Tim Westergren is the founder of the hugely popular internet music service Pandora. He calls music “one of the sublime things in life” and talks about his evolution from composing film music to deconstructing all kinds of songs -- using Steely Dan, The Beatles and Billy Joel as examples. Pandora can now be found on your computer, mobile device and on Ford's SYNC equipped cars everywhere.
For More: www.pandora.com
Anne Litt: Hi, I'm Anne Litt and I'm here with Tim Westergren, the founder of internet radio service, Pandora. Today, we will be playing excerpts of songs he's selected that have inspired him over the years as a part of KCRW's Guest DJ project. Tim, welcome to KCRW.
Tim Westergren: It's an honor to be here.
AL: I'm really curious about what you've brought for us today, so why don't we just get started? What's your first track?
TW: My first track is by an artist named Judee Sill. It's called "The Kiss" on an album called “Heart Food” that I've listened to all my life. I began listening to it when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. She is alas no longer living. She was addicted to drugs and died in her 30s, I think. She's an artist who has pulled together a range of influences into her music. She really infused classical instrumentation and arranging with her writing. For me, listening to her music really opened up the possibilities of that kind of fusion of sounds. It was a really influential record for me.
AL: How did you discover her? You said you were 9 or 10.
TW: It was my mom's record collection. (both laugh)
TW: To me, in general, music is one of the sublime things in life and this song is one of those for me so whenever I hear it, it just stops me. It just takes me away.
AL: "The Kiss" by Judee Sill. It's on an album called “Heart Food.” I'm here with Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora. It’s KCRW's Guest DJ Project. What else have you brought in for us today?
TW: The next track is by Billy Joel. It's called "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant." I'm sure a lot of people know this track.
TW: This tune really introduced me to the idea of a song as a narrative -- the ability of a song to tell a story. In this case, it truly is a story of a couple, but musically, too, it takes this big journey. It holds together so well. It's so ambitious. You live the story with the song and it's just always been one of my favorites.
TW: As a composer, I've always thought about music in terms of its building blocks -- how you put it together, And I was actually a film composer for a while, too, so it's a very deliberate form of composing. You're actually trying to create a certain effect, so you think a lot about the bits and pieces and how they go together. So, I've been a deconstructor of music for a long time and the Music Genome Project, which is the foundation for Pandora, really is the codification of that whole idea that I tried to write down on a piece of paper. Literally, what were the hundreds of musical elements that I used to describe a song in my head or when I was writing or trying to communicate with the director. Pandora's kind of the embodiment of that.
AL: "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" by Billy Joel. One of Tim Westergren's picks. It's KCRW's Guest DJ Project. I'm Anne Litt, here with Tim, and next up on the list is a favorite of mine. It's Steely Dan's "My Old School." Tell us about it.
TW: I'm a big recording studio rat. I love spending time recording music and putting it together very meticulously. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were--
AL: Kings of that.
TW: --legendary studio guys.
AL: Well, they're such a great combination of creative genius and technical mastery.
TW: It's just this extraordinary example of piecing together, very deliberately and thoughtfully, a song with all sorts of interesting nuances, lots of different instrumentations, but it sounds completely alive and natural. If you spend any time in a recording studio trying to do that, you know how damn hard it is.
TW: Part of the idea behind Pandora and the Music Genome Project is that people listen to different things in songs. You and I can both like that song for very different reasons and what we're trying to do with the genome is get at that. So, when you say you like “My Old School,” what do you mean? Do you like people who have a nasal vocal? Do you like these fantastic horn arrangements? Do you like certain types of harmonies-- jazz harmonies? And we try to really surface that by seeing how you behave on Pandora with what songs you thumb up and down, et cetera.
AL: That was "My Old School" by Steely Dan. One of Tim Westergren's picks as a part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Up next, a classic. A George Harrison song by The Beatles.
TW: I had to have a Beatles track. A while ago, I sat down…I pulled out a video series of The Beatles and I think it was 12 videos long or something and I watched the whole thing. I remember, as I was watching it, I kept thinking "Oh and that song, and that one, I had forgotten that one, Oh, and that song" and it just kept going and going and going and by the end, I was just marveling at the volume of stuff they put out. I think it's a very rare combination that just was magical.
Song: The Beatles – “Something”
AL: But when you're dissecting a song like this by The Beatles for Pandora, you have something like 400, 500 criteria? I would be very intimidated by that.
TW: When I listen to songs, I always do it. I'm always curious about what gives it its sound. Why is this thing so beautiful?
Noticing how a harmony is used…the way McCartney and Lennon, that combination, both sonorically -- the actual timbres of the voices -- and how they melded. Because they are very different vocal styles, but then also how they used harmony. It's the little things, and those records, that's why they never get old.
AL: "Something" by The Beatles. It is a part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. I'm Anne Litt, here with Tim Westergren. You've brought a great list of classic songs and the next one, it's Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide".
TW: This song, in addition to being one of the most beautiful melodies in a pop song, is also a great example of a band working together. You have this group full of talented people who can all sing and can all play yet, in this tune, they all kind of back up and they give her the front and center. The instrumentation gets paired down a lot. A lot less use of vocals. Even the guitar solo is just so gentle and supportive and just beautiful, complementary. I think that's the sign of real creative magic.
TW: When I put on a record like this, I will really not do anything else and just absorb it. Sometimes I'll have music playing and I become completely unproductive. I do that…
AL: And you have to turn it off and work in silence. That happens to me all the time too.
TW: Or remain unproductive, one of the two.
AL: How about guilty pleasure?
TW: Well, you know what, I don't consider anything that I listen to a guilty pleasure. We talk about this a lot at Pandora because Pandora doesn't really know what that means. Pandora recommends music because it sounds the same. They don't know that it's cool or uncool or whatever, so I'm a big Michael Jackson fan. I love the Bee Gees. I think Celine Dion is an extraordinary singer and has some great songs. I'm a junkie for pop music -- a well written pop tune whether it is Mariah Carey or Beyonce. I can really appreciate what it takes to write those things and so, I like to think of it as not a guilty pleasure, but just a plain pleasure.
AL: Tim, thank you so much for coming in.
TW: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
AL: And for a complete track listing and to find these songs online go to kcrw.com/guestdjproject.