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🎶 Song Exploder But For X
Edition 094 of Design Insight
Hi there 👋 I'm Michelle and this is Edition 094 of Design Insight. A weekly newsletter about creativity and design.
Let's get started.
The Song Exploder format is a great way to deconstruct a creative piece of work like a song. I wonder what other things could you deconstruct in this way?
Song Exploder is a podcast (also now a TV show I just found out) that deconstructs songs through interviews with the musicians, producers, and or directors who worked on the song.
You hear first-hand the story behind specific lyrics, why certain instruments were chosen, and how the song was recorded. All of this is accompanied by snippets of single tracks from the song like a drum beat, a vocal, or a guitar.
I've listened to Song Exploder before but after coming back to it again recently, I have a much greater appreciation for the insight it gives you into the creative process of making a song.
I find myself taking little snippets of insights from each episode that really help me to think about my own creative practice.
Here are the key insights I've taken in so far on my listening journey:
You gain first-hand insight into the creative process behind a piece of music
Take the song "Hung Up" by Madonna as a recent example I listened to.
When she heard the sample of the Abba song with added effects, she could hear the lyrics to the song in her head immediately. The vocal track in the song is the very first take that was recorded!
Madonna: "I immediately heard the melody in my head, like, (Sings) "Every little thing that you say or do." I heard that, Like I just knew it, like, I just felt intuitively, This is something, this is gonna be something."
Stuart: "And you started singing immediately into the mic. The first vocal that we did is the final vocal on the track."
Madonna: "But a lot of times it happens like that: the first vocal you do, the demo vocal, is always the one you end up using. And you try to perfect it, and you just go, “Oh, fuck, nothing’s better than the demo vocal” and you go back to it." - Song Exploder - Madonna
Another example from "This Town Aint Big Enough For Both Of Us" by Sparks.
They started by creating the music and worked the lyrics around that. As it turned out the lyrics and the melody gelled pretty well together despite it being vocally difficult to pull off.
"There weren't any lyrics for it at the time. We almost always have the music first and then add lyrics later, just because we don't want the music structure to be restricted by kind of a very formal, blocking out of the lyrics. We were trying to figure out something, because the song was kind of cinematic in a way. So, the Western cliché, “This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us,” I don't know, it just kind of came to mind". - Song Exploder - Sparks
The example I was most moved by was "Still" by Kenny Beats, a song and artist I'd never heard of. I highly recommend you give this episode a listen.
"So, I was home, and I was kind of just looking through stuff, looking through stuff, looking through stuff. And I was listening to gospel records and samples to try to just get inspired for a chord change. And I heard Linda Kemp. And then, she started saying I really meant it... So I take the Linda sample. I start to chop the pieces that feel important to me. I started to filter some things and kind of create what felt to me like an intro. I kept having these moments where I was trying to snap myself out of how emotional I was getting. I had this embarrassment of like, feeling like I was about to cry. About chopping a sample and putting some drums on it. Because I'm thinking about my dad." - Song Exploder - Kenny Beats
Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco describes getting that creative itch at 3 am and feeling this insatiable need to get the song out of his head:
"I was wandering around my studio aimlessly at 3:00 AM, 4:00 AM. And I had this earworm in my head. (Brendon sings) I just kept, like, humming that over and over. Then I started questioning myself, like, What am I doing here? Why am I still awake right now? Why won't my brain turn off? ‘Shut up and go to bed!' Like, I was so drained, but I was restless, you know, 'cause I had this idea and I knew I needed to sleep, but I couldn't. That's usually how it starts for me: I have this thing trapped in my brain, I gotta get it out and it won't leave my head until I put it down melodically. So I shut the doors and started recording all this stuff in the studio." - Song Exploder - Panic! At the Disco
Impostor syndrome is everywhere
It's fascinating how prevalent impostor syndrome is across all creative fields, and songwriting is no different.
It's common to hear people say "Oh I thought no one would like this" or, "I thought nothing of it so I kept it locked away in a drawer until X found it".
"And at the end of the day doing it, I had this thing called "Kiss From A Rose." I, I remember kind of listening to the tape, and I kind of tossed the tape to one side, because I wasn't particularly proud of it. ... I remember this friend of mine would always tell Trevor, he said, you know, Seal's got this Rose song, you should get him to play it to you. And Trevor would keep saying to me, "What, what's this song that Paul keeps going on about, this Rose song?" And I'd be like, "Ah, no, no, don't worry about it." You know, and I just passed it off as being nothing." - Song Exploder - Seal
Most people don't know what they're doing, but do it anyway
You'll also hear a lot of people say they don't know what they're doing they just like making music.
People may not be trained in how to read or write sheet music but that doesn't stop them from creating something.
"I'm not classically trained. I never fully got to study music theory. I picked up some instruments growing up, piano and flute, but I truly forgot how to play any of those instruments. And so, my relationship with music when I started making it, which was in early adulthood, had been very ignorant, in this freeing way, where I just trust my feeling and my ears. When I'm coming up with the vocals and lyrics, it is a lot of trial and error, just like how I write synths and drums and everything else." - Song Exploder - Yaeji
"I had no experience in the studio, in a proper recording studio, at that point. And so, I didn't know the rules. And it started out as a bit of an experiment, because I'd just got this piece of recording apparatus called a 4-Track. And I was trying to figure out how to use it. I couldn't play an instrument at the time. But I tried to imagine what an orchestra would do, and, and came up with these parts" - Seal explaining how inexperienced he was at the time Kiss From A Rose was created. - Song Exploder - Seal
What other medium would do well in the format of "Song Exploder but for X?"
As if to pre-empt my question, the creator of Song Exploder already answered this by creating a popular spin-off entitled "Book Exploder" to which I'm now also subscribed.
So it seems any type of art/media can be processed through an "exploder-style" format.
In today's world would people listen to a podcast "like Song Exploder but for TikTok videos"? I'll leave that one with you dear reader as I'm not going down that rabbit hole 😅
Some more ideas:
What would be "the Song Exploder but for video games"?
Or maybe "the Song Exploder but for movies"?
What about "the Song Exploder but for podcasts"? Too meta?
I'm sure most of these exist in one form or another so I definitely have more work to do to uncover them across the web (recommendations welcome!)
🔗 Curated Links
A collection of links I found interesting this week:
Great video from CGP grey on the design of US State flags: DOES YOUR FLAG FAIL? Grey Grades The State Flags! - YouTube
I discovered this YouTube channel during my collage research and I still watch it regularly because it's so chill and relaxing: Quick and Easy COLLAGE ART CARDS + What I do when things go sideways - YouTube
An absolutely beautiful website of interactive Pokémon Cards. Even if they aren't your thing you have to admit this website is pretty amazing: Pokémon Cards CSS Holographic Effect
A useful Obsidian plugin I started using at work to track my Jira tickets: obsidian-jira-issue
There's a rumour going around that PlayStation is working on a new handheld device, however early indications are it'll just be a device for remote play. Looking forward to seeing what comes of this: EXCLUSIVE - Sony's Next PlayStation Handheld - Insider Gaming
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Til next week 👋