I justify the amount of time I spend listening to podcasts by telling myself that I learn so much from them. For some of my favorites, that’s a stretch. With Song Exploder, I gain music knowledge with just a hint of pretentious smugness. For each episode, Hrishiskesh Hirway hosts a singer/songwriter who outlines how the song came to be. From the inspiration for the melody to the manipulation of sound to create desired effects, Hirway shows what goes into writing a good song. Song Explorer is a great addition to your podcast rotation for two reasons. One, there is minimal time commitment (each episode is around twelve minutes long) and two, even though we aren’t all songwriters, we can learn a little something from those who are.
Good Songwriters Know: Nonsense Makes The Best Sense.
In the most recent episode, Carl Newman, from The New Pornographers, walks Hirway through their song, “Brill Bruisers.” From the jump, it is evident that Newman loves “nonsense lyrics.” He was adamant that the lyrics in the song go “Bo pa bo pa PA bo.” I get it. The “Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah” in Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” is just as perfect as the “Ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa” in Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” Those nonsense lyrics are not to be messed with. In life, there are things that you must take seriously–the “bo pa bo pa PA bos,” if you will. Newman states that somethings you need to be lax about and something you need to take seriously…like nonsense. What’s constitutes as nonsense is for you to decide.
Good Songwriters Know: Dumber Is Better
The “Brill Bruisers” episode feels like an episode of Inside the Actors Studio. The episode is recorded in front of a live audience. Everything about it makes me feel like James Lipton is peering into the artist’s soul. The only thing that is missing is the host asking him “What’s your favorite curse word?”
Regardless, the interview gets to the heart of what writers think makes a song good. Newman explains that initially he thought complexity = intriguing and good. Whereas now, he knows that if you “dumb down” a song you are being more genuine and creatively vulnerable.
You can hear the audience laugh when he talks about “trying to get dumber.” I think if I were in the audience I too would give a polite laugh. But, it is something that we need to be reminded of often.
Good Songwriters Know: If You Wear The Capes, Feel Confident In the Capes
On MGMT’s “Time To Pretend” episode, they talk about their first performance on The Late Show with David Letterman. The band thought it would be a great idea to wear druid capes for their performance. They talk about when they began playing they had this feeling of “what are we doing?” Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden say you can see it in their faces if you watch the video close enough. It’s called imposter syndrome and it’s real. Every episode has some hint at artists claiming that they have a moment of “this is stupid.” Even if you are singing about how it is “Time to Pretend,” it can be difficult to “fake it till you make it.”
It can be nice to see that you are not the only one who feels like an idiot in a stupid cape.
Good Songwriters Know: There Is Beauty In The Mundane
If you haven’t listen to a Sound Exploder Podcast yet, your introductory episode should be “Episode 28:The Long Winter.” The breakdown of “The Commander Thinks Aloud” will put you in a funk–a good, melancholy mood, but a funk nonetheless. The song is about the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster that happened in 2003. Initially, the concept song seems hokey. As John Roderick, the singer and songwriter, walks you through how each piece played a part in the telling of the story of the disaster, the song becomes more genuine. Roderick explains that he is interested in “ the unfolding, the dawning reaction” of what happens in desperate situations. He strives to find the “beauty in the mundane” in his writing.
“The Commander Thinks Aloud” is a lovely exercise in finding beauty in the little things. So much so that I found beauty in figuring out that John Roderick’s speaking voice sounds exactly like Seth Rogan.