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Lesson learned from 'Song Exploder' leads Hirway to an album of his own songs


Hrishikesh Hirway gets to talk to a ton of songwriters. That's because of his podcast.


HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: You're listening to "Song Exploder," where musicians take apart their songs and, piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made. My name is Hrishikesh Hirway.

MARTÍNEZ: And he's talked to everyone - Alicia Keys, Metallica, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Fleetwood Mac. I mean, it's a stunning list that just goes on and on. Hirway was himself a songwriter before he started the series. Now he's taking some of the lessons he's learned over the years, and he's written a new collection of his own songs.


HIRWAY: (Singing) Oh, your stillness, let it fill this house in troubled times.

MARTÍNEZ: Hrishikesh Hirway's EP is called "Rooms I Used To Call My Own."

HIRWAY: I started "Song Exploder" when I kind of hit writer's block. I was feeling pretty stuck musically, and I didn't really know what to do. I wanted to do something creative and I wanted to do something with music, but I was kind of waiting things out. So that's kind of what began the show. But as I was doing the show, the writer's block kind of didn't go away, even though I was learning all these great lessons from musicians, because I think I was just focused on making the show - you know, putting one foot in front of the other. And it was only really in the last couple years that some of those lessons penetrated my thick skull.


HIRWAY: (Singing) You said you lost a part of yourself before we met.

I think the biggest problem, the thing that had caused writer's block for me primarily - which was the sense of, like, pressure just to get things right and to write well and make, you know, great songs or something like that. Instead of just writing songs, I was so focused on, like, well, are they good enough to put out into the world? Are they - is anybody going to care about them? But one of the big lessons that I learned, you know, that I heard over and over again in the show, was that that's actually not the way anybody really thinks about making songs, you know? Like, you really just have to do it. There's a level of practice where you just have to go in and knock out the work. And maybe something great will come out of it. But nothing's going to come out of it if you don't try.


HIRWAY: (Singing) Tell me the story you thought you couldn't tell.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, your new album, "Rooms I Used To Call My Own," is not your first album. But wondering - what do you hear in the music you've written and performed in the past that has maybe changed now?

HIRWAY: I think mainly it's different lyrically. What I'm writing about now is pretty bare-faced in terms of how it relates to my own life. I think when I was younger, I thought it was important or clever or cool to, you know, have layers of allegory and metaphor and stuff on top of everything. And I think one of the things that's changed is it's a way for me to just document who I am right now. And so I made these songs pretty directly about just the people who are closest to me and what I've been going through in my life.


HIRWAY: (Singing) You called out my name. Bring me some water, my love.

MARTÍNEZ: The song "Between Here And There" (ph) - that's about your mom, right? Your mom passed in the early months of the pandemic. I mean, did it help you process the grief of that?

HIRWAY: I think so. I'm not sure that I've processed it enough to know that - if it helped me process it.


HIRWAY: But it was certainly a really valuable experience, an experience that I think is part of what her death has been for me. You know, writing that song came so close on the heels after her funeral that it's kind of all wrapped up as one experience. But one thing that's been nice is having this thing that reminds me, at least, of what I was going through in that time, and also something that isn't just grief. Because I think the song - while it's, of course, sad because I wrote about my mom after she passed away - it gives me some continuing sense of connection to her in the present.


HIRWAY: (Singing) We'll have to meet in some shadow between there and here, between there and here.

MARTÍNEZ: I understand your mom also inspired the song "Memory Palace." Tell us about that.

HIRWAY: Yeah, that song was - it was actually first inspired by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She had written this public letter in the fall of 2018 where she said she had Alzheimer's, and she was essentially ending her public life and was going to sort of take a step back. And she issued this letter saying goodbye. And at that time, my mom was still alive. But my mom also had a neurological degenerative disorder.


HIRWAY: (Singing) I'm not giving up, just giving in. Yeah, I'm leaving. I'm leaving. I still love you. So I'm leaving.

The idea of being able to have a sense of what's going on with you and with your body, and then making a conscious decision about how you want to interact with the world because of it - it was really powerful.


HIRWAY: (Singing) Rearrange us into strangers until the person who you are is not who you've been.

My mom, as part of her condition, she basically stopped being able to speak. And she used to be an incredible storyteller, like, joker - just wonderful conversationalist. And while she was alive for many years after her diagnosis, that part of her kind of went away. And so we were living in this kind of transitional period where she was still here and I could see her, but I felt like I had lost some part of our relationship. There's so many things that I took for granted that I don't take for granted anymore, and I tried to put some of that in the music.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Hrishikesh Hirway. He's the host of the podcast "Song Exploder." His new EP is called "Rooms I Used To Call My Own." Thanks for joining us.

HIRWAY: Thank you so much for having me.


HIRWAY: (Singing) Strange how small it is when all that's left is... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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