The Best Of The Very Beginning Of Tiny Desk Concerts

Oct 1, 2019
Originally published on October 1, 2019 9:01 am

"Maybe it's the start of something, and maybe it's not." That's what I said at the very first Tiny Desk concert back in April 2008, featuring Laura Gibson. It's quite a trip to go back 11 years and watch the first Tiny Desk concerts — quaint may be the best way to describe it. I started this series with no idea how much an intimate concert in an office would change the lives of the musicians and thrill millions of viewers all over the world. The Tiny Desk concert by the Korean band SsingSsing has been viewed nearly 4 million times, British artist Lianne LaHavas nearly 13 million times, the Maltese-Australian artist Tash Sultana 9 million times and the Mexican singer Natalia Lafourcade 9 million times. In Cuba, the series is so popular, folks simply call it "El Tiny."

The series started as a lark when NPR Music's Stephen Thompson and I went to see Portland singer Laura Gibson at SXSW in 2008. The venue was so noisy, with a crowd watching a basketball game alongside an underpowered sound system, we couldn't hear one of our favorite artists of the day. As she played, Stephen jokingly suggested to me that we should just have her play at my desk the next time she's in town; when we mentioned the idea to Laura a few moments later, she said she'd be in D.C. three weeks later and was happy to do it.

I used to produce a music video show and have been an audio engineer, so the idea ignited my imagination. I grabbed a few video cameras and a single microphone, while a few NPR staffers joined in to help capture the performance. Laura Gibson played her quiet and beautiful songs while sitting in a chair behind my desk. The reaction from viewers was unexpectedly enthusiastic. The simplicity and lack of studio tricks means the music is front-and-center. Nine hundred or so concerts later, the intimacy is still vital to why these performances are so loved.

Below are five of my favorite concerts from that first year; we only did 12. These days, we're likely to record at least that many in a month. One of the differences I see in these early concerts, filmed at NPR's old building, is the more informal nature of the events: Vic Chesnutt made up a setlist as he went along; Dr. Dog's members thought they were warming up, only to realize we'd already begun filming; Thao Nguyen tells the story of her grandmother and how she likes to check out her calf muscles; Tom Jones' son and manager wipes the sweat from his dad's brow between songs. These days, musicians come to the Tiny Desk psyched and nervous. It's a bucket-list item for performers, a life-changer for new artists and a chance to do something out of the box for established acts.

I'm every bit as proud of these early, not-so-well-produced, single-microphone recordings as I am of our current, beautifully shot and mixed concerts. Take a look.


Tiny Desks In This Playlist

• Laura Gibson (read more)
• Vic Chesnutt (read more)
• Tom Jones (read more)
• Thao Nguyen (read more)
• Dr. Dog (read more)

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