Kirk Hamilton of the Strong Songs Podcast

by Corey O'Flanagan

What makes a song great?

Kirk Hamilton is the guy to ask. A few years ago, a friend asked him to use his vast musical knowledge to explain why Toto's "Africa" is so special, which led Kirk down a path to his Strong Songs podcast, where he deconstructs songs in glorious detail; he's covered tunes by Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, and even the Hamilton musical.

We had the opportunity to speak with Kirk about his musical education and qualifications. He also takes us on a dive into the world of video game music and lets us in on his process for putting an episode together in his home studio - it's quite the musical undertaking.

So join us for a great conversation with Kirk, who has one of the most cheerful podcast voices around. You'll find excerpts from the talk below the player.

Musical background

I'm originally from Bloomington, Indiana, and while I used to take piano lessons as a kid, I wasn't really one to sit down and learn sheet music. I was more into playing around with it and figuring things out for myself by ear. So playing music really started from there. A real pivotal moment for me was in 5th grade when this one kid brought in his saxophone and played it for us. I remember seeing that and thinking it was the coolest thing and decided, "I want to play that too," so I started playing saxophone in 7th grade.

The public school I went to had a fantastic music program, and my band director Janice Stockhouse (who was featured on a bonus episode of the Strong Songs podcast) was a huge part of my musical awakening. At the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, I would join musical summer programs and study with private teachers there, and was able to learn a lot of jazz theory and harmony. For me learning theory was a practical pursuit, because in order to play, the chord/scale relationship is just so important to have as a musician. I went on to major in jazz music at the University of Miami, and at this point music was just my life. I was gigging and teaching and just lived for music in this time.

Later on, I studied jazz saxophone in San Francisco, then moved into teaching, and continued to gig while studying. I fell into this job reviewing video games and as much fun as it was, it made me miss teaching music. I wanted to find a way where I could teach music without doing the usual grind. By way of doing a video game review podcast, I discovered this amazing way of teaching, but in a way I found more enjoyable. This has since developed into the Strong Songs podcast you know today.

Dream job

I'm approaching this amazing balance of creating, teaching and learning, which is going to be as close as ever to my dream job. I love creating music and I do think I need to be playing and creating more right now to achieve it - although that's difficult with the current global situation.

I think happiness comes from balance and although perfect balance will never be fully achieved, a friend of mine gave me this great analogy. He says that life as a musician "is like a tripod... a stool with three legs." You should always be teaching, learning and performing. When you're doing all of those three things, life feels good. When I heard that analogy it made sense to me and now that I'm closer to living it and honing in on it, I'm starting to experience that harmony, and it feels great.

Expanding music exposure

The best thing I ever got from my musical study was learning how to listen to music and certainly doing Strong Songs has also helped me always be attuned to what I'm listening to. I think we are all guilty of listening to the same kind of stuff over and over again and that can be hard to break out of.

Some of my friends and I are part of a listening club. We all send each other album recommendations and send each other different albums to listen to. This way we get exposed to so much more music and now I feel like I always have my antenna out. For example, one guy in the group is really into '60s West African pop, and '20s jazz. I had never listened to this stuff before and incorporating it into my everyday life has really broadened my musical horizons.

Video game music

I think composing with limitations can be helpful for a composer, but it's crazy to think of how different video game music is from now, to the kind of things they were doing in the '80s and '90s. I also think that those bit-size limitations are why video game music from around that time sounds the way it does, but they all have these really cool hooks. There are some composers today that do still use the old chip sets and sound modules in order to channel the style and use the restraints and limitations to their advantage.

Although there are amazing composers who make this insane, high-budget music for the games of today, they do tend to end up making music that all sounds the same. I really enjoy the older styles for game music because of those limitations that were set. I think now it is more difficult to stand out, and that game music needs to be more unique. A great example of some unique and amazing game music is for the game Journeyman. There's a solo cello that really stands out in this piece, and helps you feel this amazing connection to the music.

Kirk directing the Urban School jazz band in San Francisco

Strong Songs secret sauce

So I have lots of lists. The first is all the songs I want to do this year. I then look at the list and make sure that I'm not following a repetitive pattern and I'm mixing up what songs I'm doing in every episode. Of course I could sit there and do hundreds of episodes on rock or jazz, but I want to keep it balanced. I want to make sure I'm fairly representing all sorts of different styles.

Once I've balanced it out and I know exactly what song I'm working on, I will listen to the song for a couple of weeks in advance while taking notes. After this, I will sit down in front of the piano and just learn the song. I don't like looking at sheet music so I tend to do this all by ear, and through this process I will have a bunch of eureka moments, hearing interesting aspects of a song, and figuring out why it's so interesting.

After this, I will then sit down and do the episode. I have a recording studio here, so I will start recording the song first, and then while I'm cutting the song I will take notes and loosely outline the episode, as I am figuring out where I'm cutting up the song and what I have to say about it.

Once it's all mapped out and recorded, I will go through and ensure that I'm pronouncing everything correctly and make any adjustments. I have this loose plan of what I'm going to talk about, but for the most part, I wing it. I record and overdub and chop up if I get any more ideas as I'm listening back.

Then once it's all done, I will take a few days to listen back more, and change things up that need changing. From my experience working as a journalist, I also like to note things that I present as fact, and like to fact check that before I give the episode the all clear. It's very much a tweak and go process, but it works for me.

Paul Simon's "Graceland"

If I ever do an album focus for Strong Songs, which I may at some point, I'll probably talk about that album. That album is close to perfect. I don't know what his process was like for writing the song "Graceland." Just for coming up with that melody and that groove, that arrangement and that sound is so good. There are times when you're writing music and it just comes to you, like you just discovered something new. That song feels like that to me, it is just so good.

Episodes to come

I have a large Australian listenership, so I do get a lot of requests for John Farnham's "You're The Voice," so I can confirm that I will be doing an episode on him in the future. The same goes with Peter Gabriel and The Beatles, as I haven't done a Beatles episode yet.

I also would like to do a David Bowie episode, and a Kate Bush episode as well. I get a lot of requests for Kate Bush, which is interesting as in America she didn't quite get as popular as in the UK, but I really like her stuff so definitely look out for that in the future works too.

September 16, 2020
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