#89: Hrishikesh Hirway [Willfulness] – From full-time musician to Song Exploder and back again

January 25, 2022

#89: Hrishikesh Hirway [Willfulness] – From full-time musician to Song Exploder and back again
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Hrishikesh Hirway is a musician and podcast creator. He’s the host and creator of Song Exploder, an award-winning podcast and a Netflix original television series, where musicians break down the creative process behind their songs.

Hrishikesh Hirway is a musician and podcast creator. He’s the host and creator of Song Exploder, an award-winning podcast and a Netflix original television series, where musicians break down the creative process behind their songs. Vulture called Song Exploder “probably the best use of the podcast format ever.” 

As a musician, he’s released four albums under the moniker The One AM Radio, and an EP with Moors, his project with Lakeith Stanfield.

Fast Company named him one of the Most Creative People in Business in 2021. He serves the Library of Congress as an advisor on digital strategy. He gave a TED Talk on how to listen to people to connect more deeply with them and their stories.

In this episode, we talk about Hrishikesh’s journey as a musician, the disappointing album that led to starting Song Exploder, how he landed a series on Netflix, and how his Willfulness helped him rediscover his passion for creating his own music.

Learn more about Hrishikesh Hirway

Learn more about Song Exploder

Listen to Hrishikesh's new music

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Hrishikesh Hirway  00:00

For a long time, it felt like there was just no way for me to make music again. But I don't think that I would have gotten back to making music if it weren't for the fact that I talked to so many musicians about their process. And a big thing that people talk to me about that was kind of new for me was how collaborative they were.


Jay Clouse  00:19

Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show. Hello, welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. You know, I spent a lot of time this week exploring the question, what would it look like to dedicate even more time to this show? I have the time now and as the show becomes more popular, it's also in my best interest to find new ways to make Creative Elements better and better. It's a really rewarding and exciting place to be. And I have a few ideas, but I'd love to hear your ideas too. Are there certain guests that you want to hear from? Do you like hearing from more established creators or the up and comers? Do you like the solo episodes? What if I recorded video with my interviews? I'm super open to your thoughts and feedback so just send me a message to the website, @creativeelements.fm on Instagram or on Twitter. When I was first putting the show together, I made a list of guests that I'd love to interview on the show at some point. One of the first names that I put down if not the first name was Hrishikesh Hirway, and I'm so excited to share today's episode with the man himself. If you don't recognize Hrishikesh's name, you may recognize his work.


Hrishikesh Hirway  01:48

You're listening to Song Exploder, where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece tell the story of how they were made. My name is Hrishikesh Hirway.


Jay Clouse  01:57

Song Exploder is part of Radiotopia, a network of independent podcasts. And it's probably my favorite podcast of all time. The episodes are usually 20 minutes or less, incredibly well produced and deconstruct one individual song per episode. It's this beautiful listening experience where you hear all the backstory of a song, the decisions and breakthroughs made in the creative process, isolated bits of vocals and instrumentation. And each episode ends by playing the song in its entirety.


Hrishikesh Hirway  02:27

I thought it would be neat to have a show where a musician could do a kind of show and tell of their work. They could say, this is how I did it and this is what it sounds like when he listened to it on its own. And then you get a different sense of the song than you would as a listener, even as somebody who loves the song and listens to it many, many times. You just hear something different when you get to hear it that way.


Jay Clouse  02:49

It's an incredible show and it's not just me saying that. It was named the Best of iTunes in 2015. It was called probably the best use of the podcast format ever by Vulture and Cortes called it possibly the most perfect podcast. Over the years, he's interviewed Billie Eilish, U2, Metallica, Fleetwood Mac, Sheryl Crow, and many, many more. And the format has stayed remarkably consistent since 2013 when Hrishikesh conducted his first interview.


Hrishikesh Hirway  03:19

In March of 2013, The Postal Service was just getting ready to do their 10th anniversary tour of their their first album, well, their only album, and my friend Jimmy Tamborello is in that band, he makes music as dentelle and he's half of the Postal Service. And he and I had gone on tour in 2011. And so I asked him, if he would let me come interview him, knowing that he was working on these songs that this anniversary was coming up. And he said, yeah. The Postal Service was formed by Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard in 2002. They lived in different cities, and would mail recordings back and forth between Seattle and Los Angeles. They only made one record, Give Up, but it sold over a million copies. It's considered a landmark album for the way combine indie rock and electronic elements. In this episode, Jimmy Tamborello breaks down The Postal Service song, The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.


Jay Clouse  04:22

And the rest is kind of history. The show has been running since 2014. In 2020, the show expanded into an eight episode Netflix series interviewing guests, including Lin Manuel Miranda, Alicia Keys, R.E.M., Dua Lipa, and Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. That television series is one of the most impressive pieces of media that I've ever seen. Not only are the interviews in song deconstructions incredible, but they used animation and illustration in this incredibly complimentary way. If you haven't watched it, please take some time this week to check it out. I promise it will be well worth it. But before all of this, before Song Exploder, Hrishikesh was a full time musician.


