It’s been more than 20 years since Melissa Etheridge, after declaring herself a lesbian at an inaugural ball for President Clinton, came out on record. Released in 1993, the artist’s benchmark album, “Yes I Am,” would signify a giant leap forward for the LGBT community – and, also, Etheridge’s career.
The landmark LP, her mainstream breakthrough, came before Ellen, before “Will & Grace,” before Laverne Cox graced the cover of TIME. Putting her career on the line, Etheridge still stood like a pillar of hope, valiance and torch-carrying fortitude. And it wouldn’t be the last time.
Taking another shot in the dark with “This Is M.E.,” a DIY disc released on Etheridge’s own label, M.E. Records, the 53-year-old goes independent for the first time since signing with Island Records in the mid ’80s.
Catching up with Etheridge one recent afternoon – she’s crunching on some granola, which is so very Melissa Etheridge-y of her – the rocker discusses how “flat-lining” influenced her decision to go indie, why she stopped reading her own press and which song of hers she didn’t want to record.
The album is called “This Is M.E.,” a play on your initials. But how about nicknames – do you have any of those?
I don’t. I pretty much answer to whatever anybody calls me. (Laughs)
Especially if that person is Linda Wallem, your wife.
Exactly. “Yes, dear!”
To quote one of your songs, was the process of making this album like “the letting go”?
That was exactly it. Thank you so much for seeing that, because last year I did cut all the strings. All of them – every single one. I gutted my whole team that I had behind me for 20-plus years. I just said, “Look, it’s time. I need a new model. I need a new way of doing this.” I completely flatlined and had no interest in just business as usual. In doing so, I went and talked with and interviewed a bunch of managers, record companies, lawyers, agents and dozens of people, and I found out a lot about me in doing so. I got a new view of what other people in the business think about me and my business and (learned that) I don’t need those old structures anymore. Because of the new technology, I can reach my fans. I have a fan base, I have social media, I can let every single one of them know. I can sell just as many records as I had been selling with a record company, and I can own my record. I could take charge of this, and I don’t have to answer to a record company.
Was it something you regretted not doing sooner? Because I bet you wished you owned the rights to “Come to My Window.”
Absolutely. You have to just look ahead, though. You can’t look back and go, “Ah, all those songs!” That’s just the way it is.
What’s the best part about being your own boss?
The responsibility. There’s no one I can blame. I have to believe in every single one of these songs. I had to believe that, in the studio working with each of these producers and musicians, I was taking full responsibility for every single note on this album.
Had you been feeling a lack of support from your label?
Oh yeah. From “Lucky” in 2004 and on, the record industry was, every year, falling in huge amounts and getting less and less, and also, those albums were not incredibly commercial albums because they were introspective. I was investigating myself and my own spirit and thoughts, and so those albums weren’t gonna be big commercial hits, so they didn’t get a lot of attention.
On “Lucky,” with the song “Meet Me in the Dark,” you actually addressed this sense of abandonment you were feeling at the time regarding the label’s lack of support. Isn’t that right?
Exactly – I did. I sat down and said, “I’m gonna write this song for those people who listen to albums to find that song that’s just special.”
Was it then that you first started thinking of career alternatives?
What kind of pressure were you experiencing from the label? At the time, were they forcing you to make radio hits?
(Pauses) Well, there’s only so much you can do with me. I am what I am, and I know that on “Lucky” the song “Breathe” was not my song at all. That was one that the record company came to me and said, “Look, we think this could be a hit.” I did something that I will never do again. I like the song – it’s a great song – but I really felt like I was doing something I didn’t wanna do. I got cancer afterwards and went, “Never again.”
At this moment in your career, you’re really embracing solitude.
Yes, I am.
How have all these changes reshaped how you approach music and how you approached this album?
It’s reinvigorated my love for the industry and the art form beyond just singing and performing, but actually with the writing and the producing and creating of these songs. My god, I think there are at least five different producers on this record and I worked with others that didn’t quite work out. I got to work with all kinds of people. I threw out to my management, “Think outside the box,” and that’s how I ended up with RoccStar and Jerry “Wonda.”
Is it easier to write with a broken heart or a happy heart?
Well, it’s not easy to write in any situation, but it depends. I think one has to learn how to make any personal state a state that one can create from. I can write “Who Are You Waiting For” – which is both. Yeah, I was brokenhearted and smashed and lifted up, so I can create from both. I can create from an old memory of, “You done me wrong,” and write “Ain’t That Bad.” That’s the craft of writing. You give me even a mundane subject and I will craft a human experience around it.
