Nine Songs: Hrishikesh Hirway
After almost a decade away from music, Hrishikesh Hirway is making music again after side-hustle Song Exploder took over his life.
Among the best interview-based podcasts of our times, Song Exploder was directly born from the experiences Hirway went through as a musician. The One AM Radio – his first project – released four folktronica-tinged indie-rock long-players across the second half of the aughts but Hirway found himself jaded by the experience of doing press.
"Part of the reason why I started Song Exploder was because I was so frustrated about being an artist myself who was not big enough to get good interviews,” Hirway tells me over zoom, from the home of his friend and collaborator Jenny Owen Youngs. The quality of those interviews was also a factor: “Before Song Exploder, I used to have interviews that were just…. So what does your name mean? Can you describe your sound?"
The podcast hits its tenth birthday next year and helped shape an entire landscape for deep-dive music dissection - but its success meant less time for the now 43-year old Hirway to make and perform the kind of music he used to love. Finding a place for his first love during the pandemic, Hirway returns this month with a new EP of original music - his first body of personal work under his own name. Rooms I Used To Call My Own includes collaborations with a quality roster of artists, songwriters and producers including Yo-Yo Ma, Jay Som, Baths, Jenny Owen Youngs, Jimmy Tamborello (The Postal Service, Dntel), Jonathan Snipes (Clipping), and John Congleton (St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen).
In conversation, Hirway is an assuring mirror of his podcast paterfamilia. If you haven’t heard him on the Song Exploder audio series, maybe you caught the Netflix TV adaptation, or his other podcasts on food, The West Wing, or partnerships. It would be easy to call him a multi-hyphenate but he retains the air of someone still just very surprised that his DIY projects paid off.
Hirway’s choice of favourite songs that have marked the formative memories across his life are more significant than one might expect - they’re all game-changing moments for the Massachusetts-born presenter and musician, professionally and personally.
Hrishikesh Hirway: Yes, I first heard this song on a cassette tape they had. It was a collection of songs by the Bollywood music director O.P. Nayyar from a bunch of different movies of his, not restricted to one movie or one singer. When we'd be in the car together, I would always ask my parents to play that tape and this was one of the standouts for me.
I was listening to these songs with no context - I had not seen the movie. My family speaks Marathi, not Hindi – I mean, my parents can speak Hindi but the language that you’d consider to be my mother tongue is Marathi, and I spoke that sparingly at best.
I was drawn to it for the sound of it; the sound of her voice, the sound of the music and the feeling of nostalgia. This is song from 1965, from the movie Mere Sanam and I didn’t know what the story of the song was or the plot of the movie but I really loved the sound of Asha and the melody of the song. It was sweet and sad and whimsical and had some longing in it. It filled me with feelings that I didn't know how to articulate but I really loved and I found myself drawn to.
The mystery of a mixtape I think there's something so special about the idea of a mixtape, where the notes have been lost. Or you don't have the tracklisting anymore. I've been given mixtapes by friends and then somewhere along the way the packaging gets separated while the cassette stays in your tape deck. And then the actual cassette box goes missing, along with whatever the tracklist was.
I feel like we lost that for a while but in some ways, the way that people listen to just playlists has replaced that – they just subscribe and put it on in the background and they won't necessarily be like looking at every artist. You let yourself be subjected to whatever comes next. I guess it's like the radio in that regard - it's a radio station that you can go back to over and over again and you know what the order of the songs is going to be. You start to remember the space between the end of one song and the start of the next one is like part of the music.
Hrishikesh Hirway: I think I was 15 when I first heard Portishead on MTV. That was my first introduction, and I wasn't really sure about it. I remember thinking, 'Oh this is interesting'. They had that “Sour Times” music video, which was their single and I heard it on MTV. My family didn't actually have MTV, but I had access to it occasionally.
I worked in the school library and that was how I made some extra money. I remember using it to buy the Portishead CD. I think I went and listened to it at the listening station in the record store near my high school, and I got obsessed with it and listened to it every day and night… I studied to it and I went to sleep to it.
