from our Optimisticles blog series
By Wes Kilgore, Well Beings
Anyone who knows anything about the creative process is aware that, for better or worse, misery can be a wellspring of creativity. “Song Exploder,” the hugely popular podcast that spawned the Netflix series of the same name, is all about the creative process. Host Hrishikesh Hirway interviews musicians as they take apart their songs piece by piece to tell the story of how they were made. In this Optimisticle, we’ll look at some of the artists who were willing to talk to Song Exploder about how they were able to channel their pain and emotional trauma into musical magic.
Arlo Parks – Black Dog
According to NME, Arlo Parks, 2021’s BRIT award winner for Breakthrough Artist, released 2020’s “most devastating song.” In Parks’ episode of “Song Exploder,” she breaks down “Black Dog,” which she wrote about her best friend who was going through a period of depression and anxiety. Parks says lyrics like, “Sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this / And honestly it’s terrifying” express how she experienced what her friend was going through. Both the song and the interview allude to suicide, so please be mindful before listening.
Girl in Red – Serotonin
Norway’s Marie Ulven, aka girl in red, made The New York Times’s best songs of the year lists in 2018 and 2019, and she was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Norwegian Grammys. Here, Marie discusses “Serotonin,” a song that started as a TikTok video she posted in the early days of lockdown in 2020. With lyrics like,“I’m running low on serotonin / Chemical imbalance got me twisting things / Stabilize with medicine / There’s no depth to these feelings,” the song is an honest account of the state of Ulven’s mental illness during quarantine.
This episode contains frank discussion of mental health issues, including panic attacks, medical fears and
thoughts of self-harm.
Lucy Dacus – Thumbs
Lucy Dacus is a singer and songwriter from Richmond, Virginia. She put out her first album in 2016, and in 2018, she formed the band boygenius with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers. The song “Thumbs” is from her 2021 album “Home Video,” and was inspired by an incident in which she accompanied a close friend to a meeting with her estranged father — “a bad guy,” who she hadn’t seen in years. In the song, Dacus fantasizes about doing harm to her friend’s father, which she says is, “unlike me.” She explained to “Song Exploder” how she has had to come to terms with creating and playing a song that makes her uncomfortable because of its violent nature, but yet might be therapeutic on some level to some of her fans. “I wish less people could relate to
the song, honestly,” she says.
Sasha Sloan – Until It Happens To You
Sasha Sloan is a Nashville-based singer and songwriter who has written songs for artists like Katy Perry, John Legend, and Charli XCX. In this episode, Sasha (along with her boyfriend, producer Henry Allen, aka King Henry) tells the story of making her song “Until It Happens To You” — a song about processing grief when someone close to you passes away. In it, she writes, “Somebody loses their somebody every day / But you’ll never really know what it’s like / ‘Til you wake up to some real bad news / You’ll never really know how it feels / ‘Til it happens to you.”
Kelly Lee Owens – On
Welsh electronic music producer and songwriter, Kelly Lee Owens, has released two critically acclaimed albums and done remixes for Björk and St. Vincent. Her most recent album, “Inner Song,” follows what Kelly describes as the three hardest years of her life. In this episode, she takes apart her song “On” and explains how the song’s tone and tempo shifts mirrored her own journey with processing her own trauma. “There’s something about when we go into the pain and we access those feelings of sadness or melancholy,” she says. “…it can be transformed. Transforming that pain and
finding the blessings within it.”
Imagine Dragons – Follow You
In this episode of “Song Exploder,” Dan Reynolds, lead singer of Imagine Dragon, shared the deeply personal story of his relationship with his wife that inspired the song “Follow You.” Reynolds discusses the toll that extensive traveling with his Grammy-winning band had taken on his marriage, and how that, along with a crisis of faith and unsuccessful couples therapy sessions, led to a decision to get divorced. But after seven months of separation, he explained, a funny thing happened on the way to the divorce attorney’s office…
Billie Eilish – Everything I Wanted
Billie Eilish’ debut album came out in 2019, when she was 17, debuted at Number 1 on Billboard, went triple platinum, and won five Grammys. Eilish, who has Tourette syndrome, has been very open about her mental health issues and doesn’t shy away from them in her songs. In this “Song Exploder,” she and her creative partner / producer — her brother Finneas — discuss writing her hit song, “Everything I Wanted.” You’ll hear the original voice memo they made while writing it, and the two of them explain why the song’s dark subject matter — suicide and suicidal thoughts — caused them to put it on pause for months.
Clairo – Alewife
Claire Cotrill, aka Clairo, is a young singer, songwriter, and producer with more than 40 million YouTube views and performances on Ellen and Jimmy Kimmel. In this episode, Clairo breaks down her song “Alewife,” inspired by a friend who was there for her during a very difficult time in her life. In the song, Clairo sings, “I met you by surprise / You were hangin’ out all the time /But you know you saved me from doin’ / Something to myself that night.”
Raleigh Ritchie – Time in a Tree
Raleigh Ritchie is the musical alias of Jacob Anderson, a musician and actor who’s probably best known for playing
the character Grey Worm on Game of Thrones. He released his first album in 2016, and in September 2018, he released the single, “Time in a Tree.” In this episode, Anderson and Grammy-nominated producer Daniel Traynor, aka GRADES take apart “Time in a Tree” to explain how it was influenced by classic Hollywood movies, Billy Joel, and the overwhelming anxiety that Anderson has. “It’s about trying to work out what are the steps I need to take to just worry less, to find a bit of contentment and peace,” he says.
Janelle Monáe – So Afraid
Janelle Monáe is an award-winning musician and actress who has been nominated for multiple Grammys, and starred in the Oscar-winning films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Her 2018 release, Dirty Computer, included the song “So Afraid.” In this episode, Janelle Monáe takes “So Afraid” apart, to explain how she built it, step by step—beginning with a trip to the dentist and ultimately exploring all of her fears and anxieties. “I deal with anxiety, just like a lot of people do. And being so afraid meant at that time me measuring myself up against the accomplishments of everybody else,” she says. “… and
me making mistakes and forgiving myself for those mistakes. All those things can be very difficult. And they still are difficult for me to process.”
About the Author
Wes Kilgore is a writer, musician and bon vivant based in the Washington, DC area, and the proud parent of two disturbingly well-adjusted young women and two borderline sociopathic Corgis.