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Because being a musician consists of a lot more skills other than just playing your instrument, here are a few podcasts to get you to the next level or at least out of writer’s block.
The Song Exploder podcast has captivated musicians and non-musicians alike. Host Hrishikesh Hirway brings on an artist to deconstruct a song and to talk about his or her process, techniques, and those moments when the proverbial lightbulb goes off.
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From Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo sharing his spreadsheet of partial lyrics (separated by syllables, of course) to Peter Bjorn and John writing, and rewriting, the hit song “Young Folks,” each episode feels like the music equivalent of watching a master chef cook after selecting the key ingredients to concocting a delectable dish.
Recommended episode: With over 80 episodes and counting, it’s difficult to choose a single episode to recommend. But when Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson recounts writing “Multi-Love” by tweaking a broken synthesizer and walking around the room for hours as he repeatedly sang the same few lines like a maniac, this episode will inspire you to think outside the box.
Critics talk about other people’s work and artists often talk about their own work. But rarely do artists talk about someone else’s work. The Talkhouse podcast brings multiple artists, usually in a one-on-one conversational setting, to talk about each other’s music. The podcast, produced by Elia Einhorn, is a branch of the Talkhouse website, run by editor Brenna Ehrlich.
Hearing two musicians talk about songwriting, touring, and other moments is a cool way to learn about your favorite artists.
Recommended episode: In a very Chicago-centric episode, Jeff Tweedy’s son, Spencer, chats with Julian Ehrlich and Max Kakacek of Whitney. They talk about doing music in Chicago’s rock scene, Jeff Tweedy’s studio, and even about the possibility of collaborating.
In these largely unedited long-form interviews, Jesse Cohen of the band Tan Lines brings on different guests for No Effects, usually but not always of the musical ilk. Through open-ended dialogue, these artists often speak of their stories, their initial struggles or challenges, and just about everything else. Cohen has interviewed Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and NPR’s Microphone Check about how “music is news” and Peggy Wang about playing in the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and later quitting the band to serve as one of BuzzFeed’s first editors.
While these conversations may cover a lot of topics, the interviews tend to revolve around the artist’s story of first starting out and how those early experiences ultimately shape them.
Recommended episode: Though there many a lot of episodes featuring accomplished musicians, like Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes or Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, MNDR’s interview is especially fascinating. She recounts growing up on a farm in North Dakota, auditioning to play bass for Hole, and writing psychedelic music in an Oakland warehouse.
Listening to an artist’s story about facing challenges in the early days of recording or touring can be inspiring. But, in addition to the creative tasks, musicians also need to know how the music industry is changing.
The DIY Podcast takes on everything from legally selling a cover song, tips for a building a better website, to dealing with negative press or reviews. The podcast’s hosts bring on experts for each topic, whether it’s an artist, a promoter, a publisher, or a lawyer. The show’s essential to beefing up the business and marketing side of your musical endeavors.
Recommended episode: The roundtable discussion on “how to craft your story” reinforces the idea that an artist’s narrative leads a listener to a place. Music publicist Dmitri Vietze joins the show to help musicians discover their stories and then how to tell it.
When Knobs launched in 2015, they started with a bang. In the first few episodes, the hosts interviewed Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and Dan Deacon, just to name a few.
As its name implies, Knobs is about sound. It’s about finding and honing a sound through equipment and technique. Ranaldo talked about his pedal setup and hanging his guitar from a tree. Jason Lytle of Grandaddy brought the hosts into his home studio to discuss production techniques. In short, the series is for gear nuts.
Recommended episode: The one where Nels Cline talked about his work in Wilco, his recent solo album Lovers, and his extensive guitar collection.
Like many of the artists they’ve interviewed, Sock Monkey Sound started in a basement. This podcast, based in Rockford, Illinois covers topics of a wider scope than the specifics of guitar pedals, recounting self-booked tours, or listing the ins-and-outs of licensing songs on Spotify. Instead, they go broad by looking at the culture at large.
Lately, they’ve been breaking down genres, from Prog Rock to K-Pop. While they bring on guests, their conversations often center on concepts, like the idea of guilty pleasures and whether musicals are soundtracks or not.
Recommended episode: In a recent episode, Sock Monkey Sound explored the history of Motown and the label’s importance in reaching across racial lines as a black-owned business.
There is an entire world of music podcasts out there, from a more traditional radio approach, like NPR’s All Sounds Considered or WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, to the shows people have recorded in their closets and garages, like The Pitch or Turned Out a Punk. But these will get you help you get inspired as you learn more about the artists you admire, or help you learn more about music business or gear.
Colin Smith is a guitarist/vocalist in the band King Median. He is also the Head Editor at Roots of Success and an auditor for the Chicago alt-weekly Newcity. He writes about the arts, literature, and music for Third Coast Review, Off-Kilter Magazine, Buried Muse, and Performer Magazine. Find him on Twitter @colinsaburo