As as CD I would listen to it from start to finish, so I have a particular affection for the opening notes, just like like the space between the songs on a mixtape. My full memory of it is closing the lid on the CD player, hitting play, hearing the disc spin up and then hearing those opening notes - all those things are part of the music for me – and I was so drawn to how smokey and romantic and sad “Mysterons” was all at the same time.
Part of the reason why I chose this it is because I was confused by it as much as I loved it. I couldn't quite understand what I was hearing and how this was a new song? It sounded so old. I think similar to the Asha Bhosle stuff, I really loved how it sounded like it was from another era. Asha Bhosle’s stuff really was from another era but I knew it wasn't from the 1980s, which is when I was listening to it.
But this was the 90s when I was listening; I didn't understand exactly how sampling worked, and I didn't know what they did, what their process was – but I knew they were new songs.
I was a drummer in high school and I couldn't tell what was an instrument what was a sample. I became obsessed with trying to figure how do they make the drum sound like this?! Later, I think that kind of mystery was part of what got me excited about making Song Exploder too. Before that, I tried to incorporate those kinds of influences in my own music-making, that I'm still chasing after the unbelievable work that they did on this in this album.
I love having music that I was so in love with but I also couldn't wrap my head around. That combination made it feel like I was witnessing magic.
I only learned about that recently because there’s an episode of the 33 ⅓ podcast about it, that RZA is in. It’s like an hour-long masterclass in a comparative study between Wu Tang Clan and Portishead. It’s amazing, one of the podcast listening highlights of recent times for me. Prince Paul is the host of it and he knows RZA so well, so you have that element in podcasts that people love – which is that it feels like two old friends talking – but then you also get the thing that I also love in podcasts, which is some very deep insight or knowledge about how one makes music. So it’s basically RZA talking about his own process, with Prince Paul asking him questions, so it’s just these two guys who basically invented the sampling era of hip hop in the ‘90s, and they also talk about how their minds were blown by Portishead too.
Hrishikesh Hirway: This was when I was in college, and I remember my sister and I went to see that movie. I liked Radiohead at that point – I wouldn’t say I was a deep, deep fan of their’s but I liked The Bends and I thought there were songs on there that were incredibly beautiful. But the moment in Romeo + Juliet when “Talk Show Host” plays blew my mind.
What I really remember is hearing those guitar notes and then the drums of the song. The guitar felt very pretty and cinematic, but the drums? What was I hearing? It was incredible! The very next day I went to find the soundtrack for the movie because I didn’t know who had made the song. And then I found out that it was Radiohead, and I was like 'Oh my god. Radiohead might be my favourite band', just based on one song. Everything I understood about that band was insufficient just based on that one song. After hearing that, I had to reassess.
The other reason why I chose “Talk Show Host” is because I think it was the first moment where some part of my heart felt that I wanted to make the music that would appear in movies. And I didn't know what that meant yet. I didn't know how to achieve that or anything like that. But that was the moment where that feeling was born.
It’s a lot like hip–hop in that way too, you know?
Hrishikesh Hirway: I can't remember how I first got introduced to Karate but I was a fan and my band actually opened for them at one point when I was in college. And then a friend of mine said, “Hey, do you know that Jeff Farina from Karate also has this very quiet side project that he does, it's like, just guitars and singing.”
This was around the time that I was first starting to play solo. I was still playing drums in my band and stuff but I was also writing quieter songs on guitar and just starting to perform them as well. I was intrigued and I had my friend lend me the CD and I loved it.
I actually got the chance to open for Secret Stars at a show in Connecticut. A guy who has now become a very dear friend – but at the time I only kind of knew – was a promoter and he was booking a show for Secret Stars. He needed a local opener and he asked me. “I know you've been playing these quiet songs, do you want to come play them?” And I was like, yes, absolutely! I was so excited to play any show at all, frankly, but with this band especially.
One of the reasons why I wanted to mention this as a significant song for me is because of that show. The other person on the bill, the person who was touring with them, was Ted Leo, who was also playing solo. After I finished my set, and when the night was over, Ted Leo came up to me and he was like, “Hey, do you have your songs? Is there something I can buy? A CD or a tape or seven inch or whatever?” I had this one CD, but it was the band that I played drums in. “What about the stuff that you played tonight?” And I was like, "No: I don't have anything. He said, “Well, if you’re ever in Boston, I live in Boston, so if you ever want to, if you're ever coming through there, hit me up. I would love to record some of your songs, and you could have a recording.”
