MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A Grammy is nice, I guess, if you like that sort of thing. And of course winners of the American Music Awards are proud of their trophies. But really, can they compare to what the winner of NPR's Tiny Desk Contest gets? It is back, fourth year running. And back with us again is NPR Music's Bob Boilen. Welcome.
BOB BOILEN, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: All right. For people who are not familiar with the Tiny Desk Concert, and now the annual Tiny Desk Contest, set the stage. What's your elevator pitch?
BOILEN: The stage is my desk.
BOILEN: Literally my working desk here at NPR where, 10 years ago, we started inviting musicians to play behind my desk, and just four years ago decided to have a contest so that anyone in America basically (laughter) could enter and...
KELLY: Can audition to come play behind your desk.
BOILEN: ...And audition - right.
KELLY: Let's talk about some of the people who've won in the past, like, the past couple...
KELLY: ...Of years because it's such a contrast.
KELLY: Gaelynn Lea, who won two years ago - let's hear a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEDAY WE'LL LINGER IN THE SUN")
GAELYNN LEA: (Singing) We walked the pier and back again. It was the most scared I've ever been. You held my hand until the end.
KELLY: So that's Gaelynn Lea, who won two years ago.
BOILEN: You know when you just get those chills and goose bumps? Every time I hear Gaelynn...
KELLY: You still get it.
BOILEN: ...I still get it.
KELLY: Describe what that looks like, what that performance looks like.
BOILEN: So first of all, Gaelynn Lea is a violin teacher in Duluth, Minn. One day, her - one of her students says, you really ought to enter the contest. And she then held up basically a phone, and Gaelynn performed a song. Gaelynn, as we learned later, has something called brittle bone disease. So she is a very small person in a wheelchair, holds her violin like a cello and sings these songs that are - I mean, the poetry she writes in those songs are just incredibly beautiful and deep. And I've seen her perform a number of times. She traveled all over the world this year because of the notoriety she got from playing the Tiny Desk. She's so grateful. She never knew she'd be able to do this in her life. It...
KELLY: That's some kind of story.
BOILEN: ...Really is gorgeous.
KELLY: I can see the goose bumps...
KELLY: ...On you from over here. OK. And then something totally different last year - Tank and The Bangas.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUICK")
TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Rapping) Down by the river where the green grass grow, where the sun be burning, burning hot, you took your pantyhose. Don't nobody know where you go. Just know, the block just got hot. When you see a trick, got to be slick, got to be quick. Got to get, get, get got. Ooh, ain't no telling what I'm going to do tonight. Man, I strolled up in a room full of liquor and colors.
KELLY: Bob, what caught your ear here?
BOILEN: The playfulness between, well, Tank and - she'll just go by Jelly - is the other singer on that interplay that was happening.
BOILEN: They're mixing - and this really goes to the heart of the contest. We're looking for something that supersedes genre, right? And Tank mix elements of jazz. They mix elements of hip-hop. They mixed elements of rhythm and blues and rock and poetry. So when you see it, you know you're seeing something that you would have never seen before. And that's what I look for.
KELLY: This is an intimidating assignment. I mean, this - you, Bob Boilen...
BOILEN: OK. (Laughter).
KELLY: ...You have thousands of musicians who cross your desk every day. And you want to hear something you never heard before.
BOILEN: (Laughter) I'm going to say one thing, though, that's really important because - one winner, right? There's just one winner. But that said, it's not about winning. Yeah, it's great to have a winner. But it isn't about winning. It's about making something. It's about making art. It's about gathering with friends. It's about community. That's the heart of it.
KELLY: To recap, you are looking for - people need to send a video. They can have fun with it. But what you're listening for is the music - a unique song. There has to be a desk in there. When can they send it, and where should they send?
BOILEN: So the contest is open. February 20 is when they can start submitting the videos. They have about a month to do that. And then about a month later, we'll choose the winner. Tinydeskcontest.npr.org is the website where all the details, all the rules and where you submit your video.
KELLY: NPR's Bob Boilen - thank you so much - sharing details of the fourth annual Tiny Desk Contest.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOXES AND SQUARES")
TANK AND THE BANGAS: (Vocalizing).
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