Hrishikesh Hirway  05:03

The first thing that I ever put out like the first CD I ever put out was a band that I played drums in and sang and wrote songs. But The One AM Radio was the thing that I started doing when I was a senior in college and continued, you know, for another 12 years after that, well really, it basically continued up until a couple months ago, when I put out new music and for the first time, instead of putting it out under The One AM Radio, I put it out under my own name.


Jay Clouse  05:58

So in this episode, we talk about Hrishikesh's journey as a musician, how his failed expectations for an album led to starting Song Exploder, how he landed a series on Netflix, and how his willfulness helped him rediscover his passion for creating his own music. And in true Song Exploder fashion, at the end of this episode, I'll play Hrishikesh's newest song Home, in its entirety. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen, you can find me on Twitter @jayclouse or on Instagram @creative elements.fm tag me, say hello, let me know that you're listening. And now, let's talk to Hrishikesh.


Hrishikesh Hirway  06:37

I started playing music when I was a kid, it was only really, after I graduated from college, that I think I had this thought that I want to be a musician professionally, not because my interest in it had changed. In college, I was very serious about music. It was basically the thing that I unofficially majored in, you know, was playing shows and being in a band and putting out records, my friends and I started a record label. And I tried to do it to the, I guess, the most serious degree I could. But I did not know a single person who did that as a job. I didn't know what that would even be like, there were bands that I loved, that had careers. But it felt like something I couldn't really fathom, you know, there, there was some opaque wall between that thing that I enjoyed, and then something that I could do myself. Then it was only after I finished school and started work and started touring, you know, in that context, where I took time off of my job and went out for a few weeks, I came back from from a tour early on. And after that, I was like, okay, no, I could see this could be my job, maybe, or at least I would like like it to be. So what can I do to try and make that happen? That was when this sort of ratio switched in my head only in my head, I went from saying, oh, I'm going to have a job. And I will do music where I can to music is my job. And I will do whatever I need to where I have to in order to make that a reality.


Jay Clouse  08:11

What a great reframe. And that applies to so many people with their passion projects. I love that.


Hrishikesh Hirway  08:16

Yeah, even though the next day, nothing had changed. And I still had to go to my job and do as much work. And you know, I had enough as the same amount of room for music in my life. It was just a mental switch. And I basically haven't looked back from there.


Jay Clouse  08:32

So when you were in the band, and when you made this mental switch, did you assume that it was going to be a future with that band, with those people?


Hrishikesh Hirway  08:41

Well, so band is maybe a misnomer. It was a project called The One AM Radio, but it's just me, it's like a solo project. And sometimes other people would come and play with me, accompanying me on different instruments but it was my project.


Jay Clouse  08:54

Well, talk to me about this decision to start The One AM Radio because I would imagine like in the dynamic of a band, if you want to take this seriously as your job, you're also like signing up those people that have the same aspiration, which is just so tough, right? Is that is that part of what drove you to do in the solo act?


Hrishikesh Hirway  09:11

Well, I was doing the solo thing in college already. But it was, even though it wasn't in a professional context, there was some element of like, imagining it as something that I didn't have to obligate anyone else into, you know, I could just play a show when I wanted to play a show, go make a record the way I wanted to make a record. It just felt like there was some more freedom but also the music that I was making was, you know, solo music basically I was playing guitar and singing and that was what the most of it was based around there were some other like electronic elements and things here and there. But really at its core, it was like a singer songwriter project. So it kind of worked out where like the form and the function kind of were married for it to just be me.


Jay Clouse  09:53

What are some of the trade offs that you have to make to go from full band to solo act where in the recorded version you're doing different instrumentation. Like, I'm assuming you have some tracks where you're doing drums too, right?


Hrishikesh Hirway  10:05



Jay Clouse  10:05

And you can't do all these things simultaneously on stage as one individual, right? So what are some of the other things that are like the trade offs of doing a one man show?


Hrishikesh Hirway  10:13

Well, I realized that I had to just think of these two versions of the music separately, that there was a recording that I would make and then there was a live version. So many times with a band, you know, a recording is a faithful capture of what they sound like when they play a song. But I got really interested in music that was, you know, outside of the world of live music. A lot of music that where I just was like, I don't know what that sound is, I don't know how they're doing it. It's clearly not something that like any real instrument is making. And I got into a lot of electronic music. You know, I I fell in love with DJ Shadow's record introducing, when I was in high school and Portishead, and there are all these artists, then that I got excited about where it felt like, the studio. Not that it was a studio for me, it was a bedroom, but you know, but like, the world of recording was where the song kind of got created. And then when you go to play it live, it's more like a, you're kind of doing a cover version of your own song.


Jay Clouse  11:21

It's interesting, I never thought of it that way of like, covering your own music, performance is really interesting. I've been thinking about just like the act of performance a lot more recently, music, obviously one form of it, but even like, going on a zoom call and being like, this is what needs to happen and this is who I need to be on this call, like, performance is such an interesting mode to step into, and even design for and I don't think a lot of people like design for the performative versions of their thing.


