April 23, 2020

NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series has gained fame for hosting a well-curated selection of artists who deliver intimate performances in an odd setting: a literal tiny desk at NPR’s office building in Washington, D.C. When NPR shut down its office to protect its staff in March, the physical Tiny Desk went dark, too.

So what happens to a popular concert series when its titular office space is off-limits? How about … move desks?

The NPR Music team and Bob Boilen, the creator and host of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and the Tiny Desk concert series, found a new intimate space from which to broadcast performances: artist’s homes.

I called Boilen to check in on the Tiny Desk from Home concerts and, OK, to gush a little bit about how much the series has meant to me as I’ve dealt with the ups and downs of the world we’re living in.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ren LaForme: I’ve found that the Tiny Desk concerts have been even more of a treat than usual during this lockdown. I want to hear what the past month or so has been like for you.

Bob Boilen: I miss it. I miss being at my desk in my office and amazing musicians coming and entertaining staff and seeing the joy on people’s faces in a room together. We’ve done this thing for 12 years, the concerts at my desk. I think we’ve done 900 plus of these things.

It is a true joy to hear musicians in a small room without the normal amplification that you usually hear, and to see them adapt to an odd situation, which is an office in the daytime. It’s nerve-wracking for the most well-known as well as the most unknown musicians. It’s a building at NPR that’s full of people doing news stuff and stressed out and it’s a time where many of us, if we can break away, gather and share 15 minutes of the day.

The short is, I miss it a whole lot. That’s just what it is. And it is fun to have these recordings of great concerts.

LaForme: They’re not entirely on pause, right? You’re doing a Tiny Desk at Home series.

Boilen: Two things are going on. One is that we recorded Tiny Desk concerts up until March 11. The last was Sudan Archives, but it’s not out yet. And so we are still rolling out those concerts that we’ve recorded that still aren’t out yet. And we’ll be doing that through a bit of June, like one a week or so for the next bunch of weeks, however many we have left, six or eight of them.

And then, because it was obvious around that middle March period that we were going to close things down, for at that point at least a month, there are many artists who are new or at home alone, and I thought would make a great little concert.

The beauty of the Tiny Desk concert series is the intimacy. And there is nothing more intimate than someone sitting in their bedroom on their on their bed with their posters on the wall, giving a concert. The spirit feels the same, which is why I wanted to do it.

And I imagine this will go on for longer than what we thought it would be. Actually, the original date of NPR’s opening has been extended like everything else, so we will continue to do these home concerts and they’ve been pretty special, too. We get an incredible world-class piano player in Shanghai, and when we get Soccer Mommy at home. As a series goes, it’s a nice variety.

LaForme: It’s been amazing to not only see them playing in the intimacy of their home spaces but to get a glimpse at where some of these folks live. It’s so different, but still so beautiful.

I’m wondering … in my job in pre-pandemic times, I focused on tools and technology, and so I know that setting technology up and helping people through that can be a bit of a challenge, to put it mildly. So I’m wondering what it’s been like for you to work with the artists at home and how much direction you’ve had to provide, or equipment.

Bob Boilen, the creator and host of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and the Tiny Desk concert series (Lizzie Chen/NPR)

Boilen: We’re not providing any equipment because we didn’t want to mail stuff back and forth. That felt like a bad idea. Most musicians are equipped with basics because, unlike somebody who does lectures or teaching or whatever, we’re dealing with people who, for the most part, have a technical side to them.

Honestly, we have not been giving a great deal of direction to the artists. We have had some of them redo them when their guitar was way loud and we couldn’t hear the vocals. We’re encouraging artists who multitrack their stuff, if they want to give us those tracks, they will mix those for us. Our engineer, Josh Rogosin, who does the Tiny Desk concerts, who’s an amazing engineer, will EQ some of the things that people send us to maybe take out the boominess of the guitar to make way for more of the voice. Other than that, not much.

LaForme: And what have you heard from the artists so far? How have they been responding to this brave new world?

Boilen: Because we’re still on the relatively early cusp of it, everyone seems to be pretty excited about it.

I wonder — we don’t know how long we’ll continue doing this — but if it’s a couple of months down the line, and these people are not able to get their normal income, I think it’s gonna be a bit of a different world. It’s novel, at the moment. But Tiny Desk has become an important thing for new and emerging artists to get the word out, which then they follow up going on tour, playing small clubs, and the Tiny Desk comes out and then they play larger clubs and it’s a working class living style. You work hundreds of days a week. Tiny Desk helps levitate and accelerate careers.

Now, yes, they can do a home concert, but how do they make their money? And I think that’s the big issue for musicians. It’s one thing to put your music out there. It’s another thing to be able to make a living. They get some money from streaming but the bulk of money that artists make is playing shows and selling merchandise. When that goes away, that’s big.

So we try and approach people — and maybe we’ll try to figure out another way to do this online — but we try to encourage people to support the people they love.

Of course, you’re also dealing with a population of people who are maybe out of their own jobs and can’t afford to buy that sweatshirt from their favorite band that would help support them because they don’t have enough money. It’s a hard world to come.

