Tiny Desk Brings 250 Concerts To The Masses

Nov 21, 2012
Originally published on November 22, 2012 12:06 pm

If you've ever seen a Tiny Desk Concert, you understand the draw. The hottest musicians — some famous, some just discovered — rock out in an unusual venue: the NPR cubicle of Bob Boilen, host of All Songs Considered.

Boilen, along with NPR Music's Stephen Thompson, dreamed up the Tiny Desk Concert series while at South by Southwest in 2008. Laura Gibson, a quiet musician, was playing at a crowded and loud venue. "Each individual yahoo in the crowd was louder than her," Thompson remembers. He jokingly suggested that the next time Gibson was in town, he and Boilen should invite her to play at Boilen's desk.

Thompson's idea took off. Over the past four years, NPR has hosted 250 Tiny Desk Concerts. Top performers like Adele, Tom Jones and bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley have all stopped by to perform stripped-down versions of their top hits.

And while many big-name performers are obliging, they don't always understand the appeal of playing a small cubicle concert for an audience of NPR staffers.

Boilen remembers when soul singer Bettye LaVette came through. When she showed up at NPR's headquarters and saw the impromptu performance space, she looked at Boilen, dubiously. Thompson remembers asking if LaVette would still be game to perform. "No, no, it's fine," she said. "It's just stupid." But in the end, LaVette stayed longer than she expected.

Boilen thinks a lot of artists enjoy the experience of playing with a bare-bones setup in front of a small audience. "When they get through it — when they get to the other side and it's over — they are so happy that they've done it," Boilen says. "It's something unlike anything they usually do."

Fans enjoy the venue as well. Tell Me More reached out to a few Tiny Desk Concert fans on Facebook to get their take on the performances. College student Robert Rojas shared his favorite: Argentine jazz singer Maria Volonte. Rojas appreciates a lot of the Tiny Desk Concert artists, but says it's diverse performers like Volonte who capture his attention.

Others, like Kolby Kirk of Bend, Ore., appreciate the portability of the Tiny Desk Concert. Kirk downloaded a few and listened as he hiked the Pacific Coast Trail. "It was really interesting to hear the juxtaposition of this raw and powerful music coming from an intimate office space, while I'm in the grandness of the mountains."

Thompson thinks that the intimate nature of the concerts has spoiled him. "There are probably half as many drunk yahoos in the NPR offices as there are in any given club," he jokes.

Joking aside, both Boilen and Thompson are busy planning future Tiny Desk Concerts. In the spirit of the upcoming holidays, they shared their wish list.

Thompson's list is classic American: "I'd love to get a George Jones, a Merle Haggard, you know an Aretha Franklin, a Dolly Parton."

Boilen, meanwhile, is hoping that an iconic singer, known for rocking in the free world, will swing his tour bus NPR's way. "I make a call about every four months to get Neil Young."

So, if Santa or any of those classic musicians are listening: Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson have already composed their holiday wish lists.

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This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee; Michel Martin is away. It's Thanksgiving, and many holiday celebrations are accompanied by some kind of special soundtrack, right? Well, today, we want to bring you some music that's not necessarily associated with any holiday, but it is recorded in a space that's about the same size, perhaps, as your grandmother's dining room. NPR's Tiny Desk concerts have been a celebrated part of NPR's music world. They've transported anyone with an Internet connection to a live performance at - you guessed it - an NPR cubicle. The venue has hosted everyone from the Soweto Gospel Choir to Adele.


ADELE: (Singing) We could have had it all, rolling in the deep, you had my heart and soul in your hands, and you played it, to the beat.

HEADLEE: And the Tiny Desk concert team is celebrating a milestone this week: their 250th concert just went up earlier this week. So we thought it was a perfect opportunity to lure NPR Music's Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson away from their desks and down to the studio to talk about the Tiny Desk concerts.

So, gentlemen, welcome. Happy Thanksgiving.

BOB BOILEN, BYLINE: Happy Thanksgiving.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Yeah, Happy Thanksgiving.

HEADLEE: So, it has been a long time. It's hard to imagine a moment before the Tiny Desk concerts.


BOILEN: We got a lot more work done.

HEADLEE: But think back for me to the very beginning and how this idea originated.