Hrishikesh Hirway  11:49

No, I think they're completely different abilities and instincts. Honestly, performance is not one of my strong suits. I think of myself as being through of an editor more instinctively than a performer. So that might be why I, well, I know, that's why I really enjoy the act of making the song in the recorded version because you can just sort of futz around with things, change things, reimagine it until you feel like you've gotten it right. Whereas in a live performance, it's just, it's happening. It's happening now and now it's over, and that's what it was. And some people really thrive in that context and really crave it but that's not me.


Jay Clouse  12:31

If someone forces you into a corner and says, like, tell me what you are. Do you think of yourself as a podcaster, as a producer, as an artist?


Hrishikesh Hirway  12:41

I would say I'm a musician.


Jay Clouse  12:42

Love that. And has that been the case since you made that reframe in your mind of this is what I'm going to be doing full time?


Hrishikesh Hirway  12:49

Yeah, even before that reframe that's how I thought of myself was I'm a musician. And I just didn't know and what kind of capacity or how legitimately I was that. And then I was like, okay, no, this is what I'm going to do for my living. This is what I want to be. And yeah, since then, that's how I've thought of myself. I do a lot of other things. But, but I think, if I had to pick a core identity, that's what I would say,


Jay Clouse  13:15

What does like the makeup of your time these days look like?


Hrishikesh Hirway  13:20

Well, right now, I'm working on a few different podcasts. I have the Song Exploder podcast that I've been doing since 2014 and that is constantly running. It's basically an episode every two weeks. So I'm always in some stage of pre production or production on at least one or two, and sometimes three episodes of that show. And then I'm also working on another podcast called Partners. I'm working on the second season of that show, the first season came out last year. And I have this Patreon project that I just started with my old western weekly podcast co host. So at the moment during the week, I kind of have been dividing my time, kind of haphazardly, between all those things. And then Fridays, I put all of those aside and I just work on music.


Jay Clouse  14:10

Is that so in your mind, are they all like a relatively equal dedication of time when they need it or is there one that's like an outlier of this is way more time or way less time?


Hrishikesh Hirway  14:20

Well, I think Song Exploder probably takes the most time just because it's always there, because it's constant. And then the other ones kind of spike and had been flow depending on what attention they need. Right now, Partners is taking up a bunch of time just because I'm in the midst of editing. I've done a bunch of the interviews already. And now I have to turn those interviews into episodes. But I also still have one more episode to record. So there's that's another one where there's pre production, production kind of all happening at the same time. I'm a bit of a procrastinator so usually it's the thing that where the deadline is fastest approaching. That's the one is getting the most attention.


Jay Clouse  15:02

Relatable. After a quick break, we dive right into the history of Song Exploder and how it became the hit that it is today. And later we dig into how the podcast became a television series on Netflix. So stick around and we'll be right back. Welcome back to my conversation with Hrishikesh Hirway. Before the break, Hrishikesh told us that after college, he was focused on music full time, but things weren't exactly going to plan. And he began to explore other ideas.


Hrishikesh Hirway  15:31

In January 2013, I was thinking, okay, it's a new year. And at that time, I was about two years out from last album that I'd released as The One AM Radio. That was my fourth album. And I had a lot of hopes for that album, I was really, our expectations, I guess, you know, I was trying to do something, you know, it had more of a budget than any record I'd ever done before. The first couple of records I had made were entirely on my own, in my bedroom, there was no budget, it was just my time, basically. But this was one that was more ambitious. And I was, I guess, I had expectations because of how ambitious the record was. And I felt like what happened, the result of those records didn't really live up to those expectations. And so I thought, okay, I need to take a break from this for a second, I can't just jump right back into trying to make the next record, because I don't want to fall into the same thing. And it taken me three and a half years to make that record. And, you know, I don't make records quickly, I'd made four records between 2001 and 2011. So I was a little nervous about getting back into it. The other thing that I was trying to do, the other reason why I moved to LA was because I also wanted to score films. And in 2013, I scored one film that had gone to Sundance and I had scored a second film that was about to go to South by Southwest. And I was like, okay, maybe this is what my trajectory is going to turn towards, I'm going to start doing more film scoring. I still wanted to make music as The One AM Radio and all that. But I just I felt like, this was a year where I needed to figure things out, because I didn't want to just keep going for the way I had. So I made a decision that I was going to open myself up to new ideas in a way that I hadn't in the past decade. I had really felt like I had to be relentless about my life as a musician and pursuing this goal, you know, relentlessly because I didn't know how to do it. I had to figure everything out myself and no one was really going to help me so I always felt like I could never be distracted from it. You know, my parents were like, why don't you try going to grad school? Why don't you, you know, and I was like, no, I cannot take that time off. I have to just keep trying to make it. So in 2013, I thought, okay, well, maybe I'll I'll try some ideas that I've been kicking around in my head, maybe I'll try something different. And there were a bunch of different things that kind of opened up that year, once I opened the door to doing something other than just The One AM Radio. I sold a pilot for a TV show and I started a new band. You know, it was a hip hop project that I was the producer in and I started Song Exploder in a pilot form, it was called Deconstructed at a different different name. So the concept for the show in my head before I went to do this interview was I think there should be a podcast where musicians get to share the isolated parts of their work. Because it's something that defines for me how I make music, you know, I have to turn everything off except for this one element and figure out, what's the mix for this going to be or what's the right sound? Or what's the right combination of sounds for you know, say just the drums? Or how am I going to mix these two guitar parts, both musically and sonically, and things like that, when you're doing that, you figure out things about the song that are working and how that works with the other pieces of the song. But that's a part of the process that's kind of hidden from most people and hearing a song in that way is also hidden from listeners. So in March of 2013, I went and recorded the first interview for the show.