Laura Marling plays a Tiny Desk Home concert. (Courtesy: NPR)

LaForme: I understand you extended the Tiny Desk Contest, which allows artists to enter to perform in a Tiny Desk concert, for a while, and I know it’s due in a couple days now. Is that to help more artists?

Boilen: The original contest deadline was going to end at the end of March. In middle-March we realized, wow, schools are closing, kids are going home from college where a lot of people make music together. Everybody’s situation was in total flux in the last few weeks of the deadline and it seemed unfair to still maintain that deadline.

And then it was also obvious that a lot of musicians were going to be home doing … what? Not much. And it felt like an opportunity for people who wouldn’t have had the time to submit to do it. And so we’ve gotten a great deal of submissions from solo artists, artists who are doing the equivalent of Zoom. Because we’re trying to not encourage people to get together to do this contest. So, technologically getting together to do each song.

Their art is all about creating given the circumstances. That’s what the Tiny Desk is about — it’s about, hey, we’re not going to amplify your singer’s voice, so what are you going to do about it? You’re going to create and make your arrangements that are going to be different.

Well, here we are in another situation where artists can’t be together. The best thing artists know how to do is make the best of the situation. Creative people, that’s what they’re all about. We’re seeing a lot of interesting submissions because of what’s happening. It is indeed very different in the Tiny Desk contest world.

LaForme: Besides the ability to play concerts in public and to reach out to fans and be with them, one of the other things this virus has taken from us is musicians themselves. We lost legendary singer-songwriter John Prine due to COVID-19. You hosted him back in March 2018. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about what that was like and if you’ve seen the recording get any renewed interest lately.

Boilen: I was just in awe of his spirit when he came to the desk. He had just finished a new record. He’s a man who had gone through so much with his battles with cancers and yet he just had the most beautiful spirit. I’d seen him live plenty of times but I’d never face-to-face had a conversation and talk with him. And I just fell in love with the man.

That Tiny Desk, I’m ever so grateful for that happening. I mean, anybody who’s not seen it should just watch it and get the love this man has for storytelling and enjoy it.

And even when the stories are often full of deep sadness and so forth, it’s still a beautiful thing.

LaForme: I think I’ve personally added 15 or 20 views to your YouTube play count on that one in the past couple of weeks.

Boilen: Awesome. Yeah, I’m so grateful. I’ve been looking to his music since his first album came out. I worked in record stores back then. And that was a staple that we would pull out and play.

LaForme: We haven’t even mentioned “All Songs Considered” yet, the show in which you and Robin Hilton share new music. How has that work changed for you since the pandemic started?

Boilen: I’m in the middle of writing the show now, recording it at home and cutting it up and building a web page and doing everything from one single chair.

It’s hard. Like, what do I play? On one level, you want to play something that’s going to give people some joy. On the other hand, you don’t want to ignore the tone and you don’t want to be tone deaf to people’s fears and so forth. But you don’t want to also make dour shows so it’s really kind of been a juggling act.

I did a show that had a bunch of ambient music at the beginning. I did a show that featured songs that, as I listened to them, songs I knew for a long time took on new, different meanings. The show I’m putting together now has music that some of it is ambient and feels kind of spiritual, and in others it’s just about personal life struggle, which, much of music and songwriting is about.

Technically, it’s been a little more challenging, but also I’ve had a home studio of one sort or another since the ’80s, so I’m kind of familiar in my way around tech. But it’s also harder to interact with others — not everybody on the NPR Music staff is well-equipped with a good microphone and so forth. So making it sound decent becomes a bit of a challenge. There are harder things to deal with but, like all good things, you find the best in a lousy situation.

LaForme: It sounds like you didn’t have to resort to the putting-the-microphone-between-the-couch-cushions-fort trick.

Boilen: I have to say that for people who camp in closets, and all the other things, the couch pillows — I live in an apartment building with glass windows that look out over a busy street, and I don’t do any of that stuff. I think it sounds pretty good, so I’m not sure what my secret is or what’s different than others but I’m not recording from a closet. It’s just a bedroom in an apartment.

LaForme: To end, can you recommend a few of the Tiny Desks that might be interesting or helpful for folks during these uncertain times?

Boilen: The one that has brought me so much joy over the years is a group called — I’ll point to ones that people know less than others — a group called Superorganism.

If you want to just smile and watch people make music out of blowing bubbles and straws and stuff like that, you’ll enjoy the band.

Moon Hooch is another, just to lift your spirits.

Those are a couple that come to mind right away. But John Prine’s is certainly a third worth watching.

LaForme: I’ve also been watching the IDLES one just because it’s fun to see those guys try to stand in one space for more than five minutes.

Boilen: They’re incredible. The first time I saw them they shattered a glass above a bar when they were playing guitar on a bar and swung the guitar and, without intent, smashing glass. Fortunately, nobody got hurt. it’s just so typical of their energy level.

LaForme: That sounds so right.

Boilen: Yeah, yeah. They’re great.

Ren LaForme is Poynter’s interim managing editor and digital tools reporter. He can be reached at ren@poynter.org or on Twitter at @itsren.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of Poynter.org. He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
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