Michael Stipe Discusses New Solo Album With NY Times (And Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, Matty Healy, & Jack Antonoff)
Michael Stipe is the subject of a lengthy new profile in this week’s edition of The New York Times Magazine, reported over the past year as the former R.E.M. frontman worked on-and-off on his long-gestating solo album. Stipe has been talking about that album for a while now, but progress is being made, and the profile ends on a quote from Stipe that’s somehow both definitive and also noncommittal: “We can say for the piece that I finished the songs, and by God, I will finish them before the piece comes out. How about that? Let’s leave the piece closing with: I finished the songs.”
There are many intriguing nuggets throughout the Times profile though, perhaps most notably when writer Jon Mooallem accompanied Stipe to some recording sessions at Electric Lady Studios in New York City this past May. Stipe was there at the same time as Taylor Swift, and had some on-the-record run-ins with both Swift and collaborators Jack Antonoff, Matty Healy, and Phoebe Bridgers.
Included within are some conversations that took place between Antonoff, Healy, and Stipe on the roof of Electric Lady. Healy told Stipe about a theory he has of R.E.M. being the first emo band. Stipe responded: “I was profoundly depressed most of that time.” Also noted are some questions that Stipe asked Antonoff, included in a parenthetical: “What did Antonoff mean when he said Paul Simon ‘doesn’t always get his flowers?’ What was ‘getting the bag?'” The trio went on to discuss Stipe’s relationship with Kurt Cobain, and how Courtney Love gifted R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck one of Cobain’s guitars.
The next day, Stipe was invited to where Swift was recording in the studio. “Jack and Matty were saying they talked to you for hours yesterday,” Swift told Stipe. “They were like, ‘Best conversation!’ They were so excited to be talking to you!” Stipe’s introduction to Swift went as follows: a handshake and a “You must be Taylor.”
Also present in the studio was Phoebe Bridgers. “My goddaughters are all huge fans of yours,” Stipe told her. “You touring all summer?” he asked. When Bridgers explained she would be performing with boygenius, she asked “Do you know those guys?”; Stipe said “Nuh-uh” before turning to his producer Andy LeMaster to double check: “Do I?” Bridgers responded: “It’s cool. It’s my other project with my two best friends.” Stipe: “Oh, I want to know about that.”
Stipe was at Electric Lady Studios to work on a handful of songs, including a duet for Courtney Love’s new LP. Songs earmarked for his album include tracks called “I’m The Charge,” “Time Keeps Changing,” and “Your Capricious Soul.” (An early version of the last came out in 2019.) For “I’m The Charge,” the profile says that Stipe summoned LCD Soundsystem drummer Pat Mahoney to the sessions after texting James Murphy. There’s another song with the working title “Disco2018.”
The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner are also apparently contributing string arrangements to the album. There’s another memorable passage in the profile about Stipe’s relationship with Patti Smith and his attendance of the National’s Homecoming Festival in Cincinnati this year. The band invited him to perform on stage with them but he declined because he didn’t want to be photographed “15 pounds too heavy.” Later in the profile: “Stipe insisted on going on long walks every night to take off his extra weight … Leaving the house once, he spontaneously sang a line from the National song ‘Fake Empire’ — one of the only times I heard him sing.”
At one point, Stipe talks about Thom Yorke and reflects on Yorke’s solo career away from the band that made him famous. “Thom’s doing so much. I feel like this slacker compared to him,” Stipe said. “I’m at a point in my life where you start thinking, OK, I’ve got a great voice and people like it, and it does good things when I sing … So what do I do with that, and why am I just frittering away my days not doing it?”
The whole profile is great, and you should check it out here.