Hrishikesh Hirway on how a DIY passion for music led to a podcast explosion
Published on April 06, 2021
Artists are always seeking ways to fund their art, but what happens when your side hustle crowds out the work you intended it to support?
This is the ’nice problem to have’ that musician Hrishikesh Hirway found himself confronting with the success of his podcast, Song Exploder. Seven years and more than 200 episodes in, it’s led to a Netflix series of the same name, and numerous other podcast opportunities. It’s also grown to take up most of his very long work week, leaving little time for his own music.
But Hirway the podcaster and media entrepreneur would be nowhere without Hirway the musician and designer. His winding path involved studying graphic design and photography at college while working on developing his own music on the side. “Those three aspects were ways that I was trying to express a particular sense of my taste and who I am,” he says, “and I think music was certainly the most direct way of expressing that.”
His musical project, The One AM Radio, has now been a constant in his life for more than 20 years. After college, he recorded several albums, toured, and placed some of his songs in TV shows, movies, and advertisements. He made his own records, was signed by an indie label, and achieved some measure of success, if not quite financial stability.
Designing a side hustle
Hirway originally conceived of Song Exploder as a steady paying gig. He pitched it to some audio brands and streaming services (podcasting companies didn’t yet exist!) hoping they would pay him to make the show. “That didn’t happen,” he admits. “But I felt very strongly that it was viable. And so I thought, okay, I’m going to just try and do it on my own for a while and see if anything comes from it. So I gave myself a year.”
Along with The One AM Radio, he had also been working as a designer and a film composer. So in many ways, this was just another gig, just business as usual. In contrast to his own music, he was very careful with Song Exploder not to make it about himself.
Hirway the podcaster and media entrepreneur would be nowhere without Hirway the musician and designer.
To listeners, like me, who come to the podcast from the highly visible Netfilx series, his self-effacement is a surprise. In each video episode, we see Hirway in the studio talking to the artist while he pulls up underlying tracks on his laptop from the song being exploded. In the podcast, his voice is only present at the beginning and end of each episode, but excised completely from the interviews themselves.
This design decision has had the intended effect of placing the focus on the songwriter(s), but has had unintended effects for Hirway. Many podcasts follow the public radio funding model and solicit donations directly from listeners. Song Exploder and his other podcasts are distributed by Radiotopia, which uses an annual donation drive as a major source of funding. “That donation model works really well when people feel an intimate connection with the person who’s making the thing,” he explains. “But part of the careful work of creating the format of Song Exploder was to remove myself from that relationship. So with fundraising, Song Exploder doesn’t do quite as well.”
Surprisingly, as much as Hirway has removed himself from the equation, listeners missed him when he stepped back a bit during the filming of the TV show. He asked musician Thao Nguyen to do the actual interviews for the podcast because he didn’t know what his time commitments would be to Netflix. Even though he continued to edit and produce the shows, Nguyen was audible as the guest host in the short intro at the beginning of each episode. “It really ended up being confusing,” Hirway says. “The public perception was that I was no longer involved with the show.”
This wasn’t just a branding problem. For Hirway, it was frustrating because he had intentionally designed the show to not be dependent on him. Fortunately, his fans’ confusion was short-lived. “The design part of my brain was excited about the idea that I’ve established the rules of what this thing is well enough, in terms of how it’s made and how it’s heard, that someone can come in and guest host, but it still feels like the same show,” he says.
Crafting the secret sauce
Hirway’s knowledge as a working musician and songwriter is a key ingredient to making his guests feel comfortable and open up. His ability to speak the same vocabulary, to notice small details in a song, and build trust, give the podcast an intimate feel.
A recent episode with Billie Eilish and her brother and songwriting partner, Finneas, deconstructed “everything i wanted,” which just won the Grammy for Record of the Year. The song grew out of a dark time for Eilish in 2018 when she dreamed about suicide. It didn’t get completed for almost a year, giving the song a temporal depth that only heightened its expressive power.
But with his characteristic lightness of touch, Hirway doesn’t dwell on suicide at the start. Instead, we hear Finneas describe how he used side-chain compression on the opening piano part to get the right “color palette” to complement Eilish’s vocals. For a song about deep inner feelings, side-chaining enabled the simple piano melody to undulate in relation to an at-first unheard kick drum, that only becomes audible halfway through the first verse.
This way that songwriters use the technology of music production to elicit the deeper recesses of what they’re writing about is, perhaps, the main subject of Song Exploder. The focus on craft applies to the editing of the episodes themselves. In a world where many podcasts run an hour or more, Song Exploder hovers around 20 minutes—which includes playing the original song in its entirety at the end.
