Tiny Desk Concerts

We've never had an original Mellotron at the Tiny Desk until now. Much like a Hammond organ, it's big, heavy and fragile. When they fired it up, with all its mechanical gears turning tape loops and moving play heads, the 15-year-old geek in me blissed out.

The Mellotron was a magical 1960s invention that predates sampling. It's a keyboard instrument, with each piano key triggering a tape loop — the sound could be a string ensemble, a flamenco guitar, a saxophone and so much more. Think about the flute sounds on The Beatles' song "Strawberry Fields Forever" and you get the idea.

When I produce a Tiny Desk Concert, one of my most important jobs is to make sure they run on time and that the performance sticks to our set time limit (roughly 15-minutes). So when Bob Weir and Wolf Bros achieved lift-off during a pre-show sound-check, it was my unthinkable responsibility to tell the guy who practically invented the jam band to... stop jamming.

When I presented Cimafunk at the Alt.Latino SXSW showcase last year, it was easily one of the most dynamic performances I had seen in more than ten years of attending the annual music festival. I couldn't wait to get them behind the Tiny Desk so the band could strut its intoxicating mix of Afro-Cuban dance music and 1970s funk-and-soul from the US.

I asked everyone to gather a little closer than usual around my desk for this one.

Having seen Jenny Lewis' recent concert spectacle, with its Las Vegas sparkle — complete with a multi-level stage — I loved the contrast her Tiny Desk Concert provided.

Jenny arrived at NPR with just her acoustic guitar and bandmates Emily Elbert, who sang and played guitar, and Anna Butterss on upright bass and vocals. Stripped of all the glitz, it was the words that found their way to my heart. A consummate storyteller, going as far back to her days with her band Rilo Kiley, Jenny's words have comforted and inspired so many.

Chris Dave And The Drumhedz: Tiny Desk Concert

Feb 21, 2020

"If you've never been to a Drumhedz show... ...we're gonna take you on a quick journey as if you're going through a record store," Chris Dave told the NPR Music offices at the top of his set, "picking up different genres of music and putting it in your bag."

Watching Elisapie perform, her intensity is undeniable. I feel it in her gaze, in her deep, soulful bellow. Elisapie is a Canadian singer and songwriter born in Salluit, on the northern tip of Quebec. Her lyrics, most often sung in her native Inuktitut as well as English and French, touch on her life as an adopted child and on meeting her biological mother. Now, as a mother herself, she sings about what it must have meant to her own mother to give up her child. Elisapie left her birth-village, Salluit, as a teenager and headed to Montreal, leaving her community and her sick mom.

Almost without trying, Snoh Aalegra has an unforgettable presence. Strolling into NPR's music department on the day of her Tiny Desk Concert debut, the striking Iranian-Swedish singer donned Off-White Nike Dunks, baggy jeans, dewy skin and a sleek ponytail, carrying herself with the kind of camera-ready, cool-girl aura that silenced a mass of people waiting for her. Even with all that, the moment she started to sing is when the real beauty shone through.

It was supposed to be so simple. Laura Stevenson, a singer-songwriter whose new material radiates warm intensity, would come in and knock us out with an intimate acoustic solo set performed behind Bob Boilen's desk. So I came to Bob with the idea, expecting a fast-track to the light-lift Laura Stevenson Tiny Desk concert of our dreams.

Phil Elverum's songs come full circle, swooping down like vultures and floating up like ashes from flames. Throughout his work in Mount Eerie and The Microphones, idealism comes up against realism, existence entangles with impermanence and love discovers new forms.

"This is what real love sounds like."

From any other new artist, a Tiny Desk declaration like that might sound a tad bit presumptuous if not altogether premature. But when the voice behind those words is as seasoned and vintage as Baby Rose's, everything it utters reverberates like the gospel truth. The D.C. native — who came of age in Fayetteville, N.C. before coming into her own as an artist in Atlanta — returned to her birthplace, backed by a big band including strings, to perform songs from her 2019 LP To Myself.

Here's a first: Steelpans at the Tiny Desk. It's true. Nearly a thousand performances into the series and the instrument has never been featured, until now. While the two bowls look shiny and new in this Jonathan Scales Fourchestra set, they were once authentic oil barrels, pounded, finished and tuned for bandleader, Jonathan Scales. But instrumentation and singularity aside, Scales' virtuosity, energy and connection to his bandmates wowed the NPR crowd, many of whom had never heard this music before.

There's intensity and clear intention to the music of Another Sky. I knew that from having seen this London band perform at SXSW. But in the confines of an office, hearing Catrin Vincent's unique voice, raw and un-amplified, brought it to another level. They came to NPR back in December to perform, opening their Tiny Desk set with a new song, released just this week. "Brave Face" is a window into the uncompromising sound and message of Another Sky, as Catrin sings in her impassioned voice:

SiR, the R&B singer from Inglewood, CA, seemed lost in thought as he stood behind the Tiny Desk. While his bandmates curiously bounced around the desk, joking and even searching for Bob Boilen, SiR remained particularly focused. About halfway through the performance, he eventually revealed what had been weighing on his heart. He told the NPR crowd he'd lost his infant godson a few days prior and dedicated the performance to him. "We're doing this for him.

