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.