With the release of her self-titled debut album in 1988, Melissa Etheridge immediately presented the voice and music that was to define her career to this day. Her raspy, emotional, and confessional performances caught the ear of a ready audience with two songs — “Bring Me Some Water” and “Like the Way I Do” — gaining radio airplay quickly after the album’s release.
But in the 30 years since, Etheridge has come to be defined as more than a recording artist, though she continues to release new music regularly including The Medicine Show this year. She is also a cultural icon, a social activist, and a cancer survivor who chose to share many of her private successes and challenges as willingly as she has her music.
While some of those choices have made her controversial to some, it has also more deeply endeared her to her loyal fans and beyond, providing an inspiration and example for those who admire her.
The Music doesn’t change
In those three decades both the music industry and the world have changed tremendously, but one thing that hasn’t changed is Etheridge’s approach to her music.
“Things really did change a lot by the late ’90s,” she said. “The technology has changed, and digital is about 10 times as fast now. Most of the time that’s good, but sometimes you need to slow down, take the time to make sure you know what you’re doing. My producer for The Medicine Show is John Shanks, and fortunately he and I were on the same page on that. John has a studio in his home, and his studio is just amazing. It was a magnificent experience, really a delight.”
Etheridge has always been generous with her appreciation for those with whom she works, but she has also lavished praise on those who helped form her own musical journey as well as those who helped pave the way for her career.
A regular on shows like Behind the Music or Biography, Etheridge was always happy to provide insight and appreciation for her fellow performers such as Janis Joplin and Pat Benatar. Now, after she herself has paved new roads for performers who came after her, she finds herself recognized for the influence and inspiration she has inspired.
“That always means so much,” Etheridge said. “The young artists I meet that are playing rock n’ roll, that are writing songs, they come up to me now and are not afraid to declare that I’m one of their influences. For awhile there were some that were a little skittish about it, but it’s nothing like that anymore. They are happy to tell me, and I just love that.”
NO going backward
The skittishness of some likely began the weekend of Bill Clinton’s first Inauguration when Etheridge officially came out, not only announcing that she is a lesbian but taking a firm political stance on LGBTQ issues ever since. Her own romantic history has played out in a very public way.
Now married for the second time and the mother of four children (her oldest recently graduated from Columbia University), Etheridge visits Fort Wayne during Pride Month and continues to speak on issues which affect the community.
Although there have been some recent setbacks, Etheridge feels that the momentum is too strong, and that there’s no going backward.
“The reason people are pushing back so hard is because we’ve come so far,” she said. “We’ve gained so much ground on women’s rights, on equality. There’s so much diversity now. I walk around cities all over our great country, and I see so many beautiful people of all shapes and sizes, of all kinds of backgrounds, and it’s beautiful to see them coming together. So I do see a beautiful future for all of us. Right now some people are thriving on the fear so they’re going to push and push and try and try, but we’re not going back.
“I was at my daughter’s graduation the other day, and these young people don’t care about those things. We’re watching the downfall of the patriarchy, and they aren’t going to be able to use those politics of division. There are too many young people coming along who aren’t buying it.”
One other challenge Etheridge faced in the public eye was her breast cancer diagnosis 15 years ago.
Using her platform to raise awareness, Etheridge famously took the Grammy stage bald from her chemotherapy treatments. Her performance that night of Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” brought down the house and inspired India.Arie’s song “I Am Not My Hair.”
“Fifteen years now I’ve been cancer free,” she said. “It is not in my life anymore. It really changed my life because it came at a time that I was super stressed and was not eating right. I learned from that experience that my health is the most important thing, and I really take care of myself.”
She still delights in sharing her music with her fans and the audiences who keep coming out to hear her play. She loves sharing her new music but also appreciates how many still enjoy her older material.
“I am always so grateful to play the songs that people want to hear. I’m grateful that they want to hear ‘Come to My Window,’ ‘Bring Me Some Water, ‘Like the Way I Do,’ and I just have too much fun sharing those with the audience. But I play for two hours plus so there’s plenty of time to play those and some of the deeper songs, to say, ‘Let’s go back to that album.’”
While there are no doubt more albums in Etheridge’s future, she isn’t concerned about that now and is slowing down, taking that extra time, and she is happy to do it with her fans on this current tour.
“I’m just focused on touring right now,” she said. “Taking a breath. Living with The Medicine Show and enjoying every single song. I’m just happy being in the moment right now.”
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