A Dinner Date With Judy Collins
Over a meal at New York City’s famed Carlyle Hotel, the folk-music legend opens up about activism, songwriting, and always seeking balance.
Over a meal at one of his favorite restaurants in New York City, the former R.E.M. front man dishes on creativity, vulnerability, and his love of food.
IT’S HARD TO imagine a world without Michael Stipe. If you came of age in the ’90s like I did, his influence was vast. As the front person for R.E.M. — a rock band that sold more than 85 million records over their 30 years together — he was a cultural bellwether with a voice that likely soundtracked a significant portion of your life. He also redefined what it meant to be a pop star — a performer who always managed to be deeply political, acutely empathetic, and remarkably playful in a way that never felt anything less than totally authentic. If you grew up listening to R.E.M., he felt like a trusted friend. Having risen from the ranks of underground darling to bona fide international rock star, Stipe still seems to straddle both sides of the cultural divide — an artist whose continuing body of work defies genre, speaking equally to the marginal and the mainstream.
The primary driver behind Stipe’s work continues to be a restless curiosity, which, in recent years, has taken on a variety of forms. As a photographer and visual artist, he has mounted gallery shows and published an ongoing series of multimedia art books with Damiani. Meanwhile, as a producer and musical collaborator, he has worked with the likes of Fischerspooner, The National’s Aaron Dessner, and Brian Eno (with whom Stipe released “Future If Future” — the first commercially available 12-inch record to be pressed on sustainable bioplastic instead of vinyl). He also released a solo song to help benefit Pathway to Paris, a platform to bring together artists, musicians, filmmakers, and poets with politicians, scientists, activists, innovators, and leading thinkers in order to strengthen the climate movement through diverse collaborations. To spend time with him is to receive a master class in all things he loves right now, including visual artists (“Marisa Merz, Jean-Luc Moulène, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon”), not-to-be-missed cultural moments (Elton John’s farewell tour), and favorite foods (Ayurvedic and plant-based).
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Though he was frequently depicted as shy and overly serious during his time in R.E.M., the real Stipe is anything but. Showing up to dine at beloved West Village eatery Via Carota, one of his favorite restaurants in New York, the now 62-year-old artist is funny, effusive, and excited to do one of his favorite things on earth — share a lovely meal.
I always think of you as someone who really appreciates the joy of going out and having a nice meal with people. In fact, the first time I came to this restaurant it was with you.
I love a meal out. I love being in a room with strangers, and I love being served food. For me, a lot of my work is in my head. I work all the time, even when I’m not in my studio or not in the studio with music. I’m working, I’m thinking, and going out ends that. It takes me out of that headspace, which is very interior, and brings me into an exterior in a very good way. And so I’ve reveled in my love of restaurants for most of my adult life.
You spent so many years as a touring musician. How was that as a food lover?
Well, awful for me. All through the ’80s and ’90s, for 20 years, I was vegetarian, and then vegequarian for a few years, up until 2000. In 2000 I became an omnivore, largely because I met and fell in love with a French man, and it’s hard not to eat meat when you’re at a French family dinner. So I’ve been an omnivore for the better part of 20 years, and now again I’m vegequarian and pescatarian.
You were one of the first people I remember being famously vegetarian.
I call myself vegan by default because that really describes my diet. If I were to write down everything that I eat for a month, 90% of what I eat is vegan. My proteins are mostly amaranth and tempeh. I have tempeh four times a week probably, and nuts and quinoa, beans and rice.
It’s easier now, but it was not easy to be vegetarian in a touring band back in the ’90s. It usually meant you were eating lots of french fries and bad salads.
Well, I was skinny back then. I mean, I was onstage two hours a night doing this intense workout, and I would come offstage and just shove food in my mouth, pour a bottle of wine down my throat. Nothing would impact me. I would keep losing weight. And that was very nice. When I turned 50, everything changed. I stopped performing. My body changed and now I’m a different person, but I'm very happy with who I am.
