In this episode, Charlie Harding, co-host of Switched on Pop, sits down with Tara Joseph to talk about his globally recognized and highly respected music podcast and how they delve deep into the composition and creativity that goes into the creation of popular music. He discusses with us their humble beginnings, the moment they signed their life changing partnership with Vox.com, and everntually producing their own book. Charlie also taps into music education, what he has learned about the core of the human experience, and the endless amount of things that we could listen to to explore and discover so much about ourselves and others.
Listen to the podcast here:
Charlie Harding’s Podcast, Switched on Pop, ponders the secret formulas of pop music in the best way possible
I’ve got to be honest, I’m feeling slightly in awe of my guest. Never before have I had a fellow podcaster onto the show and our guest is not any old podcaster. Let’s welcome to the show, co-host, and Executive Producer of Vox.com’s globally recognized and renowned music podcast Switched On Pop, the fabulous Charlie Harding. Charlie, how are you?
I’m doing wonderful. Thank you for having me on the show.
It’s an absolute pleasure. I like to start by asking, where are you situated?
I’m in my home in a little recording studio in Los Angeles where I live.
How have you been fairing up with COVID, etc.?
I am overwhelmingly blessed to get to work and produce at home as I have for many years. Luckily, I’m doing quite well and spending a lot of time with my family which I’m grateful for.
I’m pleased to hear that. It’s interesting because I’ve spoken to a few composers in a similar way to yourself. You’re in chosen isolation but we’ve all been in forced isolation. I imagine that sometimes the creative process can be a little different. You’re a songwriter as well and producer.Musicality is a core of our human experience. Click To Tweet
I make everything that I make sitting right where I’m sitting surrounded by my synthesizers and guitars and all kinds of instruments all around me that I use to make music. I produce my show and I make my music from the space. That has been a big shift in the way that people both make music and produce audio is that you can make high-quality material from home now.
What I am keen to know is take us back to the beginning. Tell us about Switched On Pop. How did you start it with your co-host Nate Sloan?
My co-host, Nate, is a musicologist at USC here in Los Angeles as well. We had played music together for a long time. We’re friends from college but we developed our musical relationship when we happened to both live in San Francisco at the same time. We bumped into each other on the street and he invited me over to a little jam session in his living room. To be honest, I was quite in awe because I’m lucky my collaborator Nate happens to be one of the best pianists I’ve ever known. I’m like, “I get to play with Nate.” I’m an okay guitarist but I’m grateful that I’m getting invited along. I go and play and there’s this little fun thing. We play some acoustic bluegrassy old-timey music together and started up this little monthly group that we get together.
We make songs. We do it entirely for fun with no ambition other than having a great time together. In many ways, that’s my favorite thing that can happen in music is when people are gathered to enjoy sound collectively with no other higher prospect, not looking for fame or success, just enjoying each other and the music. We had such a good time that when our band sadly had to break up because we were moving, he was going to New York and I was going to Los Angeles. We thought, “How can we maintain a musical collaboration and do so over a long distance?” It’s hard to jam over Skype or Zoom. I did talk at a sidebar to Jacob Collier. He’s a genius composer, multi-instrumentalist. There are endless titles and he’s figured out how to play in his mind in two different time-spaces at once so that he can jam over the internet where there’s this lag. It’s hard enough to have a conversation because of the lag but he can do that.
We couldn’t pull this off. Nate and I thought, “Why don’t we find a way to have a meaningful musical conversation every single week?” In 2014, we started Switched On Pop. We were inspired by the great composer, Wendy Carlos, who made an album Switched-On Bach that was challenging the classical perceptions of the role of the synthesizer in popular music and classical music. Taking from that inspiration, we thought about similarly we could discuss the composition and creativity that goes on in popular music and try to bring some of the more critical perspectives of musicology and songwriting to the table.
We did that for fun for a year. This is the early days of podcasting 2.0 where Siri has just launched. There were not a lot of music podcasts happening. We got lucky that we got a shoutout on NPR. I don’t know how NPR had been listening to our show but somebody had. That gave us this whole audience. All of a sudden, we realized that we had a responsibility to not just shoot the breeze on the microphone with each other, but now we’re serving a whole people. We’ve been doing this since 2014. It went from being an entirely part-time for a fun project and gradually became my full-time job.