Tell me the story behind the first song you wrote for the album.
There are two. I wrote them by myself before I brought them to a producer and those were “Who Are You Waiting For” and “A Little Hard Hearted.” For those two, I sat down the way I normally do: I actually sat down at the piano because I like writing on the piano; it brings out different musical things than if I write on the guitar. So “A Little Hard Hearted” was actually more of a ballad than it ended up being. But yeah, that was one of the first ones. It was like, “I don’t wanna be broken any more. I wanna move on,” which is what we’ve done. With (ex-wife) Tammy (Lynn Michaels), both of us have worked really hard to put all the crap behind us and just be two loving households that can work together for the kids.
How did you deal with the tabloids that pitted you two against each other?
I just didn’t go online for a couple of years! (Laughs) I don’t look at that stuff because it’s this sense of, I have no control over what people are thinking. I know what my truth is and there’s no way I can convince other people of it. They’re gonna believe whatever they believe, and I just have to move on through this. Time will always tell, and the truth always comes out, so I’m just gonna be the best person I can be and move on. I could get stuck in that. And that’s like a whirlpool. That’ll just suck you right down into it.
Have you ever read your own press? Googled “Melissa Etheridge”?
Oh, sure. Eight times out of 10, it’s a pleasant experience. Other times it’s, “I didn’t need to see that.”
Having spent so much of your life on stage – how has that changed for you? How is getting out on stage different now than it was when you first got out there?
I’m different. I mean, I’ve been on stage since I was 11 years old, so I went through a lot of being on stage when no one knows who you are, being on stage when you’re singing other people’s music, being on stage when no one’s paying attention – I know that.
I also know the wonderful feeling of being on stage when people are expecting something. I was always thrilled when I walked on stage and someone paid money to come see me. Now when I walk on stage, I haven’t even sung a note and people are going crazy. That’s just … that’s a dream come true. To start a song and people know it – I love it, love it, love it.
Was that something you imagined for yourself as a kid? Are you the artist you set out to be?
Yeah, I knew that I wanted to be a singer/songwriter. I knew that I wanted to write the songs too – that it was important that that be a part of what I do – so I’m very happy that when I start these songs that I’ve written, people know that. So yes, I am.
Knowing all you know about yourself now, what would you tell the Melissa Etheridge of the ’80s?
“Hey, you can relax. Don’t worry. Don’t get all worked up about it, because it’s all right – you’re gonna make it.”
The best part of the whole thing is the journey – it’s actually the getting there, not the being there. It’s who I met in the process, and the memories. Just the whole experience is what it’s about, and I’m so grateful for it.
As one of the first out public figures, what’s your proudest moment as a gay icon?
It’s when a teenager or a successful 27-year-old will come up to me and say, “Thank you. You saved my life. If it weren’t for you, I would’ve never come out and been able to live the life I’ve lived.” And what can I say? That’s worth everything.
Every single person who makes that choice to stand up and present him- or herself in life as who they are – every single time one person does that – it changes the world. It goes out and it changes others, and if they’re doing it in public and living their truth – I mean, come on, Ellen and Michael Sam! – they change the world.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I would love for it to be, “Hey, that Melissa Etheridge, she just changed the world a little bit.” That maybe – because I was here – life was great for some other folks, you know? That’d be nice.
Which song of yours will likely be played at your funeral?
(Sings creepily) “Coooome to my windoooow.” (Laughs) I really haven’t thought about it. That’s one thought I haven’t thought about! I’ll leave that up to you guys, OK?
In 2002, you released your memoir “The Truth Is…: My Life in Love and Music.” Would you consider writing another?
Oh yeah. That one was just the first third of my life. I have much more to write about. Life happens so quickly that I haven’t even jotted anything down, but I think about it all the time. The next book I’m gonna write, I will have sat down and taken a large chunk of time to write it because I think it deserves that.
What would you call this second book?
Something like, “The Truth Changes.” Because it does! With my mother and my sister, I certainly don’t hold the same sort of angst that I used to at all. That’s so far away from me. I can look back and tell a story that I told and I look at it a little differently now, because I’ve learned more things and I’m a different person.
Melissa Etheridge performs at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. For more information, visit http://www.michtheater.org.