THOMPSON: This is Stephen. It was early 2008. Bob Boilen and I were at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and we were seeing a singer named Laura Gibson, who is incredibly quiet. She sort of projects her voice into her own core. And each individual yahoo in the crowd was louder than her. And so Bob and I, we're both fans of her work, we, you know, wanted to see her play a concert, but we were standing, like, right up front and couldn't hear anything. And so I said, this is crazy. Next time she's in town, we should just have her perform at your desk. And so that was step one.

BOILEN: Totally jokingly. I mean, but there she was.

THOMPSON: So that idea was step one, and then Bob initiated steps two through 80 to actually make it happen. But I've been eating lunch off that idea ever since.


HEADLEE: Well, let's - I mean, obviously, this is kind of a cheap question, and I apologize in advance, to ask you to pick a favorite. But I understand that there are a few performances that kind of stuck with you. And, Bob, I want take a listen here to Red Baraat...

BOILEN: Oh, good.

HEADLEE: ...India-inspired funk group. This is their song "Chaal Baby."


HEADLEE: So, other than the fact that I'm hearing a large number of people to squeeze into the corner of the building...

BOILEN: And you know that desk is, in fact, very...

HEADLEE: It is very small.

BOILEN: ...that space is very small.

HEADLEE: What stuck with you about this particular performance?

BOILEN: Well, they just light a fire. Right in the middle of the afternoon, they come in. Sunny Jain, the lead, he plays this big drum, which is a - it's like a barrel. Take a barrel and put it in front of you and bang on the top and bottom of the barrel, and he's full of joy. And everybody in the band just comes to life. And everyone - you know, we have an audience for these concerts, are people who should be doing work here at NPR who are now instead, in this case, partying to...

HEADLEE: You're not going to out them right here on our air, are you?

BOILEN: We have a list. We'll put it online.

THOMPSON: Shapiro, Ari.


HEADLEE: But, I mean, since that germ of an idea with Laura Gibson, you've have every kind, not just quiet artists, but, you know, big voices like Adele. You've had every age, young artists and old ones, even legends like Tom Jones. And let's take a listen here to a little bit of Tom Jones singing at his own Tiny Desk concert.


TOM JONES: (Singing) Your captivating eyes, the clever way they smile, stops him in his tracks. Then add your pretty face, you keep him in his place, he'd do anything you ask.

HEADLEE: So, when you're approaching somebody who's a big name, do they ever say, I'm going to - are you kidding? I'm not going to sing at a desk.

BOILEN: We actually had Bettye LaVette, who has been doing it for a long time - you know, sometimes that communication between me and filtered to the artist isn't a straight line. So she had really no idea what she was in for. But she just said yeah. And she came in and she looked at me and said: You're crazy. You're absolutely crazy. You want me there?

THOMPSON: Well, and as I recall, you were sort of, like, is this OK? Or whatever. And she goes, no, no. It's fine. It's just stupid.


BOILEN: But Bettye wound up having the time of her life, and she wouldn't leave when it was done. And that's what happens. I mean, Tom Jones is a good example of someone who - he was sweating bullets. I mean, here's a man you would think would have the...

HEADLEE: He's famous for sweating.

BOILEN: OK. But this was different. This was nerves. His son would come - who's his manager - would come and wipe his forehead between songs, say, you OK? You OK? And here he was. He didn't have the prop of the microphone in his hand. He didn't have the lights. He didn't have a band. He had one guitar player playing the melody and the rhythm, and that was it. It was uncomfortable for him. But when they get through it, when they get to the other side and it's over, they are so happy that they've done it. It's something unlike they usually do.

HEADLEE: So, how do you choose? Which artists will work and which won't? Stephen?

THOMPSON: You know, we have - NPR Music is a team of about 18 people. And, you know, a lot of us represent a lot of different genres and, you know, we always looked for somebody on the team to feel passionately about an artist. So we sort of choose artists for the Tiny Desk the way we choose artists for any number of things we do on the site, which is that passion comes first.

HEADLEE: Well, we since we were talking about a whole diversity of genres, let's talk about the 12 members of the Soweto Gospel Choir, who we mentioned earlier, who brought their large sound to the Tiny Desk concert. Let's first take a listen to them singing. This is them singing "Seteng Sediba."


