Staff Picks: The First Year of Themes and Variation

themes and variation

themes and variation

I count myself as incredibly fortunate to host and produce our little podcast, Themes and Variation, every two weeks. When we started the show a year ago, our biggest goal was to highlight the many different perspectives we all have as musicians and music lovers; and by focusing on that, I’ve gotten to see first hand how so many artists and listeners experience music.

Getting hipped to new music through this show has impacted my own listening habits, too. I’m finding it much easier to find the joy in any song, and leave my own preconceived notions of what a track should be behind. All of our themes and the amazing guests with whom I’ve explored them have really opened my ears up, and I hope they’ve done that in even the slightest way for anyone out there who has listened.

As we head into Year Two, we’ve already got some incredible guests lined up to come on the podcast that we’re super excited about. But after a year already filled with so many highlights, we here at Soundfly also wanted to take a moment to look back and revisit some of our favorite episodes published thus far.

Here are our Staff Picks for Year One of Themes and Variation. And if you’ve been enjoying the show, please head over to Apple Podcasts and leave us a 5-star rating and review. It only takes a few seconds and it’ll help us grow for many years to come.

~ Carter Lee

Carter Lee (Host)

Picking a favorite episode was a nearly impossible task for me. I have the pleasure of hosting Themes and have really loved every single conversation I’ve gotten to have with each guest. I always come away having learned something and experienced music through a perspective unlike my own. But before you think I’m copping out of this challenge, I did pick one episode to call a favorite.

Episode 11: “Songs Defined By Their Solos” with Kirk Hamilton (writer, musician, and the host of one of our all-time favorite podcasts, Strong Songs) was a highlight for sure. When we decided to create a podcast at Soundfly, a lot of work went into listening to music pods that were already out there. I was immediately hooked on Kirk’s from the first episode. Kirk has the ability to make the technical sound interesting (a challenge I’m now all too aware of) and the knack for really telling the story behind a song and what makes it tick. So having someone already so good at this podcasting thing come on our show? That was a huge highlight for me.

Listen to the episode.

Martin Fowler (Co-Host)

I’ve been lucky enough to guest on the show a few times now, and while those conversations were wonderful and enriched my own experience of songs and music, I wanted to highlight the appearance of top-notch music journalist Charlie Harding. As one half of the incredible team at Switched on Pop (and the book of the same title), Charlie brings a complex and nuanced analysis of both where pop has come from and where it’s going; and all with a contagious enthusiasm for the art of song.

He came to Themes with that same eager spirit and open mind — and as a result, Episode 8: “Songs That Changed Pop Music” expanded my own concept of what a pop song can be, especially in the way he illustrates how songs and recorded music as we know it are in a huge transitional phase and evolution. Charlie brought in-depth analysis of song forms from decades of Billboard-topping hits and thoughtful commentary across the episode, and all with an eloquent yet accessible language that anyone, whether or not they’re a music nerd, can understand and enjoy. Get him back on the pod!

Listen to this episode.

Mahea Lee (Co-Host)

I’ve chosen to highlight the very first episode of the show — not necessarily because I think it’s the best, but because it made every other episode possible. Episode 1: “Songs From the First Album I Ever Bought” was only ever meant to be a test, a proof of concept. But we ended up liking it so much, we released it into the world. If things had gone poorly, Themes and Variation would be an entirely different show and I love it the way it is.

We’ve learned a lot since this first episode with guest/co-host Martin D. Fowler was released, but when I revisit it, I have little to no impulse to cringe. If you’re new to the show, this one’s still a solid place to start.

Listen to the episode.

Ian Temple

I honestly had no idea that Thundercat’s “Them Changes,” a song I’ve listened to a gazillion times, used a sample from The Isley Brothers. In fact, I pretty much didn’t realize how little I understood about sampling in general, so Episode 2: “Songs That Use the Same Sample” was a huge education for me — and really launched a whole new area of interest for me (one that I’ve since explored in much more depth through both our Advanced Synths and Patch Design and RJD2: From Sampling to Songs courses).

A compelling part of this episode came for me when Charles Burchell talks about the specific rhythmic styles J Dilla used and how you produce those on a drum set. It was interesting hearing a drummer talk about how to create that slightly “displaced” sound and how you’re keeping the snares consistent while messing with the hi-hats a bit first. I love hearing an expert go deep on a highly specific topic, and both Charles and JSWISS brought that to this episode throughout.

Listen to the episode.

John Hull

Holy smokes! How has it already been a year of T&V!? First off, I’ve got to shout out the amazing work that Carter and Mahea have put into making this show a reality. Each week, they’re tracking, editing, and hammering out new episodes at such a high caliber. It’s been so cool to hear from all the different voices they’ve had on the show. Congratulations guys, here’s to another year of Themes and Variation!

I learned a ton working on RJD2’s From Samples to Songs course, and this particular episode felt like a great supplemental lesson. In Episode 25: “Sample Fodder Songs,” hearing RJD2 himself breakdown the tune and usage of Bob James’ “Nautilus” should show you just how much mileage you can get out of a sample. Thinking in smaller chunks, even just a few beats, it’s crazy how many songs that one tune has become a part of. It’s amazing to hear all the angles he considers when digging through sounds and samples, thinking through the theory, the engineering of the sounds, and emotional impact of the smallest moments of music.

Listen to the episode.

Jeremy Young

I had the opportunity to interview Speech Thomas in 2020, as a response to being hyper-inspired by his activism and community development work and how he blends his songwriting and music production talents with his passion to help underserved and underprivileged communities creatively. In our chat, we mostly stuck to the subject of his recent documentary, 16 Bars, in which he uses the power of music to help rehabilitate the lives of individuals behind bars.

Yet in Carter’s conversation with Speech alongside fellow hip-hop luminary Keenan The First in Episode 13: “Songs to Inspire Change,” they were able to touch on how music can help inspire change more globally, and in a much broader sense. They discuss crucial subjects pertaining to race in America, racial and social justice, and prison reform, making it perhaps the most urgent conversations we’ve released yet. They also chat about the courage of Sam Cooke, the honesty of Kendrick Lamar, and the long-lasting potency of Speech’s own group, Arrested Development. It felt so personal and intimate to be able to break a track down with the artist himself; which made this one a singularly exciting episode for me, and one that I revisit often!

Listen to the episode.

Zoë Young

One of the most inspiring things I’ve found in both making our course with Kimbra and in this episode of Themes and Variation is just how earnestly enthusiastic Kimbra is when talking about the music and musicians she loves. She has changed the way I approach listening to music through the attention she pays and the sheer excitement she brings to listening; it’s just totally infectious!

In Episode 16: “Songs Dominated By Vocals,” it was enlightening to hear about the different genres she turns to for inspiration, how she takes lessons from all of it to apply to her music, and how in particular she’s using a study of hip-hop to inform her pop songwriting. And given Kimbra is such an avid listener, I was both very impressed and wildly jealous that Mahea managed to introduce Kimbra to a new artist she was really into. Many cool points earned.

Listen to the episode.

To get all of Themes and Variation’s biweekly episodes right on your phone, click over to Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or anywhere else you get your podcasts, to subscribe and download. Also, if you’d like to help us keep the show going, please consider leaving us a 5-star review to help spread the word! It would really mean a lot to us.

Listen to Themes and Variation’s 26th episode below:

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