their third album, which is self-titled, came out in 2022, and Rolling Stone, Stereogum, the Guardian, and others, named it one of the best albums of the year. Consequence of Sound called MUNA the 2022 Band of the Year. I talked to MUNA about the song "What I Want," which they co-wrote with Leland. Leland is an artist and songwriter whose other credits include Selena Gomez, Charli XCX, and Troye Sivan. In this episode, Katie, Jo, and Naomi, along with Leland, tell the story of how the song came together, from the original demo to the final version, and you’ll find out how a band that doesn’t really party ended up writing a party banger. For more, visit songexploder.net/muna.
Noah Kahan is a singer and songwriter from Strafford, Vermont. Last year, in 2022, he released Stick Season, his third record. The title track from that record went viral on TikTok when Noah was first writing it, and posting pieces of it. One of those videos has over 10 million plays. And as of this recording, on Spotify, the full song has almost 100 million streams. For this episode, Noah talked to me about the process of making that song: What led him to first post half a song on TikTok, and what happened after that. You’ll hear the raw recordings off of his phone; the different drafts he made as he worked; you'll hear the different versions he first shared on social media; and you’ll hear his bracingly honest appraisal of the winding path he took — in his life, and in his music – to get to where he is now. For more, visit songexploder.net/noah-kahan.
Sampa The Great is a songwriter, rapper, and singer from Zambia. She was based in Australia for years, but came back to Zambia in 2020, shortly before the pandemic hit. When she couldn’t travel, she decided to make her next album there in Lusaka. The album is called As Above, So Below, and it was produced by Mag44. In this episode, Sampa the Great and Mag44 break down the closing song "Let Me Be Great," which features vocals from legendary West African singer Angélique Kidjo, winner of 5 Grammys and one of TIME’s Most Influential People. I got to speak to Angélique Kidjo in her studio in Paris, and I spoke to Sampa the Great and Mag44 in Lusaka. Together, the three of them tell the story of how they made "Let Me Be Great." For more, visit songexploder.net/sampa-the-great.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a sci-fi comedy independent film that came out in the spring of 2022. It’s a huge hit that made over $100 million at the box office. It’s already been named the best movie of the year by several publications and awards organizations. The movie stars the legendary actress Michelle Yeoh, and was directed by the Daniels, the directing duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. The score for the film is by the band Son Lux. In addition to the score, Son Lux also made the original song for the film’s end credits: "This is a Life," featuring two prestigious guest vocalists: Mitski and David Byrne of the Talking Heads. For this episode, I spoke to Ryan Lott from Son Lux, as well as the Daniels. Ryan tells the story of how the song was created, with his bandmates and Mitski and David Byrne and Daniels all adding to it and shaping it. For more, visit songexploder.net/son-lux.
Omah Lay is a Nigerian singer, songwriter, and producer. He’s one of the young stars of Afrobeats, the West African genre that's become a global phenomenon. His new album Boy Alone features a collaboration with Justin Bieber. But for this episode, Omah talked to me about the song “Never Forget.” Boy Alone was Omah’s late father's nickname, and the song “Never Forget” was inspired by him. For more, visit songexploder.net/omah-lay.
The final episode of Book Exploder is with author James McBride. He was born in New York City and raised in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Houses housing projects until the age of seven. That housing project became the setting for his novel, Deacon King Kong. In 2015, President Obama awarded him with the National Humanities Medal, and in 2021, Deacon King Kong won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Deacon King Kong tells of the upending of a Brooklyn neighborhood, after a young drug dealer is shot in broad daylight by a deacon known to everyone as Sportcoat. In his conversation with Susan, James discusses a passage from the book’s opening, which takes place in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. For more, visit bookexploder.com/episodes/james-mcbride.
In 2002, Sam Beam’s first album as Iron & Wine was released on Sub Pop Records. He’d given them a bunch of demos, and rather than have him re-record these songs, they released the demos themselves. Since then, he’s put out five more full-length albums and been nominated for multiple Grammys. For this episode, Sam looked back at the making of his song "Flightless Bird, American Mouth," from his 2007 album The Shepherd’s Dog. A year after that album came out, the song was used prominently in a scene in the movie Twilight, and it’s been one of the most popular Iron & Wine songs ever since. I talked to Sam at Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas, in front of a small audience. You’ll hear the original demo he recorded, and how that transformed into the final version of the song. For more, visit songexploder.net/iron-and-wine
George Saunders has won the Booker Prize, and he’s the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. He won the Folio Prize for his collection of short stories, Tenth of December, which includes the short story “Victory Lap.” In this episode, Susan and George talk about a passage from “Victory Lap.” “Victory Lap” is about two teenagers, Alison and Kyle, and what happens when a stranger tries to abduct Alison. In his conversation with Susan, George discusses a passage from the light-hearted opening of the story, before it takes its darker turn. For more, visit bookexploder.com/episodes/george-saunders.
Santigold is a singer, songwriter, and producer. She’s put out 4 albums since 2008, and she’s been featured as a collaborator on songs with Jay-Z, Beastie Boys, Diplo, and more. In this episode, Santi takes apart her song "Ushers of the New World," from her 2022 album Spirituals. She made it with some other collaborators she’s worked with before, including Grammy-winning producer Rostam, and producer Ricky Blaze. She told me about how she tries to channel her gut instincts, and how she wanted to transform some of the darkest feelings of 2020 into something galvanizing. For more, visit songexploder.net/santigold.
