Icon on writing new politically-driven songs, her Trump-era medicine (weed) and her ‘this too shall pass’ worldview
By Chris Azzopardi
“You keep doing what you’re doing, you keep being out, you keep being beautiful,” Melissa Etheridge tells me, as if to emphasize the present-day significance of simply being your queer self.
The Grammy-winning rock icon, whose coming out at the height of her career in the early ’90s paved the way for many in the LGBT community, knows the gravity mere visibility can have on the world. During this impassioned interview, Etheridge, 55, brings her centered thoughtfulness to our conversation about the precise career moments when her music incited momentous change, the influence Donald Trump is having on her latest “empowered” songwriting sessions, and why she’s not sweating the “big bully in the schoolyard.”
Melissa, if there was ever a time to drink your weed wine, it’s gotta be now and for the next four years.
(Laughs) Tell me about it!
Can you send me a crate?
You do need it, don’t you? Oh my god, I wish I could. I wish I could get it out of (California), but I’m working on it.
Does that stuff help you write? Does it get the words flowing?
You know what, I’m not as much of a drinker. I actually just smoke, and yes, smoking helps me write very much – smoking helps me every day.
Is it sativa you smoke for writing?
For writing I smoke sativa; otherwise, if I’m not writing, I don’t use sativa because it would just make me run around in circles. (Laughs)
You know, when it comes to marijuana, I’m still learning.
Aww. The whole product thing that I’ve got going, called Etheridge Farms – part of what we really want to be is sort of the “Cannabis for Dummies.” I can really take everybody through this … and this is good medicine! It’s good for you. And I’ll show you the choices and how to do it if you’re scared and stuff; that’s really what I want my brand to be. It’s about wellness and sort of walking people through this. It’s a very good time to take a breath and know that this too shall pass, and it’s making us all better.
Do you really believe that message – this is making us all better, that “this too shall pass”?
I do. I have to. It’s my worldview. It’s my belief in the world, and I do have a belief that the universe doesn’t give us anything we cannot handle. All of this is cementing and making stronger our desire to live in a world that celebrates diversity. We know because the last eight years we’ve been riding on this incredibly amazing wave of, wow, we can all do this, we can live and let live and be stronger, and to borrow (Hillary Clinton’s) battle cry, be “stronger together.” Sometimes that being taken away from us and being confronted with what the world would be like without it is what makes that desire stronger, so obviously, it makes us stand up and take to the streets and say, “No, this is not how we want to live, this is not the American dream and let’s change that.”
Well, because we have to – we’re forced to. I was listening to your song “What Happens Tomorrow,” from 2007, and it gave me so much hope then and it’s giving so much hope now. But also, at the same time, I can’t help but feel bittersweet hearing, “I believe a woman can work hard and succeed, and we could be content to believe that she could be in charge of the free, and be the president,” knowing Hillary isn’t in the Oval Office right now.
I still believe in it. I know it was hard. We will never forget what that was like in November and January. We will never forget. We will tell our children. I have 10 year olds and said, “Look, this is an important time in history and you’re going to tell people that you were alive when this happened.”
Creatively speaking, is the current political climate shaping your new music? Are you writing songs about all this?
Of course. I think we’re going to see more music talking about it, more music coming from that, and my music has kind of – I’ve always had a bit of that in my music. So, right now is a writing time for me. This whole year. And I can’t help but be influenced by it. I don’t want to put out a protest album, because I’m hoping in two years it will be moot and that we will have figured this all out, and yet I want it to be inspiring and speaking of our times because these, I think, are very important times.
What you do so well is put a face on an issue or event, like your song about Matthew Shepard, “Scarecrow,” and “Tuesday Morning,” an LGBT-rights rally cry centered on the late Mark Bingham, who sacrificed his life to save others in the Sept. 11 attacks. I imagine that might be the direction you’d go in.
It’s funny, I haven’t really told anybody what I’m up to, but that’s exactly it – putting a face to it. I’m finding stories and really taking that way in.
As someone who’s always been a voice in and for the LGBT community, what’s it like now to be an out gay musician and activist in a time of social and political fear?
I’ve been doing this for 25 years now. I’ve been out and speaking and being an example, and speaking truthfully and answering the questions and watching our culture and our society move toward this and the world move toward less fear and more acceptance of the many different facets of humanity. Having done it for 25 years, I’m not as afraid of this big bully coming into the schoolyard because I’ve stood with my brothers and sisters, and I’ve stood with Americans. This is not the majority. I have been around our great country, and, yes, there are fearful people and they have a very large megaphone, but it’s not the majority. It’s just not. And gay people are being born every day into families and it’s a struggle to some, and yet they learn and grow and love. So, I feel empowered. I feel that it only makes us stronger when there’s a pushback. It only makes us more determined to live peacefully.
When have you seen your own music influence the lives of others?
The first time I really saw it was when I put my fourth album out, Yes, I Am (in 1993). I came out completely unknowing what it was gonna be like, had never seen an artist in rock/pop form come out, and then seeing my album reach stratospheric heights – six million records (sold) and just great success… while talking about being a big ol’ lezzie (laughs)! Since then, I have had, oh my gosh, just thousands of people come up to me and say, “Thank you very much. You gave me an example of someone who was gay.” “Thank you so much, you helped me come out.” Just every day, every age, every type of person coming up.
