by Russell Hall
A phone-interview I did with Michael Stipe in 2004 is probably the most memorable interview for me. At our scheduled time to chat, I sat by the phone, ready to go, and indeed Stipe rang me up from his home in Athens, Georgia. He said, however, that he'd just returned from a visit to the dentist and couldn’t speak because his mouth was numbed with Novocain. The next day he phoned again. This time, however, he said he was traveling to Barcelona the following day to attend a friend’s wedding, but that he had misplaced his passport. He said he'd practically torn apart his Athens home searching for the passport, to no avail, and was therefore flying immediately to his New York apartment in hopes of finding it there. The following morning — passport now in-hand — he phoned from Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport and assured me he would call again as soon as he got settled in his hotel room in Spain. True to his word, he phoned again from Spain, this time telling me to sit tight and that he would ring me again in exactly one hour. Sure enough, an hour later, the call comes — from a post-wedding dinner party in a Barcelona restaurant. Amazingly, amidst the noise and clatter, Stipe found a relatively quiet corner and proceeded to give me one of the most in-depth interviews I've ever had the pleasure of conducting. For 45 minutes, he talked about how R.E.M. had sought counseling to prevent their breakup, his thoughts about the viability of a solo career, his complicated relationship with his fans, and other matters that I had never seen him address anywhere else. In retrospect, I'm sure his candidness was a thoughtful make-up for all he felt he'd put me through. In any case my respect for him — already very high — soared after that experience.
One of the most poignant moments I’ve experienced in an interview occurred with singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, in 2004. Through the years I had gotten to know Sam a bit, and her marriage to producer T-Bone Burnett had long been regarded as a storybook romance. In this instance we talked about "what love requires," which is a recurring theme in her songwriting. Then I asked her about failure — a subject she had broached, with some mystery, in a talk we had had a couple of years prior. "It's strange that you should bring that up," she told me. "I only realized about nine months ago what I was talking about, what I was sensing. What I had proof of, nine months ago, is that I had failed at love. It was something I didn’t know, but somehow I did know — that my long-term relationship with T-Bone was gone." Sam asked me to keep this news private — she had filed divorce papers that very day — and then she went on to speak with glowing affection for T-Bone, who had just come off his success with the O Brother, Where Art Thou?
soundtrack. "He’s been so generous to bring all this great music to our attention," she said, "but when I first met him he was making his own records. He’s a wonderful artist and one of the best songwriters I know. My subversive goal is to get him back to writing songs." Since then, of course, Burnett has done just that.