Song Exploder – Eavesdrop on your Favorite Artists in the Studio
Everyone loves eavesdropping. And this podcast is all about eavesdropping on your favorite artists as they talk about their songwriting process. It’s a quick podcast—about 15 minutes—where an artist pulls apart one of their songs and tells you how it was made: the sounds, the inspiration, and the process. Song Exploder interviews a variety of different artists, from Odessa to the Lumineers, to Iggy Pop and Daedalus, Andrew Bird and Carly Rae Jepsen. Even if you’ve never heard of the artist before, or aren’t interested in that style of music, it’s always productive to learn how other artists approach the process.
Here are some songwriting styles and stories that stood out to me the most—maybe they’ll fascinate you, too.
-Did you know the intro bass line from Chet Faker’s “Gold” came to him in the middle of the night? He had to record it softly in an iPhone note as to not wake his girlfriend (sound familiar to anyone?).
-tUnE-yArD’s Merrill Garbus samples a clanging metal water bottle for that tinny sound that compliments perfectly with the line “no water in the water fountain” in the song “Water Fountain.”
-The intro to “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso is actually in 3/3 time and the notes aren’t quantized. Nick Sanborn, the producer, recorded the notes using his computer keyboard, and didn’t snap them to grid to give the song a more human feel.
-The synths in MGMT’s hit “Time to Pretend” are actually just Reason’s stock synths. Oh, and it was written while the two producers were in college.
One of the most interesting songwriting styles I came across was Weezer. Weezer, for example, has a highly methodical songwriting style. Rivers Cuomo, the electric guitarist and singer, keeps a Spotify playlist of songs with cool chord progressions that he wants to use himself. Then, he’ll choose one of the songs, re-play it on guitar and record it “Weezer-style,” and set it away for a while to get the original tune out of his head. When he returns to the song, he’ll ad-lib vocals over it until he comes up with a cool melody.
For lyrical inspiration, Rivers is constantly eavesdropping in on conversations and raking his surroundings to find interesting lines. When he hears or comes up with something he likes, he adds it to an excel spreadsheet, where the lines are organized by accents and syllables. When it’s time to sit down to write the lyrics, he searches his spreadsheet for lines whose rhythm and pattern can replace the ad-libs of the song. Rivers then orders the lines in a way that tells a coherent story—or at least inspires one. In the end, while it may sound like Rivers is telling a story from his own experience, in actuality each line came to him separately. It’s just organized in a way that makes it sound real. Cuomo says: “I’m trying to write songs that I don’t understand […] once I feel like I totally understand the song and there’s no mystery there I can’t really enjoy it anymore.” Instead, he creates enigmatic, three minute adventures that have him scratching his head for years.
The songwriting process is as unique as it is universal: while each artist makes the songwriting process their own, similar themes prevail. Here is an overview of the main takeaways I’ve gleaned listening to the podcast:
Our artist heroes are actually just like us. They produce in their underwear. In their bedrooms. Eating cereal. They take voice notes in their phones. They ad-lib and make up weird words until real lyrics arise. They walk around the house recording crunching paper and singing tea kettles. They experiment. They get struck at random by bouts of inspiration. And they don’t. They get writers block. They hate their work. They love their work. They just want to make music.
All songs start with a single inspiration. That bass line that appears while you’re on the metro. One drum loop that hits the spot. The lyric that won’t leave your head. A little bit can go a very long way, so run with those little ideas.
Writer’s block happens. But inspiration also happens. When there’s, shall we say, no water in the water fountain, just keep working on your skill, and when the water finally flows, you’ll (more) “effortlessly” be able to fill up your cup. Trust that times of blockage are also times of absorption. While you may not be actively creating new
Recycle sounds. Open up a project from months or years ago, flip through old drum kits and recordings, and let old dogs do new tricks.
Character is not error. Unquantized notes, wobbly vocals, breaths, detuned instruments, out of key sounds. Sounds like these open up a window into the producer’s studio, and give a glimpse into the song-creation process. They bring the audience closer to the producer. And that is seriously cool.
Don’t make music based on what you think someone else will like. It’ll be crappy. Make the kind of music that speaks for you and to you. If you would want to hear it, chances are someone else will, too. There’s an audience out there for everything, so do you and the people will come.
There is no wrong way to make music. The only wrong way to make music is to not make music. Do what works for you.
Trust your gut. If it sounds good—it is good.
So, throw on a podcast to get inspired. Then, sit back, relax, and let Song Exploder, shall we say, blow your mind.