Interview: Bob Boilen

yoursongchangedmylife--1What song changed your life? It’s a question that provokes much contemplation when asked, and one that I’d never asked myself. Surely, there have been bands, albums, and genres that have moved me, shaped my feelings, and impacted my life, but narrowing it to one moment involving one song was unexplored territory. That same question inspired music-making media pioneer Bob Boilen to interview prominent musicians to discover which songs shaped their own work, and record his findings in his aptly-titled new book, Your Song Changed My Life: From Jimmy Page to St. Vincent, Smokey Robinson to Hozier, Thirty-Five Beloved Artists on Their Journey and the Music That Inspired It.

“I’ve always had good rapport with musicians, I like talking to them about things they love, and not necessarily about their music,” Boilen says. “Over the years, I kept hearing from musicians about how music had changed them, and I thought about how it had changed me—by listening to The Beatles, and being empowered by punk to quit my job and take chances. I wanted to find out why musicians did what they did, and I figured it probably started with a song, or at least a moment.”

The New York City native came of age during one of music’s most exciting times; “All these British bands were coming to America, their accents were so exotic,” he recalls. “We really take for granted how easily we can connect with people all over the world now. I grew up in suburban Brooklyn and Queens; most people were white, there were two kinds of restaurants—Italian and Chinese—it was a very different world then.” As the Brits were invading the country with their unique take on American rhythm and blues, Boilen, whose first album was 1964’s Meet The Beatles, was absorbing it all through his small, ever-present transistor radio. “It was always either under my pillow, or I was carrying it around with me. That’s how I heard all the music I listened to,” he explains. “There’s something kind of magical about this thing that happens when you hear music on the radio—it’s in the airwaves and then it’s gone, and I’ve never gotten over it. It has an emotional impact, you can still hear the music in your head, you hold onto something about it.”

In fact, music had a bigger impact on Boilen’s life than he could have ever imagined. “I had no idea I’d end up doing anything with music. It wasn’t the kind of world where you thought, ‘I’m going to do something with my life that I love.’ The connection between doing something you loved and making money didn’t really exist,” he says with a laugh. “My father’s generation survived the Depression, so his attitude towards making money was ‘What do I have to do to put a roof over our heads and feed my family.’ It had nothing to do with pursuing dreams. We take that stuff for granted, the idea that we can do what we love.”

“I went to college and majored in business and psychology,” he continues. “I failed at both miserably because I hated it, but I thought that was a way to make money. I dropped out of college after five years after trying to figure something out. I’d been working in record stores for a few years at that point, which I enjoyed, but never thought it was something I could do to make a living; when the punk movement came along in the 70s, I realized I really wanted to make music and said, ‘Screw it, I’m joining a band.’” Boilen sold portions of his extensive record collection and his car in order to survive while he blazed his own trail. “My friend had an idea to start a band called Tiny Desk Unit, so that’s what we did,” he says. “Everything else that’s happened since then is just craziness.” That might just be the understatement of the century–NPR featured Boilen’s music in the early 80s; years later, he saw an opportunity, and seized it. “I quit the job that I had at the time, found the person who produced that piece on my music at NPR and said ‘I really want to work here.’ I’d never had a day in journalism or a day in radio, but I was was committed.” he recalls. “I was a big fan of All Things Considered, and I thought ‘I want to do that. I can do that.’ They gave me a job and I’ve been there for 28 years. Again, not a day in journalism, not a day in radio, and I’m working for the best radio news show on the planet. It was remarkable.” Eventually, Boilen became heavily involved in NPR’s music selections and coverage, creating and hosting NPR’s radio program All Songs Considered, and creating the station’s intimate Tiny Desk Concert performance series.

Boiled drew from his years of extensive experience interviewing artists and bands to create the content for his new book. “I wanted to make a connection between the music they first fell in love with and the music they make,” he says. “The stories were really cool; Lucinda Williams told me Bob Dylan was the artist she loved, because she’d always wanted to be a singer but she said she couldn’t sing. When she heard Dylan’s unconventional voice, it inspired her, and she realized she could do it. Trey Anastasio from Phish chose a song from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story; it helped him understand music theory and how to create emotion through improvisation.”

And what song changed Bob Boilen’s life? “It was a Beatles’ song, ‘A Day In The Life,” he reveals. “They started out making simple music, then over a three-year period, they progressed towards a more complicated set-up and made more complicated music using sound effects and multi-track recording. Nothing ever sounded like it.” The song tells a story of a news article about the death of the heir to the Guinness fortune who died in a tragic car crash, and contrasts it with the mundane occurrences one experiences in daily life. “There was something so powerful about those two things being in the same song, it spoke to me about how beautiful the everyday mundane stuff is when, at any given moment, it could end,” he says. “Musically, nothing was like it, it’s songs within songs within songs. It swept me away.”

To purchase Your Song Changed My Lifehttps://www.harpercollins.com/9780062344441/your-song-changed-my-life

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Susan Hubbard

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