Bob Boilen

NPR Music Host Bob Boilen on the Songs That Impacted Musician’s Lives

NPR radio personality Bob Boilen talks about his collection of interviews with artists on their life-changing songs for his book Your Song Changed My Life.

Your Song Changed My Life
Bob Boilen
William Morrow
April 2016

Anyone who has worked in arts and culture journalism knows how hard it is to get adequate time with a musician — especially a famous one — for an interview. With a busy promotional schedule plugging his or her latest project, the musician at best can offer a few minutes with the interviewer and it’s usually answering the same endless questions. In the era of the soundbite, the Internet meme, and the rush to be first with an exclusive, it’s sometimes hard for both the interviewer and the musician to just have a thoughtful and substantive chat about music and life that doesn’t necessarily center around promoting a product.

Bob Boilen, the creator and host of NPR Music’s All Songs Considered and the Tiny Desk concert series, realizes this, yet he doesn’t seem to face those issues when he talks to a musical guest. A common question throughout Boilen’s conversations with artists — whether it’s legends like Smokey Robinson, Jimmy Page or Lucinda Williams, or relative newcomers like Leon Bridges, Hozier and James Blake — is what song impacted their lives and set them on the path to music.That question forms the basis of Boilen’s recently-published book, Your Song Changed My Life, which features 35 artists reflecting on the songs that were important to them during their younger years.

For example, St. Vincent cited Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” from the band’s debut album Ten; Yusuf (Cat Stevens) revealed that the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout” was memorable to him; and Conor Oberst had an awakening to Don McLean’s “American Pie” as a child. In his chapter, former R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe talked about Patti Smith’s “Birdland” and how it affected him when he was a 15-year-old: “That’s when I felt transformed by rock and roll and by art and by music and by poetry and by some projection of who this woman was and what she was saying to me. She wasn’t saying it to anyone else, it was just to me.”

Along with his fellow colleague at NPR Music, Robin Hilton, Boilen is a tastemaker and a champion of new music — he regularly goes to shows and sees emerging, potentially breakout artists. His ability to connect with and talk to musicians about their craft can be traced to when he was a member of the late ’70s band Tiny Desk Unit. In this PopMatters interview, Boilen talks about Your Song Changed My Life and some of the unique stories from it, as well as music’s ability to connect people throughout the generations.

Was the book something that happened over time, based on the interviews you’ve done with musicians?

What I came to realize was that the most wonderful conversations I’ve had with musicians was always about other people’s music as opposed to their own. Someone told me once that Jakob Dylan did 35 interviews in an afternoon. So point being is that in those 35 interviews, they’re asked pretty much the same questions about the same things, about their new record, about their song. It’s refreshing for them to start to talk about the things they actually love outside of their own work. Often that’s their passion about music; more often that not, it’s what inspired them to become musicians in the first place. I thought it would be a good idea to try to start directly gathering those stories as opposed to indirect, small chat conversations.

These days interviewers only have a certain allotted amount of time to chat with musicians when they’re mostly promoting their latest album.

They were sort of glad it wasn’t going to be the usual, so they gave me a little more time. The way these interviews unfolded — and I’d like to think of them as conversations as opposed to interviews — they at times resemble a psychiatric session, because a lot of these musicians say, “I don’t know what my song is.” I was like, “Okay, let’s lay down on the couch, we’ll have a conversation about this.” I sort of walk them through, “What did you do as a kid? What was around the house?” Eventually for many musicians, a song would pop in their mind and they’d say, “I guess that’s the one.”

Were there one or two surprises in terms of the artists’ song selections came out of this experience? For example, the esteemed composer Philip Glass cited the comedy stylings of Spike Jones.

Certainly Philip Glass was a perfect example of, “Seriously? Really?” I think of Philip Glass as one of the serious people I know of all the musicians that I listen to, and humor is something I don’t think about in his music. He is a funny fellow. That was really important for him to pick the Spike Jones version of the “William Tell Overture”.

Smokey Robinson really surprised me. He was one of the first ones as I did the interviews who came up and picked their own song [“Shop Around”, with the Miracles]. I never thought a musician would actually pick their own music that change their life. It made total sense. “Shop Around” made it possible for him to do so many things in his life and it really helped launch Motown, too.

Then there’s Trey Anastasio of Phish. His pick was “Somewhere” from West Side Story. If you give me a chart of ten musicians and ten songs, and one of the songs was from West Side Story, Trey would have probably been the last person I would have matched it to. He truly and deeply understands music theory. When he started to talk about how understanding music theory makes him a better improviser… then it all makes sense on why he appreciated Leonard Bernstein and why thinking things through and planning and understanding things actually makes sense for an improviser.

