The 17th-century poet and playwright William Congreve famously wrote that music "has charms to soothe a savage breast," but a new show on BYUtv suggests that Congreve's view may have been too limited. Professional recording artists talk about the musical connections that helped define them as performers, or even as people, on "The Song That Changed My Life."
The show, a BYUtv original series that began airing at the end of March and runs through mid-July, features artists from across the musical spectrum. In each of the eight first-season episodes (a second season is set to launch in October), guests are asked to zero in on a moment when hearing, or playing or somehow interacting with a certain song changed everything, or at least changed something. "Some artists, it's right there, they know it right off the top of their head," said series producer Russ Kendall.
That's what it's like for executive producer Scott Swofford, who answered immediately when the Daily Herald asked whether he has a formative song: It's "Pathway to Glory" by '70s duo Loggins and Messina. "It's a little bit of an embarrassing story," Swofford said. That song had its greatest impact when Swofford was serving a proselytizing mission to Japan for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He'd taken a Loggins and Messina cassette tape with him, in defiance of mission rules, and happened to give the song a listen after a particularly frustrating day. It revived his flagging sense of purpose and he recommitted himself to his missionary labors. "Yes, I broke mission rules, but it did inspire me to be a better missionary," Swofford said.
Singer and "American Idol" finalist Brooke White, on the other hand, who taped an episode of "The Song That Changed My Life" as half of the rock duo Jack & White, didn't have a go-to answer. It was only after thinking it over, White said, that she realized that the Carole King album "Tapestry," and especially the song "So Far Away," was a big part of what steered her to music in the first place.
"I didn't like the sound of my voice growing up," she said. While other girls had beautiful soprano tones, White's singing voice had a low, brassy register. "It took me years to embrace it," she said, but one thing that helped was hearing King. "Listening to that record, to that song, I realized there were all these different voices out there, and all of them were good," White said.
A show is born
The original idea for "The Song That Changed My Life" was simply for BYUtv to do a show about music. Composer Sam Cardon, another executive producer on the series, said that the only thing definite in the beginning was that the show would include musical performances: "We were going to do a live show, sort of like 'Austin City Limits.' "
While trying to figure out exactly what the parameters of the show should be, Cardon and Kendall sat down with a group of artists from several different disciplines. "We got them all in there and said, 'Hey, we want to do this live show, what do you think?' " Cardon said. "The consensus was, 'We're not sure people watch TV for music anymore.' "
What to do instead? The general suggestion that emerged, Cardon said, was for a show that gave unique access to artists, and featured something that wasn't available anywhere else. At that point, Cardon said, Stuart Maxfield, the singer of Provo band Fictionist, started to talk about how a particular song had changed his life.
"We said, 'Wait a minute! That's it!' " Cardon said.
The show would reveal something telling about each of its guests, and would include an original, showcase performance of each special song -- something that viewers definitely couldn't get anywhere else.
One of the best things about the show, Kendall said, is how unpredictable it can be. "A lot of the time it's not what you'd expect," Kendall said. "It's like, 'Really? That impacted you. OK. I can't wait to hear this story.' "
One example is Leigh Nash, singer for the pop group Sixpence None the Richer. When Kendall was talking with Nash about doing the show, she told him that the song she wanted to feature was "Famous Blue Raincoat" by Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.
It's not precisely what you'd expect from the owner of the breathy voice behind "There She Goes (Again)" and "Kiss Me." And that, for Kendall, is the magic of the show. "Her father used to sing it to her," Kendall said. "The episode ended up being this relationship piece about her and her father, who passed away recently."
Behind the album cover
"The Song That Changed My Life" is about more than just the impact of a single song. Each episode is sort of like a mini portrait of the artist, giving background information about the performer or band featured that week.
Maxfield, who appeared on the show with Fictionist, said that years of listening to his mother sing songs and play the guitar started him on the path to playing in bands. "I would sneak in and play her guitar when she wasn't around, even though I wasn't supposed to," he said.
He started playing in bands when he was 12, at the behest of an older brother. First the brother just wanted Maxfield to be the bassist. Then the other band members convinced him to also be their singer. "My voice hadn't changed. The first song we ever performed was 'Satistfaction,' " by the Rolling Stones, Maxfield said. "It's one of the funniest things you've ever heard in your life. This 12-year-old kid who couldn't relate less to this song."
And in addition to a special performance of "the" song, each artist performs other songs from his or her professional history. Kendall said that he tries to challenge his guests to put a fresh spin on the songs they do for the show. "It's fun," he said. "They get excited about trying something different."
And while many of the guests on the show end up talking about a song that influenced them musically, others go in a different direction. Duncan Sheik, whose debut single "Barely Breathing" was a Billboard smash in the mid-'90s, talked about how listening to the song "Stripped" by Depeche Mode as a teenager in a busy airport made him suddenly discover a deep connection to people.
"He started looking at the people around him and instead of thinking, 'Get out of my way, I've got to get to my gate, I'm going to be late,' he felt compassion, he felt a sense of humanity," Kendall said.
Cardon said that people revealing themselves is what makes "The Song That Changed My Life" so interesting. "There's this trick in photography where if you can get people to jump, they can't control their facial expressions," he said. Like the photographer, the crew behind the show want to capture a glimpse of that uncontrolled expression. As long as that element is in play, the producers think the show could run indefinitely.
"We can do as many interesting episodes as there are interesting people out there," Cardon said. One life-changing song at a time.
"The Song That Changed My Life"
Airs on: BYUtv
Next new episode: July 2 with Over the Rhine (Ohio-based husband-and-wife folk pop duo)
Back catalog: Previously aired episodes can be viewed online at BYUtv.org