• Image about Michael Stipe
Photograph by Evan Kafka

He dons a pair of black-framed glasses and folds his hands in his lap to study the menu. We’ve popped in the Breslin for a late lunch, and notwithstanding the hour, this swank eatery inside the Ace Hotel on 29th and Broadway is slammed. New York hipsters sip coffees and imbibe buttery libations while web surfing on their iPhones and iPads. The stereo plays half-songs — loudly — overhead.

We have the curtains drawn in a private area to drown out the background din, but that doesn’t stop the slew of restaurant employees from stopping by from time to time. He thanks the guy who presents a pitcher of water. He thanks the waiter for offering suggestions of his favorite items on the menu. He even thanks the employee who secured the booth for this interview, despite the employee having asked him, “Is your name Brian?”

“No, I’m Michael,” he says simply. He didn’t feel slighted by not being recognized. And he was genuine in his response, which makes me wonder whether this is why he’s chosen New York City as his second home, because it allows him to live anonymously — or at least more anonymously than in his hometown and other residence of sleepy Athens, Ga. But more importantly, how does someone who’s so easily identifiable maintain that down-home, Southern politeness?

“Respect, for one,” he begins. “A common courtesy of acknowledging and respecting someone else and what they do in their job and who they are: just another person moving across the earth that you happen to be in the same space with at that moment. That’s why I was interested in the assistant who was holding the light. He had burns on his right arm, so he’s right-handed and he’s a cook when he’s not doing lighting. That’s interesting to me.”

In 1981, Michael Stipe penned a song called “Gardening at Night” while sitting on an old mattress in the yard of the Oconee Street Church in Athens, Ga. Three decades later, when discussing the forthcoming release of R.E.M.’s 15th album, Collapse into Now, lead singer Stipe says: “There are songs on this record that were written on a proverbial mattress in the front yard.”

One such song is the album’s leadoff track, “Discoverer.” “It just fell out of me,” Stipe says. “I knew exactly what it was referencing and I knew exactly what it was about. And every line doesn’t make exact sense to everyone, but it’s really more about a feeling of liberation. A feeling of discovery. A feeling of racing through some barrier. I think that speaks to the teenager in all of us, of every age.”
Another reason he asks questions and challenges you to answer — as much with his eyes as with his patience — is because of a natural curiosity, a character trait he credits to his Army-brat upbringing and his having dropped out of college.

“I want to maintain a curiosity throughout my life, where I don’t want to feel like I know everything or that I’ve accomplished everything that I can accomplish,” he says. “That’s arrogant, for one thing, and as a pop star and as a public figure and as a performer, I’m well aware of arrogance and narcissism and insecurities in a person. That curiosity is so key to living a rich and fulfilling life.”

This natural curiosity has led Stipe into many other activities and endeavors. For example, he’s quite the fashionista, and not for superficial reasons. He knows the big-name designers and can discuss spring fashions and young couturiers cutting their teeth in Berlin just as knowledgeably as he can discuss music, like the story behind the obscure Ramones song playing overhead that he first heard on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert television show in the 1970s. These days, his passion is sculpturing with plastic. He travels the world, and quite extensively, to study the works of the world’s best sculptors and to return with his knowledge to his studios in either New York or Athens. Then he practices his art.

“It’s no coincidence that I chose American Way to speak with,” he says. “I love to travel: I love what it offers; I love the opportunity and the vista that opens up to me as a very visual person.”

What Stipe observes during his world travels helps to feed his photographic memory and encyclopedic recall. But the farthest reaches of the globe also help him with his foremost profession. He is, after all, a musician who’s concerned with the twin crafts of singing and songwriting. Traveling permits Stipe the opportunity to draw inspiration from various cultures and settings. That’s why R.E.M.’s newest album (number 15 since the band’s inception in 1980), Collapse into Now, was recorded in three locations: Nashville, New Orleans and Berlin. And that’s why this album, by Stipe’s own admission, was conceived with each song bearing a singular message in mind. No thought was given to the marketability of hit singles and dollars-for-downloads. “The record company knew what they were getting with us,” he says, grinning.