Celeste Ng is an American writer and author of three novels. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, was published in 2017 and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. A television adaptation of the novel, starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, premiered in 2020. Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and centers around two families—the mothers of these families especially. One family is upper-middle class with a “typical” suburban structure: a mom, a dad, and four kids; the other is a single mom, Mia, and her daughter, who are newcomers to the town. In her conversation with Susan, Celeste discusses a flashback to how a young Mia first became interested in photography as a medium. For more, visit bookexploder.com/episodes/celeste-ng.
King Princess is the project of Mikaela Straus, a singer, songwriter, and producer from Brooklyn. She’s a platinum-selling artist, and she put out her second album in July, 2022. The last track on the album is the song "Let Us Die." Rolling Stone called it "the banger of the year." In this episode, Mikaela breaks down the song, along with two of her collaborators on it: co-producer and co-writer Ethan Gruska, and multi-Grammy winning producer Mark Ronson. You’ll hear the original voice memo that Mikaela recorded, and the demo she made with Ethan. And you’ll hear the drums recorded by the late Taylor Hawkins, the legendary drummer of Foo Fighters and Alanis Morissette, who passed away earlier this year. For more, visit songexploder.net/king-princess.
Tayari Jones is the author of four novels. She won the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus. Her novel An American Marriage was an Oprah's Book Club Selection, and was longlisted for the National Book Award. She won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction. An American Marriage tells the story of Celestial and Roy, a Black middle-class couple living in Atlanta. Their lives are torn apart after Roy is wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit, and the middle of the book takes the form of letters they send each other while he’s in prison. In her discussion with Susan, Tayari discusses the letter Celestial sends to Roy to tell him she is leaving him. For more, visit bookexploder.com/episodes/tayari-jones.
Panic! at the Disco is the Grammy-nominated project of Brendon Urie, who originally started it as a band with his high school friends from Las Vegas in 2004. In the eighteen years since, Panic! at the Disco has won American Music Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, iHeartRadio Music awards, and more. In August 2022, Brendon released the seventh Panic! at the Disco album, Viva Las Vengeance. The title track hit #1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart. In this episode, Brendon tells the story of how he, Grammy-nominated producer Jake Sinclair and Oscar-nominated songwriter Mike Viola all got together to make the song "Viva Las Vengeance." For more, visit songexploder.net/panic-at-the-disco.
Carmen Maria Machado is the award-winning author of In the Dream House, a memoir where each chapter has its own vivid style of storytelling. It won the Folio Prize in 2021, and was named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and NPR. In the Dream House depicts Carmen’s experiences in an abusive relationship, and in this episode, she spoke to Susan about a pivotal passage from the chapter “Dream House as House in Florida.”
(This is a re-issue of Björk’s episode from December 2015.) In January 2015, Björk released Vulnicura. She described it as "a complete heartbreak album." And in November, she released Vulnicura Strings, a companion album that stripped away the electronics. In this episode, Bjork breaks down the making of both the original version of the song "Stonemilker," which you’re hearing now, as well as the strings version. She traces her writing and recording process for the track, her collaboration with the electronic producer Arca, and why she wanted to make a second version. For more, visit songexploder.net/björk.
Michael Cunningham is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours. He’s the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Hours was published in 1998, and in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it won the PEN/Faulkner Award. The book was later adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore. In this episode, Michael speaks to Susan Orlean about a passage concerning the suicide of Virginia Woolf, which comes at the end of the prologue. For more, visit bookexploder.com/episodes/michael-cunningham.
Madonna is the best-selling female recording artist of all time. She has twelve albums that have gone multi-platinum. She’s won seven Grammys, and has had fifty songs reach number 1 on the Billboard Dance chart. That’s more number 1s than anyone in any category, ever. In this episode, she talks about one of those number 1s: “Hung Up,” from her 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor. The song and that album were co-produced by Stuart Price, an electronic musician, producer, and DJ from the UK. “Hung Up” began in part because Madonna was working on a film with director Luc Besson (whose films include The Fifth Element and Taken). But the song also grew out of Stuart’s DJ sets. Madonna has a new career-spanning album out, called Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones, and in honor of its release, Madonna and Stuart Price told me the story of how their collaboration and partnership led to one of Madonna’s biggest hits. For more, visit songexploder.net/madonna.
Min Jin Lee is the author of the best-selling novel Pachinko. She’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and the recipient of South Korea's Manhae Grand Prize for Literature. In Pachinko, she tells a sweeping, multi-generational story of a Korean family that moves to Japan. Pachinko is an international best-seller, named one of the best books of 2017 by the New York Times, the BBC, the New York Public Library, and more. In 2022, it was adapted into an Emmy-nominated television series on Apple TV+. In this episode, Min talks to Book Exploder host Susan Orlean about a passage from Chapter 4 of Pachinko: a pivotal scene that takes place in June 1932, in a small fishing village in Korea. For more, visit bookexploder.com/episodes/min-jin-lee.
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