Picture this: you’re walking down the street, or you’re sitting at your desk, or you’re folding the laundry, and you’re listening to music. You know, some random playlist for background sound. And suddenly a song comes on that gives you chills. It makes you stop and listen. Maybe it’s the lyrical content that speaks to you. Maybe it’s the melody that instantly takes you back to another time. Whatever it is, pretty much everyone has at least one song that has stopped them in their tracks, punched them in the gut, and often followed them throughout their lives.
But what gives music its emotional power? That’s what a panel of experts will try to figure out at Songs We Love Live, a music-meets-storytelling event put on by NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest On The Road. NPR’s much-loved series Tiny Desk Concerts, the grown-up version of MTV Unplugged, has been bringing musicians to the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen to record stripped-down sets since 2008. Boilen’s desk has been host to everyone from power indie duo El VY to surprisingly sincere party god Andrew W.K. The tastemaking series recently announced the winner of its second annual Tiny Desk Contest, and they’ve taken their show on the road.
A panel including Jerad Walker of OPB Music, Grammy-nominated record producer Tucker Martine, and contest winner Gaelynn Lea, will hit the Doug Fir this Monday, May 9 to discuss “the universal, yet personal nature of music—and how a single song can touch us forever.”
Attendees can also expect live performances from Portland-based Ages and Ages and Lea, whose stripped down fiddle-and-vocals sound evokes love and loss. Ahead of the show, we talked to Martine—who has produced for the likes of the Decemberists, Beth Orton, Laura Gibson, and Blind Pilot—about what gives music its power.
What do you think makes a song "good"? What gives it its power? Some of my favorite songs have highly ambiguous lyrics but awaken something in me. At the same time, I love a great story song. Great songs have their own internal logic that's just undeniable and can't be judged on a prescribed set of parameters. A melody can have a poetry of its own and when paired with the right words—whether it's for their phonetics, their literal meaning or both—can communicate in a way that resonates beyond the ordinary.
What makes a song emotionally resonate? Is there a predictor for what makes a song stick, emotionally speaking? Is it in what the song represents to the individual, or is it something living within the song itself? Part of the lure for me of music is in the mystery of not really understanding how it makes us feel the way it does. A good song transcends the mundane. I do think that it's highly subjective what people seek and get from music, so I don't think there are any predictors for what makes a song resonate. I think the artist is just trying to make something that feels real and in some way transcendent for them but I believe the listener finishes the song.
What is a song that has stuck with you throughout the years? Why do think it has stuck? Can you explain why it speaks to you? There are so many. "True Love Will Find You In the End" by Daniel Johnston is one that comes to mind. It's so simple on the surface but manages to both convey optimism and acknowledge human suffering so eloquently that I never know whether to laugh or cry.
“True love will find you in the end
You'll find out just who was your friend
Don’t be sad, I know you will,
But don’t give up until
True love finds you in the end.”
What is the most recent song you've heard that made you stop in your tracks and really listen? It happens everyday. This morning I listened to Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way" and almost lost my mind. If you ever want to find out if you're a robot, put that song on, and if you aren't moved by it you're probably a robot.
Songs We Love Live is at the Doug Fir on Monday, May 9. Sold out.