From Weezer to Billie, the Moments That Shaped Music’s Best Podcast

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
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Since its first episode premiered in January 2014, Song Exploder has stood above the ever-growing sea of podcasts with its delectable premise. Each perfectly sized episode—rarely more than 30 minutes, which is downright breezy for a medium that increasingly prioritizes length—features a musician breaking down one of their best songs in ways both personal and granular. There’s a wide variety of artists that have been showcased throughout the show’s 270 episodes (and counting) thus far, from some veritable legends and cult and indie favorites, to pop stars and even TV theme composers. This is a show with appealingly broad, but still discerning, taste.

Thanks to its uniquely successful premise, Song Exploder has been consistently hailed by podcast listeners and critics over the years as a stand-out delight for all music lovers (that means roughly 99.9 percent of human beings). It was even adapted into a Netflix show, which ran for two seasons. And a large part of that success and longevity is due to the steady hand of its host, Hrishikesh Hirway. Hirway, himself a musician with nearly a dozen albums and EPs to his name, transformed a simple curiosity—“Why does this song sound the way it does?”—into a project that’s both educational and inspirational. That he doesn’t consider himself a journalist and instead sees Song Exploder as an artist talking to the artists he admires grants the show its genuine, measured, earnest tack.

To celebrate 10 years of Song Exploder, we asked Hirway to pick the 10 episodes he felt best represented the show—the most memorable conversations, surprise insights, and emotional moments that solidify its reputation as one of the most consistently rewarding podcasts around.

Episode 1: “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” by The Postal Service (January 2014)

HH: That one is obviously significant to me, because it was the pilot before the show was even called Song Exploder—before I even really knew that it would be a podcast. I had this idea for a show where an artist could talk about how a song of theirs was made, and the ideas that went in behind it, while letting a listener also hear the broken-down parts of the song. I was calling it Deconstructed as the working title back then, and I was just trying to figure it out.

I had never interviewed anybody before, and I had never made anything like a podcast—anything outside of music, and graphic design. This was totally new. So I was trying to figure out how to even start, and I asked my friend Jimmy from the Postal Service if he would let me basically try the idea out with him.

At that point we had already known each other for about 10 years, and we had gone on tour in 2011—spend a month in a van with somebody, and you bond. I felt like he was somebody I would feel comfortable potentially fumbling my way through this concept with.

They were getting ready to figure out a 10th anniversary tour for the Postal Service, so he already had the disassembled parts of the songs in front of him as he was working on that—the timing just worked out for all these things to line up. I went over to his place, and I recorded an interview and kind of talked my way through what I was looking for with him, and as I was interviewing him, I was also kind of figuring it out myself a bit.

TDB: I imagine knowing your guest really well was helpful when starting a show as intimate as this one.

HH: Yeah, exactly. Having been a musician for so long, I have a lot of friends who are also musicians. Jimmy was somebody who was both a friend of mine, but also extremely successful. He also had this record that to me felt ubiquitous. It felt like everybody had heard that record. So it felt like a great place to start, because if I could say, “Hey, here’s this idea, and this first episode is with the Postal Service,” somebody who might be skeptical about trying a show they’ve never heard might listen to it because they like the Postal Service.

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Episode 40: “Game of Thrones Theme” by Ramin Djawadi (June 2015)

HH: In 2014, when the show started, Game of Thrones was obviously enormous. It was an event every time an episode came out, and a big part of that event was the theme song. So it was partly me responding to something that was in my life a lot. It was just a song that you might hear over and over again. I love it—it just sets the mood for what you’re going to get into.

So much of making podcasts [for me] has been built around the idea of hoping that there are other people who are interested in the stuff that I’m interested in and to follow my gut. That was an example of that, where I was like, “Yeah, this is a little bit different for the show.”

I also picked this one because I felt like it was one that showed a lot of people that the podcast wasn’t just limited to pop songs. The method of talking about music in this way could be applied to other forms of music that people know and love.

TDB: Exploring our cultural relationship to music also seems really important to the show, and this pick fits into that angle.

