Bob Boilen

A-WA: Tiny Desk Concert

Sep 3, 2019

The last time we filmed these three Israeli sisters, they were sitting in my hotel room during South by Southwest, performing a heartbreaking lullaby, accompanied by just a guitarist. Now Liron, Tagel and Tair Haim are behind my desk with a full band of keyboards, bass, guitar and drums, singing more forlorn tunes in their unique three-part harmony.

"Is it ok if I do a little dance on your desk?" asked 47SOUL singer and percussionist Walaa Sbeit on first seeing the Tiny Desk. I thought a minute, went under the desk, tightened the bolts, stuck some splints of wood under a few of the uneven legs and (feeling reassured) gave him the nod. It would be our first traditional Middle Eastern Dabke dancing atop the Tiny Desk and the first sounds of Shamstep (a kind of electronic dance music) behind it.

Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz made everything seem so easy, pulling a few acoustic instruments out of their car and, in no time, huddling around a single microphone behind the Tiny Desk. With that, Mandolin Orange was ready.

Emily bowed her fiddle while Andrew strummed a guitar and sang about his mom being carried away in a hearse. "Golden Embers" is the lead-off track to Mandolin Orange's 2019 album Tides of a Teardrop. This song shines a light on the darkness that fell on Andrew's family when he was 18.

Note: With hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton away this week, we've got an encore presentation of The Worst Songs Of All Time, from Feb. 2014.


Guitarist, actor, writer (and former Monitor Mix blogger) Carrie Brownstein joins us, along with NPR Music's Stephen Thompson, to do something we don't normally do: Talk about the songs we really, really don't like.

For the past 14 years, producer Andy Zax has been digging into the music and sounds of Woodstock, that culture-shifting music festival that unfolded in August of 1969. Now, 50 years later, all 32 performances — the audio announcements, the entirety of this three-day festival in upstate New York — is about to be released by Rhino Records in a 38-disc box titled Woodstock - Back To The Garden:The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive.

I was thrilled to have the gifted voice of Tamino gracing the Tiny Desk. But as charged as I was, that didn't match the excitement that Colin Greenwood expressed as we rode up the elevator. The Radiohead bassist (and bassist for this special performance) shared a brief text exchange with his son, basically telling his hugely accomplished dad that playing the Tiny Desk was "the coolest thing he'd ever done!" That made us all smile.

This month marks 60 years since the very first Newport Folk Festival. NPR has been covering the event since its rebirth in 2008. Jay Sweet, now the executive producer, was mostly responsible for the festival's revival, booking unexpected bands and reinvigorating the spirit of the annual gathering. It's long been a place where musicians would collaborate and make music often steeped in social justice.

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In the NPR parking garage, Gemma Doherty pulled her 34-string lever harp from the band's vehicle; it seemed bigger than all of us. The other instruments were less exotic — a few small synthesizers, a sampler, electronic drum pads — but I was feeling thrilled by what was about to unfold.

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Before I bring an artist to the Tiny Desk, I try to see them perform live. It helps me get a handle on what they'll be capable of doing at my desk, minus all the artful tinkering of a studio. But I never saw Tomberlin before she came to my desk.

Jeremy Dutcher came to the Tiny Desk with sparkling, purple streams of glitter draped around his shoulders. Then he set his iPad on our Yamaha upright piano, not to read his score as pianists do these days, but to play a centuries-old wax cylinder recording of a song sung in the incredibly rare language of Wolastoq. Jeremy Dutcher, along with cellist Blanche Israel and percussionist and electronics wizard Greg Harrison, wove that old recording into a remarkably passionate performance that was very 21st-century, with a deep nod to a century past.

This year, I was blown away by the Tiny Desk Contest entries I saw. We received over 6,000 entries from all across the country. We saw tiny desks up on rooftops and down on a subway platform; tucked into treetops, pickup trucks and laundromats. We heard songs about the situations that make life difficult and the people that make life worth living.

Prepare to be calmed.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Bandcamp playlist at the bottom of the page.


When I first heard the ethereal folk songs of Daniel Norgren in 2016, he was performing on a stage at the Pickathon music festival made from limbs and bark — it was the perfect spot to fall in love with his music and yearning voice. His set was both intense and calming.

