September 7, 2021
Jesse Paris Smith photos: Zoe Adlersberg
Michael Stipe photos: David Belisle
Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg
Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel
Music: Jesse Kennedy
Songwriter, artist, R.E.M. front man and activist Michael Stipe sits down with long time family friend Jesse Paris-Smith, climate activist, musician, artist and co-founder of Pathway to Paris. They talk about everything from Michael being locked in the basement when they first met at Patti Smith’s, to Pathway to Paris’ impact on climate change awareness, to animal cards.
MICHAEL STIPE: So, I guess we start by me announcing that I've just changed my name here. Michael Stipe, which is actually who I am. I change it every time I do one of these Zoom calls because it always says this same stupid thing. But, my drag name, if I were ever to have a drag name, is Uncanny Valerie. Do you know what that's a reference to? Uncanny Valley is what happens to humans when they're confronted with a robot or something that's human like, but a little too human like, it's the “Uncanny Valley.” And the normal human response to seeing this is to vomit.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Oh no!! What made you choose that name then?
MICHAEL STIPE: Well, I think I would be such a terrible drag queen that people would just feel like nausea around me. I think also Uncanny Valerie, I mean, you can't get much better than that. I'm not quite sure how to spell Valerie. But it's really early here. You're in New York. Right?
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Yeah.
MICHAEL STIPE: And I'm in Germany. And it's really early your time. Thank you for getting up early.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Thank you for being in Germany in a hotel.
MICHAEL STIPE: We're actually on this conversation to talk about mostly about activism, but then also about art and stuff like that. Let's get started with how we met. We met through your mom [Patti Smith], when you were very young. And very shy.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: I was 7 or 8 and I only saw you as someone inside the television. It was the first time I ever saw a person in real life that I had only seen on TV, so it was very frightening.
MICHAEL STIPE: I remember how frightened you were. I mean, that's kind of interesting, because I have a godson who I've never met because he was born under lockdown. And I think he thinks that I don't have a smell. And I don't have three dimensions. I only exist on Zoom, and on FaceTime. And he responds beautifully to myself and to Thomas — we're dual godfathers — on a flat, backlit reality level, but I don't know what his response is going to be when I meet him in person and he figures out that one, I'm three dimensional; two, I exist in the same world that he exists and not just in a box that's backlit; and three, I have a smell. I have all these human traits that he might not have attributed to me. Do you think that you got a head start by meeting me at such an early age and figuring out what it's like when someone jumps out of the box?
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Yeah, I think it took me a little while. My brother had to take you into the into the basement so I could go up to bed because I was so afraid.
MICHAEL STIPE: I remember.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: I think that's just so wild to imagine, because we're family and you're such a part of our life and our family and work, and everything is so deeply interconnected. I can't imagine anything in our lives without you. So it's funny to think that it started with being afraid that you were three dimensional.
"I think that's just so wild to imagine, because we're family and you're such a part of our life and our family and work, and everything is so deeply interconnected. I can't imagine anything in our lives without you. So it's funny to think that it started with being afraid that you were three dimensional." - Jesse Paris Smith
MICHAEL STIPE: I'm glad that I'm three dimensional, two dimensional to each other today. But that's okay.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Here we are back to the original! I prefer the real thing.
MICHAEL STIPE: Yeah, me too. I can't wait to get back to New York and give you a giant hug.
You and Becky started an organization, you became this incredible activist. Kind of undercover became this incredible activist. You and Becky started something incredible with Pathway to Paris. Can you talk about that?
JESSE PARIS SMITH: We started Pathway to Paris in 2014. In response to the People's Climate March that happened here in New York, the biggest climate march in history. There were 400,000 people in New York City. It was such an exciting, amazing, momentous day in the climate movement. But we didn't see that there was any cultural event, music event, or concert, or celebration tied to it.
So we put together this concert 2014. And it just started out as a single concert that evolved into a concert series for a year leading up to UN Climate Change Conference (COP21).
