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Stars: Hrishikesh Hirway, Ty Dolla $ign, Bill Berry
It’s the Alicia Keys track 3 Hour Drive, and the footage – recorded by her label last year – captures Keys, her English co-writer Jimmy Napes and guest vocalist Sampha in a London studio, jamming around a simple chord progression Napes has written for keyboard.
Back and forth they go, Sampha improvising jazz runs on piano, Keys scat vocalising and occasionally coming up with actual words, until Napes interjects: “We need to think about what we’re saying.” By the end of the night, they have a fully formed song.
By rights, talking about what makes a great bit of music work ought to belong in the same category as dancing about architecture: brave, but doomed to failure. But it’s the insights into the actual process of creation – the song as organic life form emerging from a swamp of vague but evolving ideas – that makes Hrishikesh Hirway’s podcast, which has been running since January 2014, so good.
A TV adaptation was practically inevitable; the only real surprise in Netflix’s series, also presented by Hirway, is that it consists of only four episodes. It’s a visual demo tape, albeit on a Netflix budget; I think we can safely assume the full album will follow soon enough.
The four songs featured here are wildly varied: in addition to Keys we have Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Wait For It from the Broadway smash Hamilton; REM’s 1991 hit Losing My Religion, the song that marked their transition from indie darlings to global pop stars; and Ty Dolla $ign’s LA, the opening track from his 2015 album Free TC, recorded as a protest against what he insists is his brother’s wrongful imprisonment for murder.
Hirway is a terrific host, striking an attitude with his subjects that sits midway between easy and awkward. He’s curious and informed, but never fawning.
Typical is an amusing exchange with Ty Dolla $ign in which Hirway plays a stem (one isolated track from the many that comprise the finished song), and the artist asks where he got it.
“From the label.”
“Ah, somebody’s gettin’ fired, man. Nobody’s s’posed to have my files, man.”
“Really? That’s the secret sauce of this show.”
If so, the truffle on top is in those moments where the artists themselves discover something they had forgotten, never realised, or had long since learned to deny.
There’s the moment Miranda grimaces as he hears for the first time in many years the snatch of lyrics he recorded in a voice memo while taking the subway from one side of New York to the other. There’s the moment REM drummer Bill Berry beams in delight at the handclap he provided, forgot about, and didn’t even realise was on the finished track until it’s played for him.
But for me, the highlight is Michael Stipe reflecting on his enigmatic lyrics, written while pacing around the recording studio and occasionally sitting at a table to bang out a phrase on a typewriter.
Losing My Religion is about a lonely person wracked with self-doubt daring to reach out to someone in whom they are romantically interested, he concedes. But, he insists, “it’s a total fabrication”.
He says he can’t quite recall the lyrics; Hirway gives him a sheet, and he reads them, some aloud, some to himself, and it’s like he’s contemplating them almost for the first time.
“That’s just textbook insecurity right there,” Stipe says. “This guy is really unsure, he’s in quicksand, he has no idea where it’s going.”