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1 December 2016

How podcasts are reinventing music journalism

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

By Caroline Crampton

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 of 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.”

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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 next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here