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'What Song Changed Your Life?': Bob Boilen On How Musicians Become Themselves

<em>All Songs Considered </em>host Bob Boilen's first book, <em>Your Song Changed My Life</em>, finds his favorite artists each locating a pivotal moment of inspiration.
All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen's first book, Your Song Changed My Life, finds his favorite artists each locating a pivotal moment of inspiration.

As founder of NPR Music's All Songs Considered, Bob Boilen talks to musicians for a living. For a while, he's asked many of them the same question: "What is the song that changed your life?"

Many of these answers fill his new book, which is out today and entitled Your Song Changed My Life: 35 Beloved Artists on Their Journey and the Music that Inspired It. He spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about why he loves to ask that question, and which song changed his own life. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

Ari Shapiro: Why this one question?

Bob Boilen: I've been fascinated for a long time about what it is that inspires people to become what they are. In particular, because I talk to musicians: How did you do this? Why are you playing your guitar; why are you writing poetry?

You begin this book with the song that changed your life.

"A Day in the Life" by The Beatles. I watched The Beatles and heard The Beatles, because I'm old, as an unfolding [phenomenon].

In the moment.

In the moment. So, I saw and heard the early, "I Want To Hold Your Hand," simple pop song, to — only three and a half years later — this complicated, orchestrated piece of music, "A Day in the Life," which is two songs put together.

The first is John Lennon. In the opening line, he's talking about Tara Browne, this heir to the Guinness fortune, who died in a car crash. Tragic story; life ends like that. Then, later in the song, you hear this bouncy little thing that Paul McCartney writes, and then this incredible orchestration. John Lennon said to George Martin, their producer, "I want to it sound, basically, like the end of the world." And then George Martin created something out of an orchestra, dubbing it over four times. It's chaos. I had never heard anything quite as extraordinary as all of that.

So, young Bob Boilen hears that song. Where did it take you? How did it change your life?

Well, I wanted to seek and hear more music that's new and exciting. And I still do that every day of my job here at All Songs Considered!

In this book, some musicians pick inspirations that sound like them. Folk singers pick folk musicians.

Lucinda Williams, in fact, picked Bob Dylan. They sound like each other.

One that does not follow expectations is Trey Anastasio of the band Phish. This is a band that stands on stage and improvises for hours and hours on end; they play outdoor festivals, they have a rabid fanbase.

I just expected, I don't know ...

... The GratefulDead! A jam band! Something that sounds like Phish.

Yeah, of course. We had a conversation right here at NPR, and he picked Leonard Bernstein and a piece of music from West Side Story. It's like, "Huh?" How does that happen? What is the connection?

What it boils down to, and how it relates to Phish, is that if you really understand music theory — even as a jam band player — you have part of the brain that doesn't have to think about what to play. It just knows, it just reacts; it's gut. And that's where understanding music theory the way Trey Anastasio came to know it is part of everything Phish does.

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