SOWETO GOSPEL CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

HEADLEE: This was an amazing - this had to rank among one of my favorites.

BOILEN: Actually, Celeste, we have the worst jobs, just the hardest jobs on the planet.

HEADLEE: Yeah, I feel really bad for you.

BOILEN: It was just - that was an awful day.

HEADLEE: Yeah, I'm sure. But explain to me the difference, I mean, as opposed to Tom Jones and his one guy, this is 12 people in a choir. How do you...

THOMPSON: Well, this is where, first of all, we've got to point out that we have brilliant sound engineers. And, you know, we've got this guy Kevin Wait, who will come in and he's like the airline pilot who'll call, oh, you know, it's going to be a water landing, but it's going to be fine, brother. And Kevin will make these things sound amazing in the recordings. But...

BOILEN: Captured with one single stereo microphone, in almost all cases.

THOMPSON: Yeah, and they sound unbelievable. But we're also lucky. The room just sounds nice. I mean, what the Soweto Gospel Choir and Red Baraat have in common is, you know, I sit sort of kitty-corner from Bob's desk. So I'm staring sort of straight-on into the performances, and both of those, I felt like I needed ear plugs.

BOILEN: In a good way.


HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. I'm speaking with NPR Music's Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson about NPR's Tiny Desk concerts. It's a series of concerts taped right at Bob's cubicle, at his desk. And they just posted their 250th Tiny Desk concert this week.

So, I'm sure you know - you probably get emails and letters all the time from the many, many fans worldwide of the Tiny Desk concerts. We wanted to hear from some of the fans, and we'll have a little meet-up here on the radio. We have Robert Rojas on the line. He's a college student who's studying Spanish and linguistics in San Jose, California.

And, Robert, I understand there's a favorite concert for you among the Tiny Desk series. Which one is it?

ROBERT ROJAS: It's the Maria Volonte concert. She's a jazz folk musician.

HEADLEE: And why that one?

ROJAS: Well, I really like, like, Spanish-influenced music or Latin-influenced music. And I am a fan of most of the artists that are on Tiny Desk concerts, but I usually pass up on them. But I guess seeing an artist that played that kind of music kind of caught my attention more.

HEADLEE: So let's take a listen here to Maria Volonte at the Tiny Desk concert series, singing "El Beso Azul."


MARIA VOLONTE: (Singing in Spanish)

HEADLEE: So, I mean, Robert, do you have a question for either Stephen or Bob? Or maybe you have a suggestion on somebody else that might capture your ears the way Maria Volonte did.

ROJAS: Yeah. I was thinking maybe some Brazilian artists, if they haven't been already, like Caetano Veloso or something like that.

BOILEN: This is Bob. We've tried to get Caetano Veloso down. He's been in New York on a number of occasions. It hasn't worked yet. That's all I'm going to say.

THOMPSON: Yeah, we have a long wish list. And we're - it doesn't seem we're doing fewer and fewer. It seems like we're doing more and more. And so, yeah, he's definitely on our list.

HEADLEE: So, I think, Robert, what you're hearing both Bob and Stephen telling you send them lots of emails with suggestions. Thank you very much, Robert.

ROJAS: Will do. You're welcome.

HEADLEE: OK. So, we heard from you guys. You would not believe the diversity of fans that you have - men, women, all ages, all kinds of people. Obviously, we had to narrow it down to two. So, let's meet Colby Kirk(ph). Colby, say hello to Bob and Stephen.

COLBY KIRK: Hi, Bob and Stephen. How are you guys doing?

BOILEN: Greetings.


HEADLEE: Colby works at a ski resort in Bend, Oregon, so his life is terrible. Colby, you wrote to us about your favorite Tiny Desk memory. What was it?

KIRK: Well, I downloaded a few of the podcasts onto my iPod, and I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011 and listened to them constantly.

BOILEN: Love that.

KIRK: It was really interesting to hear the juxtaposition of this raw and powerful music coming from an intimate office space, all the while listening to it while I'm in the grandness of the mountains.

HEADLEE: So, Colby, give Bob and Stephen an idea of when it works for you and maybe when it doesn't.

KIRK: I think the best example of when it worked was with Iron and Wine. He had some really amazing, raw songs that he performed, but also the back and forth with the audience. I thought that was great.


