Something I really look up to in Hrishikesh is the way he builds conversations. Most of my work on the music video was done over the phone, talking out Hrishikesh's vision with him, helping to unearth and connect ideas and themes to imagery, building out a structure for what he was picturing in his head, placing beats in the video to specific moments in the music and lyrics, and finding recurring ideas that would repeat and refract and grow across the song. Hrishikesh is an open-hearted collaborator, not only in working on this project together but also in every conversation I’ve had with him. The experience of mining and unearthing, of drawing new connections between seemingly disparate ideas that we have each brought with us, is something that I feel happens every time we speak. It is rare to find someone who treats conversation like this — as a collaborative act of building something exciting together. (Incidentally, Hrishikesh also gave a TED Talk about listening that went online last week which you can watch here.)
As we spoke about his music video, I thought about how natural this process felt to me — of putting images and story up against a song, of writing in this structure. This was the first time I worked on an actual music video for an actual song that actually got made, but growing up, in high school, I — like many other writers and creative-minded people at that age, I imagine — would plot out music videos in my head to some of my favorite music. I’d listen to the same songs over and over again, envisioning stories, visuals, moments, using what was already in the song as a way to generate and support the ideas for the music video in my head. Specific lyrics, or a key change, or a dropout in the instrumental, or a vocal run, would become anchors to the stories I’d see. Every time I listened to the song, I’d notice a new element of it, and I would add a new corresponding beat to the music video I pictured for it, slowly making it feel more and more full. Eventually, I had to write these music video ideas down, which was part of how I first taught myself how to format a script (using a p*rated a copy of F*nal Dr*ft — please don’t tell anyone).
I realize in retrospect that this wasn’t just a creative impulse but an impulse based around listening, too. This process allowed me to more actively engage with a piece of art I admired — collaborating in my head with a work that existed in the world made me pay attention to the details of that work more than I ever could just by being an audience member to it. I knew every word, every turn, every moment in those songs because I had to! So I could write my magnum opus! Aka. a music video without a budget that I as a fourteen-year-old wrote to a song that had been out for ten years that already had a music video!
I had imagined that one day I’d film these videos, these little short films, soundtracked by some of my favorite songs, and it still bums me out that I didn’t. But I don’t think it was for naught — I was hyper-focusing on these music videos as a way to cope with and process the rest of my life, certainly, and so the very act of doing it made it meaningful to me. By ascribing my own creative, internal work onto a song that I loved, I was claiming that song as something that was important to who I am.
In any creative work, I believe that the person creating it has to be the first audience member of it, long before the work gets to a point where anyone else is even able to witness it. Sometimes, the work never gets to that point, but it’s still means something because of that audience of one. To this day, these songs out loud still conjure up the music videos that I imagined for them over a decade ago.
In a recent conversation I had with him, Hrishikesh told me about a special cup that he’s had ever since he’s had any memories at all. What a gift that is, to have something that there is no “before” to, and, at least for the moment, since he still carries it, that there is no “after” to either. This cup is a constant.
This cup — like many of the plates, bowls, and cups that Hrishikesh grew up with — is made of stainless steel. According to him, it only feels right to drink water from it — “not milk, not juice, only water.” And because he spent his childhood drinking water from this cup, the idea of drinking water, to him, is inseparable from the touch and feel of metal. He tells me that it’s the perfect material for a cup — the steel conducts the temperature of the water it holds so that it feels cool to the touch, the same temperature on the outside as what is contained within. (As he tells me this, I realize that I know the exact feeling he means — only that my instinctive point of reference for this sensation comes not from the steel cups of an Indian household, but from the steel cups of Korean restaurants… which makes me wonder what the connection is between the two.)
The shape of Hrishikesh’s special metal cup is perfect to him, too. While the other steel cups in his house growing up were a utilitarian, tapered cylindrical shape, his cup is curved and molded in a way that is pleasant to the hand and the mouth — it is the perfect size, weight, and shape to hold and to drink from. The curve where the cup meets the hand is matched only by the curve where the cup meets the lips, making everything feel right.
