I just want my music to lead and drive everything.

Michael Stipe
in conversation with Ryan Beatty

Photography Jack Pierson, Styling Pau Avia

Ryan Beatty’s transformation from a teenage pop idol in 2012 to a multifaceted songwriter is a tale of personal and creative evolution. Initially faced with limited creative freedom and a spiral into depression, Beatty made the bold decision to step back from an industry that had propelled him to global recognition but left him artistically unfulfilled. During his four-year sabbatical from the spotlight, Beatty embarked on a deeply personal journey and returned to the music scene in 2016 with Passion, signalling an introspective shift. His first full-length album, Boy In Jeans, was released in 2018 and further showcased his growth, followed by the acclaimed Dreaming of David in 2020. However, it’s with Calico, his third album, that Beatty truly stands out as a complex artist who melds reflective lyrics and nuanced sound, creating a timeless, intimate experience towards artistic purity and authenticity.

Michael Stipe is an American singer-songwriter, best known as the lead vocalist and lyricist of the legendary rock band R.E.M. Born in 1960 in Decatur, Georgia, Stipe became a prominent figure in the alternative rock scene during the 1980s and 1990s. His voice, stage presence and complex, poetic lyrics have been central to R.E.M.’s worldwide appeal and influence. Throughout his career, Stipe has also been known for his activism—especially his commitment to environmental and human rights causes. After R.E.M. disbanded in 2011, Stipe continued participating in various artistic and activist projects. He is also active in visual arts, showcasing diverse creative talents.

DUST invited Michael and Ryan to meet for the first time and engage in an unfiltered conversation about their lives, their inspirations and their respective approaches to creating meaningful music.


RYAN BEATTY – What’s up?

M.S. – Have you just woken up?

R.B. – Yeah.

M.S. – I hate talking when I’ve just woken up. I’m going to be gentle with you. Hello from Milan, by the way.

R.B. – How’s Milan?

M.S. – It’s incredible. I’m with a fantastic team. We are installing an exhibition I’m doing here. The opening is in a few days. It’s called ‘I Have Lost, and I Have Been Lost, but for Now, I’m Flying High’. The place we’re working in is not heated; there’s only one heated room, and it’s freezing here. So everyone gathers in this one room to avoid freezing.

R.B. – I mean, your beanie and scarf look like they are keeping you warm.

M.S. – This scarf was a gift from one of my dear friends with whom I’m working. He knew it was going to be cold here.

R.B. – I’ve never been a scarf person, but I’ve always wanted to. I guess it is ridiculous to wear a scarf in LA.

M.S. – I like old lady scarves. I wear them every time I go into the sea because if you dip them in salt water, it comes out slightly softer each time.

R.B. – I had no idea.

M.S. – But tell me about Jack Pierson and your trip to the desert for DUST

R.B. – I loved working with Jack. We spent a couple of days in the desert at his place in Palm Springs with my best friend Jacob, Pau, who styled the story and other friends. It was just my favourite shoot I’ve ever done if I’m honest.

M.S. – That’s amazing. Did you know Jack before?

R.B. – I didn’t know Jack personally. I had heard great things about him since Jacob had been shot by Jack before. I actually own one of his books and am a fan of his work. So, it was fantastic to be photographed by him. He’s just so cool.

M.S. – Nice. And who’s Jacob?

R.B. – Jacob is like my closest friend in the world. He’s an artist and creative director.

M.S. – Awesome, you live in LA, right?

R.B. – I do, yeah. I’ve been here for about twelve years. I lived deeper in the Valley with my family, and we came from Central California, so I grew up in Fresno. Then we moved here twelve years ago when
I was around 16. I appreciate both the Central California and the Southern California parts of myself. It’s like they’re both essential to who I am.

M.S. – How do you differentiate between the two?

R.B. – Well, I drive a truck and feel like that’s very Clovis of me. Clovis, Fresno, where I grew up.

M.S. – Is your truck covered in mud all the time?

R.B. – No, unfortunately, not. There’s not too much mud out here. I need an excuse to take it somewhere muddy and off-road. I just don’t know where yet.