SAMUEL BEAM: So, I'm just going to get into it. You guys cool with new songs?


BEAM: All right. Thanks, thanks. This one's called "Half Moon."


BEAM: (Singing) Halfway home in the hilltop trees, and all our footprints in the snow, and the evening glow leaving.

BOILEN: That back and forth and the audience - sometimes the audience is rather invisible, and sometimes either I or the performer or Stephen will draw them in. And his songs were fresh for him, when he came - when Sam Beam, Iron and Wine, came to perform at the desk. They were very new. He hadn't performed them out much. I think it was a very moving experience actually for him to take this music that, you know, he did in the privacy of his own space into a slightly more public space. And his songs, they're very mouth-to-ear sort of songs.


BEAM: (Singing) Lay me down if I should lose you. Halfway working on a worn-out house, and all our friends, the ragged crows, and aching bones whining...

KIRK: I really like that aspect of the whole series. It's like we're invited into the home of the song where we get to see how it lives when it's out of the spotlight. It's much different - it's even smaller than a club scene. It's just this really powerful moment with the songs and with the musicians. It's very intimate.

THOMPSON: This is Stephen. Yeah, I mean, I feel like I - you know, because I have this great seat for them, I feel - it's really spoiled me for a lot of concert experiences. I mean, there are, like, probably half as many drunk yahoos in the NPR offices as there are in any given club. And, you know, that's a real - it's a real treat.

BOILEN: One of the early performances of the Tiny Desk, Towden Wynn(ph), said one of my favorite things about the series. She said: That was intimate and awkward - a lot like my last boyfriend.


THOMPSON: It's really what we're going for.

BOILEN: What we strive for, yeah, yeah. Totally.

KIRK: I noticed that with Sam Beam, too. He seemed a little awkward, but it just made it even more enjoyable to watch, to show that he's not all glammed up and on stage. He's there in a very intimate setting. And it's just fantastic.

HEADLEE: And human. Colby Kirk, go back to your terrible job at the ski resort in Oregon.


KIRK: Thanks, guys.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Colby.

BOILEN: Thank you.

HEADLEE: So, you guys, Bob, Stephen, whatever holidays you celebrate, maybe you guys have a particular wish list. Are there performers you've been chasing and haven't been able to track - get into the little desk yet?

BOILEN: This is Bob. When I think about the holidays, Sufjan Stevens has done so much holiday music, and we can only make our holiday wish this year that he will magically appear at our desk.


THOMPSON: I really like having people with 50, 60-year careers. You know, so my wish list people are kind of that, like, George Jones is coming around.

HEADLEE: The legacy.

THOMPSON: Yeah, legacy artists. I mean, George Jones is kind of doing his, like, a last-hurrah, pre-retirement tour. And as soon as I got the press release, I was like come on, D.C. Come on, D.C. You know, I'd love to get a George Jones, a Merle Haggard, you know, an Aretha Franklin, a Dolly Parton, people with like really, really, really, really long careers.

BOILEN: I make a call about every four months to get Neil Young. That's my...

HEADLEE: Yeah, and you never get a call back.

BOILEN: No, we get a - not this time - but there's an honest desire. Neil...

HEADLEE: Or maybe they just like getting your calls.

BOILEN: ...Neil, come on. This year.


HEADLEE: All right. So if any of those artists are listening, you can put a smile on the faces of Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson by returning their calls.

BOILEN: These poor, disadvantaged people.

HEADLEE: Yes, whose lives are so hard, having to listen to this music in the privacy of their own office space. Bob Boilen his host of ALL SONGS CONSIDERED. Stephen Thompson is an editor and reviewer for NPR Music. The two of them created the weekly music video series Tiny Desk concerts back in 2008. They joined us here in our Washington studios to celebrate the 250th of those concerts. Congratulations.


THOMPSON: We just attempted a high-five, and it was...

HEADLEE: An epic fail at a high-five. This is NPR. Happy listening. Happy Thanksgiving, guys.

THOMPSON: Thank you.


HEADLEE: Well, we might not be able to get Neil Young to say yes to a Tiny Desk concert, but we can play a little Neil Young for you on this Thanksgiving Day.


NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) Come a little bit closer, hear what I have to say.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.