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Bob Boilen Asked Famous Musicians What Songs Changed Their Lives

Bob Boilen Asked Famous Musicians What Songs Changed Their Lives

What song changed your life? This question, one that is at once deeply personal and community-fostering, is the liminal tissue of Bob Boilen’s (creator of NPR’s All Songs Considered) new book, Your Song Changed My Life. Over the course of 35 profiles of musicians like Jimmy Page, Dave Grohl, Carrie Brownstein, Smokey Robinson, Jenny Lewis, St. Vincent, and David Byrne, Boilen gets to the heart of what drives these titans of modern music to create by asking them this deceptively complex question.

The passages are equal parts touching, surprising, and inspiring —prompting you to contemplate your own answer to this question while you osmotically absorb all the albums and songs mentioned in a single chapter. Though Boilen’s book could be a delightfully quick read, you are better off rewarding yourself with due diligence, listening to several key works of each artist’s discography as well as the songs each musician selects. Even Bob’s introduction—in which he confesses his lifelong love for The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”—urges you to revisit to your favorite albums by the Fab Four. Over the course of the book, you’ll also find yourself surprised by super left-field song selections.

I can think of several songs throughout my life that have been significant for very disparate reasons. Beck’s “Where It’s At” found me right at a time when I first started discovering music independently of my family and friends. I heard someone attempt the piano line of the track while I was at camp, and it lead me on my first musical rabbit hole. “Someday” by the Strokes marked a more melancholy time in my life when I tried to drown out daily noise by thinking about gold-tinted, halcyon days, much like the ones depicted in that music video. Mark Kozelek’s “Carissa” tells the story of losing a family member in Ohio, an eerie tale that hits close to home.

But perhaps just as important as any song, is the consequent discussion of its impact. In that arena, Bob Boilen’s work in music culture has meant a great deal, not just to me, but to thousands upon thousands of curious, creative, devoted music lovers I first heard All Songs Considered when I was a freshman and college, and it has become a staple of my music discovery habits. Intrinsically, songs are exceedingly important as cathartic and contemplative presentations of identity, culture, history, gender politics, and far more. But talking about the why and how of these always helps draw the lines that connect these dots, and that is an invaluable thing.

Below I caught up with Bob about his book and talked to him about his work in music culture, and, of course, what bands he is obsessed with right now.

Nerdist: How did you come up with the idea for Your Song Changed My Life?

Bob Boilen: I’ve been talking with musicians for a long time, and what I noticed is that if you want to see a musician light up and be excited about something, have them talk about anything but their own music. And in the end they wind up talking about their own stuff, but they talk about it through the eyes and creation of somebody else.

Nerdist: Have any interviews in particular cemented this idea?

BB: I remember talking to Thom Yorke, and people said, ‘oh he is a tough interview.’ I figured he can’t be tough, he’s a creative fellow. We had him come on NPR as a guest DJ for All Songs Considered, and he brought four or five songs he was excited about. We play some of his stuff and he got so lit up and excited playing music from other people and it was just a thrill, and that’s when I realized the reason he’s a tough interview is not because he’s a jerk or anything. It’s because he gets asked the same damn questions all the time and its boring! And so when you can talk about something other than yourself, you wind up talking about who you are.

Nerdist: Did any song selections surprise you?

BB: Cat Stevens picking “Twist and Shout” was a disconnect. I understand that he lived through that period, but I wouldn’t have guessed that track in particular, but it was the song that was simple that gave him the courage to play guitar.

Jenny Lewis picking A Tribe Called Quest was great and it made me listen to her music differently. You listen to the words differently and think about how she crams so much into one song in the words. She said that one of the things she liked about having The Watson Twins [on her debut solo record] was that she’d get more words in a song. I love that. I never would have guessed hip-hop. She describes how she travels with outfits that are basically track clothes, you know, gym kind of clothes. That’s one world of music she digs the style from, and then she has these nudie suits in the style of Graham Parsons’ suits that basically look like paintings on suits. So she wears those when she plays live. So she’s got these two worlds of fashion that mimic the music she likes. I love that.

Smokey Robinson picked his own song. That was pretty fun, and actually, it turns out that two people picked their own song, too, and both with good reasons. “Shop Around” was one of the first hits with Motown and it sort of made it possible for him and Berry Gordy, head of Mo-Town, to do what they wanted with their lives. So it makes perfect sense.

“When you can talk about something other than yourself, you wind up talking about who you are.” – Bob Boilen

Nerdist: You mention in the book how you happened not to be the biggest Phish fan, but you ended up interviewing Trey Anastasio. How was that experience?

BB: I was expecting him to pick some great guitar player and he winds up picking Leonard Bernstein, a song from West Side Story and it was, like, ‘wow!’ The cool thing about doing these interviews is connecting the dots and trying to figure out why they the hell you picked this. ‘What does it mean to you and how did it change your life?’ So, he goes on and talks about the nature of improvisation and how Bernstein understands music theory, and you can tell he completely understands music theory and he’s talking about chordal changes—and how to build tension—and I realized that becoming a great improviser is not just being able to find the key and kind of play doodles. [You have to] understand it well enough to play something, so your fellow bandmates will add to it or, you know, the band may play something and you do something that brings them and makes them play something else. That’s the great thing about improvisation on stage. It’s the surprises—it’s what you play that makes this thing rise and the thing is that understanding music theory when it’s deep inside your DNA, deep inside your soul, you will then make music that is so much better. That’s why he loves Bernstein and that’s why he’s a great improviser. I would have never connected those things. His chapter might be my favorite interview in the book.

Nerdist: Did anyone have similar experiences with the same artists or songs?

BB: There were people who picked The Beatles like Cat Stevens. Valerie June picked a John Lennon song which was actually kind of surprising; She picked “Imagine.” I would not have imagined Valerie June picking a song like that. Bob Dylan was a repeat performer here, picked by a number of artists. He was picked by Lucinda Williams, Josh Ritter, Kate Tempest, which was a surprise to me. Kate Tempest, hip-hop artist, poet, playwright from England who also her Dylan by her dad then heard it again later and really felt like she understood it on her own terms.

Nerdist: Since you talked to artists that varied in age, were there differences in origin stories from younger artists and older artists or did they share in common a sort of epiphany moment?

BB: You know what? I think the answer is not a lot, but I bet if I did this book ten years from now, it would be. This is how I think about it: Someone like Kate Tempest listened to her dad’s Dylan records, and someone like Courtney Barnett listened to her neighbor’s Wilco. Those are obviously younger artists. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I’m not alone thinking about this. It’s like, what are we passing on? So many of these artists were so inspired by parent’s records around the house and are we going to pass on our Spotify playlists? Like, what the fuck?

I want to be clear that I love the fact that you have broad access to all the music you want to hear. That is mind-blowing. And I think that this generation is one of the most musically educated group of people. But I do think that if I talked to the 23-year old artist in 2025 that they’re less likely to have sifted through their parents’ playlists so I wonder what’s going to happen. I wonder how people will get turned onto records and will their parents’ generation be as large part of their musical shaping as it was for almost all the artists young and old in the book now.

Nerdist: Is there a song or album that’s currently stuck in your head?

BB: I’ve been listening to the new album by Weaves. The guitar player in that band is one of the best guitar players I’ve seen in terms of being original and fierce. Just because it’s fierce, it doesn’t have to be distorted, you know? He just has an original sense about his melodies. I hope they do well.

Image: Meg Vogel for NPR

Matt Grosinger is the music editor of Nerdist and wants to know what song changed your life. hit him up on Twitter right here.

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