Jimmy Tamborello  19:14

Hi, my name is Jimmy Tamborello from The Postal Service. Post Service was a project that I did back in 2000 to 2003 with a friend Ben Gibbard, who was also the singer for Death Cab for Cutie.


Hrishikesh Hirway  19:29

I went over to his house where he was getting ready for the tour. He had all sort of the disassembled pieces of the song. He was trying to figure out how to turn it into what their live version of the song was going to be so he had like samples from the song.


Jay Clouse  19:42

Oh wow.


Hrishikesh Hirway  19:42

Things like that.


Jimmy Tamborello  19:43

So if I saw just the drums this is what it sounds like. In addition to me and Ben, we also had Jen Wood and Jenny Lewis do some some additional vocals on the record.


Hrishikesh Hirway  20:21

So I asked him how he made it and what the story of that song was. And he played me things on his computer. And then I took the different samples that he played me and I took the hour long interview that we did, and I went home and I tried to edit it into something and came up with, you know, an 11 minute episode that I called the pilot episode of Deconstructed.


Jay Clouse  20:44

I remember, I think it was probably close to 2014, maybe like, 2015, 2016 when somebody told me about Song Exploder the first time and I looked at the episodes, and I thought, I don't know any this music, I'm not gonna listen. And then I did anyway. And what I figured out was, by listening to a song and artist talk about it, even if you hadn't heard of that song or that artist, it builds a deeper appreciation for both. Like, it got me interested in new music because of that. And it was just this magical thing. So you had this concept, it sounds like the concept has been pretty much rock solid for the history of the show. But you talked to Jimmy Tamborello in March of 2013. And


Hrishikesh Hirway  21:24



Jay Clouse  21:25

I think you released that episode in January of 2014. So talk to me about the 10 months in between.


Hrishikesh Hirway  21:30

One of the other things that was happening at that time was, I had now become a full time musician, that was my job. Since about 2007 or so I was making my living from music. But doing that puts a different kind of pressure on the way that I worked. I had to think about this thing that I'd gotten into because of loving it, because of a creative passion for it, I had to think about it now as a source of income and, you know, as a business strategy. And I think that was that was part of where the ambition behind that record came from. And part of its ambition was to make something that could potentially give, you know, make my career bigger, but also like, let me make a living in a more comfortable way. And so part of that disappointment was also the idea that was like, okay, well, it didn't really happen, you know, that there were a few things that happened that were nice, and but it didn't feel, the main thing was it didn't feel sustainable. You know, I had some songs in TV shows, I had some song, you know, I saw some songs in like commercials and things like that. And when those happen, they feel like windfalls and they can, and I'm very good at living very frugally, and I have, you know, for years, that's how I basically made it work as a musician. And so I could stretch a moment like that out into many months of month to month living. But it was so unstable, and so scary at times, that I felt like, okay, something needs to change. And it wasn't even that I was like, oh, I I'm trying to be rich or something like that. Just I just wanted some sense of security that, okay, in the next three months, I will be able to pay my bills for three months, as opposed to I can this month and next month and then the month after that, who knows could be there was just kind of a feast or famine kind of feeling well, not even a feast was more like, you know, a meal or not no meal. So part of the impetus for Song Exploder was also wanting to create a stable income for myself out of something that I knew how to do and something that I would enjoy. And I thought this could be a show that I could make. And I could maybe pitch it as like branded content. I wasn't even thinking of the term podcast at that point. I only listened to a couple of podcasts. But you know, branded content was a phrase that was in my world, somewhat mostly about video stuff. But I thought, here's something where I could imagine some brands saying, yeah, we want to put this out, we want to put our name on it, and we want to publish it and I could make it and they would pay me for it. So that was the idea. And so in between March and January, that was kind of my hustle. I was going around looking for someone who would want to pick the show up basically as some kind of series that they would pay for. And I could make it you know, semi regularly and have a day job again, that I do part time that sustains things while buffering, you know, while protecting me from the vicissitudes of a musician's life living.


Jay Clouse  24:48

And so interesting, I had no idea how intertwined the podcasts and your musician career at this period was so I'm gonna kind of ping pong back and forth here. When you say you were making a living as a musician, help me expand my understanding of the avenues that you can make a living as a musician, sounds like you were doing some music licensing to TV shows commercials, was that primarily where that income was coming from?


