In July 2020, when the pandemic was raging, and the uprisings were ongoing, Hrishikesh Hirway was missing his friends and family. Stuck at home with his wife and small dog, he expressed a yearning that struck a chord across the internet, tweeting, “I woke up with a small, specific sadness: I miss being on a trip with family or friends and waking up to the murmuring sound of other people, already awake, having a conversation in the kitchen in the morning.”

The tweet blew up — Hirway’s ability to condense so much feeling into the description of a simple sound allowed him to name a longing that others were feeling but hadn’t put into words for themselves.

Hirway has made a career guiding people through sounds, specifically songs, about which they feel deeply. His podcast, Song Exploder, which started in 2014, breaks songs into individual layers and gives artists the chance to tell the story of their creation, from the initial concept to final production. Song Exploder became a hit for music fans around the world and eventually was adapted to Netflix in 2020. But while Hirway’s careful consideration of others’ artistic journeys gained him a name as a podcaster, he is also a musician in his own right.

In the past six months, Hirway has released the first music he’s ever put out under his own name, since he started songwriting in late high school. He dropped the track “Home” early this year, featuring singer Jay Som. The song opens up some of the feelings that surfaced for him during the lockdown, like the one in that tweet.

“I probably can’t put too much emphasis on the pandemic and being at home for so long. It made me acutely aware of this place that sometimes I was frustrated by, or sometimes I took for granted, the house that we lived in,” he told Kajal.

The track digs into the dichotomy between disappointment and gratitude that Hirway felt for his home during those lockdown months, and into the ways in which his home reflected and transformed his relationship with his wife. (As for the layer of the song he most wants people to hone in on, Song Exploder-style: it’s the drums.)

This track isn’t the first art Hirway has put out that is centered around a concept of home. The song he released in late 2021, “Between There and Here,” was inspired by a dream he had of his mother, weeks after her funeral. He co-directed the music video in which the interior of a home is illustrated and illuminated by his mother’s silhouette.

Although Hirway never felt able to fully discuss his music career with his parents, he sometimes caught his mother humming his songs. That’s where the song “Between There and Here” came from, with Yo-Yo Ma playing cello in place of his mother’s hums. When asked about his mother, he speaks of the small ways she showed her support, including a time he played the Chicago punk venue the Fireside Bowl and his mom came to support, wearing her best sari.

The feelings his mother cultivated in his childhood home are ones he hopes to recreate in his adult life. In reflecting on the home his parents created for him, he spoke about Friday nights with friends watching movies, cuddling together on the sectional couch, eating his mother’s nachos. “I was really comforted,” he said, “I think that’s the thing I’m always trying to get back to now.”

photo by Rozette Rago

These two songs, “Home” and “Between There and Here,” are the first off a forthcoming EP and mark a shift away from a creative block Hirway was experiencing when he first began Song Exploder. Despite a desire to make a podcast that allowed others to witness the messiness of creation and feel empowered to create on their own, Hirway often could not get over the voice in his head that said, “I’m starting this, but it’s already not good and it’s never going to be as good as any of the artists who end up on Song Exploder.

This scrutiny is something that comes up again when Hirway talks about the adaptation of Song Exploder to Netflix. As opposed to the podcast, where the interviews are edited to not include Hirway’s questioning, Hirway is a visible part of the conversations in the show. This, he says, was a battle he lost–he would have preferred to remain out of sight.

“It introduced a whole new onslaught of self-consciousness,” he said.

He also is anticipating a tour with Jenny Owen Youngs in which he will play his first shows in almost a decade. This, too, inspires nerves around sharing his own creations and his own voice with others, the tone of “Will anyone think this is good?” creeping back into the conversation.

Self-scrutiny is something that Hirway has slowly overcome through collaboration. His collaborators, he said, including Jenny Owen Youngs and John Mark Nelson, helped him to protect his ideas from his own over-analysis. Turning to collaborators was a lesson he learned from artists on Song Exploder, who often had similar stories about the benefits of bouncing an idea off another person.

The subjects of his songs — the first two being deeply rooted in close relationships, one to his mother and the other to his wife–also drew some inspiration from his podcast. Through listening to artists like Clairo, Arlo Parks, and Lucy Dacus speak about songs that drew from deep friendships, Hirway decided he wanted his own work to do something similar.

“You felt the relationship of the artist to the other person so palpably, even though it’s just a song where you hear their voice,” he said. “I wanted to write about other people…to write something that felt really personal would be to write about the people who were closest to me.”

When asked how he keeps going after hundreds of similar interviews with artists, he described his creation process as one of manifesting his daydreams, of pulling at the threads of his curiosities until he can share them with others. Before, those curiosities sometimes threw him off balance to the point where he forgot his own voice, but now, he is striking a balance between accepting the spotlight and digging in behind the scenes.

Hirway’s heart remains in sharing life’s small specificities with the world — whether through broadcasting a feeling upon waking, breaking down a layer of a song that preoccupies him, or singing a melody he’s spent hours perfecting.