Before you got your shoutout, were you editing everything yourselves and getting down and dirty to make everything happen?
For the first two years, I was doing almost everything from prepping conversations, tracking, taking out the trash, cutting audio. It was a great opportunity to learn different story forms, podcast structures, to experiment a lot, to get better at mixing and mastering. The early episodes don’t sound as good as the later episodes. I’m lucky to have a small team of people that support me so that we’re able to produce shows at a much greater speed. Our first year, we only put out fourteen episodes. Now we put out at least 52 episodes a year.
When you transitioned to making Switched On Pop into a business, that must’ve been quite a big change. If you were doing it as a hobby and all of a sudden it becomes a big entity, did you leave other jobs to be able to focus on Switched On Pop? What did you do?
I was happily acting as a part-time music journalist for many years. In that period, I was also working as a manager in a nonprofit that worked on human rights issues. I had a whole other career path that I had been pursuing. When the show found a sizable audience, it became possible to quit my job and to get to think about music all the time, which I figured was an incredible and rare opportunity, what a gift to try to do that as an occupation. When we signed our partnership with Vox.com, that gave me the opportunity to go from being a part-time to full-time music journalist.
Explain to our audience, for some who may not know, a little bit about Vox.com and how that works.
Vox.com is the premier website for cutting explainer journalism, their whole idea is they want to help you understand the news rather than look at news stories as they come along. Try to give you a much more meaningful context as to how does this relates to an issue at large to history? How is it going to be meaningful to you whatever that policy issue might be? They do a lot of great cutting news and political coverage but also have a great culture team. At the time, they didn’t have a music podcast and we on Switched On Pop are a music explainer show. We say it’s about the making and meaning of popular music. We bring artists on to talk about how great pop songs are made. We break them down. We figure out what all the references are. What does it mean? How do we place this in history in context? It was a natural fit between the two of us. We signed a partnership with Vox to fill that space in their culture team.
When I listened to some of your episodes, what astounds me is there’s so much detail. You’ll learn a lot from every single one. I was listening to your Baz Luhrmann episode. First of all, him talking and being a part of it is brilliant. I’ve listened to a number of podcasts, but I don’t feel like I’ve got from others what I get from you. It’s enjoyable but it’s also educational. I was reading somewhere that Switched On Pop is described as democratic in scope, pondering the secret formulas of pop music and going off the rails in the best ways possible. Is that right? Do you agree?
I’m not great at taking praise. I think how you described it is accurate. We like to provide a lot of context in history and detail. We care a lot about music education. I feel like my job is to help you understand what’s going on in popular music and do so in a way which feels meaningful but also highly entertaining. There’s no point that I want you to ever be bored in our conversation.
That would be impossible. I don’t think you’ve got a chance to be bored and the way it’s all edited together as well. It’s fascinating. I’ve been doing my show since October 2019 and my shows are all based on having a conversation like we’re doing now. I’ve never professed to be a music aficionado or anything like that. I love music. I’ve worked as a manager for twenty-odd years and I don’t want to catch myself out by talking about something that I might not know anything about, but you guys seem to know so much. That’s why I said in the introduction without being too overly bottom kissy that I’m seriously in awe of your knowledge.There's an endless amount of things that we could listen to explore and discover. Click To Tweet
There are many different kinds of musicality and what we try to do on our show is help empower the audience to understand that they are inherently musical. Whether they engage actively in music whether they are musicians, in the business, professional songwriters, and producers, all of these kinds of people listen to our show. I believe that musicality is a core to our human experience. It was Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia which brought this out for me. He was a famous neuroscientist and psychiatrist by training but pursued neuroscience as that field advanced. He has this wonderful book where he describes all the various strange medical conditions that can be associated with musicality and called it musicophilia.
In it, there are theories where we think that music rather than being a luxury of human cognition is a part of the human experience that likely co-evolved with speech that the intonation of how we speak has pitch in it. There are many tone languages that there is a rhythm to how we communicate with each other. If I want to make an important point, I’m going to slow down. If I want to keep you moving along, we’re going to get faster and faster. Even in how we communicate with each other, there’s musicality. To your point about the depth of what we do, something I’ve also learned is that there are many kinds of musical skills.