M.S. – Have you had it for a long time?

R.B. – I actually bought it the day my album came out. The night before, I had a flat tire. I’d been postponing buying a new car for a while. I’d been driving the same one since 2015, my dad’s little Camry, and for some reason, I couldn’t part with it. It felt like a safe haven.
I was resistant to buying a new car for so long. Then, after that flat tire incident, I remember waking up the following day, Ubering to the dealership, and I just got that truck. Do you drive?

M.S. – Well, my family is in Georgia. When I was visiting out there, I used to have a Tesla that I drove around, and I was initially thrilled when I bought it because I appreciated the concept of a forward-thinking car in terms of energy consumption.
But, you know, the owner of Tesla became such a complete douchebag that I was kind of embarrassed by it, and I thought, I’m going to have to sell it. But as it turns out, there was a giant storm, and this pecan tree fell on my Tesla and totalled it. Providence or not, I got the insurance money and didn’t have to sell it. Now, I’m back to my 1992 Volvo station wagon.

R.B. – I think I can picture that. You and your 1992 Station Wagon.

M.S. – It’s a great car. The 1992-93 Volvo station wagons are widely regarded as some of the best cars ever made. When I started making money from music, I made it a point to buy the safest car I could for every family member; that’s how I found out. But when I was driving the Tesla around, especially when visiting my mom and hanging out, I realised that being in a Tesla seems to trigger something in people. Every guy feels the need to prove something, like their ‘guyness.’ These massive, ridiculous trucks would pull up next to me and rev their engines. I’d think: ‘You’re so lame and insecure. Go fuck yourself.’ But I could also make them eat dust.

R.B. – Oh, I bet you would.

M.S. – I actually did; it’s too easy to drive fast in them. But then I would get embarrassed to react in such a macho, stupid way.

R.B. – That can catch me off guard as well. It’s not like I have road rage, but there are moments when someone is driving so terribly that I can’t help but give them a hand gesture like: “What are you doing?” My friend called me out and said: “Someday, you’ll get into trouble.” I remember this one time I was driving on the freeway, and this car was going nuts, like cutting me off and honking at me. We were stuck in traffic anyway, and I started blowing the guy kisses, and he got so angry. I definitely thought there was going to be a confrontation.

M.S. – At least California isn’t an open carry state. Georgia is. You really have to be careful there. It’s not even about testosterone; it’s more about insecurity. It manifests in this hyper-macho way. I believe that such attitudes will gradually disappear as society evolves. But it’s not an easy process, and we must deal with it. By the way, you have beautiful hands. You were just gesturing, and I noticed. Do you play the piano?

R.B. – I don’t. It’s funny, though; you’re not the first to ask me that. Do you?

M.S. – I did when I was a child. I played classical. I could do hand-over-hand, which I was very proud of then. And then my parents bought me a piano. We didn’t have a lot of money. It was a big deal for them to buy me a piano, but I stopped rehearsing the second they bought it for me. It was like it was staring at me, and I couldn’t deal with it. But you do play guitar, right?

R.B. – I play a bit, but mostly at home alone. I don’t perform in front of others. As a musician, I’ve come to rely on those who are truly skilled at it. I believe my strengths lie in songwriting, vocals, and perhaps even in production, in terms of envisioning the sound I want or knowing what I’m looking for. However, I prefer collaborating with someone who can bring that desired sound to life. At the moment, I’m not sure if I have the patience to reach that level myself personally.

M.S. – It’s probably obvious because we are here talking to each other, but I really like your music and love your voice. There’s something in there that feels quite complex but presented in a way that’s very pop. I use the term pop to describe things available to everyone. I don’t know what that means in 2023, but it feels very pop-like to me in that regard. Anyone can listen to it, be moved by the music, and understand it. There’s complexity in what you’re doing, but it presents itself in a way that is available to everyone. And that, to me, is the sign of someone doing something great.

