Olsen plays a long set but with four songs.
She sits very still, strumming with her thumb and singing kind of low–not unlike Sharon van Etten. The first song, “Unfucktheworld” is only two ans a half minutes. The second song, “Iota,” is a little longer. She sings in an affected almost falsetto style, although the guitar remains very spare.
Between these songs, she is coy about the title of the new record although she is quick to say the first word of the title “burn.” Later she admits that the final song contains the title of the album, if we wanted to spend time figuring it out.
I marvelled at how high the chords were that she played on “Enemy,” She seems to eschew any bass for this song. This one is five and a half minutes long and is just as slow as the others.
Before the final song they talk about whether this is the most awkward show she has done. She says everyone is very alert–and indeed you can hear utter silence between songs. But then they talk about the storm outside (and potential tornado) and how this show may never air if the storm is really bad.
“White Fire” is an 8 minute story song. She does use the whole guitar for this one, which has many many verses. Since I don’t really know Olsen’s stuff that well, I don’t know if this was a good example of her show or a fun treat to hear her in such an intimate way.
[READ: May 10, 2016] Your Song Changed My Life
This site is all about music and books, but you may be surprised to know that I don’t really like books about music all that much. I have read a number of them—biographies, autobiography or whatever, and I don’t love them wholesale. Some are fine, but in general musicians aren’t really as interesting as they may seem.
What I do like however, is hearing a decent interview with musicians to find out some details about them–something that will flesh out my interest in them or perhaps make me interested in someone I previously wasn’t. Not a whole book, maybe just an article, I guess.
I also really like Bob Boilen. I think he’s a great advocate of music and new bands. I have been listening to his shows on NPR for years and obvious I have been talking about hundreds of the Tiny Desk Concerts that he originated. I also really like his taste in music. So I was pretty psyched when Sarah got me this book for my birthday.
I read it really quickly–just devoured the whole thing. And it was really enjoyable.
Bob begins by giving us a little bit of history about his life. If you follow the All Songs Considered podcast you know most of this already (in fact if you’re a fan of the show a lot of the snippets from interviews will be familiar–but not all of them). He talks about how he grew up loving music and listening to it all the time. He wanted to play guitar but was told he had no talent. He went to college and then dropped out. He worked at a record store for years and then eventually on a whim tried to see if he could work for NPR. Then he learned to play synth and starting the band Tiny Desk Unit. I didn’t know that Tiny Desk Unit had something a of a cult following around D.C. back in the day.
There’s a lot more–including a lot of insight into the history of music and the importance (to him and everyone else) of The Beatles. It’s a worthwhile introduction to read, not least because in every chapter, Bob tends to tie in what the musicians say to some experience he had or to something that hearkens back to that introduction. This makes this book something of an autobiography for Boilen as well as an interview with famous musicians.
The list of musicians is pretty great: From the obvious : Carrie Brownstein (she worked for NPR for a bit), St. Vincent (he loves her), Cat Stevens (they gushed over him at the Tiny Desk Concert), Justin Vernon (they love Bon Iver), Courtney Barnett (they love love love her) same with Sharon Van Etten and Kate Tempest (whom Bob has often sung the praises of) and of course Fantastic Negrito who won their Tiny Desk Contest last year.
Some surprises include Jimmy Page, Smokey Robinson, David Byrne, Jenny Lewis, Phillip Glass, Valerie June, Pokey LaFarge, Leon Bridges, Trey Anastasio, Dave Grohl, Michael Stipe, Ian MacKaye and Lucinda Williams.
And then some “oh yeah” inclusions because they are often mentioned on their show: Jeff Tweedy, James Blake, Colin Meloy, Jónsi, Ásgeir (Bob went to Iceland for a week), Hozier, Asaf Avidan, Conor Oberst and Chris Thile.
This is a tough book to summarize because I don’t want to give anyone’s “answers” away, but it’s fair to say that while some of the answers are obvious, quite a lot of them are surprising–songs that meant a lot to people even if they didn’t necessarily influence their music.
I enjoyed reading about Jimmy Page, someone I don’t often think about but whose influence is undeniable. Carrie Brownstein has just written her own memoir, and while I’m reading that next I believe that Bob has gotten some details from her that she doesn’t talk about in her book.
