The local man behind NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series
Over 1,000 groups and solo artists have performed for Bob Boilen, host of NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts, over the years, but the performance that meant the most happened in December 2014, when Yusuf Islam sang for him.
Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, dedicated his song “Father and Son” to Boilen before singing it with Islam’s own 27-year-old son standing next to Boilen in his office at the headquarters of NPR in Washington, DC Boilen had learned to play the tune. in 1971 on his first guitar, which he bought for $50 with the money he earned as a camp counselor. The performance made him cry. “I was really captivated by his voice and his intimacy,” recalls Boilen, who also has a son.
A Silver Spring resident and freelance musician, Boilen, 68, helps determine the music millions of Americans listen to. As the creator of Tiny Desk Concerts and the NPR show All Songs Considered, Boilen invites musicians of all genres to perform behind his desk, from the obscure Tank and the Bangas to Mumford & Sons, Lizzo, Taylor Swift, Yo-Yo Ma and T-Pain. The concerts are recorded and some 55 million listeners access them each month on YouTube and NPR’s websites.
A Brooklyn native whose family moved to Bethesda in the late 1960s, Boilen was a music-mad kid, spinning 45 seconds on a record player in his bedroom. After graduating from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1970, he began his music career working as a clerk at a Waxie Maxie record store while attending Montgomery College and then the University of Maryland. “I couldn’t find my way in college and I dropped out,” he says. “I thought I couldn’t be a musician unless I was really, really good.” A synthesizer on loan from local band Urban Verbs changed his life, he says, opening up new avenues for creating music.
After spending $2,000 to buy his own synthesizer in 1979, Boilen was asked by a friend to start the new wave band called Tiny Desk Unit. According to Boil.
In 1985, the Washington City Paper named Boilen “Performance Artist of the Year”, based on his work in 1984. Although his band broke up in 1984, they reunited in 1990 and 1995. Boilen still performs with his “soul mate”, original group. Michael Barron, a member of their band Danger Painters, who have produced 17 albums since 1990, despite Boilen’s self-proclaimed “poor” keyboard and guitar skills.
Boilen began working at NPR after serving as a production assistant in 1988 showing up as a volunteer on several occasions. He ran All Things Considered in a year and did so for 18 years. He composed the theme music for the radio show Talk of the Nation. “I am one of the luckiest souls,” he says. “I fell on a happy path because of the faith others had in me.”
The Tiny Desk Concerts began with a joking invitation in 2007 from Boilen and Stephen Thompson, a co-producer, to singer-songwriter Laura Gibson after a rowdy crowd prevented them from hearing her play at a bar in Austin, Texas. They suggested the Portland, Oregon artist come sing in Boilen’s NPR office. Three weeks later, she did, and a cult place was born. The title of the program is derived from the nickname of Boilen’s first DC band, Tiny Desk Unit, which was named after a friend’s wooden drawer organizer he called his little mobile office, Boilen says.
With tall bookshelves, filing cabinets and an acoustic tile ceiling, Boilen’s office is so low-key he says few artists seem nervous when performing or seem embarrassed by the lack of studio aids, such than amplifiers. “It’s just their music, stripped down to the essentials,” says Boilen.
The size of the small desk surprises some artists. “The 10 of us were a bit shocked when we arrived in the tight space. But you could tell what huge music fans he and his team were,” says Nora Kirkpatrick, vocalist and accordionist for folk-rock band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, who performed at NPR in November 2009.
Boilen says the band’s size was eclipsed by Mucca Pazza, a Chicago marching band whose 22 members performed behind, around and on his white particleboard desk in 2015. This desk replaces Boilen’s original desk, that he moved into his apartment. when NPR moved its offices within DC in 2013.
Boilen constantly listens to some of the 500 music links he receives daily from artists and publicists. “The amount of music that comes out in a day is equivalent to [what] used to come out in a year,” he says, pinning 2008 as the time when the volume started to pick up because of social media. He spends hours compiling weekly NPR playlists of songs he loves, and also runs a Tiny Desk contest for unsigned artists, now in its eighth year.
Music brought him cultural fame – in 2016 he voiced a radio host character based on himself on The Simpsons. Also in 2016, he wrote a book, Your Song Changed My Life, in which he asked 35 artists to describe a song that changed them.
Boilen continues to compose electronic music, while making bagels which he shares with his colleagues and pursuing his interests in micro and infrared photography and in the photography of concert artists. Before the pandemic, he attended hundreds of concerts each year, posting the footage to his Tinydesk Instagram account.
“I’m going to keep finding music and making music,” he says. “I’m called a taste maker, but really, I’ll take suggestions from anyone.”