Then just over time, it developed into a nonprofit and a lot of different initiatives and concerts and festivals around the world and virtually. You've been a contributor; the last seven years you performed at our events, and so many online things and ritual events and initiatives. But no matter where Pathway to Paris evolves to, no matter how it goes, you are always going to be the very, very, very first person to participate at all. At our very first event the first speaker was Bill McKibben and you introduced him. So it's been seven years, and in those seven years, you were the first person to do anything. You're the first person on stage, the first word spoken in anything related to Pathway to Paris was from you. And I feel like that is such an amazing blessing that even if we go on for 30 years, you'll always be the very first person and I think that's super special.
MICHAEL STIPE: I'm so honored. I'm really honored, Jesse. I didn't realize that at the time. In fact, you asked me to introduce Bill McKibben and I know him from his work, of course, but I'd never met him and I didn't know his smell. I didn't know him more than as a two-dimensional character.
But, man, some of the people that I've met through Pathway, it's incredible ... You and Becky both wear a bunch of different hats, right? You're not just activists, you're not just musicians, you do so many different things, you've introduced me to so many people that I would have never had the opportunity to be in the same room with much less meet and converse and exchange ideas with had it not been for Pathway for Paris. So thank you for including me. And thank you for the honor of being the first person to ever utter a word in the name of Pathway to Paris.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Thank you. One of my favorite things is the mutual respect between the speakers and musicians. And oftentimes, the musicians are like, “Oh, what am I doing here?” And amazing writers and global thinkers on stage [are thinking], "What am I doing here with this amazing musician that's here.” There's just so much mutual admiration. And then we see lots of collaborations and partnerships continue after my events. That makes us very happy.
"In those seven years, you were the first person to do anything. You're the first person on stage, the first word spoken in anything related to Pathway to Paris was from you. And I feel like that is such an amazing blessing that even if we go on for 30 years, you'll always be the very first person and I think that's super special." - Jesse Paris Smith
MICHAEL STIPE: With climate change, with this global issue that will be a part of our lives for the rest of my life, and probably yours as well, we each are able to recognize that it is within our capacity and our ability [to help]. I can do something to help, I can do something to educate myself, I can do something to help others to educate themselves, or to push them into different ways of thinking or debating or conversing or, or even, if need be, compromising our ideas in order to find a way forward.
In a way, whether we're an academic writer; whether we're an environmental writer, like Bill; a musician, like myself; an artist, like you; a musician, like you; all of us have some contribution that we can make, even if it's in a very small way, in our daily lives, but also in amongst each other.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Yeah, definitely. And it's another thing that I really like to focus on is each of us, like you said, have platforms and resources and audiences and communities and skills that can all be put to use. Every single person that we speak to, whether it's a schoolteacher in a small town, or it's a world recognized artist, every single person has a role, they just need to identify how they can be part of it and find people that they can work with. You don't need to be good at everything and connected to everything. But if five people get together, and they each have different skills and different things to offer together, they can do amazing things. So yes, definitely, every single person. We all have our role in our own unique platform.
MICHAEL STIPE: Would you say that climate change and the environment is the number one political issue? As an activist, would you say that that's your number one issue?
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Yeah, the climate crisis is kind of like the overarching umbrella that includes all these different things like racial justice and gender inequality and indigenous rights and poverty. They're all interlinked, and they can't really be spoken to separately — they all need to be spoken to together. And as we make super ambitious climate action plans [we need] to include all of those things, and all of those things will get worse if the climate crisis gets worse.
So they're all super interlinked. But the climate crisis is on top of them in a way because it's about our shared home. If we don't have a shared home, then we can't really work on everything. So yeah, it's the overarching umbrella that is the most critical issue of our time. But it has to include and it does include all these other things.
" With climate change, with this global issue that will be a part of our lives for the rest of my life, and probably yours as well, we each are able to recognize that it is within our capacity and our ability [to help]. I can do something to help, I can do something to educate myself, I can do something to help others to educate themselves, or to push them into different ways of thinking or debating or conversing or, or even, if need be, compromising our ideas in order to find a way forward." -Michael Stipe
MICHAEL STIPE: Yes, these other intersecting issues and things that are of concern that all of us need to listen to, address and look at. What do you think about people that are suggesting that we just find another planet to move to?
