If Melissa Etheridge’s music has seemed mellow lately, she’s about to show you. Back to her rock-out roots, the tough-and-gruff musician/mother/activist makes a roaring return with the uplifting “Fearless Love,” her follow-up to 2007’s sociopolitical-powered “The Awakening.”
We spoke with Etheridge, who not only discussed surviving cancer during the last decade and the life lessons she learned in the process, but also how she’s embracing change – a new sound, touring band and the return of those hot, long locks.
How does it feel to have the long hair back?
I watered it every day, and it grew! It was a big part of me. I really wasn’t aware how big a part.
I’m not used to seeing you as glammed-up as you’ve been in some recent photos. What’s up with all the make-up?
You know, it’s something I think I’ve grown into. At 48, I need all the help I can get (laughs).
After all you’ve been through this past decade, what place are you in now?
That was an intense decade! But everything that happened makes me stronger, makes me understand that this is what life is. You are presented with these issues, but you learn and you grow and you move on. Life is rich and full, and nothing’s going to kill you. You just keep moving forward – and it gets sweeter.
So this is an extension of “The Awakening”?
This is the next step. I had to do “The Awakening” to present and be upfront about the things that were happening inside of me, the spiritual side of me. The awakening part of me is understanding and going through cancer and saying, “Whoa! Life is a lot different. Life is not what it seems.”
That album was important to put out so people – myself and my fans – would know what path I was on, and then after it seemed so clear that it was time to gather up all that strength. I was knocked down and it was time to pull the parts of me together that I knew were there in this confidence and in this clarity that I have now and shoot it through that rock ‘n’ roll gift that I’ve been given.
“Life is not what it seems” – that’s a line from the closing track, “Gently We Row.” How has that been true in your own life?
I wanted to reference the children’s song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” because that song has all the truth in it that we need. I love that we’re taught it as a child. “… Life is but a dream” – that’s all it is. We create it every day. That’s what came to me. That’s where I got to going through cancer and coming out.
Life doesn’t happen to us. We are creating this, and we have more power than it seems. This can happen to you, but your perception of what it is creates what it is.
You have a choice in how your life affects you. That’s mostly what I want to convey through my music.
Did it take you a long time to realize that?
I got the crash course in it with chemotherapy because I laid there day after day, week after week, and had nothing. No television. No books. I couldn’t even read; it hurt to read.
It was just day after day with myself, until my mind – our minds are so busy setting things up in the future and worrying about the past – ran out of things to think about. And it just stopped. When that happens there’s this beautiful spirit that’s behind that that really is in charge of what’s happening,
Also on “Gently We Row,” I noticed the parallels between your mother raising you and you raising your daughter. I thought that was so powerful.
That’s another part of getting older. You realize your parents did shape a lot of what you think and do and feel, yet it’s time to stop blaming them. You can stay there and you can wallow around in that or you can say, “OK, this happened to me and now I make different choices.” And that’s what the song’s about. I’m making different choices for myself and for my children. When you do that, you also heal yourself.
Parenthood actually pops up several times on this album. How has it changed you?
Oh, it’s unbelievable. I just had no idea of what being a mother would do. And it’s all-encompassing, it’s every breath I take, it’s every moment I live. I am a mother to four children, and I don’t go to sleep at night until I know where all four are and how they are. It makes me a better person, it makes me more loving, compassionate, patient – patience is … definitely required (laughs), or you’ll just get eaten up alive. They teach me every day about myself. They are these beautiful little mirrors, and I want to be the best person I can be for them.
Speaking of the kids, there was an episode of Kathy Griffin’s “My Life on the D-List” that aired last year where she was in your house, seeking tips on becoming an activist. What was that like?
Kathy Griffin’s awesome. She’s on a journey of her own, coming from the place of being on the D-list, and then she turned herself A-list. You see it’s not a place you get to; it’s about how you feel inside about yourself. Her activism, her caring and her journey are very inspiring. And she’s super talented, too.
Did you eat those cookies you were baking while she was there?
Yes, we did! And we made some more a little later.
Do the kids like to bake a lot?
Anything involving sugar, there they are with a spoon.
What was it like reteaming with producer John Shanks, who worked on 1999’s “Breakdown”?
He was my guitar player in my first band. We hung out in the ’80s, and we’ve played every hellhole bar. And we’ve also played Madison Square Garden. We’ve been through so much, and he knows what I’m capable of. He knows just how to get the best out of it and how to push me to give my best. He’s like my brother that makes me crazy (laughs). It was really wonderful working with him.