Some people are incredibly skilled in harmony. Other people can spontaneously create a melody but have never studied music formally. One thing that we all get tripped up on is feeling like, “I don’t know everything.” The repertoire of music is enormous. It’s impossibly large. We can’t know everything. On our show, we try to give people those essential musical building blocks that we all can use to have a more informed year to know how to at least be comfortable with harmony and melody, tambour, form, lyric, meter, these sorts of things. In doing so, it helps us approach those things that we don’t know with a little bit more confidence to be curious, to not feel like we’re going to fail or we have to be the best person in that thing to be able to have an experience with it.
How much prep do you do per episode?
Quite a significant amount. I like to experiment with form a lot. As I was saying, I like to keep you engaged, learning, but also entertained. Part of the way of doing that both for myself and for others is to make shows that are structured in new and intriguing ways. I did a piece with Baz Luhrmann about the song Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) and that’s done in the style of a narrated radio drama where it’s like an investigation. I go talk to 5 or 6 different people. It took me over a month to report that piece. I had hours and hours of conversation and all gets edited down and turned into this final product. Other shows are interviews. Most frequently, some is a musical explainer. It’s usually me and my co-host Nate. How it works that we always like to do is we want to have an extemporaneous, meaningful conversation that’s moving somewhere which is challenging.
How do you have a conversation which is pithy, educational, and fun? The way that we do that is one of us is preparing the entire episode and the other is serving as the audience coming in without any experience. I’ll have said, “Nate, I’d like you to listen to this one song and have some thoughts about it.” My job will have been spent that entire week doing deep listening and research. Sometimes there’s more than a week on that piece of music and coming with something meaningful to share with him. A few times, that will include voice notes from our audience or from the songwriters and producers that made the music. I’m working hard to find the format of the show that fits whatever piece of music that we’re trying to discuss and whatever the issue at hand is. It has different ways that story needs to unfold. I spend an absurd amount of time trying to structure a silly fun show every week.
You can hear that so much work and time has been put into it.
It’s helpful that I have some support from some great producers and Brandon McFarland mixes, masters, and does all the music in the show. He cuts a lot of the tape and smooth things over. We have to have a team for the scale of the project that we’re trying to do. It’s hard for me to do every single piece now and we’re not a trade-off. When I talked to Brandon, we’re thinking about the show is almost like a DJ set. The way that music enters and moves throughout the show needs to feel totally seamless as you would in a club hearing music one song to the next. There’s a lot of detail that goes into thinking about the role of music that is in each show. Sometimes we’ll have anywhere from 50 to 100 different clips that come in and out.
I’m sure that you must have record companies calling you up asking you to have their artists on the show because you’ve created this amazing promotional platform. I’ve seen that you’ve had Lizzo on the show and you’ve spoken to Finneas, Billie Eilish’s amazingly talented brother. It must feel quite nice to have got to a point where you’re getting all of this recognition. I was researching about music podcasts and you are up there as the top three in the world as music podcasts anywhere.
I do pinch myself. I feel overwhelmingly thankful to get to do that.
On the back of that, you published a book, Switched On Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why it Matters to Oxford University Press in 2019. Is that book made up of all the blogs, so to speak, of your episodes? Did you write it separately?
It’s been a process. It turns out writing a book is challenging. You’ve got on bigger and bigger projects that I’m not quite ready for and pushing myself, I do that in the episodes but also with the book. We do get a lot of record companies reaching out to us on a daily basis. We’re lucky to get an amazing literary agent who reached out to us and said, “Have you thought about making a book?” When we looked at that question, we realized there’s something that is working with our show. This was a long time ago when we first thought about writing a book but we knew that we didn’t want to make material that you’ve already heard and put it into written form.
That’d be an easy way to make a book. It felt like one of the things that were missing in the landscape of music books was the essential building blocks of all of that musical knowledge that is chronological, that everyone we think ought to have, but presented with contemporary popular music. The book ends up being sixteen core musical concepts. Each concept is supported by one pop song of the last twenty years. We chose songs that were lasting, have a lot of importance, say something important musically, have a diversity of genre as musicians and so on. It is its own journey. It’s like if you distilled the entire show down into 171 episodes and we did that in sixteen chapters. It’s all of our thinking in one spot but there are 3 or 4 moments that there’s an overlap between the podcast and the book. We thought they were good examples that were worth highlighting, but it’s all original material.
