Om 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.
Sampha is a singer, songwriter and producer from London. His first album, Process, won the Mercury Prize in 2017. He’s collaborated with artists like the XX, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Solange. If you saw the Song Exploder Netflix show, Sampha was in the Alicia Keys episode, for the song they did together as a duet. This year, in October 2023, Sampha put out his second album, Lahai. And for this episode, I talked to Sampha about the song “Spirit 2.0.” Coming up you’ll hear the original demo, and some early voice memos. Sampha recruited some collaborators for the song, like producer Pablo Diez-Reixa, aka El Guincho, who won a Grammy for his work on Rosalia’s first album; plus Yaeji; and Lisa Kaindé, from Ibeyi. But the song “Spirit 2.0” first took shape when Sampha was by himself, at home. For more, visit songexploder.net/sampha.
I think one of the hardest things there is to do in music is to write a love song that expresses something real. I read that the song "Liar" by Paramore was written by Hayley Williams, the singer of the band, about her longtime bandmate Taylor York, and about the feelings she started to realize she’d had for him. Paramore has been a band for over 20 years, since Hayley and Taylor and Zac Farro, who plays drums, were all young teenagers. Paramore’s won a Grammy for Best Rock Song, and they have multiple platinum albums. But with all that history, Taylor and Hayley only recently became a couple. "Liar" is a song off of their most recent album, This Is Why, which came out in February 2023. So I talked to Hayley, Taylor and Zac in their studio about how their song first came about and what it means to them. For more, visit songexploder.net/paramore.
Kesha is a singer and songwriter from Los Angeles. She put out her first song in 2009, and it was a huge #1 hit in the US and 13 other countries. She’s had 10 top-ten singles on the Billboard charts, and sold millions of albums. She got famous for songs that were about partying, and breaking the rules, and having fun. But this year, in May 2023, she put out the album Gag Order, which is a lot more raw and vulnerable. She made it with superstar producer Rick Rubin. And for this episode, I talked to Kesha about her song “Eat the Acid," which she wrote early on in the pandemic. I was really interested in the intense, distorted vocal sound that I’d heard in the track; and, as you’ll hear, it turns out most of that was a byproduct of the way she had to write and record when we were all in lockdown. For more, visit songexploder.net/kesha.
Alvvays is from Toronto. Their first album came out in 2014, and they’ve put out two other albums since then. In Canada, they’ve won the Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year, and all three of their albums have been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. Their first song was also one of their biggest hits. It’s called "Archie, Marry Me." Rolling Stone and Stereogum named it one of the best songs of the last decade. So for this episode, I talked about it with Molly Rankin and Alec O’Hanley from the band. The two of them are pretty quiet about their relationship other than being bandmates, but they told me a lot about the song, which I would count nowadays as an indie rock classic. For more, visit songexploder.net/alvvays.
Laufey is a singer and songwriter originally from Iceland. She studied piano and cello as a kid. When she was 15, she was a guest soloist with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. She went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and that’s when she started writing songs. While she was still a student, she had a number one hit on Icelandic radio. Her first album debuted at number one on Billboard’s Alternative New Artist chart. Laufey was Spotify’s most streamed jazz artist of 2022. Her second album, Bewitched, came out in September 2023. And her new album just broke Spotify’s record for the most streams of a jazz album in a single day. And for this episode, I talked to Laufey about the breakout hit from that new album: a song called “From The Start."
This summer, in June 2023, Janelle Monáe put out her fourth album, The Age of Pleasure. Listening to it made me want to revisit her Song Exploder episode, from 2018. One thing on Song Exploder that I personally love is when we get to hear an artist’s raw voice memo, from the moment when they’re first coming up with a song idea. This episode has one of my all-time favorites. Janelle Monáe is an award-winning musician and actress who released her first record in 2007. She’s been nominated for multiple Grammys, and she starred in the Oscar films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. In April 2018, she released her third album, Dirty Computer, which includes this song, “So Afraid.” In this episode, Janelle Monáe takes “So Afraid” apart, to explain how she built it, step by step—beginning with a trip to the dentist. For more, visit songexploder.net/janelle-monae.