And I was like “Actually, I'm from outside of Boston and I'm going to be home from college on spring break in a month.” And he said, “Great come over and let's record a couple of songs.” And so I went to his house, and the very first thing that came out as The One AM Radio were these two songs that Ted Leo recorded. And they came out as a split seven inch with Ted Leo. He gave me two songs of his and we put them on on the other side, so the first seven inch that I ever put out was because of that, because of my love for Secret Stars.
Hrishikesh Hirway: This song meant a lot to me and is actually part of the Song Exploder origin story as well. I first started listening to The Roots in high school and I really liked them, but when this record came out, I was like: I have to change, I have to consider them in a brand new way. They had levelled up by several degrees with this record, and especially with the way that it sounded. It had so much depth to it conceptually, but there's a moment – a drum sound specifically in “Double Trouble” – that I sometimes talk about as being one of the original inspirations for Song Exploder.
The song starts off and Questlove is playing drums and it sounds kind of like his live drum sound. And then part way through, there’s the Mos Def verse and it changes into that breakbeat sound. In the liner notes for Things Fall Apart, Questlove wrote about how he’d been after that sound for a really long time. And finally, after many attempts he achieved it for the first time on this song.
That creative problem, and the solution – whatever he had done to get that – not only did I love the result of that and the song, I felt like there was a story there that I thought was really interesting. I mean, selfishly, I just wanted the answer because I wanted to make my drums sound like that – I guess half of these songs I’ve chosen are about the drums – but as a person who was a live drummer, all I wanted was for my drums to sound like drum samples.
But he did it! Whatever that quandary – like the one that originated with listening to Portishead – he figured out how to do his version of that. So it was pretty exciting. And that feeling kind of lingered with me for 14 years until I started Song Exploder.
Yeah, I mean just teach me!!
Yeah definitely. I mean, that was all I pretty much listened. There was Indian music when I was a kid, and then my sister got me whatever Top 40 stuff was on the radio, but in middle school, it kind of switched to gangsta rap and heavy metal. Eventually I found punk rock, which kind of synthesised the things that I was really most excited about in both rap and metal. And then I discovered Portishead, and that blew everything open.
Hrishikesh Hirway: The first time I ever heard of him or that song was through Limewire, which was incredible because it was such a chaotic way of finding music. It actually led to a lot of great music discovery though despite the fact that things were mislabeled and of varying quality. After I graduated from college, I remember being on Limewire and I was looking for new music from a woman who I’d gone to school with named Mia Doi Todd. She was a senior when I was a freshman and she was just incredible, I loved her music and I feel like everybody in the school had a big crush on her. Her music was very ethereal; her voice was haunting and her songs were beautiful. She just played guitar and sang and I really admired her.
Later, after she graduated, she would come back to school and I would set up shows for her and get to open for her, so she was an early hero of mine. But because she’d graduated school and the Internet was still a relatively new thing back then, I didn't know how to keep up with what she was doing. And I remember one day thinking, “I wonder if there's more music by Mia Doi Todd out there?” And so I searched for more music and this track came up because it featured her voice. I downloaded it and I listened to it, and not only did I get what I wanted in terms of getting to hear a new song, sung in her beautiful voice, I got to hear this electronic music that somehow gave me the same feeling as the Secret Stars song, or Nick Drake… you know, this acoustic music that I love - the sad, beautiful folk music that I was really, really excited about and trying to play myself.
Dntel gave me that kind of feeling, even though it was entirely wrapped in electronics, and electronic production. My interest in drum machines and sampling meant that I was starting to try and learn about some of that stuff too. I'd just gotten my first digital eight-track and a drum machine and I was experimenting with production for the first time. This was another song that left me feeling like: how do you do this? How do you use these ingredients and come out with that as the final product?
