Many of us who write about music often like to ask artists what songs have most inspired them, or what songwriters most influenced them. Bob Boilen, creator and host of NPR Music's All Songs Considered -- as well as their Tiny Desk Concert series -- gets to do this for a living. Now, he has gathered a collection of 35 of these conversations with musicians into a new book, Your Song Changed My Life: From Jimmy Page to St. Vincent, Smokey Robinson to Hosier, Thirty-Five Beloved Artists on Their Journey and the Music That Inspired It (William Morrow).
The book's subtitle indicates a bit of the range of musical styles and artists that Boilen covers, but other musicians featured in the collection include Colin Meloy, Cat Stevens, Dave Grohl, Cat Power, Lucinda Williams, and Jackson Browne, among others. Fans of many musical styles will find reflections on the various kinds of music that inspire their favorite artists. They may be surprised to discover what songs or musicians have influenced particular artists.
Americana artist Pokey LaFarge sat down with Boilen at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival, a perfect setting, writes Boilen, for this young philosopher and songwriter to talk about the music that's inspired him. LaFarge tells Boilen that his favorite singer of all time is Lefty Frizell: "Lefty is arguably the most influential country singer of all times in terms of his style. George Jones says it; Merle Haggard says it." He then goes on to call Louis Armstrong's version of "St. James Infirmary" the greatest recording of all time. "The most inspiring things I've found with music are the things that you can't quite classify," he goes on. "The people that invented things on their own that we now call rock and roll and … country, and things that we’ve mislabeled by calling it country and rock and roll because it had no other name, or because we are so eager to put a name on it. That's the thing I'm inspired by, raw, natural, organic expression."
For Jeff Tweedy, two songs stand out as ones that inspired him: the Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and the Monkees' "Daydream Believer." Tweedy calls "those early Byrds' sides magical recordings. I'm still really interested in shapes of songs, and that's a really interesting shape of a song … almost like a psalm or something." Tweedy is a fan of the Monkees' television show as much as of their music, and he tells Boilen that the show is a "formative memory I've chased my whole life, thinking that a band's supposed to live together and have madcap adventures together. I always looked for that intimate relationship with a group of guys who are just cool."
The charismatic young singer Leon Bridges tells Boilen that after listening to Sam Cooke, "I saw how soul music was created by black people … but I saw the music, black music of today, and I saw that … nobody was really carrying it on. … So I felt that as a young black man, I needed to go back to the roots and to where it all started. ... Not to say I wanted to be the next Sam Cooke or the next anything … it's just a sound that I fell in love with, and wanted to make it for myself." Bridges recalls that the harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash also fascinated him and had him wanting to try out that style of singing, which he eventually did with a local Forth Worth group of musicians.
Carrie Brownstein tells Boilen that the Replacements' "Bastards of Young" inspired her: "It was that sort of endless struggle to be understood and have the people you wanna love you, love you. That made so much sense to me in high school. And just 'We are 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. I wrote a lot in my book, Hunger Makes a Modern Girl, about just feeling unclaimed and all the kind of journeys you go on to try to feel claimed by something. I think that song really summed it up for me."
Award-winning Americana artist Sturgill Simpson counts Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" and Bill Monroe's "Wayfaring Stranger" as his two greatest inspirations. But it's books and ideas, as well as music, that inspire Simpson. He tells NPR's Ann Powers that he's "just reached a point where the thought of writing and singing any more songs about heartache and drinking made me feel incredibly bored with music. It's just not a headspace I occupy much these days. Nighttime reading about theology, cosmology, and breakthroughs in modern physics and their relationship to a few personal experiences I've had led to most of the songs on the album."
Valerie June tells Boilen that the song that truly changed her life and inspired her to write music was John Lennon's "Imagine": "It was the lyrics," she says, "the vision of living in the world like that. I mean, and to sing it … I just thought it was really magical and beautiful, that song. And the soft sweetness of his voice, and I was like, I want to live in that world he just created. … I think if a song can make you want to get inside it, then it's probably gonna be a really great song."
There's a chapter in Boilen's book for everyone; Jimmy Page talks about being inspired deeply by Lonnie Donegan and skiffle; Lucinda Williams and Jackson Browne talk about Bob Dylan as their inspiration, though Williams considers her father — the poet Miller Williams — as perhaps her greatest influence. For Hosier, it's Tom Waits' "Cold, Cold Ground" that moved him to play music.
Will anyone these days pay $25.99 for a book of conversations with artists about their influences when they can learn as much from an artist's website — or from good liner notes — as from a short conversation? As fascinating as some of the conversations might be to Boilen, will they be as fascinating to a broad range of readers or listeners, especially those for whom only one or two of their favorite artists are in the collection? It's hard to say.
In the end, Boilen's book is great entertainment, and it gives us a glimpse into the lives of musicians that we might not ordinarily get. It also encourages us to ask of ourselves: is there one unforgettable song that changed our lives?