Rising Appalachia's Tiny Desk Concert is charged with the roots music that sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith learned in fiddle camps as kids. Growing up in urban Atlanta and beyond, they also heard rhythms from a wider world, and their music grew to reflect new sounds and their activism.

Jimmy Eat World showed up to the NPR Music office all smiles and no guitars, goofing off with toy instruments behind the Tiny Desk and cracking jokes. They borrowed a couple acoustics, a miniature gong and tambourine emblazoned with Bob Boilen's face, which set the tone for a slightly silly, but altogether gracious performance.

"It's been a fairly short musical journey and we have seen fairly much success," Koffee told the NPR Music offices between songs during her Tiny Desk set. Flashing her braces with each grin, Jamaica's 19-year old tour de force wasn't exaggerating. Her debut EP, Rapture, just won a 2020 Grammy for Best Reggae Album, making her the first woman and the youngest artist to ever win in the category.

J.S. Ondara's journey to the Tiny Desk is a fascinating one. From his home in Nairobi, he listened on his sister's radio to American artists, including Nirvana, Jeff Buckley, Death Cab For Cutie and, most importantly, Bob Dylan. He wanted to be a folk singer, so he moved to Minnesota, Dylan's home state.

Half way through this performance of Max Richter's achingly beautiful On The Nature Of Daylight, I looked around our NPR Music office and saw trembling chins and tearful eyes. Rarely have I seen so many Tiny Desk audience members moved in this way. There's something about Max Richter's music that triggers deep emotions.

This Tiny Desk concert was part of Tiny Desk Fest, a four-night series of extended concerts performed in front of a live audience and streamed live on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Yola: Tiny Desk Concert

Jan 17, 2020

With her bouncy Afro and a big smile, Yola's presence behind the Tiny Desk was commanding, her energy captivating and, oh, that voice! I first saw Yola, then known as Yola Carter, in 2016 in Nashville, during AmericanaFest. Her soulful sound needed little amplification and, with her classic R&B swagger, I assumed her background was as a southern gospel singer, until she spoke. Her British accent was a shocker.

When opera star Joyce DiDonato told us she wanted to sing centuries-old Italian love songs at the Tiny Desk we weren't surprised. But when she said she was bringing a jazz band to back her up, we did a double take. But that's Joyce, always taking risks. After all, the last time we filmed the down-to-earth diva, she insisted on singing an opera aria at the Stonewall Inn, the iconic gay tavern in Greenwich Village.

Sometimes, things don't go smoothly at the Tiny Desk. After traveling all night, the soulful R&B artist Jordan Rakei and his band pulled up to NPR in their tour bus at the crack of dawn, only to find the Fender Rhodes we'd rented for him didn't have the right action. But after quickly ordering a replacement (that arrived moments before the Tiny Desk performance started), Rakei and his band locked-in and played a phenomenal set.

There must be something in the water down in Austin, Texas, because as soon as Brownout started playing behind the Tiny Desk, it was pretty obvious that a deep musicality is just a fact of life for Austin bands.

After the ferociously talented harpist Bridget Kibbey unpacked her 47-stringed instrument at our NPR Music offices, she proceeded to crush the stereotype of the genteel harp, plucked by angels. She proved that the instrument can be as tempestuous as a tango, as complex as a Bach fugue and sing as serenely as a church choir.

Kibbey is crazy for the harp. She first heard one at a country church amid the Northwest Ohio cornfields where she grew up. Now she's the go-to harpist for contemporary composers, some of whom who are writing pieces especially for her.

Editor's note: Jon Batiste's Tiny Desk Concert was published prematurely. The new publication date is March 2020.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

I've got to wonder just what Daniel Norgren remembers of his performance at the Tiny Desk. For almost the entirety of his blissful performance, the bluesy Swedish musician kept his eyes tightly shut, as he seemed to tap into old souls to help conjure his tunes. He and his band play music steeped in American roots music, and his delivery recalls the way the Irish singer Van Morrison voices his soulful sounds.

When the crew that is Spanglish Fly pulled in behind the Tiny Desk, the group's vibrant version of boogaloo raised the temperature in the NPR Music offices quite a bit. Whether displaying their party spirit or even the slow burn of social consciousness on the song "Los Niños En La Frontera," this band plays from the heart and engages both the mind and body.

When we first started filming musicians playing behind the Tiny Desk in April 2008, the beauty was in the intimacy and simplicity of these concerts. Now into our 11th year, after more than 900 Tiny Desks, the other treasure I find in these concerts is the variety. I remember having the cast of Sesame Street here in May, with NPR parents and their children seated on the floor watching the Muppets.

It's impossible to not be drawn in by the visual specter of Balún. The band has refined their electronic roots with their turn toward self-discovery on beautifully crafted studio albums, and this set behind the Tiny Desk shows how expertly they deliver the same meticulous, artful music live.

Their mix of traditional instruments with electronics creates not just a sonic treat but also a visual feast, as our eyes dart from one instrument to the other, drawn in by a Puerto Rican cuatro and a makeshift drum set.

Pages