HH: That was my interest in pursuing the possibility of that episode. Then, when I did the interview with Ramin Djawadi, it was wonderful. He gave thoughtful answers to all of my questions, and they had a depth that surprised me—the level to which he had considered the narrative reasons for doing what he did really spoke to the underlying premise of the podcast... The idea that he had these story-based ideas for the music that he was making for a theme song which doesn’t play to any particular picture or narrative was so cool. And as somebody who came to L.A. to be a film composer originally, hearing all of that stuff was like getting a little masterclass in film-scoring for me.

Episode 60: “Stonemilker” by Björk (December 2015)

HH: My entire life making music, I have been obsessed and confused and intrigued by [Björk], by her music—confused in the best way. When I’m listening, I’m like, “What am I listening to?” … I can’t even tell if it’s organic or synthetic. She was the dream artist, in terms of having somebody who could say, “This is what you’re actually hearing. This is how I made it, and this is the reason.”

TDB: Can you set the scene of the interview? What is it like to talk to someone as cool as Björk?

HH: This one was really difficult [to make happen]. What’s also so special for me is that this episode couldn’t have really happened if she weren’t such a great guest for the podcast, because the way it got conducted was in a press junket that she was doing for her album from a hotel room in London, and I was in L.A. I was given one hour to talk to her by phone. I called the phone in the hotel room in London. It was 5 a.m. my time, and it was 2 p.m. her time.

I was so nervous about the thing not happening that I hadn’t told anybody that she was gonna be on the podcast. I’m trying to get out of bed and go do this call at 4:30 in the morning without disturbing my wife. Later, she did find out. She was like, “Why were you up so early? Why were you awake?” And I was like, “Oh, I was interviewing Björk by phone.” That was the first that she had heard about it, because I didn’t want to say anything in case it didn’t happen.

Then, over the course of the interview, we kept losing the connection. She was on a mic on her side in the hotel room, so it sounded like a nice clean recording, like we were in the same room. But we kept on having to call back and forth, and in the end, she ended up delaying her next interview in the junket so she could complete the story. So I was really grateful for that.

Episode 70: “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori” by Weezer (April 2016)

HH: It’s the only episode that could come close to something that you could describe as “controversial” on a podcast that is pretty much 100 percent free of hot takes… Rivers Cuomo is such an amazing songwriter, and especially the first couple of Weezer albums, when I was growing up, were huge for me. I just thought they were so great, and his lyrics are especially just so tremendous. So I myself was shocked when he explained to me over the course of a three-hour interview how he writes songs now.

The process was scientific, I guess, while also being really tapped into it. It was an incredibly interesting combination of the subconscious mind and a conscious calculation being put together in a way that I think is actually at the heart of so much songwriting. I think so many artists in general are trying to get out of the way of their subconscious instincts. That’s where so much inspiration lies.

But his version of that feels like a high-contrast version of that idea, where he’s taking stream-of-consciousness thoughts from morning pages that he does. But then he goes in the completely opposite direction after that, categorizing the lines that he likes by number of syllables, and whether the syllables are accented or unaccented, and then grouping them in a spreadsheet that’s searchable. And then when he goes to write a song, it’s basically without any sense of the meaning of the words, picking them for their rhythm and their musicality. It’s kind of amazing.

TDB: Since then, Rivers Cuomo has talked more openly about his methodical songwriting approach—he’s even released an app featuring his entire library of demos for people to play around with. I wonder if this interview made him more comfortable to do that.

HH: Song Exploder is really not a place where we get scoops, but I guess it felt like a scoop. This is the first place that he really talked about that publicly. Like you said, I think it’s now more well-known. But I feel lucky that this was where he decided to kind of first get into it. I had such a good time talking to him and then making that episode. … But [it was wild to learn that] lyrics that used to be ripped from his heart are now pulled carefully from spreadsheets.

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Episode 94: “Cranes in the Sky” by Solange (January 2017)

HH: Her star was on the rise in a really exciting way, and I think everybody loved what she was doing. To get to talk to somebody at that moment is kind of rare. But what was so special about this was she agreed to do it. [Her team said,] “Why don’t you come to New Orleans and interview her?” … So I went down there, and I found a studio, and we recorded, and it was just us—there was no entourage or publicist, or anything like that. It was just the two of us in a room.

