Melissa Etheridge is ready to rock again

  • by Christopher J. Beale
  • Tuesday March 8, 2022
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Melissa Etheridge
Melissa Etheridge

In describing Grammy-winning recording artist and activist Melissa Etheridge as a "Lesbian Rock Goddess," it's a title she likes.

"That's perfect!" she replied. "But, I think people would be surprised to know I am just a girl from the Midwest."

Growing up in Kansas, her earliest musical influences were Heartland rockers like Bob Seger and REO Speedwagon, as well as Country and R&B. By the 1980s, she was adapting those sounds into her own signature style, and getting good at it. Her first album came out in 1988, and the slow crawl to success began.

Mainstream audiences first became aware of Etheridge in 1993 when her fourth album. Yes I Am, spawned her biggest hits, "Come to my Window" and "I'm The Only One." Months before the album's release, Etheridge officially came out of the closet. She says it was necessary because, "Mainstream papers weren't outing people at the time."

If you come out publicly, publications would talk about your sexuality openly, so that's what she did, "But (coming out) wasn't a surprise to anyone who knew me." Ellen DeGeneres wouldn't come out publicly for another year.

Etheridge, whose earliest gigs were in lesbian bars, says her sexuality was no big secret.

"Everybody who came to see me in the bars knew I was gay." Coming out changed the makeup of the crowds, Etheridge says, "the noisy lesbians in the front we're always there, but then it got so much bigger, and they were straight and gay."

Her album's title Yes I Am was also a nod to the world that she was coming out, and it's success established Etheridge as rock royalty.

"Before I came out, I was selling about a million records. After I came out, I sold six million."

In the years that followed, Etheridge continued to write and record music, and tour the world. She also began a family. Now a mother of four, Etheridge says, "Before I had kids, I could sit around and write music all day long," but adds that familial responsibilities became equally important to her, and her process adjusted."Having children changes everything."

In 2020, COVID-19 all but ended the touring entertainment business. Any place where thousands gather —from concert venues to Broadway theaters— shut down indefinitely.

"When my shows started getting canceled, I realized this was going to be a long thing," she says. At home, Etheridge focused on caring for her family during a pandemic. "I learned how to order groceries, I cooked a lot of meals, and we just hunkered in here and did it." In the absence of live shows to play, Etheridge moved her act online.

"I would say I'm going to go live every day for like 20 minutes until this is over, thinking it'll just be a few weeks."

Etheridge would go live from her garage, perform a few songs, and interact with the chat. Soon, she says her fans began to respond, "Thousands of people were watching because everybody was on lockdown, and it just started growing."

Family loss
In May 2020, her 21-year-old son Beckett died of an opioid overdose. Etheridge spoke with Rolling Stone about her struggles parenting a child with an addiction.

"You want to help your child," she told writer Brian Hiatt. "You want to make them all better. He was a young adult ... and there came a time when I needed to really sit down with myself and say, 'I can't save him. I can't give up my life and go try to live his life for him.' And I had to come up against the possibility that he might die...of course it's nothing a parent ever wants. But as a human being, I just needed to be at peace with a troubled son who did the best he could, who believed what he believed and then his life ended way, way too soon."

In July 2020, Etheridge went live online again —from her newly renovated garage studio, "With multiple cameras, and lights, and a real sound system"— and it was then that she began to heal from her son's death. "It gave me a reason to sing, to think about music, to play, to build something. It kept my mind busy, and I don't know what I would've done without it." The live operation has grown into a paid subscription service, where fans can access live content from Etheridge five nights a week.

In 2021, Etheridge released a single called "Cool As You Try" that was written in the '90s, "when everything was very focused on whether you're thin enough and how you wear your hair. All that stuff used to make me crazy because I didn't know what I was supposed to look like as an artist." The song features the mantra she came up with to combat those feelings: "You're constantly going to change. So you just get to be as cool as you feel on the inside."

Etheridge has always prided herself on being an activist, and the Trump years strengthened that resolve. She gleaned knowledge from the turmoil. "We as a people are aware now that people have great differences in thoughts," adding that when society tries to change to become more equitable, "(that) change is frightening to people. Especially people who believe that things are going good for them, and it's somebody else's fault if it doesn't go right."

As for what's next, Etheridge is getting ready to go on tour, and writing another book.

"I wrote (an autobiography) 20 years ago, but a lot has changed since then," she says, "and this next book is more focused on spirit and life and stuff."

One Way Out Tour
Melissa Etheridge and her band are headed out on the road this summer, with stops in the US, Canada and Europe. This new show features the hits, but also puts the focus on specific albums from Etheridge's discography. "I have so many songs that I can't do all of them."

But she says this show will feel fresh to audiences; "I think you might be surprised at how much guitar I play." Etheridge is giddy at the thought of being back in front of fans again, "I will never take an audience for granted," she says, "I love touching people, I love that exchange of energy, to see people rising up and loving live music. It's just amazing!"

Melissa Etheridge performs in Santa Rosa on March 18, followed by stops in the Central Valley, and finally Napa on March 23. Tickets and information:

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