Hrishikesh Hirway ’96

Year of Graduation: 
Hrishikesh Hirway

"One of the things I really love is coming up with the framework for an idea and then seeing it through."

For Hrishikesh Hirway ’96, the creative process contains multitudes of “microcosmic” decisions. Unravelling and revelling in those mini, narrative choices has been Hirway’s career fascination. In 2014, he launched a biweekly podcast, “Song Exploder,” to bring the backstories of songwriting and recording to the masses. In each 20-minute episode, Hirway encourages his guests — who have included musical giants U2, Yo-Yo Ma and Bjork, as well as newer-to-the-scene figures such as Christine and the Queens and Black Panther scorer Ludwig Göransson — to tell the tale of a single song.

With four albums and numerous film and television scores under his belt, Hirway has both the street cred and astute ear to understand what makes others’ artistic juices flow. Each “Song Exploder” episode offers thought-provoking details and instant earworms, as when Kiwi songstress Kimbra discusses how her lyrics were inspired by dodging Manhattan traffic. We flipped the mic and asked Hirway a few questions about his life as a composer, producer and podcaster.

Q: What does a podcaster actually do, anyway?

Hirway: My friend Roman Mars, who started the network Radiotopia, calls what I do “writing with other people’s words.” That’s how I see my editing role on “Song Exploder.” The interview process is about gathering raw materials, then it’s up to me to figure out how to tell the story using those materials. When the interview is over, I’m thinking about the listeners. I have to build the story layer by layer, so that people don’t feel left out if they aren’t already a fan of the artist.

Q: There are some technical details in your interviews, but also amazing flashes of intimacy, like the Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn talking about the death of his partner’s mother. How do you meld the two?

Hirway: Some of the technical stuff I try to edit out because it can get very jargony; that’s not the spirit of the show. As long as there’s a kind of show-and-tell element, if they talk about something and I can give direct evidence of what that is or how it works — like playing a drum-machine sound while they’re talking about using a drum machine — then it can stay in the story. But really what I’m looking for is a sense of personal connection.

Q: Meaning you want to know the “how” and the “why” of a song.

Hirway: What I want most in “Song Exploder” is to know why someone decided to do something; what was their artistic intention? I was an art major at Yale, and part of the curriculum is doing these “crits,” where you put up your work and tell your professor and fellow students about the ideas behind your artwork and why you executed them the way you did. That really influenced “Song Exploder.” I’m trying to re-create the sense of the artist saying, “I did this, and this is why.” Looking for the reason why — what the source of inspiration was for them — is where the intimate storytelling comes in.

Q: Can you talk about your background in music?

Hirway: I’ve been a musician since I was at Exeter. I played drums in a few ad hoc bands, and piano and drums in the jazz band — that’s what started things off for me. At college, I started playing music a lot more seriously, touring and making records. Then, after I graduated, I decided that that was what I wanted to spend my life trying to do. I’ve been working as a musician full time since 2007.

Q: Your music education is grounded in experimentation rather than formal training.

Hirway: Yes, I don’t have a background in proper music production or engineering. When I first tried to make an entire record myself — recording, writing, mixing, producing — I didn’t really know what I was doing. It felt right and it felt exciting, but I was also very aware that I was probably making strange choices in order to achieve what I was imagining in my head. You put all that imagination into solving a creative or technical problem, and the person who listens to the song may, at best, get the feeling that you were hoping to evoke. But they won’t know all the wacky contortions that you went through in order to pull that off. 

Q: Sounds like a good idea for a podcast.

Hirway: “Song Exploder” was partly a response to that feeling and that kind of labor, knowing that there is so much interesting and creative problem-solving that goes on while trying to realize a song. I wanted to make something that could allow musicians to talk about that stuff.

Q: Do all good songs have a story to tell?

Hirway: I think musicians who get big pieces written about them, they get asked Big Questions, and they answer with Big Answers. I feel like there’s a limit to how much you can learn about someone that way. What I like about focusing in on a song — why I think that’s a good device for telling a story — is that there are so many decisions that have to be made, from the first conception to the final product, and each of those microcosmic things could ultimately shape the way the song turns out. When you reveal some of those decisions, you start to get a sense of what the machinery in this person’s mind looks like. That’s when you get a sense of what a creative mind looks like, what a creative identity is formed by.

Q: What’s your most memorable “Song Exploder” moment?

Hirway: Well, one thing I think that is exciting in this context is that there have been two guests on “Song Exploder” who I lived with in Abbot: Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor — he and I were class of ’96 — and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, class of ’98. Win wrote a song about me checking him in when I was a proctor. And my production assistant, Nick Song, graduated from Exeter last year. I am always thrilled by the ways that Exeter gets reintroduced into my life.

Q: After 150 episodes, you’re taking a break from hosting “Song Exploder.” What’s next for you?

Hirway: I’ll still be creative director of “Song Exploder” and doing the “West Wing” podcast, plus I’ll be a consulting producer, helping people with their podcasts and TV shows. I’m scoring the music for a video game, and I’ve got other projects of my own that I’ve been trying to get off the ground. One of the things I really love is coming up with the framework for an idea and then seeing it through — building a ship, and then launching it off. With “Song Exploder” I did that, and I’ve been on board the ship for so long that it’s been kind of hard to build another one. I’m really itching to build more ships, some for me, some for others.

— Daneet Steffens '82

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.