Author: Bob Boilen

Publisher: William Morrow (April 12, 2016)



The creator and host of NPR's All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concerts, Bob Boilen is also a musician, formerly of the band Tiny Desk Unit and most recently with Danger Painters. Both of these careers have much to do with Your Song Changed My Life as each of the 35 essays in the book are based on interviews Boilen conducted with songwriters for All Songs Considered. His conversations and analysis are also informed by his personal experience with musical composition and performance.

The title suggests all of the essays might focus on one song that awakened an artist’s creative juices, and that’s certainly part of each essay. But there’s always more, including the musician’s biography and the cultural contexts in which the songwriter developed. For example, Boilen often notes the importance of a geographic region’s cultural impact on the artists in question. There’s also Boilen’s always appreciative critique of each artist’s work.

There are few names immediately recognizable to Baby Boomers who look back to the ‘60s as our touchstones for music appreciation. Jimmy Page was not the only U.K. youngster to be inspired by Lonnie Donegan’s 1954 “Rock Island Line,” for many the unquestioned starting point for the British Invasion. Smokey Robinson liked Jackie Wilson’s 1958 signature song, “Lonely Teardrops.” Cat Stevens was struck with the song, “Somewhere” from West Side Story as well as The Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout.” For Jackson Browne, the song that inspired him was Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”

Most of the other musicians came to prominence in later decades, although it’s clear many of them were inspired by classic blues, folk, or country performers as well as ‘60s hits. For example, James Blake liked Sam Cooke’s somewhat obscure “Trouble Blues.”

When Boilen has trouble getting an artist to nail down a specific choice, he picks one the musician talked about extensively as when David Byrne praised the structure of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) had two top contenders, The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn, “ and The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.” For others, it wasn’t a record the artist cited but rather a performance. For Dave Grohl, for example, it was a concert by the band, Naked Raygun, that he said changed his life. Likewise, Chan Marshall (Catpower) was struck watching TV seeing Areatha Franklin singing “Amazing Grace” on the day the shuttlecraft Challenger exploded in 1986.

There are no shortages of surprises. Classical composer Philip Glass cited zany Spike Jones version of “The William Tell Overture” as played on pots and pans. I didn’t know Jackson Browne and the Velvet Underground’s Nico not only had a relationship but some of Browne’s earlier compositions appeared on her records. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. admitted considerable affection for ‘60s bubblegum by The Archies and the Banana Splits long before Patti Smith’s “Birdland” ignited his creative soul.

Odds are, few readers are going to recognize all the musicians profiled in this book. I, for example, never heard of the Icelandic or Israeli performers or jazz violinist Regina Carter or newly breaking musicians like Courtney Barnett or Kate Tempest. But that’s part of the education of the book—introducing us to musicians Boilen admires and that’s an eclectic brew. From start to finish, it’s obvious Boilen is passionate and knowledgeable about all his subjects who, in turn, are passionate about their music. It’s clear all these musicians share a creative drive that’s emotional, powerful, and honest. Each was inspired to join the continuity of musical history while breaking new individual ground. If you’re a music lover, especially with a taste for artists of more contemporary vintages, Your Song Changed My Life is likely to engage you and perhaps be an inspiration itself.