“What did we ever know at 23 about what we really want?”
Melissa Etheridge was 27 when her self-titled debut album came out in 1988, winning her her first Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance on single “Bring Me Some Water.” Twenty six years later, the out musician is singing about youthful naiveté on her new track, “Take My Number,” and flashing back to early moments of her career in the video. Despite having lived a lot of life in these two and a half decades—including three long-time relationships that produced four children, a fight with breast cancer, an Academy Award and another Grammy, plus multiple nominations, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—Melissa Etheridge still has a familiarity in her music that has kept fans interested in every single album. And there have been many—15 including a Christmas album and Greatest Hits collection—each focusing on the current goings-on in her life that inspire her memoirish musings but also keeping the spirit of her stylized brand of rock and roll.
Melissa’s new album, This is M.E., is a departure for her in a few different ways. First, she’s left Island Records for the first time since signing with the major label. She’s released her new effort on her own, independent of any label at all and instead signed with a new management company, Primary Wave Music, and went to distributors herself.
“I feel more connected to it,” Melissa said. “Before it was kind of this big mechanism—this big machine that, through Universal, got put out as part of the big alien monster that delivered music to the world. Doing it independently and small like this—you know I went to the Target people, I went to the Best Buy people—I went to all these different places of where it’s being presented and sold and it just feels like—it’s much more personal and because the album is much more personal—not just the production but the making of the album. But from every perspective—the way it looks, the way it’s coming out. I’m more involved with this album than any I have ever put out.”
This is M.E. is also the first time Melissa has collaborated with other writers, including Jon Levine, Jerry Wonda and Roccstar.
“They’ve always been just musical—rhythm or a chord progression or something,” Melissa said. “I’ve never collaborated on lyrics before.”
She said that not every song made the album, as some collaborations didn’t end up working as well as she’d liked. But she credits some of the other songwriters for pushing her in new directions, a benefit to opening herself up to these kinds of musical partnerships.
“I know there’s tons of people that wanted to collaborate but this is the first time I wanted to and said ‘Alright—store’s open. I’m interested. What experience have you got?'” Melissa said. “And some of the experiences did not work—some of them were interesting and fun but the result was OK. And what’s on the album are just the best results of collaboration whether it was musical — which like Jon Levine and Jerry Wonda which was musical — or the only lyrics I collaborated with was Angela Hunt on ‘Do it Again.’ What they did was they actually found a part of me that I wouldn’t have allowed myself to sing like that. ‘Do it Again’ was a melody that I would not have given myself in a way of singing. Angela, she really pulled it out of me. I would edit myself: ‘No I need to do that again.’ She’d say ‘No that’s perfect.’ It was really the kind of collaboration that was a growing experience for me. I really enjoyed it.”
There are still songs that were explicitly written by Melissa, though, including “Who Are You Waiting For,” which she wrote and performed for her wedding with television producer and writer Linda Wallem.
“I actually had a discussion with her because I wasn’t going to even record the song and my producer, Jon Levine, asked if I had any more songs,” Melissa said, “and so I had a little guitar demo of that and I thought, ‘Oh you know, I’m going to just send this song. It’s just a sweet thing.’ And he wrote back, ‘Oh my god, It’s such a great song! We have to record it!’ So I, even when I recorded it, I said, ‘Honey, this doesn’t have to go on the album. This can be just something we have.’ And [Linda] said, ‘No, I’m so proud!” It just makes her so happy to share the feeling with the world. And I thought, ‘That’s sweet. I will.'”
Melissa says she appreciates her wife’s talent as a “creative entity,” and that Linda has been a helpful reminder to stay true to herself in a process that has been opened up to other opinions along the way.
“The most she’ll ever give is, ‘Is that what you want?” Melissa said. “Making sure that I’m giving myself all that I can—like I’m not cutting myself off like, ‘They must be right. I’m wrong.’ She hates when I don’t do what I think is the best. That’s the most guidance she’ll give me is to trust myself.”
Linda would hear some of the songs from their beginning stages, Melissa said, and other times she’d come to hear them when Melissa came home from the studio.
“She’s really close to ‘Monster’ and ‘Do it Again’ because she was there for the beginning of them and saw them grow. The others, I’d come home and say, ‘Listen to this,'” Melissa said. “Sometimes I would be in the room with her when I was writing. I really hold her opinion as very pure and, fortunately, she is quite a fan.”
Melissa sees this kind of songwriting as more necessary in today’s music business, likening it to the film industry.
“That’s the way music is now because it’s crashed so hard, there’s not this big money up front,” she said. “And so collaboration is necessary—it’s also a financial necessity. And so I’m learning, ‘OK I’ll give a take at this.'” She joked that she could still, at any time, go off on a cabin and write another album all by herself. “I can do that too, but who knows?”
