Michael Stipe on Creativity: “Be challenged by your friends and the people whose opinions you trust the most”

Music was always like a beautiful fog around me. I’m very susceptible to music. Anyone who has been out to dinner with me, been out in public with me, will tell you how distracting music can be for me. It blocks out all other input. In a way, the band blocked out all this input for me for a long time. It made it very hard for me to be able to focus on other things, like reading books.

In the band, it’s a democratic compromise. Everyone arrives at a place that is hopefully bigger than all of the separate parts. You find yourself working towards a common goal and try very hard to get there together. That doesn’t always work and sometimes you fail and you fail horrifically. I was just always really proud of the fact that we did everything we did and that we owned everything that we did. The highlights and the triumphs as well as the fall-on-your-face-publicly-in-a-very-big-way kind of moments. And there were plenty of those. Or the compromises that were made for, you know, position—whether on charts or for some kind of cultural position, all that stuff. To work outside of that is pretty freeing… and also terrifying. The guys in my band had my back and I had theirs. I was very protected. Working on my own I realize I’m not so protected.

Well, I find that I need to bounce ideas off of people. I need to have people around constantly to ask, “Is this good, or is this shit?” ‘Cause a lot of it is shit. And you have to kind of move through that. In terms of the kind of mediums that I work in now, I’m really comfortable with video and I’m really comfortable with film and photography. Making visual art comes very naturally to me, so it’s not difficult or complex in terms of imagining what I want. I know what I want. I sometimes just need people to help me with lighting or with the mechanical aspect of taking a picture or creating a video. But I know what I wanna see and I know how I wanna feel when I see it, so that’s what I’m always working towards.

It’s so important, no matter what you are doing or making, to be challenged by your friends and the people whose opinions you trust the most. People who aren’t going to tell you something’s good if it’s not and vice versa. It’s also healthy to realize what you’re good at and what you aren’t and to be honest about that. The things that I know that I’m really bad at: I know I’m a terrible painter, and I know I can’t stand my own drawing. I can’t stand my speaking voice. I can’t stand my signature. That’s all the stuff I can’t stand. So then I’m left with video and film, and my singing voice which I love, mostly. It’s limited, but it’s got something.