Hrishikesh Hirway on “Song Exploder” and His New Podcast “Partners” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Hrishikesh Hirway on “Song Exploder” and His New Podcast “Partners”

Relationship Exploder

May 06, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Song Exploder creator Hrishikesh Hirway has doubled down, launching two new podcasts—Partners and Home Cooking—at a time when most of us are coping with working from home and barely succeeding at being productive at any one task.

Partners, a Mailchimp Presents production made in partnership with Radiotopia, explores the unique dynamic of successful duos and presents their relationships and trails, in essence, as love stories. They include Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (Instagram co-founders); PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman (Reply All podcast); Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna (co-creators Crazy Ex-Girlfriend); and twin sisters Tegan and Sara.

A recent episode featured Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) and Rafael Casal (actor, writer, director)—friends who have collaborated in music (Clipping), film (Blindspotting) and art projects. A future episode will be centered around Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his collaborator son, Spencer.

Launched on March 19, the first episode featured Salt Fat Acid Heat chef, Samin Nosrat and New York Times best-selling illustrator and graphic journalist, Wendy MacNaughton. Both reveal the uncomfortable conversations and inconvenient truths that partners, even of a non-romantic persuasion, have to confront each other with if they are to be successful and still remain friends.

Wearing their hearts on their sleeves Nosrat relates how MacNaughton had early on in their partnership (it took them four years to finish the book) written to tell her “Please don’t call me your illustrator. I don’t belong to you.” MacNaughton had to find a way to talk about her valid feelings without hurting Nosrat’s. Both women were already successful in their own professions and by their own admission have big personalities. However, they managed to work through all the emotional minefields. In 2017, their book Salt, Fat Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking was published and became a New York Times bestseller. It went on to win the James Beard Award and was adapted into a popular Netflix TV show.

“These are two people that are clearly very in touch with their own feelings and self-actualized,” says Hirway, who admits that the opening scene of ’80s romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally, inspired the kernel of an idea for Partners—while he was working on Song Exploder.

On the rare occasion Song Exploder features different members of one band, or an artist and producer, interviews are sometimes conducted separately. “I edit those stories so it sounds like they are being told jointly,” Hirway explains. “When it goes well and it feels like the two people can complete each other’s sentence and riff off each other—it kind of feels like being at a party and listening to a couple tell their story…somewhere down the line I connected it to the stories in When Harry Met Sally.”

Rob Reiner’s 1989 classic bookmarks itself with several happily married, elderly couples, sharing stories of when they were first smitten by the other.

“It’s just them facing the camera,” Hirway explains. “There’s no interviewer. And they are sort of giving their first person recollection of how they met, and what their circumstances were.” Hirway recalls thinking there was a podcast idea there. “It’s like Relationship Exploder,” he laughs.

Indeed as a listener you experience the highs and lows of a relationship most vividly in the Vogt and Goldman episode. In 15 minutes, Hirway takes you artfully through the arc of this grand romance. From their public radio start more than a decade ago, to how they’ve coped with questions of ownership, hierarchy, and changing roles, as Goldman became a father, and Reply All burgeoned into a global success.

Hirway admits that another huge influence on Partners is his own experience of attending couples therapy with his wife, the designer, Lindsey Mortensen (Larsen + Lund). “I have been going [to couples therapy] for a super long time,” he shares, “when we were basically a new couple, years before even before we got married…she and I have very different communicating styles so it seemed like a good way to set a foundation for things along the line.”

Hirway gets so much out of his experience that he wanted to give his guests that same opportunity. “Not that I’m giving them any kind of solution,” he says. “But I’m just saying, ‘Here’s the space.”

This could stem from Hirway’s own unrealized aspirations. “The kind of armchair fantasy of the path not taken in of my life,” he explains carefully. “I don’t know how consciously I was doing it—in some way, I was being influenced by my own therapist.”

This sense of a safe space lends Partners an intimacy that is a cornerstone of the style aesthetic he’s cultivated for Song Exploder over the last seven years. “Partners is much more an outcropping of Song Exploder,” concurs Hirway, who took a year off from hosting duties last year. While Thao Nguyen stepped into the role of host, Hirway’s sabbatical gave him time and space to let new ideas germinate.

Partners was also developed while The West Wing Weekly—a podcast devoted to Aaron Sorkin’s beloved TV show that he hosted with actor Josh Molina—was coming to an end. “I had sort of been thinking what I would do next,” Hirway says. “And I was toying with the idea of a podcast more closely related to When Harry Met Sally, just romantic stories. I thought that would be nice—but it would just be one flavor to it? And I do like hearing how couples get together…I guess I was thinking about my partnership with Josh in the WWWs and about how much trust and affection you have to have to make that work—that transition to being a business partnership, now there’s two flavors to it. Then I got really excited and I just wanted to start making it.”

It might surprise melophiles to then learn that Hirway is not that interested in music documentaries. It was comedy that first gave him the idea for Song Exploder. When his band the One AM Radio went on tour with Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel, The Postal Service) in 2011/2012, it was podcasts by comedians that they would listen to in the van.

“I think that musicians, as good as they are at the things they do, telling their own story isn’t the thing they’re best at,” explains Hirway who is also part of the hip-hop duo, MOORS, with actor Lakeith Stanfield, and has composed music for film soundtracks. He often lets his guests pick the song to explode. “I try to find an artist that has an interesting brain based on what I know…then I ask them which song is most meaningful to them.” He can propose a song but it’s the artist who knows best where the emotional stakes are. “I’m trying to get to the best story,” he adds. “Song Exploder is trying to cover so many different genres of music—this is the kind of thing that I had to figure out early on—the real core of it, is the storytelling…then the music.”

Song Exploder has more than 180 episodes and has featured stalwarts (Björk, Iggy Pop, U2, The Killers), as well as the best of up-and-coming artists (Vagabon, Mitski) and lesser known, indie-heroes (The Long Winters’ episode on “The Commander Thinks Out Loud,” a song about the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, is one of its best). Hirway is currently still tasked with a new episode every two weeks, in addition to Partners, which drops a new episode every alternate week.

But the coronavirus had other plans for him. “My challenge for the year was to try and translate my way of working and thinking about storytelling from Song Exploder into this other context, and you know there’s some overlap, there are some music stories. But then this happened and that’s been the biggest disruption.”

This collective moment of lockdown spurred Hirway to reach out to Nosrat about finally making another podcast that they had joked about since 2018, Home Cooking. It went from a fun project to something that could act as a lifeline for people stuck at home, trying to be creative with what they had in their pantry, and also providing a bit of laughter and respite. While trying to keep the episode schedules for Song Exploder and Partners, and now start a new podcast has made for long days, Hirway is not complaining. “It’s good,” he says, “it’s left very little time for me to fret about the news.”

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May 6th 2020

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May 6th 2020

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