‘I don’t think of myself as well-spoken or well educated, but I do have opinions and some of them are activist or political in nature, so I felt this need to share things.’
This restaurant is great in that there are lots of options, both vegan and otherwise.
They are so great here. The menu always changes, but there are some classic things they can always do for you.
I was revisiting some old R.E.M. interviews recently and I always appreciated that you were someone who used whatever platform you had, even if early on it was a small one, to try and say something meaningful or to shine a light on something you felt strongly about. Also, here comes our food.
Well, that’s very generous of you. I don’t think of myself as well-spoken or well educated, but I do have opinions and some of them are activist or political in nature, so I felt this need to share things. I mean, I’m also very self-absorbed, so that’s probably part of doing what I did for so long. It’s a requirement. But you also have to balance that self-absorption with self-awareness, and if you never believe the very worst or the very best things that are said about you, you’re going to be okay (laughs). Wait, did you like the artichoke? It’s good, right?
Yes, and I’m not typically an artichoke lover. Very delicious. I know people probably want to ask you about politics a lot, so I will refrain. However, I keep thinking about the release of R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” back in 1991, which came with a card that supported the Motor Voter Bill and also helped one figure out how to register to vote. I had just turned 18 and that was a huge thing for people my age.
We helped change the outcome of the election in 1992. And the Motor Voter Bill, which we were supporting, was a big part of that. It was so important that young people register to vote. It still is. I’m very proud of that.
Musicians and celebrities are sort of expected to be political now, but a decade or two ago, you took a lot of heat for it. If you took yourself seriously at all, you got called out for being pretentious.
I’m going to forget the name of it, but I was just reading this book that suggests that the idea of having pretensions is not necessarily a bad thing, in the same way that trying to lift yourself up out of who you are or your circumstances is not altogether a bad thing. Also, if you grow up in rural places, like we both did, having some artistic pretensions can be a great influence. Also, I think often that queerness affords us that kind of extra push to create a world that is not only accepting but encouraging and open to possibility, open to opportunity, open to flexibility.
[Note: More food arrives, including some incredible risotto.]
This is amazing. Can you believe that this is —I mean before we put the cheese on it — vegan? It’s just emulsified lemon and olive oil.
You are an excellent cook, but can you make risotto? This is the dish that often gets people eliminated from cooking shows.
I have done it successfully, but I will say that it is really hard to get it right. Also, let it be said that we have finished the risotto.
‘I have no management. I have no label. For the first time in my adult life, I don’t have a contract with anyone except myself.’
In the years since R.E.M. ended, you seem to have moved very gracefully from project to project — taking photos, making books, mounting gallery shows, collaborating with other musicians. You appear to have navigated this part of your creative life pretty effortlessly.
Really? Because it could not be more clumsy and chaotic from my perspective, but thank you! A professor of mine recently passed, and the last thing he said to me was, “Thank you for your grace.” I was so honored to have someone of his age and of his generation use that term in reference to me. That means a lot.
No, from inside it feels extremely chaotic and disorganized. That said, what is the diagram where the two circles come together — the Venn diagram? The Van Halen diagram? The Venn diagram for me is this overlap where music and art and photography and visual representation and sculpture and performance — they all really do mix. It’s all part of one thing. I think I’m happiest when some of those things present themselves together. I hope to be working next year with a lot of dancers. I’ve found dancers in France and Greece and Italy who I’m very interested in working with. There’s this whole thing about the body as a medium for expression that I feel like I’m a little Johnny-come-lately, but I feel like it presents what I do in a very different way and in a way that I find extremely appealing and thought-provoking. We'll see where that goes.
And what about music?
