Even after all Melissa Etheridge has accomplished as a legendary rock singer-songwriter, there still are music critics who claim her trademark raspy vocals can go from passionate to histrionic when she really gets going.
Truth is that when you have that much passion and belief in who you are, what you want, what you will sacrifice to get there as an artist, it simply doesn’t much matter what others think.
The Leavenworth, Kansas, native has crafted her musical success out of her unquenchable thirst for confessional and anthemic rock songs. She has persevered through much and still is as relevant today as when she began close to 30 years ago.
From her groundbreaking early releases, the eponymous debut effort in 1988 (featuring her first single, “Bring Me Some Water”), Brave and Crazy in 1989, Never Enough in 1992, and the six-time platinum Yes I Am, Etheridge became an immediate star. Six Grammy nominations would come in her first seven years, from which came two wins.
Her 2007 song “I Need to Wake Up,” featured in the Al Gore global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, garnered her an Academy Award for Best Song.
She began advocating for gay rights in 1993 following her support of Bill Clinton's campaign for president. Her well-publicized relationship with Julie Cypher would make news before, during, and after Cypher gave birth to two children, Bailey Jean in 1997 and Beckett in 1998. Cypher and Etheridge separated in 2001 and now share custody of the two children. The father was none other than veteran rocker David Crosby. Etheridge bounced back and began a relationship with actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, with whom she would share a commitment ceremony in 2003. Michaels gave birth to twins, Miller Steven and Johnnie Rose in 2006. Their nine-year relationship ended in 2009.
In 2004, nearly eight months after the release of her eighth album Lucky, which was dedicated to 9/11 victims, Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer. She lost her recognizable locks during chemotherapy, and the medical marijuana she had used through her rehabilitation became a regular part of her life.
Etheridge took reinvented herself in late 2014 with her 12th studio album, This Is M.E. She decided to venture out on her own as an independent artist after having recorded for Island Records since her 1988 debut. With the help of management company Primary Waves Records, she took the reins of both the music and business sides of her career.
She worked with some up-and-coming musical producers to give her a new approach, including Jerrod Bettis (Adele and One Republic), Jon Levine (Nelly Furtado and Selena Gomez), Jerry Wonda (Fugees), and Roccstar (Usher).
From the infectious, flirtatious offering of “Take My Number” to the Delta bluesy “Stranger Road,” “Monster,” and “All the Way Home,” Etheridge expanded her rock roots with power balladry.
The most heartfelt number on the new album, directly inspired by Etheridge’s wife, TV producer Linda Wallem, is a tearjerking vow/pledge, “Who Are You Waiting For.” She unveiled the song for Wallem on the day they married last year, four months before the song and album were released in September. The album peaked at number 15 on the Billboard Top 200 and number five on the Top Rock chart.
This past June, she released a live album titled A Little Bit of Me: Live In L.A., which was recorded in December 2014 at the closing show of the U.S. leg of her This Is M.E. tour.
New Times spoke with the 15-time Grammy-nominated rocker, who is scheduled to perform Friday, November 13, at Wild Horse Pass Ovations Theatre. Etheridge opened up about stepping outside of artistic complacency, marriage and family, keeping the passion of performing, and what brings her joy.
New Times: No one could ever mistake you as someone who plays it safe, but after all this time what made you decide to change it up and risk it all?
Melissa Etheridge: I think one gets comfortable and, you know, change is scary. When I step back, and when I got new management, I didn’t want to be complacent anymore. I didn’t just want to be fine with where I was. Life is about creating; life is about moving and doing things, and just going somewhere. And I wanted that, so I wanted to surround myself with people who wanted that, too.
There are so many facets to being Melissa Etheridge — the musician, the advocate, the philanthropist, the cancer survivor. Is it hard to separate all those things? Are all they all interlinked?
It all comes from the same place. It comes from the arts, a place of beauty, and I don’t seek these things out as I’ve walked this path. I mean, 25 years ago, activism wasn’t a part of my conversation. I wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to be famous, end of story. That was my goal, and along the way, life happens.
You have walked a long path toward equality of gay people, came out when it was not cool to do so for fear of derailing your young, promising career. What was the turning point?
