Song Exploder Enters Its Next Phase

Photo: Gerry Hanan/Getty Images/Mike Windle/Getty Images

I once called Song Exploder “probably the best use of the podcast format ever,” and I still stand by that assessment even today. A reimagining of the music interview, each episode serves up vivid deconstructions of a song that’s guided by the musician who produced it. The end results are tightly woven packages that feel like a cross between oral history and a really introspective jam session.

“The goal is to bring you closer to the artist’s own relationship to a song, because you’ll never hear a song the way the person who made it hears it,” said Hrishikesh Hirway, Song Exploder’s creator. “They know the hidden pain and secrets and cul-de-sacs of frustration that went into making it in a way that no one does, and that no one else really will.”

Since launching the podcast in early 2014, Hirway has built up an impressive portfolio of interviews — which now includes the likes of Garbage, the National, St. Vincent, Metallica, Aimee Mann, U2, and the composers behind the scores from Game of Thrones, Bob’s Burgers, and Black Panther — and established Song Exploder as a notable place in the music-press circuit. And all throughout its run, Hirway has been the constant presence in the show as its long-standing host.

That changes this year. Earlier this month, Hirway ceded the front-man duties to Thao Nguyen, the singer-songwriter and lead musician of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, who takes over as the podcast’s guest host for 2019. (Hirway will, however, still be heard reading the ad reads and credits.) Thao had been interviewed for the show back in April 2016, where she broke down the song “Astonished Man” from her fourth studio record, A Man Alive. Her first episode, which broke down Hozier’s “Nina Cried Power,” was published on January 9, and this week’s episode features an interview with Japanese Breakfast. Hirway and Thao recently spoke to Vulture about the switchover, and how it represents a new phase for the podcast.

How did you two get connected?
Thao Nguyen: The first time we spoke was actually for the interview for my episode back in 2016.

Hrishikesh Hirway: I had been a fan of Thao’s music for a while. She’s a cultural force, she had an air that was cool, and she seemed thoughtful in her music. That’s kind of the barometer for me in terms of someone who is going to make a good Song Exploder guest. And as much as you can talk over the phone for an hour, I felt like we bonded.

TN: Oh, definitely. When you do press for a record, you tend to fall back onto the same few things. At that time, I had been doing press for the album [A Man Alive] for a while. But talking to Hrishi, it quickly became a very in-depth conversation. There were vulnerable moments that I definitely would not have entered if I didn’t feel really comfortable with the process. I think you can tell from the content of that episode; it’s pretty emotional.

That spoke, I think, to the bond we developed, and to how good Hrishi is at paying attention and care to the music. He’s just really great to talk to. It’s hard to get people doing interviews to say something different than what they’re used to saying.

What did you learn from your experience being interviewed for Song Exploder?
TN: Being part of the interview — and also listening to other episodes — I think it helped me become a fan of music again. To really appreciate the craft, to become interested in being a listener again. I’ve had this great fortune of making music for a living, but there are downsides. One of those downsides is that it’s possible to become … more ruthless, or mercenary, when it comes to creating and listening to music. It’s really nice to become a fan again.

Hrishi, when did you decide to step away from the mic?
HH: We started talking about this almost a year ago. Song Exploder had been going for four years, and I was interested in seeing if there were ways the show could evolve. And I was also … I guess, trying to find more time to get to other things that I’d been meaning to get to.

At that point, I had just finished doing the score for this Netflix TV show [Everything Sucks], which I had been doing while making the podcast at the same time. That almost broke me because of the time commitment required for both projects. It was really intense. I just began to realize that I had kind of stopped doing new things because of the time commitment required to putting out regular episodes. So I thought, well, maybe I could solve two problems here. By introducing a guest host, Song Exploder could experiment with a new phase, and I could free up more time.

I thought Thao would be great for this. I already knew she was thoughtful from her music, and we had such a great interview for that episode we did. And she is an actual working musician, which is something else I thought was really important in a Song Exploder host. I mean, there are people who are great interviewers out there, but you also needed to have had that experience of being a musician, of having made a record, of having written a song. It’s so you can bring a level of empathy into the interviewing process. It’s not enough to be curious and thoughtful, you need a shared vocabulary with the people you’d be speaking to.

Thao, can you tell me about how these interviews and all the prep work works on your end?
TN: Well, I’ve only had just a bit of practice lately … so, I definitely listen to the song a lot. Throughout the repetitive listens, I’ll look out for whatever catches my ear sonically and lyrically, and I used those as markers for things to delve into more deeply. I like to focus on the motivations behind the songwriting. What’s so awesome about this format, and why I enjoy it so much, is that you get to dig so deeply into these elements of songwriting that would otherwise not get any attention. To hear a guitar line or a weird sound and be able to ask, “What is this?” It’s great.

Who is your dream guest?
TN: So, I have two that are tied: Missy Elliott and Dolly Parton.

It’s only been an episode so far, but do you feel like the show has changed with a new voice at the helm?
HH: I don’t think the core persona of the show has changed, no. Which is one of the things I find so exciting. I was talking to Christian Koons — who had been my assistant producer, and has now taken over as producer — and we talked about how it kinda reminded us of Dr. Who. This idea that the Doctor is always the Doctor, and Song Exploder is the TARDIS, and the rules more or less stay the same even if someone else comes in. This Whovian quality is something I find very exciting. It requires a certain level of understanding what the rules are before you can break them, and I’m glad the show has reached a place where we can challenge those rules.

Thao, how do you feel about being the new Doctor?
TN: I should watch some episodes. I know way more Song Exploder episodes than I do Dr. Who episodes.

HH [laughs]: Me too, actually.

Song Exploder Enters Its Next Phase