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Melissa Etheridge: Essentially Human

Melissa Etheridge on dreaming in red, her true love, and why she won’t eat meat.


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James Minchin

The first time I saw Melissa Etheridge on stage, she was lying down gyrating against her guitar, holding it like a lover. Women teetered on shrill. Someone passed out. My very straight sister looked at the throng of seething dykes, then back at Melissa, and turned to me. “OK,” she said, “I get it.”

Some 15 years later, that same unmistakable voice snakes its way down my phone line. But lately, a lot has changed for this rock deity: New album, new management, new wife.

At 54, Etheridge appears to have come full circle—from her self-titled debut album at 27 to her latest, This Is M.E. Her 12th studio release, This Is M.E. is paradoxical—it’s her first collaborative album and her first independent one. The collaborative effort does not change her songwriting—Etheridge says it was the very thing that pushed her creativity like nothing before. This Is M.E. signs off with her wedding vows to Linda Wallem, the I’ll-defy-you-not-to-be-moved “Who Are You Waiting For.”

Sensuality saturates her body of work. Her lyrics speak to the thirst for sexual love in us all—Don’t you want to get that high? Don’t you want to be satisfied? And when that love splinters—Does she know just how to shock you? Electrify and roccckkk you?—you can almost hear incisors bared, claws unsheathed. For a woman who dreams in red, this passion is hardly surprising.

In 1988, when Melissa Etheridge lit up our collective consciousness, what she really wanted was to be famous and to be loved by everyone around her. Describing a childhood where both parents were problem drinkers, she remembers her home as “emotionless.” Pointedly, she later says it is human emotion that drives her music. Her friend Rosie O’Donnell enunciated the following words in an interview a couple of years ago: “Fame is the impending, glittering disaster.”

In 2004, when Melissa Etheridge was diagnosed with cancer, what she really wanted was to get healthy and to be around for her loved ones. She considered music a pure celebration. Cancer was an unexpected, upending “gift.” Etheridge told Curve in 2007, “I touched the part we’re all trying to get to…and all it was was just being still. I just am. And I’m beautiful and amazing and powerful, and everyone is, and there’s just love.”

Etheridge was now holding mirrors up to everything. She stopped eating meat. She publically declared what the World Health Organization had said in October last year, that processed meat is a carcinogen—something that causes cancer—and it is highly probable that red meat is a carcinogen. She said, “The meats…it’s really taxing us, and that’s why we’re seeing this [cancer] epidemic.”

In the mire that is chemotherapy, battered about by the treatments, Etheridge lost her hair. Still bald, she did something that is trademark Etheridge—at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards, she strode out on stage and shared her searing version of “Piece of My Heart” by the singular Janis Joplin. Who else could possibly pull this off? At one point in her gut-felt and gravelly ode to Joplin, her vocal chords seem like a stretched elastic artery, on the precipice of tearing. More than once has Etheridge said that music is like breathing. And she sings as though her very life depends on it. Maybe it does.

 

What’s your greatest memory from making your new album?

Oh, I just had the greatest time cause it was my first independent album, so it was kind of a learning curve. I couldn’t really blame the record company for anything—I am the record company! I learned more about budget, I learned more about…just how you do things, so that was fun. And the experience of working with Jerry Wonda was one of my favorites. He was so great to me in the studio, such a great musician, so much so that I asked him to join my band. Now he and a couple of his musicians are my backing band.

If you knew that today would be your last 24 hours, what music would you listen to?

(Laughs) I’d probably listen to my own! It would be like listening to my life again, and I would probably say, “Hey, you know what? I did OK. I lived an interesting life.”

What is it about Linda that makes her the true love of your life?

Awww! You know what? What makes her the true love of my life is that she made me see that the true love of my life is myself. It was through Linda that I learned how to love myself and be good to myself and be healthy—to have a healthy relationship with myself. It was through that that I could have a healthy relationship with Linda.

When you sang your vows, was there a dry eye in the house?

Oh no, there wasn’t, including mine! That…that was really special. She is really something.

When you started out, you said that you just really wanted to be famous. Then after cancer, you said that everything was put into sharp perspective, even the way you feel about your music…

Huh. Yeah. Because it changed my life, my outlook on life, everything I think about it. It changed my writing—it just had to.