Some of her answers count among some of my favorite moments of the podcast. There’s a part in her episode where she talks about the line, “Cry it away,” and in the backing vocals, she says “Don’t you cry it, baby.” … The voice changes, and suddenly, it’s like a call and response. And I was just like, “What made you make that choice?” And I love her answer so much. She told the story about how, “When I was growing up, my mom would tell me and my sister that if we were feeling down and feeling mopey, you could take three days to be sad, and then after that you have to pick yourself back up. At that moment, I’m channeling the older maternal figures in my life—my mom and my aunties telling me, ‘Pick yourself back up.’”

Episode 126: “It Ain’t Fair (feat. Bilal)” by the Roots (January 2018)

HH: When I first started making Song Exploder, I had a little wish list of some of my dream artists—people who inspired my feelings about music in this kind of way that made me wanna make the podcast. And Questlove was on that list. … I had been essentially trying to get him on the show ever since starting it. And when Detroit [for which the song was written] came out, it was the first chance where I actually was able to do that.

TDB: How much control do you have over which songs the artists discuss for the show? Do you pitch the song to them, or do you pitch the interview and let them choose?

HH: It usually starts with the latter. If they agree to the basic idea, then we talk about what song it might be. Sometimes it comes to a point where I’m like, “This is a song I’m really fond of,” or, “I feel like the best stories might be around this album or these songs,” and they might say, “You know what? I don’t want to talk about those.” And sometimes they’ll say, “Hey, I want to really talk about this song.”

In this case, the chance to interview the Roots—I would have talked to them about whatever song they wanted to talk about.

Episode 167: “Honey” by Robyn (September 2019)

HH: This was another moment where I got to talk to somebody who I’m a huge fan of, and that was very exciting. But part of the reason why I chose [this episode] for its significance in the show overall is because of a moment that occurs between the two of us in the interview.

She kept her cards close to her chest about the meaning of the song. I think it’s a very personal song for her, and she didn’t want to get too far into the details about the personal side of things. There’s a moment when we were talking where I was like, “OK, without getting too much further into it, is this a song that’s written about a specific person?” And she just said, “Mmhmm.” And I said, “Does that person know that this song is about them?” And she said, “Mmhmm.”

TDB: She didn’t want to give too much away.

HH: The reason why this was different is because I included that whole exchange in the episode. Normally, I edit myself out of the podcast—I do a little intro, and I do an outro, but I take my side of the conversation out. I go from an hour- or two-hour-long interview, and cut it down to what I think is the tightest version of the interview, and that also presents the information in a kind of way that builds logically and musically from the beginning to the conclusion of the song.

But sometimes that’s a really hard way to make an episode. And this was a moment where I was like, “How do I get this information across? I can’t just have her say ‘Mmhmm’ to a question you don’t hear.” So I left myself in for that whole exchange. And it didn’t break the show for me to break the format a little bit… I can acknowledge the fact that I’m a human being having these conversations. And I’m in the room with these people, and it’s not gonna actually ruin things. In fact, it might actually make it better at times.

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Episode 176: “Closing Time” by Semisonic (January 2020)

HH: This was the rare time where I actually learned what the song was about before conducting the interview. [Semisonic frontman] Dan Wilson and I have a mutual friend, Jenny Owens-Young, who we have both written songs with. I was talking to Jenny one time when we were in our songwriting session, and she was telling me a little bit about “Closing Time.” She had just seen Dan play this very intimate performance of it on piano with his daughter, Coco. [Jenny told me] “Closing Time” is about Coco’s birth. … “Closing Time” is a song that everybody knows. But I don’t know that anybody knows that there’s more to it than being about a bar closing—that’s taking it at its first, superficial reading.

[In the interview,] he told this story about the incredibly difficult time in his life around the making of this song that coincided with the birth of his daughter, who was born several weeks premature. He had originally been inspired by his wife’s pregnancy and by the poet Elizabeth Bishop, and how she weaves two meanings into everything she writes. He wanted to do something similar and weave two meanings into this idea of, as he put it, getting bounced from the bar and getting bounced from the womb. Nobody really wants to be thrown out of either of these places. And it suddenly casts every lyric in a new light when you know that.

Then there’s the story of making the actual song, which was happening at the same time while his wife was in the hospital and his little baby girl was in the NICU. In the end, it’s an incredibly moving story. And I know from people I’ve talked to, and having seen people post about it on social media, that it’s one that’s made a lot of people cry. I don’t think that people would expect that from a song that they think of as a fun song to play last during a night at the bar.

