A conversation with Michael Stipe: “Looking to an image and listening to a song are the same thing, to me”

The former R.E.M. frontman and his third book, a collection of portraits: a sort of autobiography through images and names, published by Damiani. Photography, songs, art and the love for objects: “Music is extremely visual to me”.
A conversation with Michael Stipe: “Looking to an image and listening to a song are the same thing, to me”
Credits: David Belisle

Michael Stipe loves art, every form of art, whether it's a song, a picture or a book. "I'm a very visual person and also music is extremely visual to me", he tells me. For much of his career,  he has produced an intangible form of art: his band  turned songs into objects, through albums. R.E.M.’s wonderful limited editions, a tradition that lasts to this day, with album reissues. But at present he focuses mainly on sculptures and books: “It's nice to create objects now”, he says.

We meet over Zoom to talk about his new book, just released worldwide by the Italian publisher Damiani. From his home in New York, he proudly shows it: on the cover, an image of his friend Tilda Swinton in blue. The book is a collection of portraits: he reveals himself through the faces and names of the people he worked with, who helped him becoming the artist he is nowadays, who helped hom accepting his vulnerability and turning it into his strength. "Walk unafraid", as he once sang in an R.E.M. song inspired by Patti Smith. 

Due to COVID, he could not shoot many of his heroes: so, their names are written on graphic lists, book covers and vases crafted by his friend Caroline Wallner. A sort of Podcast, created in collaboration with GOODmood, accompanies the book: through a QR Code, you can enter a website and listen to his voice as he tells the story of the images and explains his creative process. His work will become an exhibition, in 2022, at the ICA Milan: "It was supposed to open before COVID. I’m still formulating what it’s going to become, but a lot of it will be drawn from these three books for Damiani”.

Listening to Michael Stipe is inspirational: every sentence opens up rivers of suggestions, to paraphrase an old R.E.M. song. Here’s my conversation with him about his book, about the role of the artist today, and about his unique way of thinking through images and lists, even when he writes songs.

This is your third book published by Damiani, eponymously titled “Michael Stipe”. It’s a sort of autobiography in which we see  through your camera, and through the people who influenced you.
It’s correct, however the book is not titled “Michael Stipe”, It has no title: i just put my name on the spine so as people  can understand it is by me. 
But yes, it’s a portrait of myself, but without me. It’s a portrait of everyone I admire, a checklist of people who have provided me with courage and inspiration, allowing myself to be vulnerable, and then recognizing my vulnerability as a powerful force.

This a book about family, both from a cultural and a biological point of view. I assume you spent a great part of the pandemic in Athens, as there are many pictures of your family, while many of your references are represented through graphic lists, book covers and vases.
Most of the pictures of my family you see in the book were shot in 2020, but we could only see each other from 20 feet away and wearing masks.
It was a very odd time to create portraits. But I didn’t want it to be a book about Covid and I didn’t want to ignore the moment as well. I wanted it to be in the background. Human interactions broke to such a degree I could not spend time with my family, much less with other people. So I used these devices, the vases, the book covers and graphics and images from my archive, to create an image of making a book of portraits in a moment when you can’t see anyone.    

You have been showing your love for fonts and graphic design since R.E.M.’s album covers - and we see it in this book as well. Where does it come from?
I’m very attracted from the era of graphic design from when I was a teenager, mainly the ‘70s. It makes me feel happy, relaxed and inspired. My amateur and almost naive attempt at graphic design in this book is something a professional would dismiss completely. But I’m showing my love for it.

The book is accompanied by an audio narration: it’s a unique insight into your creative process. How did you decide to do it? I read that you were inspired by a podcast with Lou Reed and Hal Willner.
That was a recorded conversation between two friends, both insanely intelligent and comfortable with each other.

 Along with that, I was listening to a lot of podcasts because I spent a great deal of time alone, and podcasts made me feel more connected and less crazy in this phase. 
I’m not a very solitary person, I wasn’t until the pandemic, and now, at 61, I’m very comfortable with my own company. .
When we talked about the “Automatic for the people” reissue, you said that it was difficult to hear your voice in those demo recordings because you were at the peak of your vulnerability.  Did something similar happen with this audio recordings?
Of course. I don’t like my speaking voice. I love my singing voice and I recognize it has its good and its bad points. I don’t like the intonation of my speaking voice, I don’t like the way it sounds, like a professor or like I’m lecturing people. I try formulate the ideas to put them into words, and I have problem with that. I’m very smart inside but I can’t always connect myself to the language that comes out.