R.B. – Thank you. I used to be afraid of the word ‘pop’ when I was younger because I thought it placed me in this category of superficiality or that my songs couldn’t be taken seriously. But, as you mentioned, in the year 2023, it carries a different meaning. I can now embrace that word, although I wouldn’t label myself as a pop artist or a pop star in any way. What I appreciate is that my music can be accessible to anyone, whether you grasp the lyrics or the melody part more.

M.S. – It’s about being accessible on multiple levels—sonically, musically, and emotionally. I know ’emotionally available’ can sound like a buzzword, but the emotional dimension in music is undeniably crucial. Music has a unique ability to touch a deep part of people’s hearts that other forms of art and expression can’t quite reach. That’s what makes music so incredibly powerful. And when you combine that with a distinctive voice, like the one you have, and with an editor’s mind or people around you who are good editors, you’re really on top of your game.

R.B. – The editor’s mind you mentioned is a blessing and a curse at the same time because it allows me to quickly identify when something isn’t working or doesn’t feel right, which is valuable. But on the other hand, it can sometimes lead to over-editing. Sometimes, insecurity gets in the way, where I can be insecure about an idea, which disguises itself as thinking it’s not good enough. But just because I’m insecure about something doesn’t mean it’s not great. For example, when I wrote the song Hunter for my record. Now, it’s probably my favourite song on the album and my favourite song I’ve ever written. But I remember I had this moment of uncertainty after I wrote it. I thought: “Am I in a manic state of mind right now, and I just wrote a horrible song, but I’m somehow convinced it’s great? Or did I write the best thing I’ve ever written?” The following day, I played it for Ethan, the guy producing my music, and I shared my uncertainty with him. I said: “I don’t really know what this is, but I know it’s something.” To my delight, he was blown away and extremely excited. It was thrilling to see his enthusiasm for the song. It’s funny how sometimes insecurity can propel you to make something unique.

M.S. – It’s about aiming for something bigger than yourself. You want to push your limits and fly close to the edges that scare you. That’s when it becomes exciting, and you can challenge yourself the most. If you happen to fail, you fall on your face, but you’ve already achieved enough triumphs to be able to do that publicly and say: “Well, look at what I’ve accomplished. I accept all of it.” That’s what I believe. Well, at least it’s nice to say it publicly. You started your career pretty young, didn’t you?

R.B. – Yes, I started at a very young age. It’s something that crosses my mind occasionally, considering how long I’ve been in this industry. Yet, it’s interesting that people are only now discovering my work.

M.S. – I just discovered you. And part of it was because of Elton John, who’s a great friend of mine. He has impeccable musical taste, and he listens to everything. And if he focuses his attention towards someone, it means something.

R.B. – I listened to a lot of his records while growing up. My dad was a huge Elton John fan, so talking to him and knowing he liked what I am doing felt really special.

M.S. – This is your third album, right?

R.B. – Yes, it is.

M.S. – I think I’ve already expressed it, but let me frame it in these terms. In your music, there’s this maximalist approach that ultimately presents itself as minimalist, in terms of production but also lyrically. There’s a precision in what you’re doing, and from what I’ve listened to, which is quite a bit, it seems that you are blending these opposite sides of the spectrum in exciting ways.

R.B. – I appreciate that perspective because I’ve always thought of this record as the most precious thing I’ve ever created, almost as if I could hold it in the palm of my hand. It felt tiny and delicate like it was constantly on the edge of something and needed protection. That was the mindset I had while creating it. It was like holding water in the palm of my hand, trying to keep it from slipping away.

M.S. – And what has your creative process been like?

R.B. – I work with Ethan, and we usually start with just the guitar, keeping it simple with four chords. It’s the most basic approach, but it works for me. I like to begin as small as possible, which is partly why there aren’t many drums on the record. Initially, we worked with just vocals and guitar. Near the end of the process, we added drums to some parts or songs. However, we were cautious about overdoing it, as that would have produced the opposite effect of what the record aimed to achieve. As you mentioned, it feels big in the smallest parts, like you’re zoomed in as close as possible on one thing, and I believe adding drums might have disrupted that dynamic.

