Hrishikesh Hirway Discusses the Magic of Collaboration

Hrishikesh Hirway, Photo by Jake Michaels
Hrishikesh Hirway, Photo by Jake Michaels

The host of Song Exploder and Partners shares his best interviewing tips.

Hrishikesh Hirway is the creator, host, and producer of Song Exploder, a podcast known for its smart, thorough dissections of music. His new podcast, Partners—a Mailchimp Presents production made in partnership with Radiotopia—is just as jam-packed with insights: Each episode explores the intricacies of the relationship between two people, whether that takes the form of a creative partnership, a romantic bond, or business ties.

The first season of Partners, naturally, includes musicians: One episode features twins Tegan and Sara Quin (of indie-pop band Tegan and Sara), while another spotlights Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and his son, Spencer. However, there's also a rather moving conversation between Salt Fat Acid Heat author Samin Nosrat and her good friend and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, as well as an illuminating chat between Instagram cofounders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, and one between Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna.

Hirway—who is also Partner's creator, host, producer, and composer—spoke to us about how he came up with the show, what makes it different from Song Exploder, and how to get the most out of an interview.

Spotify for Podcasters: How did you conceive of Partners?

Hrishikesh Hirway: I had been thinking about the movie When Harry Met Sally, a movie that I really, really love and have seen a bunch of times. In between sections of the movie, [the film is] intercut with these scenes of older couples who were telling the story of how they met—their origin stories. Those interstitial scenes are so sweet and so well-contained, and felt so rich. I thought, "That should be a podcast. Just that." That was where the first spark came from.

And then I started thinking about collaborating in general. For a long time, I did a lot of stuff on my own, and then I've had a couple of significant partnerships more recently in my life. I wanted to extend the idea of, "OK, if this is a show that's about love stories, what else counts as a love story?" It doesn't just have to be a romantic couple.

For a business partnership or a creative collaboration to really succeed and thrive—and especially to sustain itself over many, many years—it needs a lot of the same ingredients that a successful marriage does. It needs a lot of understanding and compromise and good communication. I got excited about the idea of framing those kinds of relationships as if they were being told in the romantic-comedy context of these couples in When Harry Met Sally.

In terms of your interview and guiding process for the Partners podcast, how is it different from Song Exploder?

With Song Exploder, it's a little bit easier, because it's so much more self-contained. Even where it's something that's taken years to make, the total number of hours the person has put into it is relatively contained. Whereas, you know, it's a lot harder when it's something more amorphous. Some of the people have known each other for years. Their partnership manifests in so many different ways; there isn't this external thing. It's not about the product of the thing that the two made together. It's not about the story of making Instagram or the story of creating Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It's really about the dynamic between the two of them.

One thing I had to learn is that it takes a lot longer to do the interviews than I had expected. There's so much ground to cover. I was basing it off the feeling of, "Oh, OK, Song Exploder interviews get pretty in-depth, and it might take me an hour and a half for a really, really in-depth interview." These are regularly stretching longer than that. There were several [that were] two-hour—and sometimes even two-hour-plus—interviews, because every piece of their dynamic can come out in different ways. How they speak to each other, how they sit next to each other.

With Song Exploder, I know where I'm going a lot of times, because I am a musician and it's something that I've lived with for so many years and I've thought about my own process. Here I had to start over and learn what the process was.

What did you learn about yourself as an interviewer from doing the first episodes of Partners?

Song Exploder, on paper, is a show about music. I had come to the realization over the years of making the show that the thing that was actually driving the way that I interviewed, the thing that I was really trying to follow the whole time, were feelings. Making Partners was me trying to explore that further without the music part at all. And just saying, like, "OK, what if it's just a show about feelings, and that's it?" Maybe that sounds simplistic to say. But it was interesting for me to learn how much I'm interested in just that—just in the emotional dynamics within people and between two people.

What interviewing advice do you have for people?

A really important thing is to learn the moment where you don't ask another question—like, to wait on your question, even if you have a follow-up. There's an instinct that is really important to develop, of [knowing] when to wait and see what the next sentences that they're going to say [might be] if you don't say anything at all.

A lot of times I feel like that's when the most interesting stuff comes out. You'll ask your question, they'll talk about it for a while, and you might give them a mm-hmm or something like that. But if you're waiting to see if there's more—sometimes there is more. Because I'm trying to dredge for the feelings underneath the information, sometimes the best strategy is just to keep waiting and keep listening. But you have to balance that too with not making it seem like you're not engaged.

Another piece of advice I have is for people who are doing interviews to also learn how to edit a show into its final form. I believe everybody should edit their shows. Regardless of whether it's long-form or short-form like Partners, they should still be doing editing to make it the tightest version of the form that they're doing, and possibly thinking about structure and things like that.

The biggest influence on me as an interviewer is my role as an editor. Twenty percent of my brain is always listening to what they're saying, thinking about how I can structure the episode out of what they're saying. In terms of what else I need—what other information I need, what question needs to be asked next—so much of that is informed by thinking about, "Okay, I have parts A, B, D, and E, but I still don't have C. So what question can I ask that's going to lead to something here that's going to fill in this part of the story?" That's been a really huge guiding principle for me, thinking about the edit while we're all talking.

—Annie Zaleski