The audio narration connects your present work to your past, for example when you talk about the way you work through lists and are inspired by dreams. It this still the way you work and write?
Yes, the list-making is not something that I choose to do, it’s just the way my brain organizes things. Many of the lyrics to my songs ended becoming lists. 
In essence, those might be my best work: it’s intuitive and automatic, it’s something that I didn’t have to work at, it just came pouring out of me.

I had to trust that instinct enough.  For example, the songs “E-bow the letter” o “It’s the end of the world as we know it”, those are essentially as they came to me, a list of thing, unedited or with little editing. That’s how I organize things.
I spoke about it with Patti Smith, about having scarlet fever as children: it literally boils your brain if you have it then. William Burroughs had it too and he said that it opens up the brain in a different way. This a very romantic and poetic idea and I don’t know if it’s true, but if he said that… He’s pretty good, and I’m gonna go with that.

You also said that photography comes easier for you than music, right?
I’m a very visual person and also music is extremely visual to me. Composing music is not easy, but writing to compose music is even more difficult. And still, looking to an image and listening to song are the same thing, to me. I see a landscape, music brings a visual image to my mind. As lyricist or a singer, my job is to populate that landscape with a narrative or an idea, with a thought, with someone else’s story, and that’s not an easy thing to do. But I see music and Imagery on an equal playing field.

 What is your Italian connection with Damiani?
I think it was Jonathan Berger, with whom I made “Volume 1”, the first book. After I met them in New York, I felt their enthusiasm for my work and my ideas as photographer. For me, my making a book is creating a work of art that goes out into the world. I love objects. Most of my life I created tings that weren’t objects, so it’s nice to create objects now. 


(Photo by David Belisle)

You published your solo songs on your own, your book with a small publisher and R.E.M. moved their catalogue from a major label to an independent one. What does independence mean to you?
It’s not so much independence as to work with people who understand art and vision, and I see that in Damiani. I see true love of craft and attention to details. With a larger publishing house I’m not sure I would have that intimacy to the materials.

I know this very broad question but what does being an artist mean to you? and are songs a form of art, to you?
Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be a pop song, but any tipe of music. I’m thinking of Arca, who doesn’t really write songs, or Arvo Paart. Composition music and pop music can be art, it’s just a form of expression that helps define the moment that we’re in.
To me, that’s the very most basic understanding of the job of the artist is to look at where we are, and comment on it. Hopefully it helps pinpoint the moment that we’re in but also to look ahead and see what could be, you see what’s working and what is not, and what could be better. It becomes inspirational and also helps us humans see ourselves in a clear way. That, I think, is the simple job of an artist.

Speaking of music, where does your love of electronic music come from? It’s in your solo work, but it popped up in R.E.M. as well.
I think it came from disco. When I was a teenager, disco happened and I loved it. There’s something about mechanized beats… When there are live drums, I have to think about the choices that are being made by the person that’s creating that sound. When a beat is mechanized, I can think about other things, and therefore music is easier to listen to for me. The way I see music, I’m not seeing the possibility of mistakes. I see something not human with something human on top, and that is very attractive to me.

2021 is a year of anniversaries: 10 years since R.E.M. disbanded, 25 years from “New adventures in Hi-Fi”. What is your attitude towards your past?
I’m happy to talk about it and partecipate and putting the music out again. The re-releases allow people to listen to music again or look at it from a different prospective, and hopefully reach a new audience of people.

A couple of years ago you revealed you were working on a number of new songs. You have published three in the last 18 months. Will we see more, or an album?
I’m working on the music, but my past in R.E.M. is a giant mountain to climb. I want to create something that doesn’t embarrass and is on the same level of R.E.M. And I’m one person, I’m not Michael Peter Mike or Bill. It’s a lot to overcome. But the music has been made, I’m not just releasing it yet.

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