How we met: Michael Stipe and natalie Merchant

Michael Stipe, 33, is the lead singer with the multi-million-selling rock band REM, which formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1980. He is also executive producer of Todd Haynes' glam-rock film, Velvet Goldmine. REM's new album, Up, was released last month and is at number two in the album charts. Natalie Merchant, 35, is the former vocalist of the New York-based band 10,000 Maniacs. Her erudite debut solo album, Tigerlily, sold more than four million copies in America alone. Her newly released second album, Ophelia, is accompanied by a short film in which she plays seven of the characters from the songs. To "stay connected", she continues to do regular voluntary work with the homeless.

MICHAEL STIPE: I knew of Natalie before I met her. In Athens, Georgia, where I live, everybody was talking about this girl who danced like a whirling dervish and sang in a band called 10,000 Maniacs. I went to see them perform in this tiny, packed club in 1983 and we met shortly after that.

Our first meeting was controversial - it's become something of a legend. I'm incredibly shy and it was at a horrible party. Apparently, I handed her a paper bag, then wandered into the bathroom. I escaped through the window, but eventually I had to come back because Natalie had my bag. She was probably a little frightened to meet me, but that wouldn't have occurred to me back then.

The next time I saw her was in Buffalo, New York. I was surprised and really pleased to see her. Even at the beginning of our friendship, I remember thinking that Natalie possessed rare knowledge. If there are 12 ways of looking at something, Natalie will always find a 13th.

Natalie was really the reason my work became politicised in the late Eighties. The work she was doing was real and important - all about the human condition. It was a very accurate reflection of the power and greed of the time, and I was impressed by her understanding. Through our conversations, I got to thinking that the plight of the native American Indians was a very important issue.

I've always placed great value on our shared experiences. There's this idea that entertainers are this rarefied breed who never have to grow up. That's not true of Natalie and me, but I do think we've retained a childlike sense of wonder about the world. I remember being in New Orleans with her one time. We had bought a fake tattoo of this ridiculous giant fish and it was so big that Natalie put on one half and I put on the other. We went stomping around New Orleans and, typically, Natalie knew more about the city than I did - I had no idea how or why. I remember talking on some steps, and Natalie pointing out some fellows who had real tattoos. That scared her for some reason.

I've always been jealous of Natalie's ability to draw. She keeps journals and carries sketchbooks around with her. I'm very scattered with my ideas, whereas she's very thorough and methodical. Natalie's also got a really wicked sense of humour. In the press she's often portrayed as a bit of a saddo - this flighty, hippy girl who preaches from on high. I think she's been pigeonholed as a certain kind of female performer, but she's very smart and funny and doesn't need to prove herself to anybody.

There was an interview that she gave for Us magazine recently, and the journalist was trying to make it more snarky - "snarky" being a term that was coined in the offices of Entertainment Weekly to describe interviews full of gossip and slamming of other people. So the journalist was being smug and mean- spirited, while Natalie was saying these amazing things, trying to explain why she didn't want to waste the platform her album has given her by being cynical and ironic. That struck a chord with me. Natalie can articulate and condense ideas that I've had but haven't been able to vocalise.

I think the reason our friendship has endured is quite simple - we like each other a lot. Someone once said that when you see a person after a long time and you're instantly transported back to the last time you were together, then that's how you know a true friend. That's how it is with us. We have privileged positions but we've also had to contend with things that most people don't: how do you present yourself publicly and deal with it when that's handled unfairly? How do you maintain your humour and not allow the uglier side of your public persona to creep into your real life? I'm really proud that we've managed to hold on to the essence of our friendship. What that essence is, I can't pinpoint for you, but it's a great thing.

NATALIE MERCHANT: I met Michael 15 years ago in Atlanta, Georgia, around the time that REM's Reckoning album came out. They were playing a benefit for an environmental group in a small club. REM excited me because they made this sound that was distinctly American, yet wasn't urban. Their music had a Southern quality in the same way that William Faulkner or Truman Capote have, and, like 10,000 Maniacs, they had this scene growing around them in the countryside. I felt a kinship. I also thought Michael was really sexy and I had a crush on him. I drove 500 miles to meet him on my day off. In my head it was supposed to be this epic summit, but it was horrible and I decided I hated him.

Michael is very charismatic and he'll always have a circle of people at least three deep around him. Later, I came to refer to this as "the 12-headed monster". I met him at the after-show party and he was kind of cagey with me. He wasn't that famous at the time, but being as shy and as young as I was, it was a real big step for me to seek out another musician. He handed me a paper bag, said "Can you hold this for me?", then wandered off to the bathroom for about 45 minutes. I remember waiting outside like an obedient puppy, and the longer I sat there the more furious and embarrassed I became. He was just hiding because he needed some space but I took it personally. When he came back I gave him the bag and left in a huff.

Our second meeting was much better. REM were playing in Buffalo, New York, about 100 miles from where the Maniacs and I lived. Our bands shared the same promoter, so I knew they were playing and I turned up at the sound-check. At that time I was into vintage clothing and I was quite a quirky little girl. I'd brought my juggling balls and I was wearing a pair of Victorian bloomers and a pyjama top. Michael was wearing his pyjamas that day, so we made a pretty funny-looking couple when we went to this vegetarian restaurant. We talked about music and had a great time. I was doing a lot of research about the genocide against the native American Indians, and we made a pact that we'd both write songs about their plight. Michael wrote "Green Grow The Rushes" and I wrote "Among The Americans". Both songs appeared on our next records. I look at that as the beginning of our friendship.

On stage that night Michael seemed to be channelling some really powerful energy through his body. When he's having an on-night it can be like watching a shamanistic ritual. There was less hype about REM then and they were young and on fire. After that meeting in Buffalo I went home on a high. I felt that Michael had began to understand why I'd sought him out, and he must have thought I was pretty cute, because we went on to become lovers.

REM were instrumental in securing industry interest for 10,000 Maniacs, and they were also great for guidance. I remember Michael saying, "Don't sell your publishing, Natalie, it's your virginity. Never give it up." I wasn't sure about the metaphor but it made me think. To this day I still own all my publishing so that nobody can use my songs without my signature.

I admire Michael's sovereignty and originality as an artist. He's a photographer, poet and painter as well as a singer, and he's always encouraging other young artists. I admire the strong bond he has with his parents and sister and that's obviously been important for him. He also has very long friendships. Most of the people who were in our circle 15 years ago are still in it, and even though I don't see Michael that often, when we do meet there's that feeling of closeness. There are maybe six people in my life who I could say that about.

We know each other pretty well - as former lovers there's a certain shared knowledge you can't unlearn. Michael thinks I read a lot more than I do, though, and he thinks I'm a better musician than I actually am. If I sit down at the piano he's like, "Oh my God! Liberace's in the room!" I'm a very passionate player but technically I'm no good at all. I've always thought it would be interesting to see what kind of music Michael would come up with if he learnt an instrument. I've been encouraging him to do that ever since we met, but his interests lie elsewhere. His life is fast-paced and there's a lot of it I'm not clued in to. He can spend weeks on end going to parties in Los Angeles. I abhor LA - that's a major difference.

If Michael sees a piece of art or hears a piece of music that inspires him, he has to meet the person behind it - and he does. I envy him that: he learns so much from these people and I'd like to as well. He's good friends with Radiohead, for example, and I'm dying to sing with Thom Yorke, but too terrified to meet him. Michael will say, "I'll give him a call right now," and I'll go, "No, put the phone down." I'm the flower that Michael peels off the wall to introduce to people. It's a good friendship to have, and I hope I have it for the rest of my life. !

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial