R.E.M. Reveals the Secrets Behind Their Emotionally-Charged Songs: “Losing My Religion” and “Try Not to Breathe”

Peo­ple lose their reli­gion all the time. It hap­pens in all sorts of ways. And R.E.M.’s 1991 song “Los­ing My Reli­gion” has spo­ken to so many in the midst of these expe­ri­ences that we might won­der if singer/songwriter Michael Stipe had a sim­i­lar life change when he wrote those lyrics. Not so much, he says above in an inter­view with Dutch sta­tion Top 2000 a gogo. “What the song is about has noth­ing to with reli­gion,” he says.

The lyric comes from an old South­ern col­lo­qui­al­ism mean­ing that some­thing so upset­ting has hap­pened “that you might lose your reli­gion.” Stipe used that old-time notion as a metaphor for unre­quit­ed love, a dif­fer­ent kind of faith, one he describes in painful­ly ten­ta­tive terms: “hold­ing back, then reach­ing for­ward, then pulling back again, then reach­ing for­ward again.”

He explains anoth­er of the song’s ambi­gu­i­ties hid­den with­in the ellip­ti­cal lyrics: “You don’t ever real­ly know if the per­son that I’m reach­ing out for is aware of me, if they even know that I exist.” It’s the heady tur­moil of a roman­tic crush raised to the heights of saint­ly suf­fer­ing. A brood­ing, alt-rock ver­sion of love songs like “Earth Angel.” Giv­en the role of devo­tion in so much reli­gious prac­tice, there’s no rea­son the song can’t still be about los­ing one’s reli­gion for lis­ten­ers, but now we know what Stipe him­self had in mind.

Some oth­er fun facts we learn about this huge hit: Stipe record­ed the song almost naked and kind of pissed-off—he had pushed to deliv­er his vocals in one emo­tion­al take, but the stu­dio engi­neer seemed half-asleep. And his awk­ward, angu­lar dance in the oh-so-90s video direct­ed by Tarsem Singh, above? He pulled his inspi­ra­tion from Sinead O’Connor’s St. Vitus dance in 1990s’ “The Emperor’s New Clothes” video and—no surprise—from David Byrne’s “riv­et­ing” herky-jerky moves.

While the record com­pa­ny saw the song’s mass appeal, bassist Mike Mills express­es his ini­tial sur­prise at their choice of “Los­ing My Reli­gion” as Out of Time’s first sin­gle: “That’s a great idea. It makes no sense at all, it’s 5 min­utes long, it has no cho­rus, and a man­dolin is the lead instru­ment. It’s per­fect for R.E.M. because it flouts all the rules.” This peri­od saw the band fur­ther devel­op­ing its moody down­beat folk side, yet the album that pro­duced this song also gave us “Shiny Hap­py Peo­ple,” the pop­pi­est, most upbeat song R.E.M.—and maybe any band—had ever record­ed, a true tes­ta­ment to their emo­tion­al range.

The fol­low­ing year, Auto­mat­ic for the Peo­ple came out, draw­ing on mate­r­i­al writ­ten dur­ing the Out of Time ses­sions and again fea­tur­ing two sin­gles that vast­ly con­trast­ed in tone, maudlin tear­jerk­er “Every­body Hurts” and the cel­e­bra­to­ry Andy Kauf­man trib­ute “Man on the Moon.” Anoth­er song from that album that didn’t get as much atten­tion, “Try Not to Breath,” hear­kens back to a much ear­li­er R.E.M. folk song, the Civ­il War-themed “Swan Swan H” from Life’s Rich Pageant.

As we hear the band explain above in an episode of Song Exploder, the song began its life on a Civ­il War-era instru­ment, the dul­cimer. Then its son­ic influ­ences expand­ed to include two of Peter Buck­’s favorite musi­cal gen­res, surf rock and spaghet­ti west­ern. The episode con­tains many more fas­ci­nat­ing insid­er insights from R.E.M. about “Try Not to Breathe,” which may be one of the sad­dest songs they’ve ever writ­ten, a song about choos­ing to die rather than suf­fer.

Hear the song’s orig­i­nal demo and ref­er­ences to Blade Run­ner, get a glimpse into Stipe’s visu­al song­writ­ing process, and learn the very per­son­al inspi­ra­tion from his fam­i­ly his­to­ry for lyrics like “baby don’t shiv­er now, why do you shiv­er now?” Unlike “Los­ing My Reli­gion,” this song does, in some ways, pull musi­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly from Stipe’s reli­gious back­ground.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

R.E.M.’s “Los­ing My Reli­gion” Reworked from Minor to Major Scale

Why R.E.M.’s 1991 Out of Time May Be the “Most Polit­i­cal­ly Impor­tant Album” Ever

R.E.M Plays “Radio Free Europe” on Their Nation­al Tele­vi­sion Debut on The David Let­ter­man Show (1983)

Two Very Ear­ly Con­cert Films of R.E.M., Live in ‘81 and ‘82

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Michael A. says:

    In an appar­ent­ly cir­cu­lar ref­er­ence to this song, all online sources seem to indi­cate that “los­ing my reli­gion” is an “old South­ern col­lo­qui­al­ism”… but with no pri­ma­ry ref­er­ences, except to this song. :) Well, as an old South­ern­er I’ve nev­er heard it… except in this REM song. Maybe it exists, maybe it does­n’t.. but in 60 years I’ve nev­er heard any human being except Michael Stipe utter it, and I was a South­ern Bap­tist. Man, those folks have got *lots* of reli­gion! Actu­al­ly, I was a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ed to find out that Stipe intend­ed this as a boy/girl crush song, instead of some­thing more exis­ten­tial about faith and life’s mean­ing. Oh, well… there goes anoth­er cher­ished song notion. But at least I’ve learned a (pos­si­ble) South­ern col­lo­qual­ism!

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