And so then I became an instant fan of Dntel, and started to look for his music wherever I could. I learned that he lived in Los Angeles, and I was at that time planning to move there. Part of the reason why I wanted to move to LA was to try and figure out a way to answer the question of how do I make music that's going to end up in movies? And I’d realised that to do that you have to be in LA. I didn't know anybody there, it’s very far from where I grew up, and it felt a little bit scary. But learning that Dntel was also based there, and about Plug Research, the label that his record came out on, and about Daedelus, another artist I really loved who was there… It felt like there was something happening in LA in the electronic, and sort of hip hop-adjacent scene, that felt really exciting to me. And while it didn’t sound like the music I was making then, it did sound like the music of my dreams – so I needed to go there.
I ended up meeting all those guys, about a year into living there. I remember there was a day in 2004 where I went to see Jimmy [Dntel] DJing a night of sad songs - they were playing artists like Nina Simone - and he played one of my songs in his set. We’d already met but I still hadn't really had a real conversation with him. You know, he's a really quiet guy but I took that as an opening and so that after that show I talked to him some more, thanked him for playing my song and told him how much he meant to me.
Over the years we slowly became friends, and then in 2011 we toured together and we became quite close on that trip. When I started Song Exploder he was the first person that I went to, to try and see if he would allow me to talk to him, because he was somebody who I had been a fan of at that point for over a decade. He was somebody whose music-making process was still quite mysterious to me, and I was hoping to learn some things about it and about him and the way he thought about the world and about music.
The song that came out today [“Stillness”]; Jimmy worked on it for me. That was such a dream come true to be able to actually make music with him.
Hrishikesh Hirway: I think everybody in the summer of 2007 knew "1234" because Feist had that song on the Apple commercial but I knew Feist before that, because I was living in LA and giving guitar lessons to someone who wanted to learn an earlier song of hers. But for me this song represents the time in my life when I met my wife. It was September of 2007, right after a One AM Radio tour ended, and I was in New York for a little while and we'd already met and I'd come back to visit her for a week. I was living in LA and she was living in New York and she had to go to work, and she left me alone in her apartment.
I think she put the Feist album on in the morning and then left for work. I was in her place, among her stuff, listening to this record and being around this person who would be my future wife. It just felt like a really special way of getting to know her – just the fact that it was my first time listening to the whole album. In that context, those memories became permanently imprinted onto that record, into that time and that place and that person. Years later, when we got married, we put “Brandy Alexander” onto a playlist as one of our wedding songs.
Hrishikesh Hirway: This is actually from the movie Short Term 12 - it’s a part of the story, it’s not a song from the soundtrack. It's a scene in the film, where the character that LaKeith plays has written the song and he plays it for someone. That moment in the film blew me away – it's an incredibly effective moment in the story, which is about this long-term foster care home and LaKeith’s character is somebody who is ageing out of it; he's about to turn 18 and he has to move out. He writes this song about the abuse he’d encountered as a young kid that had gotten him into foster care.
It was heart wrenching, but he was incredible in his performance both as an actor and as a rapper. I saw it for the first time at South by Southwest when the film premiered with a Q&A with the director and the cast. I asked about that song: "Where did that come from? Who wrote that?" I couldn't reconcile how the screenwriter and director Destin Cretton - who is an amazing writer - could write like that? And he was like, “Oh, let LaKeith answer that one”. And LaKeith explained, “Destin told me what the outline of the story was, and what was going to happen at the moment, and that he gave me the chance to write this piece for it.”
After the Q&A, I found LaKeith and asked him, “Is that something else that you do you? Do you have other songs? Do you put out records? Do you have an artist name or whatever?” He said, “No, not really… there’s me and my brother and we sometimes upload stuff to YouTube, we find beats on YouTube and we rap over them.”
And I said, “I think the sound of your voice would go really well with the music that I make. Would you ever be interested in letting me send you some tracks for you to potentially write to and you can do whatever you want with them, but I just I feel like there could be some chemistry between the way you rap and the music that I make.” He said "Yes, sure," and gave me his email address. I sent him some instrumentals and I gave him a One AM Radio CD as well – the Heaven Is Attached By A Slender Thread album from 2007 - and he wrote back and we started exchanging emails and he told me he loved the music.
We got together in that spring and early summer of 2013 and then one day while we were recording, I asked him, “What do you want to do with this?” And he was like, “Let's be a band, let's do this a duo.” And that’s how Moors started.