Then when I was diagnosed with cancer (in 2004), I remember some people in my management said, “Maybe you don’t want to tell people you have cancer, they might see it as weak.” I was like, “Whoa. Like I’m gonna start lying now? No.” So, I treated it the same way, spoke very truthfully and wrote “I Run for Life” and performed at the Grammys and really just stood up and said, “This is what I’m going through, and this is what I believe about my own health.” And I saw thousands of people come up to me and say how much it meant to them, and that when they go through it, they remember me.
Then I wrote a song about the environment (2006’s “I Need to Wake Up” for An Inconvenient Truth) and got an Academy Award for it – that was a lot of fun! So, I’m just honored to have been a part of a force of change in this country and in this world.
Now seems to be a good time for another “I Need to Wake Up.” Maybe the 2017 version is just “Woke”? Do the kids keep you up to date on trendy vernacular like “woke”?
Oh, you have no idea! My daughter goes to Columbia University in New York City, and I was just visiting her and she goes, talking about someone, “They’re really woke.” And then goes, “Do you know what that means?” I go, “I can imagine what that means!” Then, (we) had a little discussion about it.
So, do you march? Is every Melissa Etheridge concert now a protest?
It is in a way, just that I’m still here. Just like you said, I’m not much of a preacher; I am more of, “Look at this example, look at life.” If you can see it, and not be afraid of it, then that helps bring about the change, so I think the experience of coming to a Melissa Etheridge show can really inspire. I speak about our human condition and the joy of diversity in our world. I really try to inspire people to strength in that way.
Where do you find strength right now?
My music, my wife, my children. Life itself. When you go through cancer, you don’t let a bully in the schoolyard mess you up so much. I’ve seen chemo, I’ve seen death – and I will not fear. I know that fear is power, and I will not give up my power. I will not fear this. I believe wholeheartedly we are headed – and are on our way already – to better worlds and understanding. So, no, I wake up every morning and I’m ready to go get ’em.
What are you enjoying about your life now that you couldn’t in the ’90s when you first went mainstream as a newly-out lesbian?
Well, actually, I find myself talking less about being gay now than I did then. That was all I ever talked about. My god, I spent two years just talking about gay, gay, gay. The interviews are more about my whole life, and I enjoy that. I’m so much more relaxed, oh my gosh. I wouldn’t trade being in my 50s for anything else. I’ve learned so much. I’ve grown. I look back at my 30s, when I thought I was all grown up, and I’m like, “Girl, you’ve got so much to learn.” That’s the one thing I would tell my younger self – just chill, it’s OK, it won’t always be this way, you will get through this, you will get where you wanna go, but just take your time because once you get there, it’s not gonna be what you think and you’re gonna be off to something else. But don’t you worry: 40s are better than the 30s, and I’m telling you, buddy, 50s rock. You’re gonna get there in 16 years and you’re gonna go, “That Melissa said 50s was gonna rock and she was right.”
Whatever happened to the boxed set that was supposed to be released a few years ago? Is that still happening?
Let me tell you what happened: I started putting the boxed set together when I was at the end of my Island (Records) thing, and I just totally immersed myself in my old work and went into the vaults and got out old recordings and tracks that no one had ever heard and alternative things and, god, it was just amazing. I found old pictures and videos and was just like, “This is gonna be the greatest boxed set ever.”
And then I changed management. I got off of Island Records, and my management said, “OK, if you wanna put a boxed set out, that’s one thing, but you’re not gonna make any money off of it because it belongs to Universal.” We’re still looking to do a boxed set. It will be with Universal Music, and no, I won’t make any money from it, but it’s gonna be a really nice thing. I would say in the next five years is when the boxed set is finally gonna come out. I took it off my No. 1 priority list and that’s when I did the last two albums (including her latest, 2016’s Memphis Rock and Soul) and really changed everything around… and I made more money! (Laughs) So, it’s still definitely on my mind, and I’m always thinking about it and it’s gonna be amazing.
What unreleased material did you dig up that we might be surprised to hear?
Oh, there’s so much! There are songs from the second and third album – there’s just these songs that didn’t make the albums, but are completely cut and they’re just really great. It’s like, oh my gosh, there are songs from Yes, I Am that I didn’t put out and I listen to them now and go, “Holy cow, these are great,” and of course back then I was told, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” But I’m really looking forward to them seeing the light of day.
Nostalgia gets easier as you get older, I find.
I forgive myself so much – how I looked, how I sounded, everything!
Considering all that’s happening in the world currently, do you have any final words for the LGBT community?
What I would say is, friends, brothers and sisters, we are as strong together as we are strong inside. The work is now inside of us; it’s up to each of us to know in our hearts that we are part of the American fabric. We are part of the world fabric. We are part of human society. We always have been, and we are here to represent love. It should tell us something that our biggest struggles these days are about empathy and compassion. That’s what we are fighting in our halls of congress: empathy. It is about love. Stand firm and together with anyone – straight, gay, bi, trans, whomever – and go: This is us, this is the truth, this is humanity, this is life.