And the recent connection between cancer and eating meat doesn’t surprise you?

Oh gosh, that’s so clear to me now that I can’t understand how anyone could think it wasn’t. I’m very happy to hear that it’s being thought of now…that doctors are actually saying that now. (Laughs) I’m very happy about that.

Is there a thought you commonly have just before you go on stage?

Before I go on stage there’s a routine, and it’s very comforting. One of the things I think before I go on stage is that this is one of my favorite moments—that moment before I go on. You know, the audience knows that I’m about to come out and they’re excited. I played too many years in the bars, saying, “Hello, is this thing on?” You know? I’m always, always looking forward to that moment.

Do you play favorites with your songs and lyrics?

(Laughs) Ha ha, do I play favorites with my songs and lyrics? Yeah! I really believe that there’s nothing wrong with having hit songs, and I will play the songs that people want to hear all day long. Every night, I’m playing “Bring Me Some Water”—you bet! And also “Like the Way I Do.” Cause everybody relates to it—it’s the party and I love being the party, you know?

And are those your favorites?

No, usually the newer ones are my favorites, just because they’re the newest songs!

What was the first song that shook you to your very core?

Ohhhhhh, like, really got to me? Umm…probably hearing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” When I heard that sound, and when I heard the way he sang…it kinda messed me up. I was 9, maybe 10.

So how many breakups have inspired your songs?

(Laughs) Ha ha ha! All of them! Every single one. I would say that the songs that people know came from a certain time in my life—I bet I could safely say that there’s about (pause) five different relationships that I’ve pretty much written everything about. (Laughs) Maybe six!

What is your ultimate place to perform?

It’s not so much geographically. It’s about the people. People in different places have been amazing. I mean, I’ve had astounding shows in Sydney. I’ve had amazing shows in Amsterdam, Montreal, New York City, Chicago. It’s the audience.

Any advice you would give to your 27-year-old self?

I’d say (in a nurturing voice), “Don’t worry so much. It’s gonna be OK. It’s all gonna happen. Just take your time. Enjoy everything.”

Is there a question you’re surprised that no interviewer has ever asked you?

(Laughs) No, actually! I’ve done so many interviews, I have been asked everything. I have been asked everything you can imagine.

Such as?

Ha ha! As soon as I said that, I was like, “Don’t say that! Now’s she’s going to ask, ‘Well, like what?’ ” (Laughs) I don’t remember!

Do you dream in color?

Hmm…do I dream in color? Wow…hmm…I have memories where I go—particularly—that was red. Yeah, I have memories of red.

How would you finish the sentence “Activism is…”?

Activism is rewarding.

Does your creative process vary greatly from song to song, or album to album? I read that you completed your first album in just four days?

Yeah, yeah, that was from necessity. The record company’s president hated the record, so I went, “OK, I have four days—I think I can do this.” But that was necessity. I enjoy a little bit more time than that, but I don’t think it should take too long. I’ve never labored too hard over anything, cause I don’t think that’s good.

How did you feel when you got your “skin” tattoo?

Oh, I loved that! That was my favorite tattoo, even though I can’t see it and nobody can see it—it’s at the back of my neck and it’s in white, so it’s kinda wasted as a tattoo! But the experience. I mean, it didn’t take very long—it was like 10 minutes, maybe. But right back there at the back of your neck there’s a lot of nerve endings…that was my favorite. I loved that experience. But no plans for more. I’m not like, mmm, “More!”

Can you tell us a musician that makes you want to pick up your guitar?

Oh yeah. Oh gosh. It’s pretty much anytime I hear music! I did a binge listening of Jimi Hendrix the other day, and it was like, God! Give me my guitar! I wanna find out how he gets those sounds. So, any kind of guitar player makes me think like that.

Drive? Luck? Talent? What’s the most important ingredient in making it?

I would say drive, if that drive is just an understanding that this is a journey. You never really get there. You just have to want to keep going along the path. Otherwise, it’s going to be really hard if you don’t know that it just never stops.

What’s the quirkiest thing about you?

Ha ha! That I’m not so quirky.

And if you had to say what the main force is behind your music?

Humanness.

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