Your Song Changed My Life
published: 8 /
In her 'Raging Pages' column Lisa Torem reflects on American author and NPR host Bob Boilen's new book, which features 35 interviews with songwriters and musicians on their inspirations
Bob Boilen is the host and creator of NPR Music’s 'All Things Considered' and 'Tiny Desk Concerts'. His new book 'Your Song Changed My Life' consists of 35 interviews with high profile and rising musical artists from a cross section of genres.
Boilen ultimately shows great admiration for his subjects but begins the book with his own backstory; an early love for the Beatles, hiding his prized transistor radio under his pillow and blowing up his dad’s stereo in 1965. A year later, he became smitten with “mind-altering” albums: ‘Pet Sounds’, ‘Revolver’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ before discovering Frank Zappa and the 13th Floor Elevators.
When his family relocated to Bethesda, Maryland, the author got a job at a record store, working his way up to a managerial position. “I think of those years as my musical education”, he writes but it was when Boilen moved to Washington, D.C. that he became a working musician, forming Tiny Desk Unit and starting his own independent label. Although the band went bust, Boilen had developed a reputation as a creative digital sound composer. He used unique samples in an original piece, ‘Whiz Bang, A History of Sound’, which soon caught the attention of NPR station. Boilen, a quick study, began his career there “cutting tape”, working his way up to the position of program producer.
He cites ‘A Day in the Life’ as a song that motivated him greatly and in this book he opens up the forum to his own muses. “It’s the story of how a song can be a call to action, to pick up an instrument or pen, to find your voice, to spill your soul and change your life”. The book is fun to read because it is so focused, and Boilen also keeps the pace lively by providing the rich cultural history that the artists drew from. For example, in the early chapter about guitarist Jimmy Page, Boilen circles back to the influence of singer Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’, which jump started the Skiffle movement.
Boilen could have sweat bullets after playing a Jackie Wilson song during a Smokey Robinson interview, yet he actually curried favour with the singer/songwriter, who spoke in glowing terms about Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
David Byrne has his own recollection of the transistor radio back in 1965. He had never heard anything like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ by The Byrds before; it was nothing like the traditional ‘My Fair Lady’. Byrne offers some invaluable insights about arranging.
St. Vincent chimes in about the dream that foreshadowed her acclaimed career. British James Blake waxes about Sam Cooke’s bluesy ‘Night Beat’. Boilen doesn’t really get Trey Anastasio’s stuff but is fascinated by the audience devotion and vice versa. Anastasio gets pumped up about composer Leonard Bernstein’s “liberation of dissonance”. Dave Grohl talks about seeing his first punk concert near Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Cat Stevens drew landscapes whilst taking in Nate King Cole. Philip Glass relished and researched Stravinsky and Bartok. Jazz violinist Regina Carter swooned over Hank Williams. Israeli Asif Avidan’s unusual voice catches Boilen by surprise: “I couldn’t wait for the next red light so I could search for her name”, he recalls, before realizing that voice belonged to a bearded man. Lucinda Williams admits that Bob Dylan’s devil-in-the details approach strongly influenced her own story telling.
Boilen’s subtle interviewing skills throughout are spot on. We come away knowing a lot about what drives the artists, in meaningful ways, without feeling like voyeurs.