Episode 197: “Everything I Wanted” by Billie Eilish (November 2020)

HH: I remember getting choked up while editing this episode. I was in hour 20 of my edits, and listening to Billie and Finneas talk about their relationship as brother and sister and how they would do anything for each other really got me choked up. My best friend is my older sister, and I just had to stop what I was doing, and I called her and we just caught up. I played her part of the episode over the phone, and it was really sweet and wonderful for me.

But a few hours later, I got a call from my sister. That same day, my mom had passed away.

It was this very strange moment for me, personally, to go from one emotional call, and then getting the call from my sister—[our mom] hadn’t passed away yet, but she’d been taken away in an ambulance, and then we were on the phone while we were waiting to get news. And then it turned out she’d passed away. I went from that call straight to the airport, got on a plane, and flew to the East Coast to be with my family.

To keep myself from going insane, and also because I had a deadline, I spent the entire plane ride finishing the edit on the Billie Eilish episode. An episode that was already quite significant and meaningful and emotional for me took on this whole other extra level because of what was happening in my own life. These events are all tied together. … There’s a lot of memory triggers for me around this episode, which I had already loved so much before. It became a part of my life in this other way.

Episode 265: “The Teacher” by Foo Fighters (December 2023)

HH: I think this one is the culmination of several things that we’ve already talked about in this list. … This was the only song [frontman Dave Grohl] wanted to talk about, for sure. This was the one that he felt was really special, and he hadn’t talked about it before, and he probably wasn’t gonna talk about it again. I did not know what the song was about, or why that was the case. It was sort of presented to me like, “Hey, would you want to do an episode with Dave Grohl about this song?” And I was like, “Sure. But are there other options as well, or just this song?” They’re like, “Nope, it’s this song.”

[“The Teacher”] is about his mother. Before going in, [Grohl’s] publicist told me that he doesn’t really talk about this stuff, so this is significant for him… He basically hadn’t done an interview since his mother’s passing. It felt special already—the only reason why he would talk about it is because of the format of what the show is. It’s not just a sit-down interview or a biographical conversation. It’s [talking] about the creative decisions that went into making this song that is really significant for him, framed around songwriting and his choices as an artist and as a producer.

Toward the end of our conversation, I told him a very personal thing about myself. After my mom passed, I wrote this song about her… And I said, “It’s kind of this second layer of grief—you’ve lost this person, and then you make this work about them. They’ll never know that you wrote this song about them. You have this thing, and they don’t get to experience it with you.”

Dave Grohl surprised me so much. He said, “Oh, I don’t think that’s true… She definitely knows [about the song]. They’re with you. They absolutely know.” And I was like, “Wait. Is that how you feel about this song about your mom? You think she knows?” He says, “Yeah, she knows.” And I was like, “And what do you think she thinks of it?” And he’s like, “Yeah, she thinks it’s probably OK.”

TDB: Just OK!

HH: It was an incredibly meaningful moment for me to hear that perspective. It’s not how I view the world and how I view my mom’s passing. To have a kind of conversation like that, two people talking about what their mother’s passing means to them, and their relationship to the music they’ve made about them—it goes against so many of my instincts to allow that part of the conversation in, because I’m like, “This is making it too much about me.”

But my other producers, Craig [Eley] and Theo [Balcomb], were both insistent. They were like, “No, this is good—this is a real moment, and we should include it.” I think if it hadn’t been for that door cracking open a little bit with the Robyn moment, I don’t know that I would have had this slow progression that would have allowed me to say, “OK, yeah, I am going to put that in.” And I’m really glad that I did, because it’s really meaningful for me to have that exist on tape in the podcast, both as a document of my own life and as a document of Dave Grohl’s feelings about this song, his mother, and making this piece of music.

TDB: It’s especially unique that you could relate to him on not only having lost your mothers, but also being songwriters. That’s something beyond what most interviewers can achieve in a conversation with a musician.

HH: It’s really been my way in—the fact that I’m not a reporter or a journalist and don’t have those skills. But what I could bring is some level of empathy to the process of making music. I could point my questions toward the kinds of things that had always been hard for me. They might not necessarily be the same thing that the person who I’m talking to experiences. But [Song Exploder offers] a prompt that lets them begin from something that’s closer to their own vernacular than if I were coming at it entirely from the outside.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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