Hrishikesh Hirway  25:12

That was where some income came from but then also touring. I was, you know, I toured a bunch. And I'd gotten to the point where touring was no longer a money losing proposition. And I also I produced some records for other artists. And I would do remixes and things like that. And then you sell merch and records and stuff like that. So there's a few different ways of making income. And there are other ways beyond that, as well. But those were the ones that I was sort of pursuing in 2011, 2012. And they were kind of few and far between in terms of the opportunities, what it felt like to me was, I was just trying to have an existence in this sort of like middle class or like lower middle class musicians, something that felt like a sustainable living. And it was just too unpredictable to have that to, you know, even to just to guarantee, you know, okay, I'm gonna, I know, I'm going to make, you know, $30,000 as my salary, I'll be able to pay my taxes and pay my rent all that stuff.


Jay Clouse  26:19

And were you on a label at the time, because you mentioned that this, this third album had more of a budget than the first two. Did that come from another entity or that come from, like the proceeds of touring?


Hrishikesh Hirway  26:28

Yeah, so this is actually my fourth album in 2011. And that album and the previous album had both been on a label. So they, you know, they gave me an advance for the record, but then it's recoupable against that advance. And the advance is really mostly to cover the cost of recording the album, it's not really something you could live on or at least not in my situation. So yeah, I had to try and be a little bit inventive about ways to make money around that, while still having enough room to be a musician all the time. And I did, it didn't quite hadn't quite figured it out. And, you know, in the age of streaming and in that those days, you know, it was kind of a different era of streaming than we're in now. But it was post Napster and essentially, a band of the level of popularity or an artist of the level of popularity that I was at, you know, maybe 15 years ago, could have made a modest living, could have been like, yeah, this is what I do and this is how I pay my bills. But, um, but CD sales just sort of bottomed out. And so the equivalent size artists, you know, that I was at, meant like, yeah, who knows, you might get lucky with a TV license and be okay for the next couple months or you might not.


Jay Clouse  27:43

It sounds like it could be so frustrating. I talked to a lot of creators who like, they found some level of success, where it's like, encouraging, like, this is going to work, but then they kind of like feel stuck there for a while. And it's like, okay, but what gets me to the next step, like what is the next right thing for me to do? Where you in a zone kind of like that?


Hrishikesh Hirway  28:03

You know, with all of the albums that I was putting out, I did try and feel like, okay, what's the next step? How do I get to the next level? But one of the things that became clear was just how little control I had over my own destiny in that way. I mean, creatively, I could try and make the best record and to do better as an artist from record to record and year to year. But there was no guarantee that that would translate into anything pragmatically, practically or financially. So, I was looking for a way to take a little bit of control of my own, you know, ability to pay rent, but do it in a way that still felt like it was fulfilling or interesting to me, and still connected to all the things that I did. And I liked the idea of like making something myself, as opposed to going out and trying to get a job where if I had to go to an office every day, it might limit the possibility of when I did have a song that I wanted to work on or something like that, would I be able to go and get into the studio or you know, which was just in my house, but like, go sit down and write a song or something like that I wanted to be able to have the flexibility of something that was my own.


Jay Clouse  29:16

When we come back, we talk about a couple of big breaks that help Song Exploder take off and how he pushed beyond his comfort zone to bring the show to Netflix. Right after this. Hey, welcome back. Before the break, Hrishikesh told us about his original vision for the podcast, which he called Deconstructed. He thought the show might be able to be successful as branded content. But that wasn't really playing out either.


Hrishikesh Hirway  29:41

Well, it was pretty much nine months of being told no. And refusing to let go of the idea that I thought it was gonna be viable. A lot of places at that time, we just weren't interested in audio. Nowadays, I feel like so many brands are putting money into podcasts and starting their own podcasts and things like that. But back then it definitely was not the case. But I felt like there was a show that people would find interesting if I could, if I could just put it out regularly. So I made a decision that I was going to do it for a year. And I would, I would put out one episode every two weeks for a year. And that at the end of that year, if nothing came of it, if it didn't feel like it was going to do the thing that I wanted it to do, then I would just wrap it up, and it would be an experiment. And it would be an interesting experiment and that's it. So that was how I set out to just do it as a podcast without some, you know, some patron backing it.


Jay Clouse  30:43

And did it take the end of that full year for you to say like, yep, definitely something here or did something happen along the way?


Hrishikesh Hirway  30:50

What happened was in June of that year, there's another podcast, 99% Invisible, and Roman Mars who makes that podcast, he asked me if he could run a an episode of Song Exploder one week while they were having, they would normally run a rerun. They were going to go on break. And he said, you know, could we do an episode of Song Exploder instead? And he's like, this will be a way for me to introduce your show to our audience and his audience is huge.


Jay Clouse  31:18

Yeah. Wow.


Hrishikesh Hirway  31:20

So I said, yeah, that would be fantastic. And he did a little interview with me, we talked a little bit about the making of that first episode, and what the concept of Song Exploder was, and then he played an episode, one of his favorite episodes. At that point, there were only you know, 12 episodes. But he played one of his favorite episodes, which was about the theme song of for the TV show House of Cards. And then from that, my audience basically tripled after that. And in that bigger audience, I started to get some interest from people, including a guy who was a booking agent. And he mostly worked with bands, but he was starting to do stuff with podcasts. And he's like, would you ever want to do like a live version of Song Exploder? I could not really imagine what that would be like because it's a show that is so heavily reliant on editing and post production, that I couldn't really figure out what a live thing would be. So I kind of brushed him off a little bit. And then I got an invitation to do something live at a festival, you know, he was sort of presenting you with the idea kind of generally. And then it came in the form of something very specific, which was to do something at the XOXO festival in Portland. So then I went back to Andrew, the booking agent who I talked to, and I said, well, here's a specific opportunity, do you think this is something I should do? And he's like, yeah, this is exactly the kind of thing and I asked, I asked Roman Mars, you know, for some advice, like, what, what is this gonna be? And he's like, just try it and if you never, if you don't like it, and you never want to do it again, you don't have to. So that's, that's what I did. And at that festival, there were some sponsors of the festival. One of them approached me and they said, oh, you know, we are such big fans of Song Exploder. There's, oh, that's so cool that you know what the podcast is and they're like, yeah, we're really looking forward to your show. And I was like, oh, great. And then they asked, you know, then they basically, they said that they would come on as a sponsor of the podcast. So they were my first sponsor, that was Hover, that like domain registrar. So that became my first sponsor, and that was in September, the first time like the ad actually went on the show was in October. So I was two months before, you know, before hitting the deadline. And then, by the time December rolled around, that had grown to I think there were three sponsors. And suddenly, it seemed like, this could be something that could actually help pay the bills, if I could, hold on to that. So I said, okay, that's my year is up, I mean to keep going.


Jay Clouse  33:56

When did Radiotopia enter the picture? I know that's a collaboration with Roman Mars also.


Hrishikesh Hirway  34:01

I joined Radiotopia in June of 2015. They were bringing on a few few new shows. And they asked if I would join, I talked to them in a few other podcast networks around that time. But Roman put it in terms of a music metaphor that really felt extremely targeted by in a good way. He said that Radiotopia, he wanted it to be like the Dischord Records of podcasts, and Dischord Records as the record label that was founded by Ian MacKaye and like put out Fugazi and Minor Threat all these sort of DC punk records. Roman is a DC punk and I was a guy who'd grown up listening to that all that music. And I guess some of this might be worth mentioning. That kind of DIY ethic is something that my friends and I had embraced when we were in college, starting our record label for the first time, and when it came time to like, book shows for the first time, when I was going on tour, you know, I didn't work with an agent we didn't have, we just did everything ourselves. And it was from hearing stories and reading the manifestos of these, like punk labels that that did everything themselves. And it was honestly, part of what made doing Song Exploder at the beginning feel like a feasible project, you know, without any kind of backing, I was like, well, I know what this is, like, I know what it means to just sort of self release something and put it out there and hope for the best. This was a new way of doing it but I was used to the feeling for me. So when Roman said, oh, this is the Dischord Records of podcasts, like, okay, really, you're really speaking my language and I think he knew that. So I said, yes because one of the things that they embrace is the idea that everybody on that network owns their own show. They are not a corporation, there aren't there are nonprofit, and on all of the podcast creators still own their own shows. It's just we're just sort of coming together for some shared resources and shared wisdom. And that really appealed to me.


Jay Clouse  36:13

So you joined Radiotopia, are there any other major inflection points that stand out to you up before the Netflix series?


Hrishikesh Hirway  36:22

So around that same time, when I joined Radiotopia that was June of 2015, I put out an episode with you to as the guest. And I think that was a pretty big inflection point, because I think it showed to someone, anybody who might have been paying attention that that this little podcast that I was making out of my garage, you know, and just recording and editing myself, had the capacity to be a container for like, arguably the biggest band in the world. And it still and it made sense, and I remember talking to the edge for his part of the the episode. And he was like, oh, I really enjoyed the episode you did with the National, like, wow, that you heard it, you heard it before this, you know, so that it felt extremely validating to me, but it also I think, offered some kind of concrete validation for other people on the outside to say, okay, this is, you know, it had the veneer at least of being a real show it nobody was looking in, nobody was coming to my studio and seeing like, oh, I see on the other half of that is your is where you store your bike. But from the outside, this looks like it could be a real grown up venture.


Jay Clouse  37:41

How did the Netflix series come to be? Was that an effort on your part or did that come to you?