Hrishikesh Hirway: I agree, I think this is my favourite Billie Eilish song and the interview that she and Finneas gave was really moving for me. It's a song about a relationship between a brother and a sister, and my sister and I are really close. And the fact that they wrote a song about their relationship, but woven into the music is the part of the relationship that’s about making music together.
It’s one of my favourite episodes of the podcast, and while I was working on it there were a few moments when I choked up, even though I was listening to the tape for the 16th time and putting it together and thinking about it in a critical way, I couldn't help but getting affected by it emotionally.
I called my sister while I was working on the episode to play her a part where Finneas says, “Some people say, ‘Oh, Finneas is more than Billie Eilish’s brother’,” and he said to me,”the thing is, that's all I ever need to be!” It got me really emotional, you know, he's like: “I don't need to be anything more than that.”
A few hours after talking to Finneas, my sister called me to tell me that something was wrong - and that there was an ambulance called to my dad's place. I remember asking her, “Is everything okay?” And she said no – which she never says, she's a very optimistic person. This was on a Monday - and on that night, my mom passed away - and that episode was supposed to come out on the Wednesday.
So I had to stop working on the episode, after I spoke to my sister. I came into the house, and I was on the phone with her and my dad and on FaceTime with them for the next couple hours, as my mom was taken to hospital, and I was with them when the doctor came into the room and told them that she had passed away.
I immediately booked a plane ticket to go back to the East Coast. It was a red eye, and there was no way I was going to sleep so I spent the whole night on the plane finishing off that episode. And it was already an episode that was making me emotional and so that song and the pieces of that story around it are imprinted on my life in that moment. It was part of the first stage of me grieving my mom. It ended up taking on a significance more than any other episode ever possibly could, outside of the confines of what the show ever could be.
I remember Finneas and I had exchanged a few messages already at that point – I had asked him for a few extra files to use in the episode – and he wrote me a nice note after the episode came out. I told him, “I don't mean to, you know, be too much about this, but this is what happened, and I really appreciated having this song and the protective spirit of it with me in those moments.”
I think at some level, having that kind of experience of music, and talking about music and thinking about music and family relationships, it laid the groundwork a few weeks later for me writing the first song for this EP “Between There and Here”, about my mom. I don't know that I would have gotten there if it hadn't been for this experience.
There was for a long time, I felt like for it to be “real”, you had to do everything yourself. Or the more you did yourself, the more of an artist you were. The first real collaboration that I had was with LaKeith, where I wrote the music, he wrote the lyrics, and we worked together to figure out what those were going to become. Sometimes the lyrics came first, sometimes the music came first, but we started with raw ingredients separately and then we shaped them into songs together. It was really meaningful and an exciting new way of working for me.
But somehow it felt different - like these weren’t my songs, they were for a qualitatively different project. But I basically got stuck and couldn't write songs at all, I had really deep writer's block for many years. I think it took making the podcast Partners, as well as so many episodes of Song Exploder that featured these really close and meaningful collaborations for me to get it through my own thick skull that this could be another way of working, and maybe it could lead to to opening a door that I thought I had locked myself behind.
But I didn't really know how to do it - it was like I was sort of trying it on for the first time. My friend Jenny Owen Youngs is the person who helped unlock that door for me, because here’s somebody who freely collaborates with a lot of people and a lot of other songwriters. And she's extremely prolific, which is another thing that I'm not, and so she asked me about writing a song with her - kind of like, it wasn't a big deal for her, whereas for me, it was a very big deal. That fact gave room for me to be able to go into it, even with all of my trepidation. It was so wonderful that I wanted to try it some more, and so we started writing songs to get more songs together, including half of the songs on the EP.
For a long time, the biggest question of all for me was "Can I ever make music again?" And I feel like I got to answer that. I don't know how much more there is but I'd like to keep going. The fact that any music happened at all really give me the chance to rethink what doors were closed to me.
So I'd like to think that like that time of my life – when I couldn't make music anymore – is over. What the consequences of that music are, I'm less concerned about, it's more just about being able to have it in my life again. It’s been really meaningful and gratifying.