“She was the mentor who made R.E.M. a band in the first place”: Michael Stipe on the time R.E.M. roped in his hero Patti Smith as a guest singer

Michael Stipe and Patti Smith
(Image credit: Getty Images)

R.E.M. had become one of the world’s biggest bands by the time they arrived at 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, but they wanted to prove they were still the mavericks who had helped to define US alternative rock a decade before. 

They did that by picking a rogue first single from the album, releasing maudlin ballad E-Bow The Letter rather than one of the record’s more obvious contenders. There is no doubting that the song is an R.E.M. classic, but it’s hardly Losing My Religion. In 2021, Stipe told the music newsletter The New Cue why it was an important decision. “It opened up a whole new avenue of what people can do and how, when you’re in a position of power,” he said. “You can utilise that power and you can subvert from within, which is what we were almost best at and me as a public figure, using my outsider status and subverting from within pop culture. I loved being in that position and I revered those moments when we were able to do things like that. We were in a position to create power with MTV and with radio and we were pushing the boundaries as far as we possibly could. That alone is why we released the most un-single ever recorded as our first single, effectively tanking the record in terms of being able to chart but that’s okay. We were proud of it. And I’m still proud of doing that. We were in a position to be able to put out anything and radio, because we were R.E.M. and we were hugely famous at that point, had to play what we put out. So we were like, ‘let’s push this as far as we can’".

E-Bow The Letter is notable for its stirring, dual vocals on the chorus between frontman Michael Stipe and US singer-songwriter icon Patti Smith and Stipe explained how the classic match-up came about. “We had become friends at that point and she, of course, was the mentor who made R.E.M. a band in the first place, she was the person that both Peter and I referenced in our first meetings with each other as someone that we greatly admired,” he told The New Cue. “She was our hero, she ranked at the very top. Getting to meet her and then become friends was a great honour, to then ask her to perform on a song on our next album meant a lot to us and a lot to her. She recorded her vocals in Seattle and she just did what she does, she listened to the song and found something that she liked about it and started repeating that and she went off into that place that only Patti Smith can go to. We were there rolling tape and we captured it all and we put it together as a chorus and it became E-Bow The Letter.”

Stipe also revealed that there had been a plan for Smith to appear on a song that would become one of R.E.M.’s most well-known tracks but it didn’t come off. “I had written Everybody Hurts as a duet, with the idea of approaching Patti Smith to sing it as a duet with me,” he said. “I think through our record company, or maybe through [producer] Scott Litt but it just wasn’t the right time for her to do something like that. So when E-Bow The Letter came along, we were all thrilled to work on something together.”

It was the Athens, Georgia quartet at their finest. Watch the video for the song below. 

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.