Introducing 'Play It Forward': An Ongoing Chain Of Gratitude From Musicians

Mar 25, 2020

This week, All Thing Considered is launching a new recurring segment called "Play It Forward." It's a musical chain of gratitude, and it's something we've actually done on the program every Thanksgiving Day for the last five years: I start the chain with an artist that I'm thankful for, and then that musician chooses someone they're thankful for, and then we continue onward with each artist choosing the next link in the chain.

For example, in 2018, I spoke with the singer Shoshana Bean. She transitioned from Broadway to a recording career as a soul singer in LA, and when I asked her whose music she was thankful for, she told me a story about the R&B artist Brian McKnight. She said she would repeat his riffs over and over, trying to match them. Eventually she got to know him personally.

"He sort of became a very subtle champion for me," she said. "I remember my manager calling me one day and saying 'We're doing the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and they're honoring Aretha [Franklin], and they want Brian to sing something.' Brian said 'Why am I going to sing something to honor Aretha? Bring Shoshana in.' "

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After that, I spoke to Brian McKnight about a musician he's thankful for. He chose a guitar player named Isaiah Sharkey, who chose a singer named Aniba Hotep, who chose Lianne LaHavas, and so on. You get the idea.

Every musician in the world hopes that their art touches someone else, and conversations like these give musicians a chance to hear the impact their work has had on another artist. Particularly now, when so many artists are at home and not doing live shows, hearing about the difference their art is making can be really powerful.

Since there's never a bad time to be thankful, we're now taking the idea outside of the Thanksgiving mold. The basic idea is the same, but it's going to be more bite-sized: Instead of spending half an hour going through five musicians in a row, each segment is going to give you one link of the chain.

We're going to start this new series with a songwriter named Dan Snaith, who performs under the name Caribou. He's a perfect guy to start us off on this gratitude chain because he's a musical magpie, pulling in shiny things from all over the place. His music always lowers my blood pressure, which seems useful at a time like this — and you're going to love the artist he chose.

"It is so captivating, so packed with emotion, so beautiful," Snaith says of his selection's music.

You'll find out who Caribou is referring to in our next segment of Play It Forward.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And I'm Ari Shapiro with a new regular segment that I am excited to introduce you to. It's called Play It Forward, and this is something that I hope can kind of be a salve, sort of a tonic to soothe people's frazzled nerves at a time when I think we might all be a little bit more on edge and anxious than usual.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Oh, for sure me. I mean, this is something we could all use. Tell us - what is this?

SHAPIRO: OK. It's like a musical chain of gratitude. And this is actually something we've done on this program every Thanksgiving Day for the last five years, and we've just decided to break it free from the holiday. So I start the chain with an artist that I am thankful for. And then that musician chooses somebody who they are thankful for - someone who looks and sounds different from them. And then we just continue onwards with each artist choosing the next link in the chain. So for example, in 2013, I spoke with a singer named Shoshana Bean.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOMORROW")

SHOSHANA BEAN: (Singing) The sun'll come out tomorrow, so you got to hang on till tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: She transitioned from Broadway to a recording career as a soul singer in LA. And when I asked her whose music she was thankful for, she told me the story about the R&B artist Brian McKnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BEAN: I have to - you know, in speaking about how difficult it was to transition from being, you know, a Broadway performer to attempting to make music and be heard and seen in the recording industry, I have to credit someone who was a major force in that transition, and that is Brian McKnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIAN MCKNIGHT: (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BEAN: Brian McKnight is someone I grew up listening to on my Discman in my bedroom, rewinding...

SHAPIRO: Some of our younger listeners may not be aware a Discman was a portable CD player.

BEAN: Thank you. Thank you. I - mine was bright yellow, to be honest.

SHAPIRO: Oh, nice.

Shoshana Bean told me that she would just repeat those riffs over and over, trying to match them. And then eventually, she got to know Brian McKnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BEAN: And then he just sort of became, like, a very subtle champion for me. I remember my manager calling me one day and saying, we're doing this - you know, the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards. And they're honoring Aretha, and they want Brian to sing something. And Brian said, why am I going to sing something to honor Aretha? Bring Shoshana in. Bring Shoshana in. Have her sing "Ain't No Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCKNIGHT: Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Shoshana Bean.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

BEAN: (Singing) I know that a woman's duty is to have and love a man. Yes, it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BEAN: You know, he gave me a chance on a huge platform that, you know, not many people would think to give someone like me.

SHAPIRO: OK. So that excerpt came from our musical train of gratitude in 2018. And then I spoke to Brian McKnight about a musician he's thankful for. He chose a guitar player named Isaiah Sharkey, who chose a singer named Aniba Hotep, who chose Lianne La Havas. You get the idea.

CHANG: On and on and on.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CHANG: You know, I'm so curious. You and I both interview musicians all the time. You've been doing this musical gratitude segment every Thanksgiving for five years, as you say. What do you think it is about this kind of conversation that brings out musicians in a different way compared to, you know, like, the typical interview with an artist about their latest album?

SHAPIRO: You know, Ailsa, every musician in the world hopes that their art touches someone else.

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And these kinds of conversations give musicians a chance to hear the impact that their work has had on another artist. And especially right now when so many artists are at home, not doing live shows, I think hearing about the difference their art can make is really powerful.

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And it can also be compelling to hear musicians talk about getting inspiration from people who look and sound different from themselves. You know, like, just this past Thanksgiving, our chain included the artist Leikeli47, who is this young African American rapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACRYLIC")

LEIKELI47: (Singing) Walk in and smell the acrylic. Walk in and smell the acrylic. Me and my crew counting digits. Me and my crew counting digits.

SHAPIRO: And Leikeli47 talked about how grateful she is for the music of Chick Corea, a pianist in his late 70s. One of his most well-known pieces is "Spain," which he wrote in 1971, long before Leikeli47 was even born.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEIKELI47: It was just something that was just always on repeat - and still is - for myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SPAIN")

LEIKELI47: You hear that?

SHAPIRO: Tell us what effect this is having on you right now.

LEIKELI47: Oh, my God. I can't describe the feeling of my heart right now. I just can't.

SHAPIRO: She told me about listening to the song at her great-grandmother's house when she was a little kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEIKELI47: You know, she would nap or whatever, and then that's when I would hit play. And I would just sit on that porch, and I would just listen over and over and over and over. And it was just like, yeah, this is what I want to do.

SHAPIRO: Have you ever met Chick Corea?

LEIKELI47: No. No.

SHAPIRO: Well, what would you like to say to him now?

LEIKELI47: Sir, there's a lot that I could say to you, but nothing beats thank you at this moment right now. You have helped shape a little black girl from Virginia - you know, her mind, her mental, her creativity, her musical palate. Thank you for being an awesome teacher, from your student Leikeli47.

SHAPIRO: And then we went to Chick Corea, who was just so moved to hear that somebody so different from him connected so deeply with his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHICK COREA: It's a testament to all of us as artists that we're able to connect like that, that we are able to connect on a wavelength of creativity. And you know, I don't see the differences in the forms of music so much.

CHANG: Oh, I love this, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Thanks.

CHANG: And now you're taking the same concept out of the Thanksgiving Jell-O mold, so to speak.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

CHANG: You see what I did there? And you're calling it Play It Forward. What is this going to sound like the rest of the year?

SHAPIRO: I mean, there's never a bad time to be thankful, right?

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And the basic idea is the same as the Thanksgiving segment, but it'll be a little more bite-sized. So instead of spending half an hour going through five musicians in a row, each segment will give you just one link of the chain. And in addition to hearing each musician express gratitude for someone else, we're going to hear them talk a little bit about their own work, which has always been part of the project.

CHANG: All right. And now you're about to launch us into a new chain of gratitude. Who did you choose to kick things off with here?

SHAPIRO: We're going to start things off with an artist who performs under the name Caribou.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")

GLORIA BARNES: (Singing) Home, home, home, home.

SHAPIRO: His real name is Dan Snaith, and he's a perfect guy to start us off on this gratitude chain because he's kind of a musical magpie. He, like, pulls shiny things in from all over the place.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Also, his music always lowers my blood pressure, which seems useful at a time like this. And you are going to love the artist that he chose.

CARIBOU: It was kind of this guiding light as to, oh, this is - music can do this, and this is how I can do it. It is so captivating, so packed with emotion, so beautiful.

SHAPIRO: And you'll find out who he's referring to in our next segment of Play It Forward.

CHANG: Oh, a little cliffhanger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")

BARNES: (Singing) I'm home. I'm home. I'm home.

CARIBOU: (Singing) She's better off than she has ever been. Now she's made her peace with everything. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.