Creativity can often feel feral and elusive—a whimsical foil to the kind of analytical rigor required to be truly productive. For musician, podcast host, and producer Hrishikesh Hirway, however, producing his best work means marrying a creative idea with a disciplined practice. Some of his most notable projects, like podcast-turned-Netflix-documentary-series Song Exploder, explore this finely tuned balance of flow and structure. He spoke with Tiffani Jones Brown about his own creative process, how to tap into deep focus by limiting distractions, and the role of collaboration in creativity.
What does creativity mean to you?
Hrishikesh Hirway: I think it depends on what role it is supposed to play in your life. For me, creativity isn't this thing that I flirt with and engage with here and there. It really is a fundamental part of who I am and the thing that I feel most satisfaction from. [Growing up], creativity was in some ways a name for the weird island that I lived on that was different from the life that my parents understood and the culture of my upbringing. It felt like a way to distinguish all the instincts that I had that kind of fell outside of what was expected. And that was the thing that gave me a lot of joy. The idea of one day this thing isn't here, and then the next day it is, and it's because I made it.
You’ve also worked with and a ton of other creative people from various industries—specifically other musicians through Song Exploder. What lessons have you learned from them about channeling creative energy into focus?
So one of the things that I've learned the most, at least about myself, is that I need to impose some kind of discipline—something that feels like the opposite of creativity, some kind of structure in order to actually engage with it. I've seen people do this in different ways. I've talked to people on Song Exploder where they said, I went on a mission where I wrote a song every week for 12 weeks. Or I wrote a song every day for 30 days. And what I've started doing for the last couple years has been setting aside every Friday to only work on music.
That's been a part of my routine now. I don't schedule any other meetings and I don't take any phone calls. I try not to look at my email because I can easily get sucked into the feeling of being productive by looking at email or looking at social media. I don't know that there's a way to kind of create the feeling of creativity, but there is a way to create the circumstances to tap into whatever creativity you have.
[Growing up], creativity was in some ways a name for the weird island that I lived on...
It sounds like the key to wrangling creativity is forming some sort of practice. What are some other, tangible ways to do this?
There are a lot of songs that start with these voice memos. One of my favorite things on the podcast is getting to hear an artist’s initial voice memo for a song when it just sounds like barely anything. It might be a mess. They're walking or they're in the car or something and you hear what their brain came up with at that moment. A lot of times it's just somebody humming or maybe they're playing guitar, but it's this very raw and loose thing.
Having a phone in your pocket to capture those moments has really become an incredibly powerful tool in music making. I started doing it as well. I will have a melody pop in my head when I'm driving and suddenly some idea will come. Having a voice memo is a chance for you to just capture whatever it is—there are all these ways where we can capture these ephemeral moments right as they're happening and then later you can figure out what that's going to become. You can work on polishing the sort of rough stone that popped into your head into something beautiful and see if it even exists.
What's your advice for staying both focused and creatively energized—especially when working remotely?
Well, it definitely helps to be in a place where I can go outside and take a little walk or even just do a little pacing outside of my garage. Getting up and getting away from the thing that you're working on is really, really crucial. Whether it's inside or outside or, or just metaphorically. That helps.
I think one of the reasons why working remotely has felt natural for me and I enjoy it is because I really like talking to people on the phone. And I think that helps a lot—taking a break from what I'm working on to give my brain a refresh, but also in terms of the actual stuff that I do when I talk to people remotely, or when I'm interviewing people for a podcast and they're in another place. I don't find that being away from somebody physically reduces the sense of intimacy or connection that you can have with them.
You frequently talk about creative collaboration with your guests on Song Exploder. What role can collaboration play in “polishing” a creative idea?
One of the things that I think about a lot when it comes to my own process is something that Trent Reznor said in his episode of the podcast. He was talking about his collaboration with Atticus Ross as part of Nine Inch Nails. He came up with some ideas, he made something, and it was messy. Then he leaves, Atticus takes over, and tries to make some sense out of it. By letting Atticus come in and look at it, now he can recognize the things that he responds to. [The other person] can be a little bit analytical and it also allows for them to have some instinctive reaction to this thing that he originally did instinctively.
You can work on polishing the sort of rough stone that popped into your head into something beautiful and see if it even exists.
There seems to be this balance in your process between creativity and intuition versus discipline and being analytical.
I do think that creativity—despite everything that I said about providing discipline for exploring it—doesn't happen in just a disciplined way. A lot of times it doesn't just appear in your life in a structured and clean way. A lot of it is just hard to discern from garbage, and there's an element of the work where you have to just pay attention to what you're thinking and what you're feeling and capture it so that you can go back to it.
So I would say that they're both incredibly important: the analytical side of the thing and the intuitive side of the thing. But they do have to coexist because without intuition, without the instinctive part of creation, you wouldn't have something that feels alive. And some people are really good at being able to do both. Some people can generate the ideas and they can analyze it, and they can do it with a level of coolness that allows them to really see what works. But the reason why so many artists work with producers, or the reason why so many people have band mates, or just have outside collaborators, is because a lot of times you do need somebody else's brain in there to tell you what's working.
For more of their conversation, listen to Remotely Curious, a Dropbox podcast on remote work.