Spotlight: 'Dissect' Podcast Host Cole Cuchna on What He's Learned Studying Kanye, Kendrick & Frank Ocean
"If you spend all this time with a piece of art and give it some effort, it's actually going to give you some things that you could take in your own life."
When Cole Cuchna describes himself as a bit of an overachiever in school -- "the guy that got an assignment six months ahead of the due date and started on the first day" -- it makes a lot of sense. As host and creator of the self-described "serialized music podcast" Dissect, his aptitude for research is clear. Each season focuses on a new album (season 1 was Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, season 2 was Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), as Cuchna deep-dives into a track-by-track investigation released in weekly episodes, blending the artists' real-life narratives with his own artistic interpretation.
For Dissect's third season -- which premiered Tuesday and focuses mostly on Frank Ocean's Blonde with some coverage of his backstory and some episodes tackling his sophomore album Channel Orange -- Cuchna joined Spotify's staff to develop and distribute the show under the company's original audio content initiative with new episodes premiering a week early on the streaming service. Still, despite the series' growing success, Cuchna says he's surprised it has managed to take off.
"One of the shocking thing to me is that there's actually an audience for this level of in-depth, really nerdy analysis," he says. "The pitch of Dissect is kind of absurd, like, I'm going to spend 13, 14 hours talking about a single album. I knew I would like it and I thought maybe there'd be a few people like me that'd be into it, but I didn't know it would grow to this level."
Cuchna was encouraged by listeners to examine Frank Ocean's life and art for Dissect's third season and obliged, admitting that he had never been passionate about the musician in the same way he had Lamar and West before. "But because I kept getting so many requests for Frank Ocean, I was like, 'Oh, there's gotta be something more here.'"
What Cuchna found and "fell in love with" as he was researching Ocean's art and personal life was a through line that he describes as a "pursuit both musically and in his personal life to find this higher place of truth." Cuchna explains, "He's really on this pursuit of being a credible artist that is also, when it comes to business, completely independent and in control of his own narratives and in control of his own art."
Based in Sacramento, California, Cuchna began Dissect as a passion project, missing the type of research papers he had done in college without a clear sense of where it could lead. Married with a daughter, he says he balanced the podcast with his family life and his day job, working as creative director at a local specialty coffee roasting company. He would stay up late at night to focus on Dissect and then wake up at 5 every morning to put in some more time before heading to the office.
Cuchna estimates he spends about 20 hours on each roughly 30-minute episode, from research to writing about 20 pages of script to recording and editing. The majority of his actual research, he says, goes on before the season starts, where he creates a historical log of the artists' life culled from interviews that he will then reference as he breaks down the music during the season. From there, it's a matter of weaving together biographical information and creative insights he has found with his own analysis, where he listens to the songs over and over, looking at the lyrics line by line and putting his degree in music theory to work to create a deeper understanding of the material.
Although Cuchna cites the podcasts Serial and This American Life as influences, Dissect's format was based largely off The Great Courses college-level audio classes he listened to after he says he "faked" his way into music school without knowing how to read sheet music. "I must have taken 30 of those audio classes," he says. "Essentially, Dissect is a class on an album that I break up into individual lectures."
Cuchna grew up listening to hip-hop but has never limited himself exclusively to that genre. His favorite band is Radiohead and there were about five years where he only listened to classical music. (He says he totally missed West's Dark Twisted Fantasy when it came out in 2010.) But eventually he was turned back to hip-hop with the opinion it was "the most interesting music going on," and his decision to focus on the genre for the first couple seasons was an attempt to explore and make a statement about the music's artistic merit. He says, even though he considers himself a fan, he tries to approach the music without bias, as if these were artists from "the 1800s or something, and try to take this kind of historical objective approach."
"In my mind, classical music was always revered as high art and then contemporary popular music was seen as a step below that, but I don't actually think there's much of a difference," he says. "So part of Dissect was me trying to prove, 'Hey, let's merge these two worlds. I'll use my theoretical academic skills that I learned in college and apply them to contemporary music to see if it has enough to carry an analysis of that depth' -- and it obviously has. So that was kind of an initial kind of thesis statement of it."
By focusing on Ocean, an R&B artist, in season 3, Cuchna says he feels more open to exploring other genres down the line, but isn't planning ahead for any great divergences -- or even possible franchises -- just yet. He has just been focused on getting this season "off the ground." Reflecting on the intense schedule Cuchna kept while working to build Dissect to this point, he admits he probably couldn't have continued on with a third season had Spotify not come along. Still, even in those stay-up-late-wake-up-early first years, Cuchna says "art gives you what you give it," and he got a lot out of creating the podcast on a personal level. And all the better if he can help others to do the same.
"Season 1 of Dissect, I could tell you honestly changed my life, and it wasn't about the podcast," he says. "It was about taking the time to learn Kendrick's story, which taught me a whole lot about social issues I had no understanding about before. It bred empathy -- that was the biggest thing that I took away from season 1, and now I feel like empathy is kind of a guiding factor in my life. That shift was caused by me taking the time to study art.
"And so I feel like part of what I do with Dissect is to give a template to others to say, 'Hey, if you spend all this time with a piece of art and give it some effort, it's actually going to give you some things that you could take in your own life and inspire your day-to-day action. It could change the way you live."
I knew I was committed to music when I was 13 and learned to play the guitar. My life has been propelled by music ever since. Be it bands, composition or a podcast, music is the omnipresent through line of all my creative endeavors.
I've learned you have to put yourself in a position to have luck. Successful people will often say they got lucky somewhere along their path, but it’s important people realize you have to give yourself the opportunity to have luck, which is almost always created by hard work and real, oftentimes grueling perseverance.
My big break happened last year when I was contacted by Spotify to produce Dissect as a Spotify Original Podcast. I was able to quit my day job and create Dissect full-time. And while they offered me an amazing opportunity, I would say the actual “break” was the creation of Dissect and the work I put into making and growing the show. My “big break” felt earned.
What's changed is time! And sleep! I have more time to create Dissect and more time to spend with my family. My life is much more balanced than it used to be, which I realize now pays dividends in a number of areas. I’m generally more content, which improves everything, including Dissect.
What's next is more work, more learning. What I’ve realized through Dissect is that beyond just music, I’m mostly interested in understanding the world and people around me. I’ve only grown more curious as I get older, and I’m going to cultivate that curiosity as many ways as possible. And hopefully I can share what I’ve learned through Dissect for years to come.
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