I first fell in love with the voice of Hrishikesh Hirway when he was a guest on the Gilmore Guys podcast. I remember I was on the treadmill of my local YMCA (you know this was a while ago, because I was in a gym...exercising!) when I heard this man say he was Team Luke. Eventually I listened to many episodes of his West Wing podcast with Josh Malina while on (what used to be) my very long work commute. One of my pandemic comforts has been Home Cooking, a funny and lovely podcast he co-hosts with Samin Nosrat, another great voice and very talented person, from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Somehow, I kept missing out on Song Exploder. And Netflix changed all of that in October.
The first episode of Volume 1 shows the making of Alicia Keys’ “3 Hour Drive.” A collaboration with British singer-songwriter Sampha, “3 Hour Drive” is a song that is perfect for this literature professor’s lesson on tone. The same lyrics are performed from such different perspectives; Keys’ interpretation of “heading nowhere” and “now that you’re not here” does not hold the heartbreak it does for Sampha. The song is a simultaneous celebration of the beginning of life, and the pain that comes at the end of it.
As a fan of Hamilton (saw it twice!), I knew I’d enjoy learning the process of “Wait for It.” I still get goosebumps when I remember Lin-Manuel Miranda writing a part of it on the subway on his way to a friend’s birthday party. It reminded me of when I was in college, and I could not stop writing, so I carried my moleskin in my hand everywhere just in case a line for a poem would come.
The first volume of Song Exploder also includes REM’s “Losing My Religion,” which was definitely a song on my growing-up soundtrack, and the series also introduced me to Ty Dolla $ign’s “LA.” These four songs immediately became a mini-playlist I used to welcome my students into our Zoom meetings the following week. You don’t start your Zoom meetings with music? Then you better start!
When I learned that Natalia Lafourcade would be one of the featured artists in Volume 2 of Song Exploder, I knew I’d have to watch that episode first. I was introduced to Natalia Lafourcade just a couple of years ago by one of my colleagues, who immediately burned for a few of us her two most recent CDs (yeah, we are old school like that). Those two CDs were Musas: Un Homenaje al Folclor Latinoamericano en Manos de los Macorinos, a fantastic collaboration with an acoustic duo that covers Latin American folk music and includes a few Lafourcade originals.
But it is a song from a previous album, “Hasta la Raíz” (“To the Root”), that gets the Song Exploder treatment. And learning the story of this song made me understand her journey to Musas, how her pop sensibility becomes more and more influenced by her Veracruzana roots. To learn that this is not a love song to a person, but a love song to her identidad, made me cry into the homemade pozole I had just made. When she thanks Hirway “por la terapia!” at the end of the episode, I laughed aloud because I felt that I, too, had just undergone a therapy session of my own. Maybe the tears came because I was seeing mi gente on my TV, and hearing the Spanish and English weave back and forth made me feel closer to the land I miss so much. Maybe it was because watching the episode with my kids made me tell them for the first time that they, too, have raíces en Veracruz. Or maybe it was because Natalia Lafourcade was the very last concert I attended pre-pandemic, one at which I danced and sang under the stars, with so many other people. And I really miss people.
For an intro to Natalia Lafourcade and Musas, check out her Tiny Desk Concert! And to watch the story behind “Hasta la Raíz” and seven other great songs, check out Song Exploder on Netflix.