With a career spanning more than two decades, Melissa Etheridge has proved not only her musical staying power, but her ability to function under public scrutiny. An out lesbian in those dark, BeforeEllen days, Etheridge surfed career highs and survived personal lows, all while maintaining an every-woman candor about her evolution. Now touring in support of her twelfth album, 4th Street Feeling, Etheridge called to discuss everything from Taylor Swift to her newfound capacity for acceptance.
Photo by C Flanigan/Getty
AE: The beginning of an interview always seems the most awkward. It’s like, “Hey person I’ve never met, let me field a bunch of personal questions about myself.”
Melissa Etheridge: I’m actually better at talking to stranger than I am sometimes with the people I know very well.
AE: Why do you think that is?
ME: Because there’s a safety on the phone. I might never, ever meet you, might never see you. It’s sort of like therapy; there’s no price to pay.
AE: They say writers are influenced by the geography of their youth. That seems true for you considering not only your new album, 4th Street Feeling, but also your prior work. Can you talk a little about how your music has been influenced by the geography, the landscape, of your youth?
ME: I’m a Kansas girl. Once you’re raised in that social setting, that stays with you. The ethics: work hard, be nice, do your part. You are what you present. I take that midwestern work ethic with me everywhere. 4th Street Feeling is born from that root, those memories of that small town in Kansas, coming from there with big dreams. From the dark side of it — “Shadow of a Black Crow” or even “Kansas City,” to the light side, “4th Street Feeling” — it’s all on this album.
AE: What song of yours, the writing of which, taught you the most about songwriting?
ME: You know, I learn most when I give [songs] to the public. “Come to My Window” — I almost didn’t put that on the album. I thought it was too simple, that I wasn’t really explaining myself that well. But then friends were like, “No, it’s a great song — put it on.” And I’m glad I did. So that song taught me to be open to simplicity, that sometimes simplicity can be powerful, that less words are more.
AE: Can you talk a little about how the passion in early songs like “Bring Me Some Water” and “Meet Me in the Back,” evolved into the fuller picture of passion rooted in friendship in “Rock and Roll Me?”
ME: Right, because we’re talking about my history of relationships in general and my maturity in relationships. Where “Bring me Some Water” is an angry plea, it’s, “Aren’t I good enough? Come on, here I am in this non-monogamous relationship and I’m not happy” — imagine that. And over the years, “I’m the Only One” — “It’s happening to me again. What’s going on?” Finally through relationships and through my own growth process and understanding of my life and my own choices, here I am in a situation where I’m in a relationship with someone who I’ve been friends with for 10 years. We’ve got a track record of friendship-love to begin with. Then to bring that closer was just really natural and a beautiful thing. It’s the most supportive, healthy relationship I’ve ever been in, so I’m not surprised that my music is reflecting that.
Melissa Etheridge and Linda Wallem
Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty
AE: I feel like this is an apropos question given what we’ve been saying, was there anything you fiercely believed at 20 or 30 that you now know is false?
ME: Oh, that I could fix someone. That I could bring them happiness. That I could take some of my light and shine it on them. That’s false. It doesn’t work. I can only take care of myself. I can only bring myself to more light and more happiness and in that then, I can inspire others, but I can never fix anyone else.
AE: Is that a liberating realization?
ME: Sometimes it’s very hard. We’re raised — especially in the midwest — to take care of other people. Other people come first. But I’ve found that’s not healthy.
AE: I’m from Wisconsin, and I can relate to some of what you’re saying. I feel like the midwestern work ethic has a place in this, too. Like if I work this hard, I’ll be able to achieve this much in a relationship, when really it’s sometimes not within your control.
ME: Exactly. If I change, if I make myself a little smaller, then the other person will be happy. And that’s just a lie. It just leads to resentment.
AE: In terms of the public’s relationship to music, technology has been a game-changer. Although an artist might conceptualize an album as a whole, now most people pick and choose songs to download. I know you’ve talked about your recent albums as being part of a trilogy, but does the public’s’ short attention span affect the way you think about your work?
ME: There’s different types of people. There’s those who just drive by and pick the hit song, and that’s all they’ll know. And that’s OK, because that’s all they want in their life. Then there are those who want to experience my vision. You know, when I get Bruce Springsteen’s record, I’m going to listen to it from beginning to end like he intended because I’m interested in his view, in his experience. His art moves me. And I know there are those out there who want to listen to my work from that perspective, so I treat my work like that for those that do.
