Rock Steady: Interview with Melissa Etheridge

Melissa Etheridge lives for music. Growing up in Kansas in the ’60s and ’70s, she loved listening to hits on the radio and discovering new artists on The Ed Sullivan Show. She started playing the guitar at age 8 and went on to perform in local cover bands as a teenager. After moving to California, she scored a record deal and released her eponymous debut album in 1988, earning her the first of many Grammy nominations. Today, Etheridge shares music with her children, uses songwriting to cope with hardships, and continues to tour with a guitar in one hand and a harmonica in the other. Her latest album, Memphis Rock and Soul, dropped in October and is a tribute to legendary Memphis musicians. She arrives at the Kravis Center on November 28 to perform songs from her 2008 holiday album as well as hits from her decades-long career. chatted with her about her evolution as an artist and her connection to her craft.

Melissa Etheridge

Photo by John Tsiavis You’ve been a mainstay of the music scene for 30 years. What’s your secret?

Etheridge: My fans have always appreciated my music because it comes from my heart. It’s a piece of me and it’s a way of expressing my life journey, and some people can relate to that. Staying true to myself, making the music I love, and also presenting and performing has kept me in the ring.

In what ways do you share music with your children?

I like our house to be a house filled with music. There are pianos and guitars and all kinds of musical instruments around. I have older kids and younger kids that are about 10 years apart, but the older kids all learned how to play guitar and piano. None of them have like a drive to be a musician, but it is a part of their lives. The younger ones, we’ll see. They’re going to be 10 and they’re just kind of starting. They like music, too, and they’re learning and you never know.

How has your songwriting evolved?

It’s grown because I’ve grown. In my 20s and 30s, it was all about the love I wasn’t getting or the lust that I had or that desire. Once I was in my 40s and 50s, I started building my families and my outlook on relationships changed. I’m happily married now and it’s very different. I’m not going to be writing about that, yet I still have hopes, desires, plans, dreams, and fears and all of those things that go into writing.

What about your stage presence? Have you always enjoyed performing?

Oh, I’ve always loved it. I like to think that I’ve gotten better though. With all the years and years of playing, I know I’ve gotten to be a better guitar player. I think that surprises some people because when they come see me they don’t realize how much of a guitar player I am. So I like to play a lot of guitar and really show that versatility. I play harmonica. I do a lot of things that really challenge me to do and get better and that makes it fun.

What’s your ideal songwriting environment? What’s your process like?

Writing comes from inspiration, and inspiration comes from anywhere. It’s connecting with something—whether it’s personal, emotional, universal, whatever it is. I usually have to be alone. I usually like to be in my room. I create a space and a time that I can be alone and be creating and writing and that’s usually all I have to do.

What went into your decision to write and perform holiday music?

I had gone through breast cancer and had a real awakening personally in my own spiritual evolution and evolution as a person. It was a subject that I wanted to put into a piece of work, and I felt a Christmas and holiday album would be the perfect opportunity. The holiday spirit is not a religious thing for me but more of a feeling and a thoughtful time. A New Thought for Christmas has some of my favorite songs [and] I wanted to put together a show where I could do these songs and share them with people.

In June, you recorded a song in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. What makes songwriting a good coping mechanism for you?

Boy, I don’t know where I’d be without songwriting. It’s a way to get the thoughts and the feelings that are inside of me out. You put them out there and share them and realize you’re not alone in that thought or that feeling. I write to heal myself and in doing so I feel like maybe it can heal others, too.

Advocating for issues you believe in, like LGBT rights, breast cancer, and the environment, is clearly a big passion for you. What propels you to lend your voice to these causes?

Most of the issues that you’ll find me speaking about are issues that affect me deeply and personally. The LGBT rights, being a LGBT person, that affects me personally. When it comes to cancer and breast cancer, that came to me personally. When you’ve had a health crisis you then understand that taking care of your own health is taking care of your body, watching what you put into it, and also thinking about the environment around you and the health of that. So when I was contacted to write a song for An Inconvenient Truth it was such a natural step. Taking care of the health of the earth is just as important as taking care of the health of my own body, it just makes sense. I was glad to be a part of that.

With your Grammys and your Oscar, you’re halfway to being part of the EGOT club. Looking at the Tony, do you ever see yourself returning to Broadway in any capacity?

Oh I think about it all the time. My wife and I, we both love Broadway very much. She’s a writer and we have some ideas that we bat around. It just takes a long time for them to come up, and because we have our main things that we do writing those projects always takes a backseat. So I don’t know how many years it will be, but someday we’ll be able to get something on stage.

How would you go about winning your Emmy?

Well, having married a television writer I’m looking at nepotism to get that, but we’re still working on it.


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