Melissa Etheridge Interview: Superstar Discusses Her Life and Latest Album 'Fearless Love'
Grammy and Academy Award winning artist Melissa Etheridge has been in the music industry for over 20 years. In this time she has established herself as a rock legend through her intensely emotional song delivery, bluesy vocal style, and signature guitar playing.
Etheridge is a passionate gay rights activist, having come out publicly as a lesbian in January 1993; however, her lyrics discuss the human experience and appeals to all ages and sexes. She is also a longtime environmental advocate and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2007 for “I Need to Wake Up,” the theme song to the Al Gore-moderated documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
“I wanted to perform it like if Judy Garland was singing with Pink Floyd. It’s a very dramatic performance yet the music is that sort of rock and roll drama like Pink Floyd.”
The forty-eight year old singer/songwriter musician has released 11 albums in her career. Three of them have gone multi-platinum; two others went platinum and two more gold. Her latest, entitled “Fearless Love,” was released on April 27, 2010.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love the new album. When you decided it would be about fear and love, you gave the album a title before any songs were written. Is that how it happened?
Melissa Etheridge: Sort of. I came up with the concept of it being about fear and love. Originally the title, before I wrote anything, was Songs of Fear and Love.
After I started writing a couple of songs, my thirteen-year-old daughter asked me what the title was and I said, “Songs of Fear and Love.” She said, “Oh mom, that’s way too long.” I said, “What about Fearless?” She said, “No, Taylor Swift has that album – what about Fearless Love?” I said, “Oh, that’s perfect.” Then I wrote the song and titled the album after it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you always think about the subject of a song first and then write the lyrics?
Melissa Etheridge: No, I don’t. Inspiration comes in tons of different ways. Sometimes it’s words, sometimes it’s just a concept of what I want to write about, sometimes a melody is rattling around in my head, sometimes it’s chords.
Sometimes I just sit down at the guitar and go, “Hmm, is there anything here?” It’s rhythm; it’s all kinds of things for inspiration.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So the lyrics don’t necessarily come first for you before the music.
Melissa Etheridge: It just depends. Sometimes I can write a bunch of lyrics out first, sometimes I can write a whole bunch of music out first. It’s always different.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): “Fearless Love” is great. That song is in my head very much like “Come To My Window” stuck in my head for a long time.
Melissa Etheridge: Oh yea, that’s where I want it to be!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any idea when you’re writing a song that it’s going to be a memorable one?
Melissa Etheridge: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, something that “Come To My Window” and “Fearless Love” have in common is I almost didn’t put them on an album. “Come To My Window” … I just thought what a simple song. But, I put it on the album and there you go.
It was the same with “Fearless Love.” I sort of struggled with it for a long time and almost didn’t play it for John (my producer). Of course, when I did, he said, “That’s a hit song!” I’m going, “How … what?” I wouldn’t know a hit song if it was right in front of me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): One of the lines in “Fearless Love” is “I lost my way and I fooled my pride.” What does that mean to you?
Melissa Etheridge: Well, I know my journey in my life … the path has been a funny one. You think you know everything in your 20s and you’re all ready to do it a certain way. You’re sure it’s going to be that way and that’s what it’s about.
Then you get in your 30s and you find that success because you’re giving your attention to it and then you realize there is no “there” there. You’re just still creating in this world.
So I felt that after my 30s I kind of lost my way. I was like, “What am I doing?” You know, pride is a tricky thing sometimes. I was raised in the Midwest where pride is a bad thing and yet I was entering this business where it’s all about pride. You sort of stick yourself out there and go, “I’m great” (laughs).
You hear about foolish pride – I think that I was fooling my pride, but I now embrace it and see it as a good thing that I can do work now that I’m proud of. I can stand up and say this is me, I’m doing my best, and I’m proud of doing that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was working with John Shanks any different this time than working with him in 1999?
Melissa Etheridge: Oh yeah, 1999 was the first album he’d ever done. I like to say I taught him (laughs). But, I’ve also worked with him since 1988. He was my guitar player through most of the 90s so he’s like a brother to me. It was just perfect and he’s certainly honed his craft. We both have. We’ve gotten better with age.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who are your musical influences?
Melissa Etheridge: There have been so many. I grew up in the 60s and 70s. We had one radio station and it played Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty … then they would play Led Zeppelin and The Who. It was all just good music.
Now it’s so compartmentalized that you don’t … I like hearing the best of everything and music that moves you. So, from Barbra Streisand to Bruce Springsteen … they all inspire me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that seeing Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl changed your life.
Melissa Etheridge: Oh, that was it! It was mesmerizing. I couldn’t believe her voice. It just grabbed hold of me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever worked with her?
Melissa Etheridge: I have met her a couple of times, but don’t think I ever really worked with her.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That would be an interesting collaboration.
Melissa Etheridge: Oh boy, would I … sign me up!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of musical influences, I detect some Pink Floyd flavor in the song, “To Be Loved.”