JESSE PARIS SMITH: That's really good. Like, let's just trash this house, leave it, then we find this other house to live in. That's nice. We don't even know if we can live in this other house? What are you talking about? Do you even know if it's for sale? It's ridiculous.
MICHAEL STIPE: Also, if we can take that a little bit further, how many skills does it take to actually build a house? And how much human history did it take for us to figure out like, you know, indoor plumbing, and electricity and lights or, you know, how to get a door that locks and how to make glass for windows so that we can see outside and figure out it's a beautiful day to garden. We're presuming that there's other houses that are completely set up for us. And that's a giant presumption, I think it's kind of ludicrous.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: We would just go to another planet and then continue to do things as we do and not change our behaviors or ways of doing things first. We'll just go to another planet and do all the same stuff that we did over here.
MICHAEL STIPE: You know I love science fiction and I love science fiction movies. I think Sigourney Weaver was the first female power, like load the bitch into space. And ever since Alien, one of my favorite genres is “put a bunch of people in a spaceship and make something go wrong" because it's always going to go wrong stuck up there and they have to figure it out. But imagining that as a way forward for humanity just seems the dumbest thing on earth. And, you don't have to be a hyper smart academic thinker to realize that there's not a whole lot of smart in that.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: No, it's not a sustainable solution. We have enough problems between states and countries right now.
MICHAEL STIPE: What are the main messages that you guys are sending out to people in terms of what they can do as individuals?
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Right now, we are really focused on COP26, which is happening in Glasgow in November. A lot of our focus has been transitioned back to being in person and bringing as much attention as possible to COP26, and the opportunity to really push all of the different city mayors and country leaders to make super ambitious climate action plans and turn the Paris Agreement into reality once and for all.
That’s what we're asking everybody to focus on — sending messages to their local elected officials and their mayors and just getting involved locally in their communities as much as possible. Because the main thing about the cultural events of Pathway to Paris is to bring awareness to events that are happening in the climate movement, like COP21, The Global Climate Action Summit, Climate Week NYC. And right now, COP26 is the main focus.
We're engaging as much as possible with citizens and teachers. We're doing a lot of education stuff right now, helping teachers and professors and different institutions help get their students more involved. That's been something I've been really excited about. I just taught a class for the first time at the Queens Library, a social justice class, and did an activism course with them — they did awesome homework, they wrote letters to the to the Mayor's Office of Sustainability, it's been really exciting.
MICHAEL STIPE: What about personal behavior? I noticed this is the first time I've drank bottled water in a plastic bottle in a year and a half. I was kind of proud that I didn't do that. And I also I was cooking for myself. I became basically vegan, like really digging deep, deep, deep, deep. I love vegetables and so I'm very vegetable based. Is vegan the word anymore or do you say plant-based? I like fermented foods a lot. I was macrobiotic in the 1980s for a long time; I learned a lot about Japanese cooking and all the fermented soybean products, so I use those a lot. And pickles. I love pickles. I pickled my own stuff before. I'm an old hippie from way back. Just disguised as a punk rocker disguised as a pop star.
"I'm an old hippie from way back. Just disguised as a punk rocker disguised as a pop star." - Michael Stipe
JESSE PARIS SMITH: I think the way that we survive, in the way Patrick Harris is optimistic, is just constantly focusing on solutions and ideas and tangible actions. How can you think about this stuff every single day? And how can you do this work? It's going to get draining, exhausting, heavy and dark. But if you focus on not just sharing the doom and the gloom and the terrible statistics, if you also offer solutions and focus on collaborating and coming up with ideas, then then you're able to feel optimistic. So solutions keep me feeling optimistic and hopeful.
MICHAEL STIPE: And looking to the future. That made me think about all the different types of people that Pathway is involved with. I was thinking about Olafur Eliasson and The Little Sun, it’s a beautiful solution to Sub Saharan Africa not having electricity or a grid that works regularly, and offering a very simple solar-based light solution for people that have to spend their evenings in the dark.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: I love The Little Sun Foundation. It's such a simple tool, but it's helped countless people.They have these amazing projects for places far away from city resources that have been hit by a climate disaster and they don't have energy supply. They just send them these Little Suns. And they do so much great work for education and teaching students and communities about renewable energy. I love them, they’re great.