Growing up, there were two metal cups of this shape — one was Hrishikesh’s, and the other belonged to his sister, Priya. In order to tell which cup belongs to who (so they weren’t swapped at the dining table as kids), their names are engraved, by hand, on each of them. This hand-engraving is stunning in its subtlety. In the photos of his cup that Hrishikesh sends me, you can barely make out the small, fine lettering spelling out his name — HRISHIKESH — in a slightly slanted, subtle hand-written script. You wouldn’t be able to see it if you weren’t looking for it.
The subtlety of this engraving feels incredibly well suited to someone who — it feels to me, at least — prefers his name to be a subtle, understated part of his work. As a musician, he goes by the name The One AM Radio. And while he was making his show Song Exploder for Netflix (an adaptation of his podcast of the same name), he once told me that he was trying to get the team to edit it so that he would never appear on screen (in the Song Exploder podcast, he edits his side of the interview out of every episode, so it sounds as if the subject is narrating a process as opposed to being in conversation with him). Fortunately for us, though, he appears prominently in his own show, and the show is better for it.
When I ask who engraved his name on his cup, Hrishikesh says he doesn’t know — which to me is a sign of the best kind of childhood object, or memory, or tradition. It is something that you do not need to know everything about in order to know it intimately. Even though he doesn’t think his parents were the ones who engraved it, he tells me he knows that it was done by an Indian hand. There is a specific way that the letters are written that is the same as how his parents write them, he says; that it must have something to do with the grafting of English letterforms onto a handwriting that was not learned by writing English.
Hrishikesh often goes by Hrishi, for short, but he tells me that seeing his full name written on his cup gives him a feeling of indescribable warmth. And I wonder how it must feel to see your name, inscribed permanently on an object that has itself been permanent in your entire life, in the familiar hand of your parents and of your people. If I had to guess, I would suppose that some of that warmth comes from a feeling of groundedness — a comfort that this name is yours, it must be, because look, here it is, written by a familiar hand into something harder than stone. For as much as the name labels the object, I wonder if the object affirms the name, too.
In a distinct change from the rest of his career as a musician, Hrishikesh’s new song was released under his full name, Hrishikesh Hirway, instead of his usual name of The One AM Radio, and I ask him about this. He tells me that, to him, The One AM Radio will always be synonymous with his music, but that using his name is a way to bring together all the different aspects of himself that now exist into one shared body of work. If The One AM Radio is the name of one room of his house, Hrishikesh Hirway, he has now come to realize, is the name of the entire house.
He tells me that he felt like he had to make this song with his name on it and put it out into the world, and that no matter how the song is received, he will be fulfilled by it, as he will have, in his own words, “been of service to his own soul.” Before he was anything else — podcast genius, Netflix star, cookie connoisseur — he was a musician. And it feels to me that this new song, released under his name, is a way to claim back this part of him that existed long before anything else. And it makes me wonder, at what point in his life did he know that making music was an integral part of who he was? When did he know that he had to make music, and that his soul could not survive without it?
It makes me think about this type of creative drive, or compulsion, perhaps, that I recognize across so many of my friends. Some of my friends are able to make a living from their creative work, while others create their work in order to feel that they are alive, but across all of them, I wonder what the moment in their lives were that compelled them to hold onto this feeling within them and to claim it for themselves.
It makes me think of Hrishikesh’s engraved metal cup. Sometimes, we get lucky and grow up with something that has always belonged to us, that we know is ours because it has our name on it and that we can always hold onto. But what of the things that make up who we are that we cannot hold?
As we grow up, we grow into our own interests, into our own passions and callings and compulsions, into the things that feed our souls. And sometimes, we are able to meet those things, and to recognize them and nurture them and interrogate them so that they feel like they were in us all along, waiting to come to the surface. And sometimes, if we are lucky, we are able to name them as things that feed our souls. And sometimes, if we are even luckier, we get to engrave our own names onto them, and onto the things that they have driven us to make. It is this way that we tell ourselves that they must be a part of who we are, because look, here is my name, written by a familiar hand, into something harder than stone.
Some of Hrishikesh’s links:
From "quietly provocative" international best selling author and TV writer Jonny Sun, a weekly illustration and reflection on a personal object close to his heart. If you haven't already, you can subscribe here.