As with much contemporary pop music, part of the enjoyment is in the tightness of the editing. “It feels connected to design, to me, that I like efficiency,” he says. Starting with a 90-minute interview and the source material for the song, he pares it down to the most potent bits. “I’m going to condense this to what I think has the highest density of information, and then also arrange it in a way that some imaginary audience member who’s coming in knowing nothing will still be able to appreciate.” The results sound natural and unhurried, owing to his heightened awareness of nuance and timing.
This is where all of his experience recording his own music really shows itself. “I was always trying very hard to get things right, to make things the best version of themselves,” he says, describing his DIY recording process. “I’ve just leaned into being able to turn my obsessive meticulousness towards some practical end.” Although there’s a lot about this process that’s technical, it’s always in the service of emotional impact.
“I’m always trying to tell the story in a way that feels like something that people will connect with,” Hirway says. “I try and leave in the details that I think will hook people and make them feel closer to the song and to the artist, and leave the stuff out that might push them away.” A favorite device is playing the voice memos that many songwriters use to capture their ideas quickly, and, as Finneas says, “make-believing them into existence.” Like the songwriters, Hirway describes his editing process as, “putting together a jigsaw puzzle without having a picture on the box.”
Too much of a good thing
The success of Song Exploder has led to many other opportunities for Hirway. These include a four-year run with a weekly podcast based on The West Wing TV show, featuring a song he co-wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda. His role as a co-host in a conversational format with his friend, West Wing actor Josh Malina, pushed him to a different kind of performance, but he was clearly having fun.
Enjoyment does seem to be a primary motivator in his selection of projects. “I have to be just incredibly excited about the idea,” he says. “If I’m not excited enough to want to make the show, then I can’t expect anybody to be excited enough to listen to it.”
He’s also acutely aware of the opportunity cost of taking on each new thing. “I have to have this calculus of, well, I know it’s going to take time away from these other things. Other things being sleeping, or having any free time at all.”
Hirway’s knowledge as a working musician and songwriter is a key ingredient to making his guests feel comfortable and open up.
One project that met that bar was a quarantine cooking podcast he co-hosted with Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat author Samin Nosrat called Home Cooking. “I knew making a show with Samin was going to be a lot of fun,” Hirway says, “because we have so much fun talking to each other.”
Home Cooking is indeed a lot of fun to listen to. Samin is a fount of practical wisdom about what to do with whatever you happen to have in your fridge or pantry. This was particularly timely when they launched the show last March, with canned beans and pasta in short supply at many American supermarkets during the first stay at home orders. The easy rapport between the two and their guests was a salve at a time of social isolation.
It also turned out to be a tremendous amount of work. “We would record three to four hours of material to get to an hour-long episode of Home Cooking,” Hirway says. “I definitely obsessed over the structure and transitions to try and to make it feel like we were just hanging out.” He was aware that the show was fulfilling a practical need for people who were going to be doing a lot more cooking than usual. But he says they were also trying to “give a little bit of a feeling that there’s still something happy, there’s something fun, there’s something friendly and cozy in the listening experience, especially for people who are just stuck at home.”
The work of cooking and of writing music or producing podcasts is not all that different. Over time you discover what details are important and what steps you can easily skip. With Home Cooking, recording the conversations was clearly the fun part, but Hirway was left with a lot to clean up afterwards. He describes one situation where a conversation was punctuated by one of Samin’s long laughs. “Everybody finds her laughs so delightful, which it really is,” he says, “but I’m the one thinking, well, if I edit the end of this other laugh in, I can go from this laugh in a way that dovetails with this next part of the episode, while still feeling like it’s this fun thing that happened in the moment.”
Taking time back for passion
If we’re lucky, our creative work takes on a life of its own. Most artists struggle and fail to find an audience. Most startups never find product market fit. But the lucky ones are soon faced with another problem, how to deal with the outsize demands of their own success.
As 2020 crawled into 2021, Hirway realized it was time for a change. “I need to have fewer projects that are not my own music,” he concluded. A bunch of projects wrapped in 2020, and he said to himself, “Okay, I’m gonna take this year to try and recalibrate so that I can make room for the thing that got me here in the first place.”
He decided to dedicate one day a week, Fridays, to his own music and see what happens over the course of the year. “I used to think of my creativity as something that was just all around me and when inspiration struck, I could go and work on it,” he says. “But I realized from Song Exploder that the people I’m talking to often have an incredible amount of discipline in the work that they’re doing. And inspiration is not something that you can control.” His discipline as a songwriter, making time for his own work, positions him to be available to his own ideas. “At least it’s once a week,” he sighs, “as opposed to never a week.”