MICHAEL STIPE: I had really, really intense dreams last night. And that happens quite often when I'm traveling. I'll wake up and I go back to sleep, and then there'll be really vivid, incredible dreams, but most of my dreams are set in the future. There's always a ton of water, a ton of water. It's like the whole planet is covered in water. And, you know, we kind of exist right at the edge of it all the time.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Do you think that's a prediction of climate flooding?
MICHAEL STIPE: I don't know what world I go in my dreams. But I know it's a future. It's always kind of post-apocalyptic. But the really good news is that it's not scary, it's never nightmares, there's always a solution. There's always a way to figure it out and get where you need to go.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: I don't know if you've ever seen the animal spirit cards? They're these helpful, thought-provoking cards to help you figure out different things in your life. And I like them a lot. I always pull them out on my birthday.
For a few years in a row, I kept getting this moth card — the card of unfinished projects, of flitting around from thing to thing and not finishing projects, not seeing things to fruition, not staying with things to the end, and just moving on to something before it's done. And I was doing that so much, I bought this moth and put it on my shelf as a constant reminder to finish things and get them done and not get distracted or get excited about something else and move on too quickly. I see the moth and say, ”Okay, I'm going to finish, I’m going to stick to this until it's done.”
MICHAEL STIPE: I think one of the things that age provides, as we get older, is wisdom. And one of the main tenants of that is the ability to prioritize, and to recognize this, this, these are all the distractions, these are all the things that are in my life.
"I think one of the things that age provides, as we get older, is wisdom. And one of the main tenants of that is the ability to prioritize, and to recognize this, this, these are all the distractions, these are all the things that are in my life" - Michael Stipe
And when we bring ourselves back to climate change and to the importance of addressing that, especially having moved through the last year of lockdown and seeing how much we are able to change when we need to, it's a necessity. We really can pull things together.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: I love these cards; I'm just remembering that I didn't do it this year ... I just had a birthday, Sunday, that I didn't do my cards, I have to do them.
MICHAEL STIPE: The cards are right there? Let's do it. Let's do a little game and we can we can end with this.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Oh my gosh. I can't believe this. Okay, ready. The oyster: patient secret keeper hiding inner treasures. The focus and determination of the oyster is unmatched. Anything an oyster personality puts their mind to they achieve with grace and charm. The only problem is, oyster types often take their inner gifts for granted. They become shy or doubtful. And this can lead to withdrawing or protecting their deepest desires and life's work. When the oyster card appears it's important to reveal your inner treasures. What is it that you've been hesitant to share? The world is waiting to see. When in balance feels blessed, generous, masterful; when out of balance feels reluctant, gripping, clamps up to bring into balance ... share something!
MICHAEL STIPE: That's the best card. I almost just want to end there. I don't think I need a card pulled from me. Maybe this is our card. I want to bask in the glow of the oyster card.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: That couldn't be more perfect. We were just talking about the moth and how it's fluttering around and unfocused and not finishing and not knowing your priorities. And this is the stuff, isn’t it?
MICHAEL STIPE: There's the Libra, there's the scale balancing everything right. That's so beautiful. Maybe we should get oyster tattoos together. What do you say?
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Let’s do it! I would love it! I'm so happy!
MICHAEL STIPE: That felt very good and natural. Right? Jesse did you like all of it?
JESSE PARIS SMITH: The balance of work-life stuff, like wisdoms and little pearls of wisdom for people to take into their own lives. I think it's good. Encouraging. Funny.
MICHAEL STIPE: I felt good about it too. Yeah, I haven't laughed that much in an interview. I can't believe it. And then I just suggested we get tattoos together. Alright, well, my love. Love to you, Jess. And I'll talk to you soon. Keep in text, okay.
JESSE PARIS SMITH: Love to you. Okay. Bye.
Jesse Paris Smith photos: Zoe Adlersberg
Michael Stipe photos: David Belisle