M.S. – There’s an intimacy that’s crucial, especially for the themes you explore in your lyrics. It’s like you’re right here, very close-miked. And both the vocal delivery and the production carry that same intimacy. And I think that’s great. There are a lot of artists that are doing that, but not many of them are that exciting. Let me ask: do you come from a musical family?

R.B. – My mom played piano in church, and we often sang. In my household, it was mostly church songs and softer music. There wasn’t a lot of musical danger. Everything felt very gentle, like James Taylor, the Carpenters, or John Denver. I still consider these artists as inspirations and influences; my whole family can carry a tune.

M.S. – Do you have perfect pitch?

R.B. – I think so. But I wouldn’t know how to test that.

M.S. – Ask your mom. She can tell you, I’m sure. It’s funny that you mentioned James Taylor right away because I immediately heard that as an influence when listening to your album. Besides the music your parents played around the house—all incredible songwriters—do you have any other musical influences?

R.B. – Surely Joni Mitchell. She was like the touchstone for me. I would constantly listen to her album Hejira when I needed to feel centered or, you know, be reminded of why I love music.

M.S. – She’s a classic, and that’s a remarkable record. And who do you think is a great artist nowadays?

R.B. – I would say Lana Del Rey is someone I admire in every aspect of her work. She’s so authentic and complex. She’s an example of a current artist with a career that I truly admire because it’s hard to do what she does and be successful at it. Looking at her reminds me that you can truly create what you want and tell your story in your own way, and there will be people who want to hear it.

M.S. – She’s brilliant. There’s a lot of complexity in what she does, but she does something similar to what you do. She takes many complex elements and makes them completely accessible to everyone, and she does it beautifully.

R.B. – And there’s depth to it. So, if you want to look deeper, you can look deeper, but you don’t have to. Even though I think she likes it if you do. She doesn’t want to be misunderstood.

M.S. – And I think you don’t either. Let me ask you something: do you feel obliged to rhyme in your work?

R.B. – Well, I love writing something that feels good, led by the melody, sentiment, or rhythm rather than the word ending. However, there’s also a great feeling when something rhymes, and it’s like it’s wrapped up in a bow, but the rhyme doesn’t sacrifice the meaning or quality of the song. I would say many parts of my album rhyme, including some of my favourite sections. This is especially true for the song Cinnamon Bread. There’s a certain rhythm to it, and everything just comes together perfectly.

M.S. – I think that’s a great example of cadence, which is the other part. Whether it’s a conscious or unconscious thing, cadence is as essential as shifting rhythm within.

R.B. – Absolutely, it’s all about feeling satisfied; that’s when it feels right to me. Sometimes, it doesn’t rhyme or even make much sense, but if it’s satisfying while I’m singing or listening to it, that’s what matters. Ultimately, I just want to be satisfied with what I create. And to call it just ‘satisfaction’ seems like an understatement. I want to love it.

M.S. – Yeah. Good isn’t good enough. It’s got to be great. Well, you’ve made an excellent record. It’s not easy, and it takes courage.

R.B. – Thanks a lot, and it’s true, being an artist requires a lot of bravery, especially to do it in your own unique way. It can be challenging, but the satisfaction and good feeling when it all works out is the best in the world. It makes you feel genuinely celebrated for who you are. I want to continue being brave and pushing myself. In a way, I haven’t fully overcome how the world perceives me. Somehow, now, I keep myself a secret. I put everything out there when I was younger, but that didn’t feel good. So, I recoiled and protected myself. Now, I have this armour, which I appreciate.

M.S. – I mean, if I can give you a piece of advice: be cautious with the reactions to things you made earlier. That can be a valuable guiding force, but it shouldn’t define or limit the possibilities of what lies ahead.

R.B. – I need to keep that in mind because, deep down, I truly believe it. Often, being very sensitive and hating to be misunderstood, I do the opposite of being brave and putting myself out there. Yet, I don’t want to prevent myself from accepting imperfection or always seeking perfection. It’s tough. I just want my music to lead and drive everything; I just want to let it happen.

M.S. – You will make it happen.

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Michael Stipe
in conversation with Ryan Beatty