May-June 2022

How one man became a musical tastemaker from behind his — tiny — desk

Bob Boilen, host of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts, thought a career in music was a pipedream. Now, more than 1,000 artists have performed in his series

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Bob Boilen at an NPR Tiny Desk Concert during the 2019 SXSW Conference & Festivals in Austin. Photo by Getty Images

More than 1,000 bands and solo performers have played over the years for Bob Boilen, the host of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, but the performance that meant the most occurred 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 beside Boilen in his office at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Boilen had learned to play the tune in 1971 on his first guitar, which he bought for $50 with money he earned as a camp counselor. The performance brought him to tears. “I was really captivated by his voice and intimacy,” recalls Boilen, who also has a son.

A Silver Spring resident and indie musician, Boilen, 68, helps determine the music that millions of Americans listen to. As creator of the 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 each month access them 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 45s on a record player in his bedroom. After graduating from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1970, he began his career in music by working as a clerk at a Waxie Maxie’s record shop while attending Montgomery College and then the University of Maryland. “I wasn’t finding my path in college and dropped out,” he says. “I thought I couldn’t possibly be a musician unless I was really, really good.” A loaned synthesizer from the local band Urban Verbs changed his life, he says, opening up new avenues to create music.

After spending $2,000 to buy his own synthesizer in 1979, Boilen was invited by a friend to start the new-wave band called Tiny Desk Unit. The band was the first to perform when the legendary 9:30 Club opened in 1980 at 930 F St. NW in Washington, D.C., and the last before the club moved to its current location at 815 V St. NW in 1996, according to Boilen.

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, it reunited in 1990 and 1995. Boilen still plays with his “soulmate,” original band member Michael Barron, in their group Danger Painters, which has produced 17 albums since 1990, despite Boilen’s self-described “mediocre” keyboard and guitar skills.

Boilen began working at NPR after wheedling a production assistant’s job in 1988 by repeatedly showing up to volunteer. He was directing All Things Considered within a year and did so for 18 years. He composed the theme music for the Talk of the Nation radio show. “I’m one of the luckiest souls,” he says. “I fell into a fortunate 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 loud crowd kept them from hearing her perform in a bar in Austin, Texas. They suggested that the Portland, Oregon, artist come sing in Boilen’s NPR office. Three weeks later, she did—and a cult venue was born. The program’s title is derived from the moniker of Boilen’s first D.C. band, Tiny Desk Unit, which was named after a friend’s wooden drawer organizer that he called his tiny movable desk, Boilen says.

With tall bookshelves, file cabinets and an acoustical tile ceiling, Boilen’s office setting is so low-key that he says few artists appear nervous when they perform or seem bothered by the lack of studio aids, such as amplifiers. “It’s just their music, stripped down to basics,” Boilen says.

The size of the small office does surprise some performers. “The 10 of us were a bit shocked upon arrival at the tight space. But you could tell what immense music fans he and his staff were,” says Nora Kirkpatrick, a singer and accordionist with the folk-rock band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, which performed at NPR in November 2009.

Boilen says that band’s size was eclipsed by Mucca Pazza, a marching band from Chicago whose 22 members played behind, around and on top of his white particleboard desk in 2015. That desk is a replacement for Boilen’s original desk, which he moved to his apartment when NPR relocated its offices within D.C. in 2013.

Boilen listens constantly to some of the 500 music links he receives daily from artists and publicists. “The amount of music that comes out in a day equals [what] used to come out in a year,” he says, pinning 2008 as when the volume began to increase because of social media. He spends hours compiling weekly NPR playlists of songs he likes, and also organizes a Tiny Desk Contest for unsigned artists, now in its eighth year.

Music has 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 also making bagels that he shares with colleagues and pursuing his interests in micro and infrared photography and in photographing concert artists. Before the pandemic, he attended hundreds of concerts annually, posting the images on his Tinydesk Instagram account.

“I’m going to keep finding music and making music,” he says. “I’m called a tastemaker, but really, I’ll take suggestions from anyone.”