At this point in her career, Melissa is fearless, and rightfully so. As a bonafide musical legend and gay icon, she’s used her name and status for the awareness of breast cancer, environmental issues and LGBTQ human rights. This kind of work inspires songs like “Monster” off her new CD. It started with a very “swampy” melody and rhythm that had her wanting to create an anthem.
“I thought, ‘This is something I want to stand in front of the crowd and just raising our hands above our heads and singing to it,” Melissa said. “I got to go to the United Nations and that was when they were doing a forum on LGBT people in sports all around the world and it was really—Jason Collins was there, Martina Navratilova—it was very moving. And so i went there and it was a very moving—it was the first time the United Nations were acknowledging that LGBT rights were human rights. And it was just a really beautiful thing to be there and step up on the international stage and say, ‘You have to stop telling us—this has to change.’ And so when I left the UN, right out front of the UN there is a statue and it’s made out of all these war tanks and bombs and metal scraps from war, and it’s like St. Michael slaying the dragon. It’s this big monster, this really powerful sculpture thing that’s out in front of the UN and I just thought ‘Monster. People think I’m a monster.’ It’s taken the LGBT community this long to get in front of the United Nations, you know? And worth seeing.
“So I started thinking,’ she continued, “‘Wait a minute. I’m a monster, and everybody’s so afraid of me —but I want to celebrate that. No matter what.’ It’s not LGBT exclusive. It’s anybody that’s ever been looked at in fear and been shunned or made to feel different. Grab that—oh yeah? Well I’m just full of desire! I don’t mean to devastate. I must be really awesome—everybody’s so afraid of me.”
The perk of going it alone now, Melissa said, is not having to get the approval of a record company. Instead she can take her songs and ask for the opinions of those she loves and trusts.
“I actually was very blessed in my career,” Melissa said. “I’ve always been able to be trusted. Island Records always gave me the ‘You got it.” I mean they always gave me their opinion, but they never would assume but they had any say-so over me or the content on the album. Even with that, they did—in 2003—brought me song that I didn’t write and asked if I would put that on the album. That was the only time I ever acquiesced to a record company. It gave me cancer as far as I’m concerned. [laughs] I was miserable after that. That was a weak part in my life. I will never do that again. And knowing that I didn’t even have to get anyone’s opinion on this at all, I loved getting the opinion of my management and really listening to a lot of close people around me. I got that sort of support. People that wouldn’t just say yes and be a yes person but really listen to it and say, for whatever reason, what’s clearer or better.”
What’s most clear from This is M.E. is that Melissa has, truly, been lucky in her career. Her music is undeniably hers, and that translates both in recordings and live on stage, the latter being where she truly finds her footing.
“The songwriting—you have to listen to that editor in your head going, ‘This is crap—what are you doing? You don’t know anything!'” Melissa said. “You’ve gotta get through that, you gotta do the work and it’s very lonely. It’s very exciting but it can be very scary and lonely. On the stage, that’s just perfection. That’s just pure perfection.”
With so a huge repertoire to choose from when she’s on the road, Melissa said she’s learned that she can’t make everyone happy, so it’s all about finding what gives her the most joy when she’s on stage with her guitar.
“The most important thing is to make myself happy, and trust that if I’m using that compass, if I’m using that meter that’s what my fans are trusting, is my own joy of my music. And they want to join me in it. Every time I start ‘I’m the Only One,’ every time I start ‘Come to My Window,’ I’m having a good time. I’m enjoying it. And that’s my guideline. I want to start ‘Monster’ and go, ‘Yeah, I’m having a good time. Come with me!’ I want to feel that way. That’s the criteria for a show. Every song I’m picturing playing this and starting a song and having people happy that I’m playing the song.”
That kind of shared energy is just another way Melissa finds to connect with fans, who seem to be a very diehard bunch. The album artwork for This is M.E. is a collaboration of sorts, too, as it is made up of fan photos that were made into a large photo of Melissa and a microphone.
“I asked them to send in a photo of themselves, and we’ve got thousands of photos,” Melissa said. “They digitally went through and picked out the ones that fit the color schemes of the pictures and put it all together and then there was this little video thing where you could go on and find your picture and flag it once you found your picture on the website.”
“It’s very empowering,” she said. “It’s the reason I could release my album independently this year. if I didn’t have that instant connection with the fans I would not be able to do this. It’s social media that’s enabled me to become more of an entrepreneur and be in more control of my career. And for that I”m just so grateful.”
This is M.E. is available today.