I’m working on a solo album, my first. I’m collaborating with a bunch of different musicians and each of those songs, if I get my way, which I think I will because I’m paying for it, will be very different. I have no management. I have no label. For the first time in my adult life, I don’t have a contract with anyone except myself. So I get to do whatever I want. Anyway, there will be a visual representation for each of the songs, and it should come together next year. I’m hoping to build slowly. At the same time, I’m putting together my first institutional art show in Milan at ICA. I’m working on a bunch of sculpture pieces for that. There will be a lot of photo-based portraiture. So I have the record, the show, and then of course to further complicate it and make it difficult on myself, my next book with Damiani will come out as a loose program of the show. And I’m doing something that I’m completely terrified of and not sure that I’m capable of. Actually, I know that I’m incapable, but I’ve started painting.
Was there ever a time when you thought, Maybe I won't do any more music. Maybe that part of my journey is over?
When the band disbanded, I couldn’t imagine continuing with music, and it took five years before I could come back to the idea of it. And it came back completely by accident with a Fischerspooner project, which I loved. I’m still blown away at how good the material was that we worked with on that record, which was called “Sir.” And it established a long-standing working relationship with myself and producer Andy LeMaster, which is really important.
When you work within the confines of a band for so many years, I would imagine that you develop a kind of creative shorthand with those people that can also feel very safe. Stepping outside of that must feel very revealing. Very vulnerable.
Extremely vulnerable. But that’s my superpower. I fall on my face very well. And then sometimes it’s quite beautiful. Also, the idea of vulnerability, humanness, humanity. That’s something that people, including myself, usually respond to.
So we have basically decimated every morsel of food they have brought us tonight. Everything has been delicious.
This place always delivers. It’s a rare restaurant that can deliver consistency, because that’s what you always want. You have your favorite dish. You want to go there, you want to get exactly that. But also experimentation. They’re not afraid to mix it up with all the other dishes, bring in something new. The menu is radically different than it was six days ago.
I know you spent a big chunk of time this year in Georgia. Was it weird to be away from New York City for that long?
Yep. And it was good to get back, but it was also obvious that the city had changed dramatically, and it’s still changing, but not altogether in a negative way. A lot of people my age don’t realize that the city isn’t not happening, it’s just that you’re not of the age that you’re going to recognize that it’s happening.
Right. New York City is still happening. You might not be going to a warehouse somewhere to see someone do weird performance art at 3 a.m. in the Bronx, but it’s still happening. There will always be people here figuring out ways to do weird and interesting art, even if you aren’t seeing it or participating in it.
Right. Yeah, that part feels good. I want to participate.
What are your other favorite go-tos in the city?
Divya’s Kitchen in NYC. That’s a must. Ayurvedic, vegetarian, on First Avenue. She also has two cookbooks. They’re just these beautiful cookbooks about Ayurvedic cooking and the philosophy behind it. She grinds her own flour. She makes her own ghee. She’s always super optimistic and looks lovely, and the food is exquisite. When KRS-One came to town, that’s where I took him and he loved it. And of course the staff recognized him and freaked out. And so that was good for him. It felt good.
I feel very satisfied by this meal.
Yes, so do I. I am determined to finish everything. It’s so good. We should look at the desserts. It’s usually stuff that I can’t eat, but one should always look.
“Via Carota is the West Village trattoria of cherished downtown chefs Jody Williams and Rita Sodi. Inspired by the 17th-century villa in the hills near Florence which Sodi once called home, Via Carota honors old-world Italian roots, lifestyle, food and decor … Located at 51 Grove Street in the West Village, Via Carota is just one block up from the couple’s other beloved restaurants Buvette and I Sodi. Via Carota is open all day long serving food and drink, early until late in a true trattoria fashion.”
51 Grove Street, New York City
T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. He is currently an editor-at-large at Departures.
Sinna Nasseri is a photographer and documentarian born in Los Angeles and based in New York City. In 2020, he traveled to 35 states documenting the U.S. election, pandemic, and social movements for the New York Times, Vogue, TIME, and the New Yorker.
Over a meal at New York City’s famed Carlyle Hotel, the folk-music legend opens up about activism, songwriting, and always seeking balance.
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