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How podcasts are reinventing music journalism

Let’s talk about songs, with the people who sing them.

I was in my teens when DVDs overtook VHS. As an avid recorder of live TV onto tapes – I loved those codes you could type in to schedule recordings and was an expert at pressing the red button at exactly the right moment – I was sceptical about this new technology. Until I experienced my first DVD extra, that is: the behind-the-scenes documentary for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I still remember the mixture of shock and pleasure I felt at seeing footage that revealed not just Middle Earth, but the crew who had brought it to the screen. Catching a glimpse of the thousands of seemingly mundane tasks that had gone into creating the final polished footage deepened my enjoyment of the final film.

In the past few years, a group of music podcasts has appeared that are seeking to give listeners this same access to the minutiae of creative decisions. They vary in approach, but have one thing in common: they are broadening and changing the scope of music journalism. Whereas critics working for print publications or established TV or radio networks can find themselves constrained by the available space or the requirement to get a rock star to give a headline-grabbing quote about politics, these podcasters are free to put as much emphasis as they like on the details of a single song.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is Song Exploder, a music podcast created and presented by Hrishikesh Hirway. It is a member of the US-based network Radiotopia, which often presents itself as a collection of “storytelling” shows. Hirway’s format, in which he interviews a musician about a single song and invites them to “explode” it – ie, take it apart layer by layer so listeners can hear how it was constructed – perhaps doesn’t initially sound like it would produce a strong narrative. You quickly realise the depths that this podcast is capable of exploring, though. In Hirway’s episode about U2’s “Cedarwood Road”, for instance, Bono explained that the song’s lyrics reflect his anger about his childhood. And in the one about Death Cab for Cutie’s “El Dorado”, Ben Gibbard reflected on the fact that the writing the song was part of how he processed his feelings about getting divorced. The stories are there in the way the music is made.

The audio techniques that Hirway uses to complement his discussion with each artist are the true star of the show. As the interviewee talks through the decisions they made about instrumentation, lyrics, production and the rest, isolated elements of the song are played – just the backing vocals, say, or the bass line. Hirway explained to me over email that this blending of words and music was integral to his original vision for the podcast.

“In my own experience making music, I had built a lot of my songs track by track, rather than with a live band recording all at once,” he said.  “It's a special kind of listening experience, where you can hear all kinds of new details and beautiful moments that ultimately get flattened or washed out in the fully-mixed version of the song. I thought that more people should get to hear songs that way. I thought others might feel the same sense of magic that I did.”

Even though Song Exploder episodes are very short – frequently under 15 minutes – there is a sense of space and wonder that the format produces. Hearing the ethereally isolated vocal track from your favourite song, or the wobble of a synthesiser that you learn has been recorded directly into a cassette player, can stop you in tracks. On top of that, Hirway works hard at giving his interviews a sense of intimacy. As far as possible, he edits his own voice asking the questions out of the episodes, so that nothing can get between the artist and the listener. He does this, Hirway said, because he wants the show “to feel like the opposite of criticism”.

“The show isn't about me,” he said. “It's about the sounds of the song and the artist's creative process. . . Instead of having someone external to the music give their opinion and interpretation, Song Exploder is only supposed to be about the intent of the author. Keeping myself in the interviews takes away from that, because it makes the audience aware of an intermediary between the music and them.”

A skilful interview with a songwriter can completely change how you hear the most familiar of songs, as the Sodajerker on Songwriting podcast frequently demonstrates. “Sodajerker” is the name of Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, and since 2011 they have been recording in-depth interviews with songwriters, with the aim of revealing the craft behind the music. Their guests have included Paul Simon, Alicia Keys, Joan Armatrading and Rufus Wainwright, and they are just coming up to their hundredth episode.

Unlike Song Exploder, their show doesn’t have such a strictly-defined format. At the beginning and end of each episode, Simon and Brian introduce their guest and then at the end they reflect on what they have learned from the conversation. It’s what happens in between that makes the show special – as songwriters themselves, the interviewers know how to focus in on the details of the process that the listener would never otherwise be aware of. They are particularly good at developing a good rapport with their guests, and shape their show around these easy, free-flowing discussions, interspersing them with clips from the guest’s songs. The latter are used to illustrate a particular musical moment that has come up in the conversation, and also to provide an audio breaker. Barber told me that they try and keep their show under an hour – musical extracts are useful punctuation in among all the talking.

One of my favourite questions that the Sodajerker duo often ask their interviewees refers to exactly how a song is written: are melodies sung straight into a phone, or lyrics typed on a laptop, or notes scrawled on bits of paper? It’s such an obvious-seeming inquiry, yet it never fails to illicit a fascinating response, as the songwriter in question responds with an anecdote about how a new tune lived in their phone’s voice memos for months, say, before it got to the studio.

The chemistry between the hosts helps, too. Barber told me over email that he and O’Connor had been “friends since our school days and [are] working together regularly, so we already had the rapport of best friends”. However, when it comes to recording, they try to stay in the background and allow their guest to take centre stage. “We never make the episodes about us. We shut up and listen,” Barber said.

“We are very deliberately focused on the work and the songwriting process, as opposed to tales of the road or the trappings of fame. Many of our guests have said that they find that refreshing,” he said. Their list of guests is impressive, especially given that theirs is an independent podcast, and Barber explained that a lot of work goes into securing the interviews, and then preparing for them.

“Some people we’ve pursued like bounty hunters across a course of years and either eventually landed a chat with them, or accepted that it’s unlikely to happen,” he said “Others we’ve approached and had a personal reply within minutes agreeing to our invitation. It really depends on how the artist operates. . . These days we receive a constant influx of pitches from managers and other reps, so we are often spoiled for choice and have to say no to loads of talented folks. Being offered the interview with Paul Simon is our crowning achievement in that regard,” he explained. Paul McCartney would be their dream guest, he told me – “the holy grail”. With their Liverpool connection (although they sometimes have to travel for interviews, most of the show is produced there), listeners can only hope their quest for the Beatles legend will be successful.

Both Hirway and Barber agree on the fact that podcasting as a medium lends itself particularly to this style of music journalism, which prioritises exploring the creative decisions behind the songs over revealing aspects of the musician’s personality. “It’s an easier connection than text or video; both [podcasts and music are] natively made to be listened to, and only listened to,” Hirway said. “So, to illustrate a musical idea – a potentially abstract and difficult task – all you have to do is put the words and the music together.”

Barber added that he sees an accessibility benefit too – “because of the very low barriers to access the recording and distribution of audio these days, podcasting affords anyone with a passion or a point of view an opportunity to share their ideas with the world”. This works both ways, too. The explanatory style of these shows means that the listener doesn’t necessarily need any prior knowledge of the music being discussed to find the conversations interesting or illuminating.

For me, Meet the Composer, a podcast from New York’s classical music radio station WQXR, epitomises this. Host Nadio Sirota’s interviews have a lot in common with those done by Hirway or the Sodajerker duo, but her guests are all contemporary classical composers. From her show, I’ve been introduced to the work of people like Anna Thorvaldsdóttir and Donnacha Dennehy, and as I’ve become immersed in the detailed discussions and extensive clips, I've felt all the usual barriers to finding and appreciating new classical music fall away.

It turns out that musicians really like to talk about the work that goes into their music, and podcasts provide them with the perfect place to do so. It has long been the case that niche subjects with dedicated audiences have found a natural home in podcasts, but now it seems that the medium can also provide an alternative for areas that are well covered by traditional media, too.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.