In addition to the famous ones, the book features some newer artists and some that people perhaps don’t know about. You really seem to have a good sense about n young musicians who went on to critical acclaim, artists like Courtney Barnett and Sharon Van Etten.

I go to shows almost every single night. I’m out because I love it, and to see opening acts, in which case Courtney Barnett was an opening act. Robin turned me on to Sharon. One of the members of TV on the Radio played Sharon Van Etten’s music as a guest DJ once years ago. The key is to keep your ears open and don’t get jaded into thinking your generation’s music is the best. There’s such an evolving world of music… I have too many people who are near my age that feel that all music was better in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s a lot of crap. So it’s really important to keep an open mind to music that’s out there. Of course we all have our own tastes — we all have our blind spots and I surely have mine. But I do keep searching.

One of the artists mentioned in the book is Fantastic Negrito, who chose Prince as a major inspiration. He has a very compelling backstory, as someone who was once signed to a major label deal in the ’90s, then went into obscurity and later was in a serious car accident.

A couple of things happened with him. He was one of over 6,000 entries into a contest to find someone to play the Tiny Desk for an unsigned artist. He submitted his stuff and me and six other judges selected him as the winner. I didn’t know his story. As the final round of things was coming, we started looking at the artists a little deeper to make sure they didn’t have a contract and that we knew who these people were. That’s when I discovered his story.

We were all dumbstruck by the passion he put into his song. There was something completely compelling about his voice and the song. It felt universal to the mix of judges we had that year. It’s funny how, given that fact there’s so much doubt in this world, how these kinds of people, who are charismatic unique singular voices, just rise to the top.

Are there any plans to do a sequel to Your Song Changed My Life?

I’d love to do that. There are so many more conversations I want to have. There are other ideas that bubble in my mind. So it’s hard to say.

I’ve been doing lots of touring and doing events with artists. Recently in Nashville I did a conversation with someone who’s not in the book — John Paul White [formerly of the Civil Wars] for example. At the end, he kind of just broke into tears when he played the John Prine song [“Sam Stone”] that he picked. They’re just endlessly important conversations because musicians don’t always know what got them to where they have [gone]. To stop them in their tracks and have a conversation of what informed then, what made them want to pick up a guitar or a drum, is revealing for me as a listener for the people who’s ears and eyes get to hear the story. It’s also really important for the musicians because they’re meaningful.

Before NPR, you once played in Tiny Desk Unit, which was the first group to play Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club. Do you miss being a musician as a full-time career?

I love playing music. But I don’t like mixing music with money. After Tiny Desk Unit I wrote music for a wonderful multimedia theater company for many years. I realized making music and making was something I’d like to keep separate. It turned out I’m in a happy place. I make an album every year still. I made ten albums in the last ten years, eight of them with a group called Danger Painters, which is basically [Michael Barron,] the guitarist from Tiny Desk Unit, and myself. And I love doing it. If only a 100 people hear it, fine, I don’t care. I love the process. We played live a couple of times but it’s the sheer joy of creation. I don’t have to worry about sales or any of that stuff.

In many ways, I wished Tiny Desk Unit didn’t self-destruct. But it really gave me a good perspective on talking with musicians, being one myself, and what it means to be an up-and-coming band going out and playing in a venue where there only 12 people in the crowd, and then playing sold-out shows. I get both of those experiences. I think it helps me be empathetic and a good listener. I hope that comes through.

What do you hope readers will come away from your book?

I think it’s the same thing that I hope that people get when they watch a Tiny Desk concert or listen to our show, which is that I’m trying to get people to listen to music that they haven’t heard before. Someone might pick up the book and say, “Wow Lucinda Williams — I love Lucinda Williams!” Well, I hope they read the Josh Ritter chapter or the Fantastic Negrito chapter — the artists they don’t know — and say “Wow, that person likes Sam Cooke. I like Sam Cooke too. Let me listen to them.” That’s the hope. It’s all about bringing people to the table in some way shape or form and have open ears and discover something they never did before.

When I was at the Courtney Barnett show at the 9:30 Club, all these moms and dads and their kids were at the show. I just thought, this is so perfect, that generationally we could some way connect to our kids and the kids will then remember the day they were with their mother at the Courtney Barnett show when they have kids. This is wonderful living language that gets passed on in some way shape or form. I think it’s really special. It’s easy to close our ears on our ten favorite artists, but I think it’s wonderful to grow up and still be turned on to new things and turn your friends and kids on to them, too.