Melissa Etheridge: Oh yeah, even when I described that song to John, I said, “Let’s go Pink Floyd.” I wanted to perform it like if Judy Garland was singing with Pink Floyd. It’s a very dramatic performance yet the music is that sort of rock and roll drama like Pink Floyd.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In “We Are the Ones,” you play the mando guitar to give the song a Middle Eastern effect. Is that more difficult to play than an acoustic or electric guitar?
Melissa Etheridge: Only because it’s smaller but that’s where my little tiny fingers come in handy because I can get in there to do that. I like writing on different instruments especially now that I’ve written over 100 songs.
There are only so many three chords you can do, you know. I really wanted to shake things up so I detuned it – it’s like this open G tuning. I just sort of messed around and found the melody, then crafted the song.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re accomplished in so many instruments. Does that come from any formal training?
Melissa Etheridge: When I was very young, from about 8 to 11, I took guitar lessons with this awesome teacher in Leavenworth, Kansas, who scared me to death. He used to play in the jazz bands of the 50s and he had an accident that cut his fingers off on his left hand. He had to learn to play right handed. So, he was a little bitter, yet he was so accomplished and really made me work super hard. He taught me a lot about guitars.
After that I taught myself piano and all of the other instruments I play. But, I had a real nice basic lessoning in guitar. I play drums, also clarinet and saxophone, but I won’t ever play that for anybody (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You could be a one-woman band!
Melissa Etheridge: Won’t be doing that (laughs)!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, the timing of the album release coincides with your breakup with Tammy. Is the album serving to keep your mind off of your personal life?
Melissa Etheridge: Well, yes and no, in that it does keep me busy which is great, but then they keep asking me about it (laughs). Had I been able to choose that sort of thing, I would not have had those two things coincide.
I would have rather released that information when I was just home and it would kind of just go away. But, to release it right when I was coming out with the album, Oh Lord, it just could not have been worse! Yet it was what it was. I considered not releasing it, but people kept asking me, “What’s the key to a great marriage?” I didn’t want to lie so I went ahead and let that be told.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you write “Indiana” with Tammy in mind?
Melissa Etheridge: Oh yes, completely. We were together for nine years so there’s a lot of love there. There is a lot of connection there and “Indiana” is her story. I just wanted to pay tribute to that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You recently spent time with The View’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck at her home. Do you think she’s slowly changing her views on same-sex marriage the way some other conservative republicans may be doing?
Melissa Etheridge: I think so and I had always hoped so. I always knew that love can’t lose and love is not wrong. Fear is what fuels a lot of that thinking … fear of sexuality in general. The religious view says that it’s bad, let’s stop it.
The last few years, especially after going through cancer, I went through an awakening in the world about women finding each other. We’re all the same, so what are we doing this for?
I’ve just been taking an approach in the last few years of reaching across the divide because their fear may not let them reach across and I can do this in love. I can say, maybe just get to know me. Maybe you need to see it’s the same love inside.
We all want the best for our children; we all want the best world. They’re not as bad as we think they are and we’re not as bad as they think we are. There is no “them and us” … we’re all in this thing together. That’s where I approached Elisabeth from and I found that it worked.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was the same week that Laura Bush came out and said that same-sex couples should have the same rights as everyone else.
Melissa Etheridge: Look how that works.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a mother, what would you say is the best thing you can teach your children about the world?
Melissa Etheridge: If you get more sleep, life is a lot easier (laughs).
You get out of the world what you put in to the world. If you look at the world and you think it’s a scary place and think that people are after you, they’re going to be after you. If you look at the world and think that you’re a good person and can walk through the world thinking that, people are going to see that reflected back to you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it hard to find quality time with your kids while you’re on the road?
Melissa Etheridge: Well, my two older ones like to travel. They’ve got their own bunk on the bus and love the road life. When they’re not at camp, they come out and see me.
It is hard with the two little ones because they don’t spend as much time with me out on the road just because they’re little and it’s kind of crazy for them. In the summertime, I don’t spend as much time with them and that is hard, yet I know that I will and it will all be okay.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about 1 a Minute, the cancer survivor docudrama.
Melissa Etheridge: You know, I get asked to do every cancer thing (laughs) and I say no to 99% of it. This project struck me because she wanted me to speak my truth in it. It wasn’t about some sort of pharmaceutical agenda or raising money for this or that. It was about getting the truth out about this. She really allowed me to tell the truth and I got to speak how I truly feel about health and health care.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What would you say to someone you has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
Melissa Etheridge: I would say that it is what you make it. Its scary, yet there are more people than you know that are touched by this. It’s astounding how many people this touches. It can be the greatest thing that ever happened to you.
Walk through it, use it as a way to change your life. You can say, “Sorry, this is cancer, can’t do that.” But, you can really use the power of it to change your life. I would recommend that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): My last question, Melissa, is what can you tell us about yourself that your fans would be surprised to know?
Melissa Etheridge: Oh Lord, I think they know everything about me. I think they know more about me that I know (laughs).
I think they’re starting to realize that I’m a person. I’m normal as one can be and as we all are normal in our diversity. I care about my kids, I drive carpool on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m just doing my thing.
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