Altering Your Course Through a Song: An Interview With NPR’s Bob Boilen

Co-host of 'All Things Considered' on NPR, Bob Boilen discusses his book, Your Song Changed My Life, and what music has affected him.

In recent years there have been several strong-to-outstanding memoirs from musicians, including Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Moby’s Porcelain and Questlove’s Mo’ Meta Blues (crossing my fingers that Springsteen’s Born to Run will make such a list). One of the more diversified and engaging music memoirs (if you could call it such) came from the co-host of NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ Bob Boilen. His book, Your Song Changed My Life intersperses Boilen’s experiences in music with interviews from a variety of musicians — with one specific question directed to them.

Boilen recently moderated a panel at the inaugural Mondo.NYC festival on the subject “Press and PR: How to Rise Above the Din”. But earlier this summer, Boilen traveled to Newport Folk Festival where he hosted the festival’s official after-party, also titled Your Song Changed My Life. That event drew an almost entirely different lineup of artists than those included in the book. The event featured some new and old favorites of mine including Lucy Dacus, Lenny Kaye and Ryan Adams. Boilen’s book drew me in with the promise of chapters on Michael Stipe, Hozier, Jónsi (of Sigur Rós) and more. PopMatters spoke with Boilen to discover more about the songs that changed musicians’ lives.


While reading your book, I was thinking about how many songs were important to me at different stages in my life. How did you get your interviewees to pick one song?

I think about trying to pin it down to one song. Because we all have many songs that change us and many of us have many songs that help change us, but in the case of musicians, it’s the one that more often than not got them into the guitar store to buy the guitar or sit down with a pen and paper and write words. That’s why I try to nail a specific song; it’s easy to list favorite songs that meant a lot to you as a kid but that’s not what I saw going for. I was going for a song that in this case, really did alter their course.

I’m sure Justin Vernon could have easily picked a song that altered his course as a younger person that got him to pick up the guitar and play and sing but he had just come off, when I had talked with him, working and recording The Staves’ record (a trio of English sisters) and he was really struck by his role with them and what his role should be when he works with these other musicians. It’s funny because The Staves didn’t know the story that Justin told and didn’t know they were in the book. I invited them knowing they were in the book, and I assumed somewhere along the line Justin Vernon mentioned that to them that happened, so they were very surprised and I gave them a copy [at Newport].

How did you balance the newer contemporary artists with those older and more established?

What I tried to do was I wanted to pick artists that I was passionate about, so that was the rule. And so in my life, artists that I’m passionate about have that arc of the Led Zeppelins that I grew up on. But then also, because I go out to shows every night, the contemporary new artists are also in there, so that’s just me.

Then some of it was as simple as they were available. Jimmy [Page] had just written [laughs] — Jimmy, as if he’s my friend! — Jimmy had just put together this amazing photo book [Jimmy Page] that’s basically a photo essay of his life. They’re just incredible photos that tell the story of his life and so he was out pimping that (so to speak) and talking about the reissuing of Physical Graffiti that had just been remastered so he was available. He’s a trip because, you know, he certainly talks highly of himself but he also deserves to talk highly of himself, so I love him.

What about your formative song; what song changed your life?

A song that changed my life was “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles. It’s a fairly long story but the essence of it was that there was no other for me. Growing up in that era and hearing that music unfold — there was no other music or song like that song. Sonically it was quite amazing and, having listened to it a thousand times, I would say the words became really important to me. The opening of a story that Lennon got out of a newspaper about a young man that died in a car crash, had his life cut short and had everything to live for and the McCartney part where it’s the “woke up, fell out of bed”, the very mundane everyday life. Those two things juxtaposed in that song sort of say everything about life, that it’s precious and it’s also boring and mundane. But appreciate the boring and mundane and it becomes beautiful.

How were you inspired to a book like this?

I like talking to musicians — they react better when we talk about other people’s music — so it’s just a way into learning about a musician, learning how they came to be through somebody else. It’s more fun for the musicians to do that. And it’s a subject that’s come up over the years talking to musicians and it turned out [to be] a good way to give people an inside look into musicians. Writing about them in an essay form worked very well. Trying to find connections between what changed them and what they do is really important to me.

One of the more interesting sections was on James Blake. He selected Sam Cooke’s song “Trouble Blues” as the one with the most impact on him. Did that surprise you?

It did surprise me. Blake is a singer that, at least at the point that I talked to him, was mostly known from his world of electronics and by that point (with two solo albums both heavily drenched in electronica) he has a really cool voice, a very organic voice that works very well with the electronica. Bbecause of where it’s coming from I never really thought of soul music, that he’s a soul singer. As I dug into his story with him ([Blake’s] dad is a blues singer who had a blues band in the Sixties and was a big Sam Cooke fan and played him for James).

Later in life when James was trying to find his singing voice, because he had found his electronic voice long ago, he had heard an album from Sam Cooke, not that his father turned him onto but that he had discovered, a blues album and it helped him find his voice. I thought that was really cool because it’s kind of comes full circle. His dad had a home studio and listened to blues and Blake is at the forefront of people working with computers making music but then also found a way to the music that his dad loves.

Were you particularly surprised by any other artist’s selections?

There’s Trey Anastasio of Phish and that was the most mind-boggling of all. He picked Leonard Bernstein and a song from West Side Story. I never saw that one coming.

How did you get into rock photography? I see you in photo pits sometimes.

I started doing [photography] a few years ago. My friend Jessica was at a show with me and saw me taking pictures with my phone and basically said, “How many shows do you go to?” I said most nights and she said, “You’re taking pictures with your phone?” I said yeah, it’s a really nice camera on the phone. She just looked at me like ‘you don’t understand’.

What I never knew was that with recent technology there are much lighter-weight cameras. I didn’t take pictures with cameras before — I never wanted to lug a camera around to a show, it just seemed like too much. But these lighter-weight cameras made it possible. Once I started doing it I got really into it and I really liked doing it. The Tiny Desk Instagram account is all my photos [as are] the ones in the book.

Is there a rock photo that changed your life?

I was talking with Lenny Kaye about Patti Smith’s photo on the Horses record, and how important that photo was for women in music because mostly before that women were objectified and were often tried to be made as quote unquote ‘sexy as possible’. It didn’t pay homage to the music that they were making. You could see on the cover (that Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of Patti Smith on Horses) what a powerful force she was. That’s all it spoke to.

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What about other iconic album covers?

The one that always strikes me is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because up to that point I never had what you call a ‘gatefold record’ that opened up and had the lyrics on it and stickers and stuff inside of it. The picture inside was of a group that I had known so well but not looking at all like that. Then there’s all the stuff on that front cover that I could look at forever. I think that’s what a record cover could do, just draw you in and tell a story.