Hrishikesh Hirway  37:48

It was kind of a mix of the two. In 2016, I started getting some emails from a few different places saying, hey, have you ever thought about adapting your podcast into a video format? And my first thought was, uh, no, I haven't. And I don't think that this is of interest to me, you know, like the show is about audio. And I feel like I know how to do it. And I like not having other people that I have to rely on, you know that it is very DIY. So no, but I would get an email like that sort of once every three or four weeks it felt like in the summer of 2016, leading into the fall. And then I got an email I remember from an agent who said, oh, we represent the director who's making the show, we just found out about Song Exploder and the concept is similar to the show that we're making, and would you want to come and, you know, be a consultant for us. And I got a little nervous about the idea that like this thing that I'd poured years into was going to be sort of ripped off in some kind of way by somebody else if I didn't do it myself. So it kind of felt like a defensive instinct, I think, to say, well, instead of saying no to all of these emails, and then just waiting for somebody else to do their TV version of what I've been trying to do. What would a TV show version of songs better be like? And so then I went back to one of the people who had emailed me and I said, alright, you know, let's talk. And we talked and it wasn't the right fit. And then another company came around and said, would you want to do something and I was like, okay, let's talk and we talked it, it wasn't the right fit. And at the same time, I was making the music for a friend of mine, his TV show for Netflix. He gave me some advice, which was, what if you were to just imagine what the show could be like from scratch? I think one of my strengths and also I think one of my weaknesses is that I think about what is possible within like what's in my grasp, like within the context of what feels pragmatically achievable. And so as these different companies were talking to me and we'd kick around ideas, I was kind of working within a sense of like, how do I make this TV show the way that I make the podcast? And it just didn't feel that appealing. It didn't feel exciting enough, didn't feel big enough, it didn't feel like rich enough to warrant a change in format. And then he said, you know, he's like, we're working with Netflix, you're doing the music for the show. I mean, this thing, you know, if it were with somebody like Netflix, you could potentially make it on a scale that's outside of your garage, what would that be like? He's just take, just take some time and think about that and so I did. And so for the first time then, instead of kind of reacting to someone else's ideas or like a pitch that felt like they didn't quite get what I was trying to do, said, okay, let me figure out what that would be. And I wrote this, you know, long document. And by the end of it, I got really excited, I was like, actually, I think this could be really fun. It would be a totally new muscle that I would be exercising and I think this could be cool. And then I thought about, well, who would I want to make this show with? Again, instead of thinking about, like, who is coming to me, because you know when the email arrives in your inbox, it is it feels like eminently achievable because you're like, okay, yeah, here they are. They say they want to say how exciting. Yeah. And it's a much more burdensome idea to say, oh, yeah, I'm gonna go out there and look for somebody, you know, the last time I done that was with Song Exploder. When I said, hey, I went around, you know, and said, this is my idea, do you want to make it with me? And I got nine months of no's and it was really frustrating. So I was a little bit wary of going down that path again. But one of the people that I had in mind when I sort of made made up my initial list of like, dream collaborators was Morgan Neville. And it was kind of achievable and that I knew someone who was editor, who worked with him. And so I just called him up. And I said, this is what's going on. I've been working on this TV show idea. I feel like Morgan, who is you know, an Oscar winner and who has done a lot of music stuff. And his he had done this show called Abstract that was about design. And he had done this one episode, that was really a fascinating look into someone's creative process. And that felt to me, like the most similar thing I'd ever seen to Song Exploder. It was not about music, it was about an illustrator. And I thought, I feel like he gets it, you know. And so I, I asked my friend, Jason Zeldes, you know, what do you think about this? And he said, you know, I know he listens to the podcast, we've talked about it before so I think he would be interested in talking to you. So it was kind of in the middle ground between, like something that felt achievable, and something that I had to go kind of be brave and hunt for because it was just, I just had to call somebody first and he could tell me no, you know, gently. But that was a Saturday and then that Monday, I met with Morgan. And by the end of that conversation, we're like, okay, let's try and do this. And then we pitched it to Netflix together. He had said that, that a few different people. He'd been making features for a long time and he'd been making TV shows as well. And he said that he had been having talks with people about like, wanting to make a show, what was his next thing going to be? And he's like, I think this could be it.


Jay Clouse  43:19

So cool. And do you think by taking that driving, like that driver's seat position, do you think that gave you more control and the ultimate product that went to air?


Hrishikesh Hirway  43:30

I don't know how much control I had, in general, I mean, I definitely got to exert some level of control as the as the sort of creator of the podcast and as the host of the show and the executive producer. But I don't know that it actually gave me real control, in terms of the amount of power I wielded with the other decision makers. But what it really did for me was, it gave me something to always refer to, in a concrete way about like, what my vision for the show was going to be. So I could say, okay, if I have to choose between A or B, you know, the options are A or B, will let me think about what the show is in my own mind, and then choose the one that feels most right. And if I hadn't done that, if I had kind of just wandered forward without that kind of solid foundation, I think I could have easily chosen a path more arbitrarily or I would only learn what I needed to learn halfway down the path. And it might have been like, oh, yeah, actually, the answer was, I should have gone the other way. And there was plenty of that anyway, there's plenty of really no wrong decisions that were made and miscalculations and reconceptualization. But I think stepping to the driver's seat, as you say, in that moment, it just really helped me I guess coalesce what my ideas were for the show.


Jay Clouse  44:52

So now you're making music again, under your own name this time. So what's next for you and how are you thinking about you know, the projects you're taking on moving forward?


