In his book Your Song Changed My Life, NPR Music’s Bob Boilen has a simple inquiry for the musicians whom he interviews: what is a musical experience you’ve had that fundamentally changed your life?
Boilen’s book is a great compendium of essays, almost all of which offer poignant insight into musicians and their formative years. For anyone interested in contemporary music culture, Boilen crafts a must-read here. He compiles conversations with plenty of his faves: David Byrne, Jónsi, Philip Glass, Jeff Tweedy, Justin Vernon, Colin Meloy, Cat Stevens, Carrie Brownstein and Courtney Barnett among them.
The chapters lend themselves to some colorful anecdotes, like how St. Vincent’s Annie Clark can stick a pin in the incident that changed her life: Dallas, Texas in the early nineties, when a box of CDs bounced off a truck in front of her house.
Or in the essay on Michael Stipe, Boilen remembers how his friend Greg was also in a band called R.E.M. at the time and was nervous about this other band. Bob tells his friend not to worry about “these guys from Athens.” He writes: “Disregarding me, Greg changed his band’s name to Egoslavia. Looking back, I love how wrong I was.”
The answers Boilen receives aren’t always so straightforward, as many artists pick an album or a musician, defying the titular guidelines: Phish’s Trey Anastasio picks Steven Sondheim’s score to West Side Story; Jenny Lewis is enamored with early-nineties hip-hop, namely A Tribe Called Quest’s record The Low End Theory.
Fans of All Songs Considered, the NPR program for which Boilen serves as creator, co-host and prolific dilettante of music culture, may not know much of Boilen’s backstory, outside of his endless fondness for rainbows. Here, he weaves his personal life into the story: In 1988, Ira Glass, then-director of NPR’s All Things Considered, gives him a shot at audio engineering for the station. Boilen also covers the more personal info, like in the Cat Stevens essay, in which he recalls being a 17-year-old summer camp counselor in upstate New York, trying to buy hashish but getting swindled and ending up with “a ball of bubblegum and crushed incense.”
With an air of casual accuracy, Boilen has a real gift for the often difficult, abstract task of music criticism. He notes that Philip Glass’s music “owes as much to Bach as it does to trance.” In the essay on Conor Oberst, Boilen compares the stanzas of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and Bright Eyes’ “At The Bottom of Everything.” It seems like a stretch, but Boilen does it masterfully.
He himself picks the Beatles’ “Day In The Life” as his life-changing song and writes about Sgt. Pepper’s: “It’s important to note that music had never sounded like this before. Imagine growing up in a city and walking into a forest for the first time — that’s what the experience of this album was like for me.”
A natural radio host, Boilen may have had broadcast on his mind as he wrote this book. I haven’t heard the audiobook (which I bet sounds wonderful coming from Boilen’s honeyed baritone) but it could be a more forgiving format, given how he pulls paragraph-length, often-incoherent quotes from these interviews, as James Blake bumbles:
“I feel like [my voice] was something that could grow. And now I feel like I’m getting somewhere, where, you know, I could do something. I could sit and I could put myself amongst my favorite singers. At some point, I’m not saying that I am already, but I’m saying – I feel vocally, now, I’m getting to a point where I’m solid.”
Your Song is a stellar collection, but if you scan over the chapter titles, you’ll find among the 35 musicians Boilen writes about, they’re overwhelmingly white people. Only a few artists of color are profiles, including Jackson Browne, Smokey Robinson and Leon Bridges. It takes until page 200 before the book reaches his first rapper, English poet Kate Tempest.
It’s ironic for the book with such a low degree of diversity to kick off with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, a man who built his career ripping off black musicians.
Some chapters later, Isreali musician Asif Avidan tells Boilen about discovering Led Zeppelin and finding out about their black music roots: “It’s almost like, that’s the coffee beans, you know the rest is just the water.”
This weekend, Bob Boilen and special guests will have a discussion on life-changing songs during the Pickathon Musical Festival in Happy Valley, Oregon. For more info, visit http://pickathon.com/artist/song-changed-life-bob-boilen-guests-discuss-life-changing-songs/
Follow Emerson on Twitter @allmalone