David Byrne’s interview is fun for how alive and vibrant he is–I always think of him as closed off and quiet. St. Vincent offers a real surprise in her childhood and her introduction to music.
Jeff Tweedy is not a surprise but he’s a very interesting guy–I also like that Bob is not afraid to mention the troubles that various artists have had in their lives-whether drugs or something else–especially since most of them have gotten over the trouble.
James Blake practically admits to stealing a melody in his big hit. Colin Meloy name checks a whole bunch of interesting bands like Scritti Politti and R.E.M. (no duh) and Hüsker Dü.
I enjoyed the Trey Anastasio interview because Bob states that he’s not really a fan of Phish, (and he apologized for that) although he knows they are all talented and interesting guys. Trey had a rough time for a bit and he talks about that. But the real surprise from Trey and several other people is the love of West Side Story–it sees very important to a number of musicians.
Jenny Lewis (of the band Rilo Kiley) talks about the huge influence of rap on her music (and how much she hated getting made fun of for being a white girl at a rap show). Dave Grohl is his normal hilarious self as he talks about dropping out of school and going to punk shows as a young kid.
Cat Stevens loved musicals. I didn’t realize Sturgill Simpson was so recent of a musician. Justin Vernon’s important song was one that he recorded for another band–an interesting twist on something that changed his life (if you ever listened to him talk about this song on NPR you’ll remember the story about The Staves).
Cat Power is a most interesting story because he actually talks about her giving a very bad concert and that she if pretty flaky (and also great). The Jackson Browne section is funny because Bob talks about how much he hated Jackson Browne when he was younger and then he found out his connection to Nico of the Velvet Underground and all was forgiven.
Unsurprisingly, Michael Stipe’s hero is Patti Smith, but surprisingly Philip Glass is really quite funny (and loves Spike Jones).
The Jónsi and Ásgeir interviews came from Bob’s trip to Iceland and both of these quiet singers have surprising important songs for them.
Hozier seemed like a bit of a dud during his Tiny Desk (his music was amazing but he personally seemed rather boring) but he proves to be quite interesting. It was fascinating to read About Regina Carter and her violin. And even more fascinating to read about Asaf Avidan and his incredibly unusual voice. His voice is very very high-pitched (he genuinely sounds like a woman) and he loves a crooner whose voice i notoriously deep.
Valerie June is a young musician still influenced by John Lennon. Conor Oberst talks about “American Pie.” And Courtney Barnett gives the perspective of growing up in small town Australia seeking any music she could get.
Pokey LaFarge, whose music I have enjoyed, proves that his shtick–porkpie hats and old timey sound–is no shtick at all, it is the music he genuinely loves. I liked his attitude that genres are kind of stupid–just enjoy what you want.
Unsurprisingly Kate Tempest grew up loving rap, but she has a wonderful personal story (that she described on the radio) about an important concert for her.
I loved finding out that Ian MacKaye knew the band Tiny Desk Unit. I don’t know much about MacKeye himself but I’ve been very impressed by his commitment to his causes. Lucinda Williams talks about the difference between songs and poetry which I thought was really interesting.
I didn’t now Josh Ritter wrote books–I recently heard him for the first time and found his lyrics to be really interesting.
Chris Thile is a musical prodigy. I knew some of this but had no idea the details. Nickel Creek released their first album when Chris and Sara Watkins were 12. TWELVE! But despite his mandolin playing, he talks about the two recordings of The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould as being life changing. Gould’s first recording in 1955, is amazing…it’s a barn burner, but on his second recording in 1981 you could head bang to it.
I don’t really know Leon Bridges but his connection made sense to me. I was mostly surprised that there was no photo of Sharon Van Etten since Bob and Robin love her so much (guess that was before he started taking pictures). I like her love of PJ Harvey and other 90s bands.
And finally Fantastic Negrito. His story is absolutely fascinating–his early success and stunning failure and then the horrific accident that left him supposedly unable to play music again–which he overcame. That’s a great ending to a book.
Bob is a sympathetic interviewer and genuinely cares about the musicians and the questions he asks them. His tone is genuinely positive so it makes for enjoyable light reading and is a great place to find new (and old) music.