The "Skip Intro" button first got introduced to us through Netflix in 2017, and, I know, a lot of people use it – including me. But, if I can get into old-man, back-in-my-day mode for a second, I have so much fondness for the opening theme music for so many shows. It’s a chance to set the mood for everything that you’re about to see. One of the intros that I never skip is the animated opening title sequence for Only Murders in the Building, which is a Hulu show that debuted in August 2021, and now is in its third season. It was created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, and it stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. The three of them play neighbors who live in the same building in New York, and they’re all obsessed with the same true crime podcast. And then when someone in their building gets murdered, they decide to start their own true crime podcast, and try and solve the mystery of who the killer is. For this episode, I talked to the show’s composer, Siddhartha Khosla, about the show’s theme music. Coming up, you’ll hear a voice memo that Siddhartha recorded before he’d even heard about the show, which then led to a demo that you’ll hear, and eventually, the final theme. For more, visit songexploder.net/only-murders-in-the-building.
It can be hard to be in a band, or really, in any kind of group where there’s creative collaboration, and you’re supposed to act like it's a democracy. Because what do you do with an idea that you love, if nobody else believes in it? That question is a big part of this episode with Local Natives. Local Natives is a band from Southern California. Their first album came out in 2009, but the three vocalists and songwriters in the band, Taylor Rice, Kelcey Ayer, and Ryan Hahn – they’ve been playing together since they were in high school. The lineup also includes Matthew Frazier on drums and Nik Ewing on bass. They’ve put out five albums, including their most recent, Time Will Wait For No One, which came out in July 2023. But for this episode, I talked to Taylor, Kelcey, and Ryan about an older song of theirs: “Dark Days,” which came out in 2016. It’s their biggest song to date; it has over 100 million streams, and it's been certified gold. It’s a duet with Swedish singer Nina Persson, from The Cardigans. In 2020, they put out a new version of the song, featuring Amelia Meath from the band Sylvan Esso. I talked to the guys here in the studio, and to Amelia Meath remotely. And together, they told me the seven-year story of how “Dark Days,” was first made and then eventually remade. For more, visit songexploder.net/local-natives.
Bakar is a singer and songwriter from London. In 2018 he put out his first release, Badkid. A year later, he put out the EP, Will You Be My Yellow?, and this September, he’s releasing his second full-length album, Halo. One of Bakar’s tracks from the EP and the upcoming album is a song called "Hell N Back," which went platinum, and hit number one on Billboard’s Triple A Charts. For this episode, Bakar told me how he wrote "Hell N Back," and all the unexpected twists and turns it took before it became a hit. For more, visit songexploder.net/bakar.
Natalie Merchant is an award-winning singer and songwriter from upstate New York. She was the lead singer of the band 10,000 Maniacs until she left in 1993. And then, as a solo artist, she’s put out nine albums over the last 30 years. Between 10,000 Maniacs and her solo work, she’s had multiple multi-platinum records. In April 2023, Natalie put out her first album of new songs in nine years. It’s called Keep Your Courage. And for this episode, she talked to me about the song “Sister Tilly." It’s a eulogy for a fictional character – a woman who represents the generation of women who influenced her. Women who were activists in the 1960s and 70s, when she was growing up. For more, visit songexploder.net/natalie-merchant.
This week, I wanted to go back and revisit an older episode. I recorded an interview with singer and songwriter Julien Baker in 2018. It was a few months after her second album came out. Since then, she’s put out another solo album, called Little Oblivions, which was critically acclaimed. And now she’s also a member of boygenius, which is the supergroup made up of Julien, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus. They’ve put out an EP and then, earlier this year, they put out their first full-length. Julien is a really interesting artist, and I think her songwriting is just heartbreaking, especially the song she takes apart for her episode. Here it is: Julien Baker is from Memphis, Tennessee. She released her second album, Turn Out The Lights, in October 2017, on Matador Records. The New York Times called her music "devastating" and Pitchfork gave the album Best New Music. In this episode, Julien tells the story of her song "Appointments," and how writing it helped her work through her thoughts around addiction, depression, and relationships. Julien also takes apart the track “Over,” which was written as part of “Appointments,” but then split off as a separate track. For more, visit songexploder.net/julien-baker.
Feist is a singer/songwriter from Canada. She put out her first solo album in 1999. She’s won 11 Juno awards, including two for Artist of the Year, and she has four Grammy nominations. She’s also been a member of the band Broken Social Scene since 2001. In April 2023, Feist put out her sixth album, Multitudes. And for this episode, I talked to her about how she made the opening song from that album, called “In Lightning.” For more, visit songexploder.net/feist.
