Bob Boilen Talks His Musical Journey and Creative Style: “I Discover As I Go”

Bob Boilen works to bring music to the masses.

Videos by American Songwriter

Whether on the weekly NPR program All Songs Considered or via his Tiny Desk Concert series, Boilen has jumpstarted the careers of countless acts, like Tank and the Bangas and Fantastic Negrito. He’s also showcased myriad songs to listeners who, like him, are constantly in search of what’s new, fresh and interesting in the sonic world.

Boilen doesn’t just reside on the media side of the music business. He’s also a songwriter, composer, and artist, himself, who creates textured, sometimes somber tracks that swirl and hover in a listener’s ear. Songs that display a lifetime of music appreciation as well as a hope to chisel out something surprising for music lovers to sample. To wit, Boilen’s latest solo offering is a new six-track, nearly 30-minute album he released on Bandcamp on January 14. Titled Brick Walls & Blue Skies, the project is as much a product of a lifetime of listening to songs as it is a call-and-response between Boilen and his favorite engineering software. 

“I find joy in being able to bring music that’s relatively unknown to a larger audience,” Boilen tells American Songwriter. “That’s what I feel is my mission. I’ve been doing that since I came to NPR in 1988.”

Boilen lives two lives. In one, he’s a curator, bringing what he finds to the world en masse. The other, he’s the sculptor of sounds, releasing them via his solo or collaborative projects. He’s been living these dichotomous-yet-still-intertwined existences ever since he was quite young. 

“As far as a composer,” Boilen says, “I’m still hoping to make music that is unique—as much as one can make unique music in this big world. … I’m a non-musician musician. I still can’t play keyboards, as long as I’ve owned keyboards. I do as much as I can—I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve grown up in an era where computers and music have interfaced because that is my tool to make music. I use computers to do all that I do.” 

For the 69-year-old music aficionado, his inability to shred on a six-string or expertly twinkle the ivories has created a valuable problem. His lack of musicianship has created a symbiotic relationship with software. He’s grateful for it, too. It’s been a “blessing,” he says. He recalls programs he got ahold of in the early 1980s, with which he could play something, and the computer would react and “spit out progressions” that he could then manipulate. Using his ear, he could rearrange the chords he could never play into something he loved, something complete and harmonious. In the end, it’s a more reactive way of songwriting. 

“I wasn’t capable of playing an A-minor chord followed by an E-minor chord,” he says. “But a computer could play it.”

As an adult, Boilen has accepted and even learned to work admirably with his inability to compose songs in more traditional manners. But as a kid, when he first began to learn about music and composition, it wasn’t as easy. Growing up in New York City, Boilen was a fan of the Beatles. Like so many, he fell in love with their songs first on the radio. It was an event in his household when the Mop Tops came on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. He remembers gathering around the television with his family, watching the black-and-white variety show. He can still picture where he was and how excited he felt at the time.

“There was no music like it,” he says. With that love in his mind, he tried to learn how to play the guitar. His guitar teacher then wasn’t impressed with his ability (or lack thereof), even telling Boilen’s mother at the time that he didn’t think young Bob had any musical talent at all.

“Totally devastating,” Boilen says. “I’d love to find that guitar teacher now, but I couldn’t possibly remember that person’s name. But it devasted me and kept me from making music for a good chunk of my teen life.”

It took Boilen a handful of years to get the gumption to pick up an instrument again. He did so again around 16 years old. But again, he wasn’t great at it. Nevertheless, he continued to indulge his love of sound. He bought 45s whenever he could. His first LP was Meet The Beatles in 1964. He got it at an old radio and TV repair shop that carried about a dozen albums at any given time. He’d also find department stores and purchase albums there. Thinking about it now, he laughs. In his job with NPR today, he is sent about as many albums on a given day as he saw were available in a given year in the mid-1960s.

When he was around 17, Boilen began working at a record store, Waxie Maxie’s, after his family moved from New York to the Washington D.C. area. It was 1970 and he was now a promising young record clerk who quickly worked his way up to manager and then a buyer. 

“I was deeply entrenched in music then as a teenager,” Boilen says. 