Now that you’ve put out a successful book, you’ve done many successful episodes, what’s your next plan for Switched On Pop? Where do you go next?
I don’t know what I’m doing next in my life. We want to keep reporting good stories each week. I love having the opportunity to listen all the time. If I were getting bored, I would do something else, but pop music always keeps me radically-engaged. There’s the old criticism that all pop music sounds the same. At certain moments, there’s often some sound that people converge around and that’s always changing. In the few years we’ve done the show, there have been major trends that have come and gone. What keeps me always interested is when I hear a sound that I don’t know or even better maybe a song that I don’t like. It usually means that there’s some part of my own musicality which is wanting and I need to expand and learn.When we expose ourselves more to the things we don't like, we realize the breadth and diversity of those things. Click To Tweet
It’s many of my curiosities and inquiries happened through the show. That’s a cop-out but it makes me think of I saw a speech with Ira Glass who makes This American life. He’s probably the most famous podcaster in the world and helped create the contemporary form that many thousands of producers have copied. He was asked a similar question like, “Do you ever have projects that you want to pursue that you’re not able to because you have to put out this weekly show?” He was like, “No, whenever I have a product that I’m interested in, I start it into an episode.” I feel I have a life outside of music but a lot of my curiosities make their way into the show because I don’t see music as outside of the human condition. It’s not an escape for me. It’s not something which is a universal or its own sphere. It is a reflection of what’s going on in the world. It is a mirror of our psychologies, politics, and culture. It’s both reflecting it and creating it at the same time. There’s an endless amount of things that we could listen to explore and discover.
It never ends, does it? Every day, there are thousands of new songs put out in all different genres.
I can’t keep up. The hardest part of my job is trying to keep up with what’s happening. It’s incredibly enjoyable.
Do you have a favorite kind of music?
Many of us fall back on the music that was happening at the most meaningful parts of our life. At a certain point in youth when memory is enhanced because of many changes that are going on. I grew up into a lot of American folk music, Americana music, and bluegrass. One of my favorite instruments is the mandolin, not pop music but I play the mandolin. When Nate and I first started playing music together, this was the kind of music that we were playing. It’s a default. I need to feel comfortable. I might put on that a sound but I’ll listen to doom metal. I listen to avant-garde music. I’m all across the board because the thing that pop music has taught me is the need to constantly be curious. It’s easy to be cynical about music that you don’t like, but oftentimes that means you’re approaching something that you don’t understand. If I feel a song is bad, it’s either because I feel like I deeply understand it.
I know exactly what it’s trying to do and the world that it’s encompassing. I think that it’s not accomplishing its task effectively like it’s falling short in some way. More likely, when I think a song is bad, it means that I don’t understand where it’s coming from. There’s like, “What was this effect that someone would explain to me the other day?” The outgroup homogeneity effect that humans have an inherent bias that when we see some outgroup, we think that outgroup is more alike than it is diverse. The same thing applies to music. For example, I know a lot of people who might not come from the classical world. When they hear any music which takes place in a symphonic situation that has an orchestra, it all sounds the same, it’s all orchestra music.
Anyone who knows and goes to symphony, they’d be like, “No. There’s an infinite array of tambours, melodies, and harmonies that can possibly be created with that orchestra. It’s the richest form of human expression.” When we expose ourselves more to those things that we don’t like, we realize the breadth and diversity of those things. When we don’t know a thing, we don’t have the patterns and we hear it as the same old mush. Whenever I hear something I think is bad, usually I don’t understand it. I need to learn it. I need to understand the language of that music, listen to more of it, understand the culture that it’s coming from, see what it’s trying to achieve. I find often the things that I’m most turned off to often teach me the most about myself and what else is happening in the world.
Do you and Nate tend to agree on the songs you like and dislike?
I think so, more or less. I don’t dislike a lot of music.
You learn from the stuff that doesn’t necessarily initiate appeal.
