- Melissa Etheridge, Friday, Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m., Parker Arts Center, 20000 Pikes Peak Ave., Parker, $102-$142; 303-805-6800, parkerarts.org
If the personal is political, as second-wave feminist Carol Hanisch once claimed, there are few better examples in the music industry than the work of Melissa Etheridge. From the allusions to her sexual orientation in the breakthrough hit “Come to My Window,” released shortly after Etheridge publicly came out as a lesbian, to the poignance of “I Run for Life,” written from her personal experience with cancer and chemotherapy, the Kansas-born rock artist has maintained an unflinching optimism that’s proven altogether contagious.
Currently, Etheridge is out on tour to promote her 15th album, The Medicine Show. Produced by John Shanks, whose credits include Bon Jovi and Chris Isaak, it rekindles her romance with ‘90s rock, while taking on contemporary topics that include the opioid crisis and the Parkland shooting. “It’s the Melissa Etheridge her fans have come to know and respect,” wrote American Songwriter magazine, while Classic Rock called it “her biggest-sounding album this century.” We caught up with the multiple Grammy-winning artist last week to talk about Nirvana, inclusivity, and the possibility of Trump being human.
Indy: The first time I saw you play was back in 1992, in a small Santa Monica airplane hangar, waiting for…
Melissa Etheridge: For Bill Clinton!
That’s right, back when he’d just started campaigning and a lot of people still didn’t know who he was. And like all candidates, his plane kept getting delayed, and they’d ask you to keep playing. You played solo for at least two hours, with just your acoustic guitar, and managed to hold people’s attention that whole time. How much of that was the result of all your coffeehouse training?
That’s exactly what it was. That came from when I used to play four hours a night, five nights a week. I knew how to play a long time.
How do you do it?
Well, you know, you just be entertaining, you talk to them in between songs, you don’t belittle anyone, and you don’t start whining to yourself about the number of people who are there. It’s like, this is what’s happening, my job is to entertain you, and you just keep going “Hey! Hey! Look over here!” [Laughs.] Because if I’m happy, and I’m having a good time, then chances are I can get them there, too. But I could never get them there if I’m not having a good time.
So a year later, you’d put out your fourth album, you’d scored your first Top 10 single with “I’m the Only One,” and you decide to come out publicly at a Clinton inaugural event. At a time when so few entertainers had done that, it must have been a tough decision to make.
Well, I’d always been out, you know? I was playing lesbian bars in Southern California, which had a really strong lesbian community that’s very political. And there were so many people in this underground that knew that I was gay. And I knew I would eventually come out, because I just didn’t like this idea that I had some secret. So once I approached my fourth album, I said “This is it, I’m going to have to come out somehow.” I kept waiting for people to ask me. But it was like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, because nobody would ask me! So I decided that, when the album came out, I would come out on Arsenio Hall or something. But then I got involved in the Clinton/Gore campaign, and got invited to the big Gay Triangle Ball, and I just came out there. And that was that.
Well, I discovered her and her music when I was about 21, and I went on to cover nearly everything she did throughout my young adulthood. I was just really inspired by her performance ability, how she electrified an audience, and how she took that blues and R&B spirit and turned it into rock ‘n’ roll. And still, when I’m playing solo or at a special event, I’ll often pull out “Me and Bobby McGee.” I’ll do “Mercedes Benz,” “Piece of My Heart,” all those songs.
And then you’ve also sung “The Star Spangled Banner,” which is a little different.
Well yeah, that song is in a whole different category. That song is, you know, revered. And if you mess that song up, it’ll stick with you for the rest of your life.
Especially if you’re singing it at a ballgame.
And I have sung it at ballgames, yeah. I sang it at the 2002 World Series with the Angels and the Giants, game seven. I sang it at game six of 2001 with the Yankees and the Diamondbacks. I’ve sung it at football games, I’ve sung at basketball games. It’s really a challenge, it’s nerve-wracking, but I love it.
As someone who grew up listening to a lot of British rock music, it took me years to realize that a lot of those songs were actually American rhythm and blues covers. Was that your experience as well, or were you aware of that music from an early age?
No, it wasn’t until my mid-20s that I really discovered the blues and I started realizing: Wait a minute, Elvis was really covering the blues, and all of this came from the Southern black musical tradition. Country, rock, everything came from there. So once I figured that out, I did really start to dig deep into that, and understood that all my favorite rock ‘n’ roll musicians that I loved we’re covering these great blues artists like Big Mama Thornton and Muddy Waters. And so I went and studied that a lot over the last 20 years. Have you seen the PBS documentary that Ken Burns made on country music?
No, not yet.
Lord, you’ve got to see that! I just finished watching it, and it’s so good. It’s like 14 hours long, but it’s really amazing. It really shows the beautiful lineage and how country music really came from black and white music.
Kind of like those classic Stax recordings that you covered a few years ago on your Memphis Rock and Soul album.
And now with The Medicine Show, you’ve made a record that you’ve said was influenced by ‘90s rock ranging from grunge to Britpop. Why is that?
Well, as a ‘90s musician, I was very influenced, like a lot of my peers, by the music of the ‘70s. And we had all been through that weird ‘80s period, with the hair bands and the power ballads, and I just felt like, wow, I’m so outside of this. And then, man, when the ‘90s finally hit and we heard Nirvana, we were like, holy crap, that’s real from-the-heart rock ‘n’ roll, that’s what we’ve been missing. And then everyone sort of started doing their version of that, you know, from all the females in the ‘90s to the Brit music that was coming over. You’d have the acoustic verse, and then that big electric chorus. And the artists and their lyrics were really interesting. I just love that era of music.
And so today, 25 years after your marathon airplane hangar performance, we’re once again in interesting political times. Are you surprised by where we are today?
You know, it’s funny. Being older now, I look back on that era and it seems so very quaint, you know? And with what we’re going through now, I think the advent of the internet and social media has not only changed how we get our news, but it’s also changed how we look at each other, and how vulnerable we are. And, you know, as a celebrity, I try to keep in touch with people through social media, and I’ve noticed that if I say something about a political candidate, or if I hashtag anything remotely political, I get these crazy trolls. They come and go, and I’ll look at their accounts, and I’m like, “What are they talking about?” But some of it’s really kind of edgy, psychologically. I just think there’s more at stake right now, and things have gotten a little darker.
Are you getting many Russian bots?
Oh yeah. I must be on some list. I keep getting this weird stuff that’s not quite right, and sometimes it’s about gay stuff, but not really. It’s strange how we’ve gone from being so afraid of nuclear bombs, but now it’s more like infiltrating how we think about each other. And I think what we’ll need is a revolution inside each of us, in terms of what we believe about our country and about each other.
America Ferrera, the actress who co-founded the Time’s Up campaign, said something similar in a radio interview. She said that the person in front of you is a human first, and an opinion second.
But isn’t there a point where they stop being a human first?
So Trump is still human?
Trump is human, absolutely.
How do we know that?
Well, until we’ve proven that he’s not. [Laughs.] You know, he is and his family is. People have beliefs, and they’re beliefs that are very different from each other. And I think that what we’re seeing is our fears being manipulated. You know, I hear people talking just as badly about the right as I hear people talk about the left. It’s a “house divided against itself cannot stand” sort of thing. We have to figure out how to get along with every kind of crazy person that we have here. You know, people think I’m crazy. And, you know, I think other people are crazy.
But you don’t think you’re crazy, do you?
I don’t. I enjoy me very much.