NPR’s Bob Boilen crosses into the literary world with ‘Your Song Changed My Life’

Willow Yang/File

Bob Boilen knows more about music than you do. If his name doesn’t sound familiar, his resume might: He’s the host and creator of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and the Tiny Desk Concert series (the webcast that helped catapult a number of now-big-name artists to fame — Macklemore, Passion Pit and Hozier, to name a few). In his latest project, Boilen has crossed media, entering into the literary world with the delightful “Your Song Changed My Life” — a collection of interviews from 35 musicians about the experiences that catalyzed their decision to pursue music.

“Your Song Changed My Life” is entertaining and moving, evoking motions as diverse as the artists Boilen interviews. Each vignette is constructed with obvious love and dedication. The book is gentle, intimate, funny and, at times, heartbreaking. Reading each musician’s account of the “early days” feels a lot like leafing through an album of baby photos. It doesn’t read like a book of music criticism — and for good reason.

Boilen didn’t set out to be a writer. He’s a musician and lifelong lover of music, self-described in an interview with The Daily Californian as a “curator and fan.” A hippie kid who wanted to play the guitar, but was told he had no natural talent, Boilen grew up listening to The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and later the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads, forming his own band in the late 1970s. He dislikes music criticism, believing that music should be a matter of emotion, rather than judgment.

“What I think music critics tend to do,” Boilen explained, “is give you a justification of a reason to like a piece of music. … I don’t think you should have that. I think you should just love a piece of music.”

To write the book, Boilen compiled a list of more than 50 artists he “wanted to know.” From there, it became a matter of availability. When all was said and done, Boilen had interviewed artists as diverse as Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Hozier to Carrie Brownstein (of “Portlandia” and Sleater-Kinney fame) and James Blake.  

The interviews are at once simple and incredibly complex. Boilen’s central question — what song changed the artist’s life — leads each musician down a twisting rabbit hole of stories from the early days of their music career. Some are sweet and innocent. Dave Grohl, drummer for Nirvana and singer and guitarist for Foo Fighters, describes how a visit to his aunt’s house in Evanston, Illinois, led him to see a live punk concert in Chicago, changing his life forever (“God bless Aunt Sherry,” writes Boilen).

Other accounts are shocking and sad. Oakland artist Fantastic Negrito, the 2015 winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest, talks about running away from home at the age of 12, as well as the horrific car crash he experienced in 1999 that left him with a disfigured arm.

“I always find that what attracts me is when I hear something from a voice that I trust or someone I’ve cared about.”

— Bob Boilen

Others still seem the products of fate: One day, a truck dropped a box of records outside the house of Annie Clark, setting her on the pathway that would ultimately lead her to become St. Vincent.

What holds such an incredibly diverse collection of accounts together is Boilen’s voice, the connective tissue binding one chapter to the next. His commentary is incredibly insightful, demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of music with unobtrusive, delicate grace. In the Hozier chapter, for instance, Boilen outlines the parallel Afro-American and Irish blues traditions as a way of explaining why Hozier can sing the blues so well.

“I want to care on some level,” said Boilen, explaining the decision to incorporate his own voice into the book. “I always find that what attracts me is when I hear something from a voice that I trust or someone I’ve cared about.” Plus, he added, it was fun to dive into and share his own memories and experiences.

Boilen loves music. That lifelong dedication shines through “Your Song Changed My Life,” a book that fans of any genre — rock ’n’ roll, jazz, punk and more — will undoubtedly enjoy.

Contact Sarah Coduto at [email protected].