After eight studio albums with approximately 27 million copies sold worldwide, two Grammys, one Oscar and one successful battle with breast cancer, it would be understandable if Melissa Etheridge wanted to hang up her guitar. But the 46-year-old rock star is about to release her ninth album, The Awakening, a personal and political journey that will be available on Sept. 25.
Framed by interludes that often sound like calls to spiritual enlightenment, The Awakening traces Etheridge's experiences from growing up in the Midwest to traveling to California in search of her Hollywood dream, to finding joy in love with her wife, Tammy Lynn Etheridge. The last four songs on the album, which segue seamlessly into each other, exhort listeners to wake up and make a change in the world — political anthems that actually work because of their sincerity and their big, arena-friendly sound.
But though Etheridge has become successful enough to justify globe-trotting tours in huge venues, she remains down-to-earth and committed to the causes she believes in. When I talked with her last month, she called me herself and started off by saying that she's a fan of AfterEllen.com and has been visiting it for some time.
"I just love how it's grown," she said. "Tammy turned me on to it years ago. She's like, 'Now, there's someone who gets me.'"
Before we talked about her new album and her body of activist work — her Oscar-winning song for Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth; her support for Dennis Kucinich — I asked her whether Tammy was planning to get back into acting anytime soon.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm holding her hostage from the rest of the world, this incredible talent," Etheridge began, "and every night in the bathtub I get this performance of just her talking about her day, which is one of the most entertaining things in the world, and I always feel bad because everyone … should just be seeing my incredible wife."
Then Etheridge said: "Yes. She will return. She loves being a mother. It is her calling. She's a mother of twins, you know, which is huge! And it's constant, and it's relentless, and it doesn't let up. It's constant love and it's wonderful, but … it takes her everything she can just to get away for a half hour and try to write a blog."
Tammy's blog, Hollywood Farm Girl, caught some heat from the New York Post recently when she ranted against the Bush administration. "Her blog is keeping her sane right now," Etheridge said. "I think that … when she feels like the kids are old enough and she can put some time into something else, she's gonna just take off.
"And I mean, it's not just me as her wife saying this," Etheridge added, "but ask any of her friends and anyone who's ever worked with her. … Someday soon she will be able to put her time into the right project, the right thing, and everyone is just going to see how incredible she is."
AfterEllen.com: Let me ask you a bit about your new album. I thought it was really interesting because this is clearly a very, very spiritual album. How would you describe your spiritual practice these days?
Melissa Etheridge: Mmm. Well that's been my journey and my joy, is finding that spiritual practice, and what I have found is that every single moment of my life is a spiritual practice.
My spirituality is not something I go to once a week. It's with me every moment, and once I let that in, once I got that and really understood it on a cellular level, there's immense joy and freedom there — just, just incredible, and it took a disease. It took a face-to-face with my mortality to get me there, but wow, it's a great place to be.
AE: A lot of your earlier songs, the really big hits, "Come to My Window," stuff like that, they're often about frustrated desire, which is something a lot of people can relate to. [Laughs.]
ME: Oh, yeah. Why do you think I sold 6 million of those records?
AE: Are worried that — because of the spiritual aspect of this album — people might not get it?
ME: I know that some people might not get it. Some people might just like some of the music. Some people might get it on a very surface way: "Oh OK, I get what she's talking about."
You know, it will be a very different experience for everyone, and that's OK. It's like a book. It's there to read, and if you want to read it and understand — you will get what you want to out of it. It's like a painting. You look at it, if it moves you, it's up to you how you're going to take it in.