AE: What did you think about his most recent album?
ME: As a fan, he can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. I was surprised by how dark a political stance he took on the album. Sort of a, what’s the word? An almost spiritual call to help our way of life, our America. I was surprised at how dark it was.
AE: You’ve lived a life in which you’ve had the opportunity to meet your idols. Have you had the experience of regretting getting to know the person behind the art?
ME: [Laughs] Oh, sure. There are those where you’re like, you know, I’m just going to love your work and you’re going to live as this imaginary being in my mind because you in reality doesn’t fit what I have imagined. And that’s just a fact. So many times, the art comes through and the person isn’t who you project that they are and that’s OK.
AE: Is it hard to go back to enjoying their music knowing what you know?
ME: No. I keep the music separate from the person. Because the music is a relationship I had first.
AE: By the same token, what would be surprising about you to your fans who only know you through your music and your public persona?
ME: I’m a lot more boring than I seem, than all of the things that have happened to me. I’m more quiet and I enjoy a lot of the simple things in life. I enjoy my family, my relationship, football. I’m just a midwestern girl.
AE: You’ve talked about being grateful for cancer because it gave you the opportunity to be still, something you’d previously avoided. What was so scary about stillness?
ME: Oh, just imagine! If you could do nothing for ten weeks but just sit and be with yourself. That’s scary.
AE: That sounds awful.
ME: Awful, yeah. I swear I went through my whole life about four times. You’re just going from birth till that day and after you do that, the tape kind of runs off on the left side of your brain, the working side that keeps everything in order. And it finally got quiet and the right side of my brain, which is more intuitive and creative and spiritual, really came through and went, “Look, this is what’s available to you. The left side doesn’t have to control everything. You don’t have to be doing something to be of worth or of value. Life is more about your thoughts and emotions than you know.” And that was mind blowing and earth shaking for me. And I live my life completely differently now because of that.
AE: It’s about maintaining a balance. How do you do that on the road?
ME: Oh my gosh, I have to have my own chef on the road because nutrition is so important. I keep a routine. It’s about getting enough sleep. Those basic things. By now we know how much is too much. I need to stay healthy.
AE: Which young female singers working today do you particularly admire?
ME: All these people who I love and appreciate are in my head and then once someone asks me that they pop right out. Who am I loving right now? Well, Serena Ryder because I toured with her and she’s just a blast and a hoot and I love her so much. And, you know, when I heard Taylor Swift’s new single — that crazy “We Will Never Ever Get Back Together,” whatever it is — was like “Way to go!” I was impressed with her choices. I think she’s going to surprise people and I think she’s going to be around for a long time and that makes me really happy so you know. I like me some Taylor Swift.
AE: You know, she just recently was asked about whether she was a feminist —
AE: And her answer seemed to belie a lack of understanding of what feminism is. She seemed to believe feminism is about men versus women. What do you think about that?
ME: It’s the same thing that happened in the ’80s. Remember that book in the ’80s, Backlash?
AE: Yeah, of course.
ME: By Susan Faludi, yeah. It should be required reading for everyone right now. Women want to be a productive part of society, they want to contribute. I know my daughter who is 15 looks at the world and does not see it as “Men are oppressing me.” No, they see the world as a level playing field thanks to us and the work that the generation before me did. Yet the word feminist,if you ask, they’re going to go, “Oh I don’t know,” because it sounds like an angry person. I think there has to be an understanding that it’s about equality, not anger. Women are on a level playing field, we are allowed the same opportunities to succeed or fail. It’s a tricky thing where we’re at right now.
AE: Speaking about historical work changing where we are now, for the first time we have a president who has vocally acknowledged support for gay marriage but, we were just talking about backlash — there’s of course this backlash from the right. The election is in less than two weeks. Say something comforting!
ME: Say something comforting? [Laughs] Don’t worry. We are all headed in a beautiful, wonderful direction. What’s unfortunate about our elections sometimes is it magnifies our differences and our fears. And a lot of times those fears will be brought to the forefront to get a vote. I have no doubt that Barack Obama will be president another four years. It does show us the underbelly of our society and what we have to deal with and it can teach us how to be compassionate and understand that sometimes differences scare people and we just need to live our lives as well as we can to show that hey, we’re all working together despite our differences and that’s what makes America great.
AE: OK, that was comforting, thank you.
ME: There you go!