Coming out was not something I thought about when I first started. Nobody did that. It ended your career [people thought]. So, as my path led me on, I was like, "Wow, I want to come out. It’s important for me. I want to be honest about who I am." And then I was out to everybody who knew me. It was just this step publicly, and then when I did that, I became an advocate.
The media portrays the sexual orientation of celebrities such as Caitlin Jenner in such a freak sideshow light. Despite this, are people such as Jenner truly furthering the cause for transgender people, almost in the same way as what gays have had to battle through?
Yeah. I remember when we were coming out as gay, people were like, "Just do what you want; I just don’t want to see it. I don’t want to know about it." Yet, it’s the seeing of it that is the normalization of it. That takes violence out of it. It takes fear away from it. That’s why the gay movement happened and marriage [for gays] could happen — because people came out.
You and Linda have been married for nearly a year and a half, and gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states. Looking back, how satisfying is it to not have to fight that battle any longer and just enjoy life with a spouse?
I love my wife so much. She’s the best thing that has ever happened to me. And it’s so funny because she was my best friend. When she was first like, "Yeah, well maybe you and I . . .,’ I said, "No, it would ruin our friendship," and it was the only one I had. And she was like, "I was just kidding." I told her, "Why don’t you come live with me because I’m a single mom?" And she was like, "Okay, well, that’s weird." And I realized I was getting what I always wanted from my other relationships — without the fun part — and I said, "Why am I denying myself the fun part?" And then I just fell in love with her.
Your children are musically inclined and have grown up around music, touring, and life on the road. Are they following in your footsteps?
Each of them though has their own truth path. But they also see the other side of this business. They see the hard work, the very hard work. There is no glamour involved in this. They have other dreams of other things.
What is the single most important lesson you have tried to and continue to teach them?
To be yourself. To not blame anyone else in the world, to know that you have all the power, and that you can do anything that you desire. It’s all there for you. It’s just a journey now. Take it one step at a time and just enjoy your life.
With all the aspects of the job of being Melissa Etheridge the entertainer, businesswoman, advocate, mom, and spouse, how do you keep the passion in being the performer?
It’s very important to keep the passion inside of me alive, and I love music. Five years ago, I said, "I need to challenge myself more," so I challenged myself to be a better guitar player. I keep those things in front of me to keep that passion alive.
And as performing goes, do you ever tire of performing the hits?
Maybe I’ve sung “Come To My Window" five millions times, but that person [who] has never heard me sing it live and for them, this is their moment, and they’re going to love it because that’s been their favorite song. And that brings me joy.
You have shown a great deal of gratitude for your fans. Were there any life lessons you gained along the way to encourage you to never taking the fans for granted?
My father would tell me, "Missy, people don’t have to come see you, so you be sure to be very grateful and thank your audience, and know that because of them, you are able to do this." I’ve always held that, and I’ve always just thought, "Okay, if I do what I love, than what am I gonna complain about?"
Many a musician has been told by fans that a specific song is either their favorite, got them through a hard time, or in some cases saved their life. What saved Melissa Etheridge’s life?
My spirit has always been strong. And whether that came from my parents, whether that came from myself, or I was just born with it, I don’t know. I’ve always had this belief that I could do these things, and I would enjoy doing these things. So this bottom line of understanding is that joy is the ultimate goal here, and when I understand my own power, that leads me to joy.
You have never allowed anyone to dictate to you how to live your life. Is it fair to say that you simply do what you feel is right in your own heart?
There are so many turning points in my life: cancer, discovering plant medicine, and all these things that are helping me. It’s just a constant journey, and we never get it done. And we never get it wrong. We just do it, and we just roll along. And how we feel when we’re doing it is up to us.
At the end of the day, can you point to one common thread that has allowed — and continues to allow — you to be proud of what you do, aside from all of the success?
I am most proud that I have shown that when you walk in your own power, in your own truth, unapologetically, unashamed, that you succeed and you find joy. And, if I can inspire anybody to do that in the world, than I think I have made the world a better place.
Correction: This article originally identified Etheridge's ex-lover as Julie Lynn Michaels, not Tammy Lynn Michaels. It also stated they were married, when in fact they shared a commitment ceremony.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.