The places that pop music irks me is when it reinforces the worst parts of the human condition whether that’s misogyny, racism, conspicuous consumption that reinforces class structures, these kinds of things. I like to bring my critical theory hat to listening and it’s easy to say, “This music is bad because it is blocked.” Often though, that music is being created by a person or a group of people or a community of people that are feeling a certain way and understanding what the conditions are that recreate conspicuous consumption. Why do people feel the need to brag about conspicuous consumption?
Perhaps because they are part of an underclass that doesn’t have much who are conspicuously bought against for whom there’s little opportunity. Why not grab a microphone and brag about the few things that you can have or the things that you aspire to? That’s a set of values that teach us about how power works in the world. This is where it gets difficult. Even the things that I despise the most, often they occur in music for a specific reason. There’s some lesson to be learned there, even if I don’t support the value that that song is trying to propagate. It could be about what other systemic issues are at hand.
For our audience, some of whom may be hoping to get into the world of podcasts, what advice would you give them? I’m going to take some of it as well by the way.
Have collaborators if you can. Collaborators are amazing. They hold you accountable. They keep you excited when you get bored. It’s always important to have people to keep you accountable especially if you want to do a show that is weekly or even more frequent, you’re going to get bored at some point. You’ll be like, “I need a week off.” That’s where your partner can keep you interested who can share a new perspective. In the same way, working on a topic that has an infinite array of ways into that topic so that you can explore your own intellectual curiosities is important. Pigeonholing oneself in a hyper-specific little niche can be a challenging show to keep going. It’s important to know what you’re trying to achieve.
What is the real outcome that you’re trying to pursue and that will change? For me, it was never to get to be a full-time music journalist. It was an opportunity to have a meaningful musical conversation with one of my closest friends, to share that with a community of people that cared, to communicate with them, and to learn from each other. Honestly, it was an opportunity to build skills that I always wanted to have. I love public radio. I love podcasts. I wanted to get better at it. I love making music. As I was saying, there are many kinds of musicality. I wanted to get better at different kinds of music so what a cool opportunity to teach myself different things, it was all an excuse.Pigeonholing oneself in a hyper-specific little niche can be a challenging show to keep going. Click To Tweet
The hardest part about podcasting is that it’s hard to turn it into a business. If you are looking to create a business, you need to have a different set of goals and ways of going about what you make. It took us nearly five years to turn this into something with support. I work at the show full-time. Nate works on the show part-time. We have a bunch of other part-time people who help us out. This is not some huge wild production but it’s a different set of goals, formats, and partnerships. All of us, if the business is the goal. It’s a giant form. If you were like, “What advice do you have for anybody graduating from college?”
It’s like, “There are many different directions.” My last thing on advice which comes from Alex Blumberg from the Gimlet podcast network, I was listening to one of his great training. I often will go back to 101 Training, How To Do Podcasting. There are always many things to relearn and something that I appreciate from him is he thinks that podcasting and audio more specifically is the secret sauce. It’s the capacity to bring out human emotion in a way that other formats privilege other parts of the human experience. Video wants motion, movement, and action which is interesting but what podcasts do you sit and have a meaningful, quiet reflection that helps you think about yourself, the world, people’s emotions? I would say that build great stories about whatever subject you have, find some goals around it, and try to connect with people because it is fundamentally about human emotion.
Thank you, Charlie, for being on the show. It’s been an absolute honor and a privilege. I look forward to listening to more Switched On Pop and I’m sure the audience will as well.
Thank you. You’re doing a beautiful thing, For Love and Music. What else could people want?
Those are the two reasons that I moved to LA, for love and music. I was interviewing someone and I said that to her. She’s based in New Orleans and she’s amazing. Tavia Osbey manages Tank and the Bangas. She was telling me all about how the music industry is developing and exploding out of New Orleans. I was like, “Maybe I shouldn’t have come to LA. That’s where I should now be in New Orleans. I’ve never been there. As soon as all of this chaos with COVID lifts, I’m coming over to visit you.”
It is definitely another great city for love and music.
Thank you and thank you to our audience. You’ll be hearing from me again soon. Stay tuned. Bye for now.
- Baz Luhrmann – Switched On Pop episode
- Switched On Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why it Matters
- Tavia Osbey – previous episode