It was a day when sunlight drenched the office and the songs of heart from Courtney Marie Andrews felt right at home. It's been a year since her comforting album, May Your Kindness Remain, came out. Amazingly it's her sixth record, and yet she's still a just few years shy of 30. The opening number here at the Tiny Desk, the album's title track, is a shining example of why the songs of Courtney Marie Andrews endure, beginning with her words, based on friendships, and the understanding of a kind soul.

From my vantage point — a white kid growing up on the blistering guitars of my '60s guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton — Mdou Moctar has made the most insane psychedelic guitar album of the 21st century. From his perspective, growing up in a small village in central Niger, Moctar may not even know what I'm talking about. In fact, in a press statement, he says, "I don't know what rock is exactly. I have no idea.

The expectation upon seeing a banjo hanging is one of rollicking rowdiness, but when Kaia Kater began to strum her five-string, the mood in the office turned plaintive and a bit mournful. The Afro-Caribbean-Canadian singer and songwriter, who studied Appalachian music at West Virginia's Davis & Elkins College, often references the Black Lives Matter movement, within a music form that doesn't exactly snap to mind as being in dialogue with modern issues.

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There's new music from Big Thief: a song, released today, called "UFOF," and the band's third album, coming May 3, titled

Scott Mulvahill has been trying to win the Tiny Desk Contest for each of its four years. He's always been one of our favorites, though he's never been our winner. The double bassist entered his song, "Begin Againers" in 2016 and though it wasn't the winning entry, we all loved it so much, I invited him to my desk to perform his extraordinary song. He opened the Tiny Desk with it, only this time he was joined by bandmates Jesse Isley and Josh Shilling who shared vocal harmonies.

Mountain Man is the perfect band for a Tiny Desk concert. These three women make the most intimate music; and behind the desk, the voices of Amelia Meath, Molly Erin Sarlé and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig were the stars. Adorned by only light, rhythmic acoustic guitar, they sing songs that conjure a simpler life: dogs, friends, moonlight, sunlight, skinny dipping, beach towels and sand.

On this edition of All Songs Considered I'm joined by Marissa Lorusso, our Tiny Desk Contest leader and also a critical contributor to NPR Music's Turning the Tables project.

Editor's note: This page has been updated to include more of the conversation between Bob Boilen and Ezra Koenig.

Amidst the constant drumbeat of 2019's political talk, of raising walls and shutting out opposition — this year's globalFEST artists and organizers articulated a very clear vision, one that makes room for bracingly new voices. The one-night festival of global music, held each January in Manhattan, featured a remarkable lineup of musicians from around the world, including India, Cuba, Ukraine, Mozambique, and even New York City itself. Now in its sixteenth year, globalFEST was founded in a post-Sept.

Jen Cloher came to the Harbor Stage at Newport with a fervor matched only by her volume. Her band gets some of that credit, with Jen's wife, Courtney Barnett, on electric guitar and Bones Sloane from Courtney's band on bass.

Glen Hansard is passionate about connecting with a crowd. At the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, that crowd was hushed and he went deep. From the opening song, the Swell Season favorite "When Your Mind's Made Up," through more traditional Irish tunes with fiddler Rosie MacKenzie and Brendan Begley on accordion, Hansard's performance was enthralling.

It's Sept. 11, 1968 in Studio Two at Abbey Road. The Beatles had just finished their ninth attempt at recording "Glass Onion" when John Lennon, the song's chief writer, calls out to Chris Thomas sitting in a control room above the studio. "What do you think upstairs, Chris?" The 21-year old assistant to producer George Martin replies on a talkback microphone, "It wasn't quite together on the first verse, I don't think." And so, The Beatles launch into take 10 (which you can hear below).

A single voice can send a powerful message - and that's just what Jim James did at the Tiny Desk, with just his voice and an acoustic guitar. His lead-off song, "I'm Amazed," comes from My Morning Jacket's 2008 album Evil Urges. It's a prophetic song in many ways - it speaks not only of a divided nation and the need for justice but also to the beauty in the life and plight of others.

I recently hosted a "pitch session" at the DIY Music Conference hosted by CD Baby in Nashville. It was an opportunity for independent artists to have their music heard and critiqued by a panel of music industry folks including a record producer, a music supervisor and music journalist.

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