How did the collaboration with Natasha Bedingfield and Joss Stone on “We Are the Ones” come about?
That’s my favorite track on the album just because it’s different and crazy and I love it. John called me up and said, “Hey, guess who was across the hall recording – Joss Stone!” She just sang on it. Then, like a week later, he said, “Hey, Natasha Bedingfield’s coming in and I’m going to play her this song. I think she’s going to sing on it.” So he worked with her. That’s what he can do, because he’s John Shanks.
Have you met Natasha?
No, I haven’t! We’ve become very intimate on tape, though.
When did you know you had “Fearless Love”?
The way that I’m looking at it is that it’s about my own fearless love. I need to love fearlessly, and that starts with myself. That’s been the journey in the last five years.
You’re touring this summer, but without your hot, longtime electric guitarist Philip Sayce – why?
Because Philip’s got his own little career going on, so I just cleared the board. I went, “This is a new page for me. It’s a new album, it’s a new sound, and it’s a new feel. I’m just breaking out.” It’s hard because I get very attached to my band, but they weren’t available to make the album, so that was the first step of going, “Ya know, I think this is leading me down another path and I need to be open.” I sent him off with love and I’m sure we’ll get together in the future, but right now I’m putting these guys together and they’re dedicated to working with me now.
The music video for “Nervous” – the second single – stars Edie Falco, which reminds me of all the other hot actresses who’ve appeared in your videos – Jennifer Aniston, Juliette Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow. Of them all, who made you the most nervous?
Edie Falco, probably. Did you see the way she looked at me? (Laughs)
How did her cameo come about?
I actually know the creator of “Nurse Jackie.” She’s one of my BFFs, and her and I have been trying to do a television show together for a long time and when she landed “Nurse Jackie,” I was so happy for her. I played the album for her months ago, and she goes, “Can I use ‘Nervous’ in the final episode of Season 2?” It was just a really sweet and fun thing to do.
Have you seen Crystal Bowersox on “American Idol” this season?
I have! And my kids love her. The first time they saw her, they paused it – because I only let them watch it on the weekend on TiVo – and came running into the kitchen. They said, “Mom, come here!” They had paused it on the shot of her guitar and they said, “Is that your signature?” And holy cow, that was my signature.
Besides a couple of tracks, there are far less politics on “Fearless Love” than on “The Awakening.”
(Laughs) They’re just hidden underneath.
“Miss California,” a song about the state’s ban on gay marriage, is blatantly political. How do you think music and political activism – or activism of any sort – work together?
Music reaches past people’s minds and it goes straight into their spirit, their soul, their body. You can take advantage of that in a way. Music and activism is natural. It’s always been a way through time to bring us closer to the unity we all need to be in.
Is “Indiana” about your ex-partner Tammy Lynn Michaels?
It’s completely about Tammy. She’s from Indiana, and her journey has been so inspiring to me – and I’m around it so much – that this song popped out. To be able to sing with compassion about another person is new for me. For me not to be in the song, I’m working on that.
Why didn’t you before? Was it easier for you not to?
Yeah, I guess so, because everything was so autobiographic. I still do that, but I want to expand as a writer.
Is “Miss California” taking a dig at Carrie Prejean?
It’s not necessarily her. I certainly don’t know her and I don’t really have a comment to the sadness that – I’m not even going to comment. It fit perfectly because when I started to write it, I said I really just have to address this. I have to address my home state, my people and the feeling of, like, being spurned by a lover. I thought, OK, I’m going to write a song about that and I’ll call it “Miss California,” just like Carrie Prejean – even though I’m definitely not singing to her. It just worked into the whole thing.
This album seems to reach back to your roots. You’re rocking out more like you did in the ’90s and you have a weary woman in an isolated room in the “Fearless Love” video much like the one for “Come to My Window.” Was that intentional?
Yeah, that’s still a part of me. I’m maturing and I create it differently, but that girl is still me, and so when I get on stage and sing “I’m the Only One,” “Come to My Window” and “Bring Me Some Water” – from over 20 years ago – that’s still me.
I might not be going through those experiences in that moment, but they happened to me. So I’m able to reflect on it, remember it, understand it in my life now, still see where that’s happening in my life and rock from that place and feel comfortable now.