It’s quite an undertaking to find out what made famous or otherwise beloved musicians pursue their dreams. In his new book, Your Song Changed My Life, Bob Boilen, the host of NPR’s All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concert series, takes that challenge on wholeheartedly. For his literary debut, he talked to 35 musicians, including Jimmy Page, Smokey Robinson, and St. Vincent, about which single song made the biggest difference to each of their careers.
But for Boilen, the interviews were just the first step. Each essay in the book is full of his own research about the songs, as he details those 35 individual attempts to understand why his subjects chose a particular track. He gets particularly fired up when someone gives him an answer that surprises him, like Decemberists singer Colin Meloy picking Hüsker Dü, or the particularly baffling choice provided by Philip Glass (more on that below). In other words, Boilen is nerding out, the true mark of a music lover. He’s just a fan with a bigger platform than most.
We spoke with Boilen about the process of writing the book, his favorite stories, and how these interviews about songs were more like therapy sessions than grill sessions.
VV: How long did it take you to conduct these interviews? What was your approach?
BB: I’ve been doing interviews for a long time, and I’ve found that artists love to talk about other artists a great deal more than they love to talk about themselves. Instead of questions [like] “When did you go into the studio?” you could hear someone like Jimmy Page tell a story like, “I moved into this house and there was a guitar there…” You get this much more human side to artists. It’s inspiring to hear these stories one after the other, so I thought it would be good to put them together. I worked on these interviews over the course of two years. Some of them were part of bigger interviews I was doing at NPR, and some took place in the dressing rooms of nightclubs before the artists would go on stage.
How did that become a book?
It was a remarkably fluid experience. I didn’t know how I could do this, but they fit together like little puzzle pieces. It was quite fun. You’d get an artist to tell you about a song. You’d get someone like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers [talking about] the Goldberg Variations, by Bach, [which] doesn’t make any sense because [we] know them for playing bluegrass music. Then it all starts to come together with his fascination with melody and arrangements. I would find out as much as I could about the artist and then, once they told me about their song that they picked, I’d do as much digging as I could about that, and find the commonalities — how does everything connect?
In the intro you home in on your love of the Beatles. Which Beatles record would you say is your favorite?
It would easily be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. At that time, there was nothing on the planet that sounded like that music. There was experimentation with all different kinds of music, [and] nothing did that before. There’s classically influenced stuff with harpsichords, [and also] sitars, calliopes, crowd noises, and chickens. It was really, really cool. From that, I came to expect that music would surprise me. It’s what I wanted, and it’s still what I want.
You talk in the book about moving from New York to Bethesda, Maryland. What was the music scene like in Washington, D.C., in comparison to New York? What do you think would have happened if you didn’t move?
Oh, there wasn’t one. I moved when I was fifteen. It was 1968, so there were groups that would play at the local college, but [there wasn’t] a music scene. What people know as the D.C. scene was not to come for another twelve or fifteen years. [But when I moved] was right at the peak of such amazing rock music, and also the birth of FM radio. By being a kid [who] felt out of place, I mostly receded to my bedroom and listened to records. Not that I wasn’t doing that before, but I think that helped me get a grip on what I loved about music even more.
Between All Songs Considered and the Tiny Desk Concerts, your sign-off has helped a lot of musicians launch their careers. Which artists have you been proudest to support?
Wow. It’s like picking children. I love the band Moon Hooch from New York. Lucius is a band I’ve loved seeing. It’s been great watching them grow. An artist like Hozier, who came to us with nothing but an EP, and the next time I saw him he had a thousand screaming [teenage] fans at a concert at Lincoln Theatre. It completely surprised me. He’s in the book [talking about] Tom Waits, so it will be interesting to see [how] his love of r&b and the blues affects people who are fourteen or sixteen, because that’s at the heart of what his music is. The other cool thing about this is these artists are changing the lives of the next generation of people. I went to Courtney Barnett’s show with my son, and around me were lots of mothers and daughters or mothers and sons or fathers and daughters. It was cool to see generations share music and connect.
The stories in your book are incredible. Which one story resonated the most with you?
I haven’t really thought about which ones resonated. I thought about which ones surprised me or which ones I loved. Maybe Dave Grohl’s story, for a couple of reasons. When he was a kid growing up, going to the nightclubs of D.C., he was one of those lost souls, like myself. His cousin brought him to this show by Naked Raygun in Chicago. There, for the first time in his life, he heard guitar at a volume that he didn’t know existed. He just got woken up by the existence of music that felt vital and that mattered.
For a long time there was a platitude that artists were on a platform that was above the general population. There was an eye on fame and other things people regard, which I think is a bunch of bullshit. All of these people that I talk to in this book are kind, wonderful human beings. They do all of the things we tend to do, except they might do them a little more creatively, because they put their minds to it. For me, it was music of that punk period before Dave Grohl’s punk period that inspired me to quit my job and make music. It’s a real connection for me. Dave Grohl’s story was inspiring and felt like something that wasn’t far from my own story.
There’s never just one song that changes your life — I feel like most people who work in music think like that too. There’s always a song that gets you through a particular time or experience, or motivates you.
What I was going for in this case was the action: What song made you take the action? I wanted to know what song got them to pick up a pen and write, pick up a guitar, in my case quit a job, or in Dave Grohl’s case made him want to make original music. David Byrne — who I probably had a longer conversation with than anyone in the book — could never pin down a song. He told me about a lot of songs, but couldn’t pin down one song. Most people could. They were like psychiatric sessions where they sit on a couch, and we’d keep going to find out which is the one that really meant something. It was fun.
Which story really made you laugh the most?
How the hell did Philip Glass pick Spike Jones’s “William Tell Overture” as his song? It was like having the most serious composer on Planet Earth pick the most cartoonish piece of music ever. Trey Anastasio picking a song from West Side Story was a head-scratcher, too.
Have you thought about writing another book? What would that look like for you?
I’d love to. I feel like there were so many artists I wanted to hear stories from. I’d do another one just like it, because the stories are all so different. Three artists picked Bob Dylan, and even in those stories there were so many differences. Someone like Kate Tempest, a British hip-hop artist, picking Bob Dylan is very different than Lucinda Williams picking Bob Dylan. Two very different things happened, but they’re both storytellers because of Bob Dylan, so it’s interesting. I’m really excited to talk with Sturgill Simpson because his story brought me to tears when I heard it, so we’ll try to unfold some of that at the night of the book release.
Bob Boilen’s first book, Your Song Changed My Life, arrives tomorrow, with a release party tomorrow night at Le Poisson Rouge. Tickets and more information are available here.