Written by Kieran Vaughn
Without hearing the actual song, most people in the southern sections of the United States could read the title of R.E.M.’s hit track and probably guess, with good accuracy, what it’s about.
After all, the phrase finds its roots in the South, and conveys the experience of going through an internal battle.
It’s a “crisis in faith,” a “struggle within the self,” and a situation where one finds themselves “pushed to their limits.”
But the subject of this internal battle can often involve another person: someone outside of the individual that’s experiencing these feelings.
R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe reflects on his lyrics:
“It is about holding back, reaching forward, and then pulling back again […] you don’t know if the person I’m reaching out for is aware of me. If they even know I exist.”
The far reaching success of the song, however, was largely a surprise to those involved… The instrumentation and catchy hook were unconventional for a lead single at the time… Warner Brothers didn’t even want to release it as a single… Upon seeing the initial version of his music video for the song, director Tarsem Singh reportedly puked… But more on that later.
Written in a Few Hours
The creation of R.E.M.’s song was, in some respects, an accident. If you’re familiar with “Losing My Religion” you’ll likely recall the relatable, catchy lyrics. The initial idea for the song, in actuality, started the mandolin. In an effort to better himself at the instrument, guitarist Peter Buck unintentionally discovered the tune while playing back recordings of his practice sessions.
From there, the rest of the song was written rather quickly. The riff and chorus sections were already captured in the mandolin incident, and the verses fell into the typical mode structure that R.E.M. apparently “used a lot,” as Buck had put it in an interview with Guitar School Magazine.
He explained that the band’s verses often go from, “one minor to another, kind of like those ‘Drive 8’ chords. You can’t really say anything bad about E minor, A minor, D, and G – I mean, they’re just good chords.”
According to Buck, the next two instruments to join the mandolin in the song’s creation proccess were the 1) electric bass and 2) drums. At this point, it had a “hollow feel to it” with “absolutely no midrange.” That’s when they brought in Peter Holsapple, their touring guitarist, to add acoustic guitar.
Buck elaborates: “It was really cool: Peter and I would be in our little booth, sweating away, and Bill [Berry] and Mike [Stipe] would be out there in the other room going at it. It just had a really magical feel.”
To Buck, the writing process was quick, a sentiment echoed by other bandmates in separate sources. Buck remembers that, after the band’s first play-through attempt, Stipe had come up with lyrics “within the hour.” One thing is clear: multiple members of R.E.M. felt that they had essentially lucked-out, captured in Buck’s explanation: “To me, ‘Losing My Religion’ feels like some kind of archetype that was floating around in space that we managed to lasso. If only all songwriting was this easy.”
Recorded in Fewer Shirts
The 2-month recording period for the song started in September of 1990 at Bearsville ‘Studio A,’ in Woodstock, NY. R.E.M. was going for a “live feel,” and both the vocal and mandolin tracks strive for this goal by being recorded in one take.
Buck further admits, “If you listen closely to the mandolin on one of the verses there’s a place where I muffled it, and I thought, well, I can’t go back and punch it up, because it’s supposed to be a live track. That was the whole idea.”
Created by Mark Bingham, the string sections were captured at Soundscape Studios by a portion of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Producer Scott Litt remembers “mixing ‘Losing My Religion’ at Paisley Park. I had Bill Berry nudging up to me and saying, ‘You know, I think the drums could be louder’, and he was spot on. The strings and the vocals are maybe more memorable, but the drums are really important.”
He recalls that even other parts of the song were doubled, like the mandolin section; hence, there was space for the final mix to be “drums boosted.” Ultimately, that became the last step in creating the
Mike Mills’ bass playing was a supposed reflection of Fleetwood Mac’s bassist John McVie, achieved by trying to imitate the “driving effect” of the latter’s playing style.
When it comes to the vocals, there’s an interesting juxtaposition of moods when comparing the writing process to the recording process. You’ll recall the sentiment from our earlier discussion about just how quickly the song came together for the band members, and how Stipe had the lyrics “within the hour.”
The vocal recordings, however, were a different ball game all-together, as explained by Stipe. Ultimately, he was surrounded by stress on multiple fronts during that day: an insanely hot and “stuffy” heat wave in New York during recording, a studio engineer that “seemed out of it,” and his personal frustration with not singing a take that met the ‘high bar’ set by his lyrics. The solution, intended or not: taking his shirt off.
It is unclear if he achieved the following feat directly after removing that piece of clothing, or whether he tried more recordings first, but ultimately: his final vocals were made in one take, just like the mandolin part.
Interestingly enough, Stipe made a comment in the liner notes of a later compilation album, ‘Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011,’ that further seems to deviate from the rest of the band’s view that they had luckily ‘lasso’d a song from the cosmos’ and captured it into a playable song.
He explains the shirtless recording experience in an almost “laid back” manner as opposed to the stressful situation that he had mentioned above in the stuffy studio, saying: “I remember that I sang this in one go with my shirt off. I don’t think any of us had any idea it would ever be … anything.”
‘Believed-In’ by Fewer Still
The varying recollections of the band members weren’t totally out of sync, however: after all, the band was supposedly “surprised” when the label chose it as the first single for the album.
Buck clarifies that even Warner Brothers wasn’t in favor of the song being a ‘single’ at all, and the acting VP of Product Management at Warner Bros. – Steven Baker – recalls “long, drawn-out discussions” about the track’s release as a single.
Critically Praised by Many
Ultimately, R.E.M. and Warner alike, did not anticipate that the song would sell over 10 million copies after its release in February 1991 — about 4 months after it had wrapped recording in October the previous year at Bear Studios in New York.
In terms of radio placement to promote the single, Warner set its sights on ‘campus,’ ‘modern rock,’ and “album-oriented rock” stations; they then moved towards American Top 40 stations, where the song “took off.”
A director of one of these Top 40 stations explained that the song was “hard to program”: “you can’t play L.L. Cool J behind it. But it’s a real pop record—you can dance to it.”
“Losing My Religion” helped shoot the following ‘Out of Time’ album to “instant” success. The song itself reached ‘Number 4’ in the US, garnered 2
Grammys in 1992 (notably for ‘Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal’), and received a number of accolades for its music video, released the same year as the single.
The initial idea for the video originated with its director, Tarsem Singh, who had just done En Vogue’s “Hold On” and Suzanne Vega’s “Tired of Sleeping.”
Based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,’ Singh’s first go at this music video featured Michael Stipe in only “seated” poses: the singer’s iconic ‘dancing’ wasn’t part of the ‘original’ idea.
While watching the playback for his video in distress, Singh reportedly removed himself and threw up in the bathroom. It was then when Stipe offered to try and dance.
While there was no direct choreography planned, a fact which is emulated in his free-flowing performance, Stipe explained that his sublime movements were derived from Sinead O’Connor in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and the performances of David Byrne’s “Once In A Lifetime.”
Of the six ‘Moonmen’ won at the MTV Video Music Awards, “Losing My Religion” notably grabbed the positions for “Video of the Year” and “Breakthrough Video.”
Of the many artists to cover the song, you may recognize names like Tori Amos, Lacuna Coil, Trivium, and Swandive. In the US, Glee Cast’s 2010 cover went to #60, and Dia Frampton’s 2011 cover reached #54.
Licensing in popular media would prove inevitable for the hit song; but its use in 2 episodes of “Beverly Hills, 90210” was particularly impressive, given that the premiere of those particular episodes were in the same year as the song’s release: 1991.
Further use would continue into the 2000’s, with shows like ‘Smallville’ in 2003, ‘Glee’ in 2010, and “Parks and Recreation in 2013,’ to name a few.