Madison McFerrin is a singer, songwriter, and producer from New York. She’s sung with legends like Aretha Franklin, George Clinton, and De La Soul & The Roots. Madison’s first EP came out in 2016, and last week, she released her debut album, I Hope You Can Forgive Me. In the years between the EP and the album, Madison started producing her own music. It wasn’t really her plan, but something that developed over the course of the pandemic. For this episode, I talked to Madison about a song from her album called “Run." It was inspired by the discovery that she’s the descendant of a woman who escaped slavery, and features guest vocals from Madison’s father, Grammy-winner Bobby McFerrin. For more, visit songexploder.net/madison-mcferrin.
In May 1980, the band Joy Division was devastated by the death of lead singer Ian Curtis. The three remaining band members, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris, decided they would keep making music together, and a few months later, Gillian Gilbert joined them. They called the band New Order. New Order is one of the most influential bands of the last four decades. Their song “Blue Monday" came out in 1983, and it holds the record for being the best-selling 12-inch single of all time. Rolling Stone put “Blue Monday” on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Pitchfork included it in its top 5 best songs of the 1980s. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of “Blue Monday,” in this episode, New Order discusses how they created the song. This episode was produced in collaboration with Transmissions, the official New Order and Joy Division podcast produced by Cup and Nuzzle. We’ve put together this story out of the hours and hours of interviews they’ve recorded, along with a new interview I did with Peter Hook. As you’ll hear the four of them explain, nothing about Blue Monday’s success, or really, even its existence, was something that they planned for. For more, visit songexploder.net/new-order.
It’s usually hard to pin down when a genre of music starts. But people point to this one party in August 1973 in the Bronx as the moment where hip-hop was born. That makes this year the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. In honor of that, I wanted to revisit an episode looking back at one of hip-hop’s classic tracks: Shook Ones, Part II, by Mobb Deep. Here’s the episode, originally recorded in June, 2020, when I spoke to Havoc from Mobb Deep: The rappers Prodigy and Havoc met when they were still in high school in New York. Havoc grew up in Queensbridge, the biggest public housing projects in the country, and as a teenager, Prodigy lived there for a while, too. The two of them formed Mobb Deep in 1991. In 1995, they put out their second album, The Infamous. It was a success when it came out, but in the 25 years since then, the influence of the album has only grown. Complex named it one of the 10 best rap albums of the 90s, and Pitchfork gave the album a rare perfect score, 10 out of 10. The Washington Post called it a “masterpiece” of hardcore rap, and in Slate, it was called one of the best albums of the ‘90s, and one of the best hip-hop albums ever made. Their biggest song from the album was “Shook Ones, Pt. II.” Havoc made the now-legendary beat that he and Prodigy rap over. To celebrate the 25th anniversary, Havoc told me the story of how the whole song came together. Prodigy passed away in 2017, from complications due to sickle-cell anemia, a debilitating disease he’d battled his entire life. But the legacy of Mobb Deep lives on. For more, visit songexploder.net/mobb-deep.
Yaeji is a singer, songwriter, and producer from New York. During her childhood she moved between Queens, Atlanta, and Seoul. While she was at college in the States, she started DJing and releasing her own music. That led to two EPs in 2017, and since then, she’s also done remixes for Dua Lipa, Charli XCX, and Robyn. Yaeji won the International Breakthrough Award at the AIM Awards in 2020. This week she’s releasing her debut album, With A Hammer. For this episode, I talked to Yaeji about her song “Passed Me By.” She sings the song in Korean and English, and she told me how using both languages gives her a broader palette to express her ideas. For more, visit songexploder.net/yaeji.
Seal is a multi-Grammy-winning singer and songwriter from England. His song “Kiss from a Rose” was first released in 1994, on his second album. It was a huge hit, thanks in part to being featured in the movie Batman Forever. It landed on the top ten charts in multiple countries, and eventually went quadruple platinum in the US. At the 1996 Grammys, it won Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. But "Kiss from a Rose" becoming a hit was not a foregone conclusion. Seal almost didn’t record it. And when it was first released, it didn’t make much of a splash. But for this episode, the 250th episode of Song Exploder, Seal and his longtime collaborator, producer Trevor Horn, told me the story of what it took to bring "Kiss from a Rose" to life. For more, visit songexploder.net/seal.
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.