Winner Stories August 24, 2021

Q&A: California Love and Composing the Sounds of LA

Named after Tupac’s 1995 song, the “California Love” podcast captures the stories and sounds of one New York Times writer growing up in Los Angeles. In our latest Webby Winner interview, we talked to creator Walter Thompson-Hernández about making this show.

How can you capture the sounds of a hometown, and the unique stories that color it? Podcaster, author and New York Times writer Walter Thompson-Hernández set out to answer these questions in his LAist Studios podcast “California Love.

Named after and inspired by Tupac’s famous 1995 song, California Love is an audio memoir of Thompson-Hernández’ experiences growing up in Los Angeles—and eventually returning home. The final result is a series of intimate vignettes of his memories in LA, finding connection and inspiration throughout the city, and an examination of the social issues that still impact The City of Angels. The podcast won a 2021 Webby Award for Original Music Score / Best Sound Design. 

We talked to Thompson-Hernández about crafting his audio love letter to LA.

Why were you inspired by Tupac’s “California Love” to explore your memories of LA via a podcast? 

The song was such a big part of my childhood. I remember listening to it for the first time and thinking that it captured a certain time and place in my life in the most perfect way. Even to this day the song takes me back to a time in my life that no other song does. I’m able to feel the texture of the life I lived when I first heard this song.

This podcast is also a love letter to LA. Why was a podcast the perfect medium to tell this story? 

California Love was my introduction to sound design and audio storytelling. I think using the audio space to tell stories allows for a sense of intimacy that almost no other medium allows to explore. Sound is rich. It’s personal. And it gives people the chance to attach their own visuals to what they are listening to. The stories in CA LOVE felt like the right stories for this medium.

Pictured: Young Walter Thompson-Hernández and his mother, who is featured in the episode titled “Ellie.” Photo Credit: Walter Thompson-Hernández.

What was the biggest challenge that emerged for you while telling your stories of growing up in LA, and how they fit into a larger conversation? How did you overcome it? 

I think the biggest challenge was learning how to make sense of a lot of the things that I experienced as a teenager in Los Angeles. Making this show was challenging because a lot of old wounds and trauma emerged from places that I didn’t know existed. It forced me to confront a part of myself and the city that still requires attention and care. The other part is that a lot of the places that I grew up in have changed and with that comes a bit of sadness for a past that I’ll always yearn for. 

California Love won the 2021 Webby Award for Best Original Score. Why was it so important to really focus on sound design to tell your story?

We won the Webby for Best Original Score because of our incredible team. I was lucky to be able to work with some of the best producers and sound engineers in the industry. This award is really for them.  

What did your Webby win mean for you and your team? 

I don’t create things with the thought of awards in mind. I also don’t feel personally validated by awards. That said, I understand what they mean in the larger context of professional work and success. I was happy that our team was able to be recognized for the incredible work that they did in making this show. I think we’re all proud of the work we’ve done. And, yes, Webbys are cool.

Following California Love, Thompson-Hernández launched a new podcast to share the stories of those who haven’t been heard. Written Off features him speaking with formerly incarcerated writers whose work will be read by creatives like Issa Rae, John Legend, Jesse Williams and more.