Hrishikesh Hirway  45:01

So the first yeah, the first song that I put out under my own name, that's the first song that I've put out since that album came out in 2011. That came out recently and then another song coming out in January, that's gonna lead to an EP that'll come out in the spring. And I'm excited about it, I, I'm really excited about the idea of being able to get back to a place where I was, when I first started Song Exploder, which was, which is being able to like make room for both music and the sort of day job, there was a while where the day job ended up completely eclipsing my own life as a musician. I completely got away from making music, not because I didn't want to, but the kind of place that I was in, when I was starting to show where I was like, I don't know what's happening. I, you know, I felt a little bit lost musically after having after 10 years of trying to push that rock up that hill, and feeling like, okay, it's not really getting any easier. I was feeling a little lost and I needed something to sort of shake things up. And, but then what ended up happening was like, the thing that I did to shake things up, shake things up so much that I, I completely lost any sense of how to get back to making music again. And now I feel like okay, I'm, you know, I'm setting aside some time to specifically work on music, this made a really big difference in how I feel about the balance of things in my life.


Jay Clouse  46:25

Do you feel like all of these conversations you've had with musicians is informing this music in a way that feels different than it did 10 years ago?


Hrishikesh Hirway  46:35

Yeah, I don't think that I would be making, I don't know that I would be making music at all if I hadn't been working on Song Exploder this whole time, which is a strange thing to realize because for a long time it felt like making sonic, like the time commitment of it. And also, some of just like my feelings around it kind of kept me from making music for a long time. I think it's hard to talk to people who are extremely successful in a field that you also want to be successful in but who are so so far ahead of you. It had an indirect effect on me of kind of squashing my feelings about making my making music again. Because I was like, well, who cares? Like, this is, you know, you two, or whoever, you know, like any number of the people who have been on the show made me feel like, nobody's gonna care about what I do in this other context in the way that they care about this, like, you know, I would never book myself on the show, like, it just, I'm not at that level. And is there a place for me to make work, if it's not huge, it was like a pretty big existential question that was going on for me. And it kept me from being able to write like, it basically furthered my writer's block for a long time. And it was an easy thing to justify because I was like, well, I don't have time to make songs. That's why I've got to put out another episode. So for a long time, I felt like there was just no way for me to make music again. But I don't think that I would have gotten back to making music if it weren't for the fact that I talked to so many musicians about their process. And, and a big thing that people talk to me about that was kind of new for me, was how collaborative they were in terms of their relationships with like outside producers or other songwriters. And then I had an opportunity to write with somebody else for the first time. And that completely opened up that world to me, in a tangible way. And so that's kind of how I've, how I've been able to get back to it.


Jay Clouse  48:39

I love that, you know, one of the reasons that I love listening to your show is these are big names they've achieved quite a bit. But the way that they approach talking about their music feels so accessible, it doesn't feel like some sort of black magic that they have and I will never have, it feels like something they care about. And they invest a lot of energy into. And they trust themselves. And it's messy. And sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not, sometimes they have no expectations, and things exceed their expectations. Sometimes they have expectations and things don't perform, but it just feels like very human and relatable, whether you do music or not. And so it inspires me to keep making things and I'm glad that it's gotten you back into it, too.


Hrishikesh Hirway  49:19

Oh, that's awesome. That is definitely at some unwritten level what I'm hoping for with every episode, I mean, at one level, I'm just trying to tell the story as well as it can be told. But on another level, I want us to feel just like what you're describing, you know, I kind of in the editing of the stories, I kind of over index towards the messiness, and the moments of kind of fallibility and things where there were mistakes. Because, you know, I think there's a way of telling those stories where it's a little more smoothed over and a little more of like a path from the starting place to the finish line. But one it's more honest to be able to hear all the messy parts but I think also I love to focus on those things because you know that in the end they did get somewhere, they did get to the finish line otherwise there wouldn't be an episode so let's like not like spend some time talking about what the problems were because everybody has to face problems you know and if you get to hear somebody saying like oh yeah, we screwed this thing up and this thing went wrong and we didn't know what to do here. Then when you when you have those issues yourself, then you're like oh, yeah, I remember think through it.


Jay Clouse  50:29

Just last week, Hrishikesh released Home, his second song under his own name. He wrote on Instagram that Home is about the places he shared his life with, with his wife Lindsay and the good times and hard times that slowly filled those rooms. So now here's Home featuring Jay Som in its entirety. This episode was a lot of fun to record and put together. I hope you enjoyed it as well. If you want to learn more about Hrishikesh you can visit his website at hrishikesh.co or find him on Instagram @hrishihirway. You can subscribe to Song Exploder right here in your favorite podcast player or watch the television series on Netflix. Links to all of those are in the show notes. Thanks to Hrishikesh for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork for this episode. Thanks to Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show and Brian Skeel for creating our music. If you like this episode, you can tweet @jayclouse and let me know and if you really want to say thank you, please leave a review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. Thanks for listening and I'll talk to you next week.