He dove into the world of “imports,” or those harder-to-find albums from overseas. There were some good local radio stations, too, that aided in his discovery, and he lapped it all up, as much as he could. College radio stations helped, like one out of Georgetown University. Word of mouth was key, too. 

“Music hits me on a level that’s not easy to put into words,” says Boilen. “It hits the gut. There’s no right or wrong, that’s the important thing. It’s just what becomes meaningful to you.”

Today, what he wants from music is surprise. Some familiarity, too. But mostly he wants to digest something fresh, whether that’s in the lyric, the melody, or a song’s texture. Something he’s never heard before. At some point along the way, Boilen quit his job at the record store and bought a synthesizer. It was around 1979 and he wanted to find his own way. He knew he’d never be a standout guitar player, but maybe keys would be his thing. More than anything, he simply just wanted to make music. 

“A synthesizer allowed me to make noise and sounds in ways that were new and refreshing,” he says. “Which is exactly what I wanted out of music.”

After he got the synth, a friend told him another friend was looking to start a band. That person was Michael Barron, with whom Boilen continues to make music today (in a group called Danger Painters). At the time, the two young men started a band called Tiny Desk Unit (a band name that would later inspire the moniker of Boilen’s Tiny Desk Concert series). Tiny Desk Unit wasn’t about commercial success. Rather, it was about making art, making friends, and creating a scene. While the group only did one small tour outside of D.C., the music they made “still holds up pretty well over all these years,” Boilen notes.

He’s been making more with Barron ever since. Fast-forward to today and Boilen is still cranking out new tracks left and right. 

“I’ve made about 10 albums since the pandemic,” he says. “Five of them with Danger Painters and five or six by myself [including Brick Walls & Blue Skies].”

Today, as a composer, Boilen isn’t one to wait for the lightning strike of inspiration. Instead, he thinks of himself more as a stone worker, chiseling something and then examining what he sees in the rock, chiseling more, refining, and accentuating. Eventually, the skeleton for a song or album shows itself and he’s off to complete the task.

“It’s really kind of thrilling,” he says. “I discover as I go.”

For Boilen, “what comes out is what comes out.” He says he thinks of it as a “collaboration between the engineers that develop the software that I play with.” It’s an interesting relationship. Whereas most musicians and songwriters think of their process as a solo act or one in collaboration with other people in a room, on stage, or in a studio, Boilen thinks of it almost as a dance between himself, his programming software, and the people who created that software.

He recalls early digital synthesizers and sequencers that allowed him to play something and then shape and reshape those often-looped sounds. It’s communication as much as it is composition. He got in on it on the ground floor, in many ways, and has seen digital equipment and sampling take off.

It’s Boilen’s early experience with digital sampling and composition that helped him land his first job with NPR. The outlet did a story on something he created using these techniques and it helped him get in the door. Now, he’s helped to change the world of music, itself, through his work. As for his most recent solo album, it too was born of experimentation.

“I think every artist, when they begin a piece of work, finds doubt in who they are and their abilities,” Boilen says. “I’ve been fortunate to not hit those roadblocks. But the title, Brick Walls & Blue Skies—it was true. I started making music when I finally had some time off around Christmas and I hit a wall.”

Boilen went back to some older songs he’d started with Danger Painters, used those sketches, and finally found some momentum. Those songs had more guitar in them than usual, thanks to their association with Danger Painters, but Boilen found his flow and carried on. He got the record done in about 10 days after he’d begun again in earnest. Now it’s out in the world. The record is hushed at times, subtle, and jazzy. At times it’s even ominous like a John Carpenter work. Or lush like something from Yann Tiersen. 

“You get into this world, and you sit in it alone,” Boilen says. “You collaborate with engineers and find these sounds. It leads me down a path.”

When Boilen considers what might be ahead, all that he is generally concerned about is his hope for more sonic surprise. You never know what sound might be around the next corner and that’s what excites him most. That’s the beauty of each day, he says, the joy of what he looks for. What he loves most about the art form to which he’s dedicated his life—music—he has but three words to utter.

“That it exists,” says Boilen. 

Photo by April Greer For The Washington Post via Getty Images

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