What do an R&B singer-songwriter, a genius playwright, a rock ‘n’ roll legend and a California hitmaker all have in common? To any practical person, they are all insane. But they’ve also come together as subjects for the four-part docuseries “Song Exploder,” hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, which emerged from the popular podcast of the same name. Each episode focuses on one of these iconic musical artists and takes fans on a televised journey, revealing how their most beloved songs were created.

The guests chosen for the series are Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M. and Ty Dolla $ign. At first glance, these artists and their creations have little in common. Yet, there is one underlying commonality in their operations: feel first, build later. 

The core of being an artist is absolute lunacy. It’s to stumble upon something — a feeling — that just works, and to try to deliver it to an audience in a fathomable way. There’s nothing about it that makes any rational sense, and that is precisely what makes it so profound. 

Whether you’re a creative yourself or just a music fan, it’s difficult not to be moved by how much genuine passion this series is built with. Besides hosting the podcast and show, Hirway is a musician and composer, and his love for the craft is always evident. He asks questions that are strictly about the music, gives himself as little screen time as possible and ends each episode by playing the song being examined in its entirety. The people who make this show aren’t concerned with cheap gimmicks. They’re just as big of fans as we are, and they’re dying to get inside the minds that have created such monumental works of art.

Nobody encapsulates that honest love for music more than Alicia Keys. So it makes sense that she was the chosen guest to kick off the show. In her episode, she breaks down her 2020 song “3 Hour Drive” which features younger R&B artist Sampha. For Alicia, songwriting is a joyful process. She explains how adding fewer instruments can actually make a song “feel bigger,” a remark that captures the stripped down beauty of her music. 

She and Sampha begin by singing out words to a composition, until they finally land on the phrase “three-hour drive.” The small line strikes a chord with both of them for very different reasons. It’s a complete instinct, and they chase it down until they emerge victorious with a full piece.

If Alicia’s songwriting process can be described as tender and honest, then Lin-Manuel Miranda’s is completely manic. The brilliant rapper-playwright is a lovable dork, absolutely obsessed with finding just the right feeling. In one of the more memorable moments of the show, he recounts how he thought of the idea for the Hamilton standout song “Wait For It” while riding the train to a friend’s party. While fast-walking through the streets of New York, he quietly and shakily sings the chorus into his phone, hastily trying to get it down. When he arrives at the party, he leaves after half a drink. 

Breaking down the intro track to his debut album, Ty Dolla $ign talks about how important the “car test” is to him. He is driven by the need for everything to sound just right, and to do so, he’ll go through five bass players until he finds one he likes. To make a bigger sound on his song “LA,” he spent $75,000 of money he did not have just to hire an orchestra for one part of a single song. 

Artists are crazy. 

To make something great, you have to be willing to chase down a shapeless idea that may not make sense to anyone else. And you have to be willing to commit to it. There’s no right way to do it. There aren’t any steps to follow that will guarantee you arrive at your destination. To many people, operating in that gray area is terrifying. But to an artist, that pursuit is the only thing worth doing.

“Song Exploder” celebrates the tremendous amount of time, effort and human emotion that goes into everything an artist does, and how insane you have to be to do it well.

Contributor Ben Servetah can be reached at bserve@umich.edu.

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