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'Your Song Changed My Life': NPR's Bob Boilen's stories of musicians' inspirations

NPR's Bob Boilen, author of
NPR's Bob Boilen, author of "Your Song Changed My Life," really gets down in the Off-Ramp studio.
John Rabe

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Off-Ramp host John Rabe interviews Bob Boilen about his book "Your Song Changed My Life," which blends Bob's personal musical memoir with his interviews with 35 musicians who explain how a single piece of music changed them forever. Boilen created and hosts All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concerts for NPR.

Your book is about the big question, what music means to people and how it works.

Right, right. And often it works deep into the emotion. It's often a catalyst, it often happens that, that moment of inspiration, hearing a song often happens somewhere in the pre-pubescent or early pubescence — you know, 13, 14, 15, sometimes later. But something hits you. You hear words, or a sound, that makes, in this case, the 35 musicians in this book to pick up a pen or pick up an instrument.

Maybe the weirdest one is Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam. You asked "What's the song that changed your life?" And it wasn't some mystical tune.

Yeah, he picked a rock 'n' roller, the Beatles doing that Isley Brothers tune "Twist and Shout," and it was like, "OK... what do you mean?" Some of these musicians, the conversations are windy; some musicians know exactly what they want. Cat Stevens, he talked about "West Side Story" — he grew up on a street where back alleys were theaters, but what made him want to pick up a guitar was the Beatles. It was simple, it was easy chords and he could somehow figure it out.

And there's a sense of accomplishment, when you want to play music, when you love it and you want to play it and you start to play on an instrument, be it a piano that may be in the family, or somebody's guitar, and it's frustrating, and there's a moment when you pick up an instrument. And it happened with me, where if you can't do it, you think you'll never do it. 

Carrie Brownstein, from Sleater-Kinney and the TV show "Portlandia." What's her story?

Carrie's story is about finding something to belong to. Kids grow up, and sometimes you feel like the outsider, and Carrie's one of those kids. And often, the people who join bands, especially bands that play more brash, in-your-face music are often the odd ducks, and Carrie wanted to belong to something.

She was schooled by going to record stores, and finding people to be like, "If you like Nirvana, you should listen to Shocking Blue," you know — Nirvana did a cover of their song. Or, "You should listen to early Television, or Ramones," and Carrie was this sort of completist; she liked to find one thing, and then find its thread.

And she loved doing that. She fell in love with a song by the Replacements.

... A song called "Bastards of Young." You quoted her in "Your Song Changed My Life," saying, "It was that sort of endless struggle to be understood and have the people you want to love you, love you. That made so much sense to me in high school. And we are the sons of no one, 'Bastards of Young,' it was so important to me at the time, it seemed an anthem of wanting to be claimed."

And if you ever read her book, "Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl," so much of it is about wanting to be claimed, wanting to be connected to something. Wanting to find a place in life, a purpose and meaning. Carrie early on realized that she didn't want to be an observer, she wanted to be a participant, and that's how she came to what she came to — as a great musician, as a writer of script and comedy, all sorts of stuff.

What was the song that changed Smokey Robinson's life?

There was a moment in the Smokey Robinson interview where I was sure it was going to be an old R&B tune from the '50s, that's what he grew up on. But the song that changed his life was his own song, which was "Shop Around."

And it makes perfect sense — I mean here's a guy who, he and Berry Gordy were sort of getting a label going, and all of sudden they had this monster hit, and it gave them all the money to do what he wanted to do in life, so the song that changed Smokey Robinson's life was a song that Smokey Robinson wrote!

You interviewed 35 people, you put this book together, you interwove your musical experience with theirs. What did you learn?

The main thing I learned is that people love what they love, it was a mix of timing — of, maybe, fate — and we're very impressionable when we're in our teens. And folks who follow their heart are the happiest, so, you hear something, you love it, you want to do it, and you wind up doing it, and that was a story that happened quite a bit.

You're right. If you want to sing out, sing out.

Yeah, exactly.

For much more — including a mercifully short rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues" by Boilen and Rabe — listen to the audio.