This wasn’t just any old celebrity interview. And I told Melissa Etheridge as much when we first got on the phone to talk about her upcoming concert in Baltimore.
As soon as I heard her on the other end of the line (or digital frequency really), I felt like I was talking to an old friend. That gravely voice transported me back to my teenage bedroom, my first CD player, and “Yes I Am” guiding me through my first feelings that there was something “more” out there, that I was a bit different from my friends, and that this woman understood, had been there, and would show me the way.
It has been 18 years since Melissa Etheridge came out. It is now impossible to remember a time when her name wasn’t synonymous with “famous lesbian,” when she was just a kick-ass rocker who sang about heartache, desire, and longing from a woman’s perspective, but with a universal relatability. And she still does just that. Coming out publicly certainly affected how she was perceived and how she ended up using her fame, but through all ten of her studio releases, Etheridge has been just as raw, open, and unassuming as she was when she started.
CREDIT: Photo by Lester CohenCREDIT: Photo by Lester CohenCREDIT: Photo by Lester Cohen“Well, because there’s always something to learn,” Etheridge explained. “There’s never an end of the road or top of the mountain. It keeps going.”
As we discussed her music, I told her she has always sounded like she’s not afraid to be vulnerable. She laughed. It was a laugh with a keen sense of irony behind it, as if to say, “Oh, if you only knew.” So, perhaps, despite the way that Etheridge has always written lyrics that lay it all out there like a love poem written in middle school, she is, and has always been afraid to appear vulnerable. Perhaps that’s the reason for the tough exterior adorned with wild mane and ample metal jewelry, for the brazen honesty about her personal life, for the way she handles her guitar as deftly and defiantly as any rock god would.
But, that ironic laugh begs the question: Is it all just her way of trying to hide how vulnerable she still really feels? Perhaps the long, flowing hair and the signature chunky jewelry are armor. Perhaps the way she’s invited the public to know about her children’s conception, her break-ups, her cancer is more a preemptive way of handling fame than honesty for honesty’s sake. And it’s possible that Etheridge hangs on to that guitar out of sheer need to hang on. Or perhaps it’s easy to read too much into a chuckle. But, in the title track of her latest album, last year’s “Fearless Love,” Etheridge’s lyrics declare, “I am what I am/And I am what I am afraid of.” Indeed, it would seem that even Melissa Etheridge, who stood up and declared, “Yes, I am,” eighteen years ago, is just as afraid as the rest of us to appear vulnerable.
Regardless, Etheridge understands that she has the ability to tap into people’s loves and fears with an authenticity that is rarely seen in one who has been so famous for so long.
“I’m just on this journey and along the way I make these recordings of these songs that I pull out of the collective unconscious. And I love performing, I love the connection I have with these people. I found that out a long time ago–that I just want to speak my truth, telling my story the way I feel it and see it.”
It is Etheridge’s connection to her fans, that is almost palpable in her live shows, that seems to allow her to remain so openly personal and raw.
Perhaps because of that connection to her fans, Etheridge has always felt it necessary to be publicly honest about her personal life. The feelings that get articulated so well through her music stem from her real life, and Etheridge has never tried to hide that fact. Indeed, that she feels compelled to share with her fans the truths of the life behind the music, is likely why she was so open about her struggle with breast cancer. Etheridge understood the responsibility she had to her fans to use her fame to draw attention to what she sees as the fundamental gaps in cancer treatment.
“Why?” Etheridge asks. “What are we doing to ourselves? What are we eating? What stresses are we putting on ourselves? And what beliefs do we hold about ourselves that inform our bodies that it has to form cancer? And why are so many getting it in the breast?”
Etheridge explained that during her cancer treatment she found that not only could no one answer her questions, but no one seemed to believe her questions were worth answering.
“The medical community, in my experience, was so woefully lacking in being able to answer the whys. So, I had to find answers for myself, in my own life.”
Etheridge explains how in trying to find her own reasons for her cancer, she discovered how out of balance her own life was. Instead looking outward for the answers, she looked inward.“Maybe the way we’re going about this is so wrong. It’s not that we just happen to get this disease, but what is it that we’re doing to our bodies, that starts inside us, and that we can do differently. These are amazing biological things we have, these bodies, and they are made to last for a really long time. But, what are we doing to ourselves?”
According to Moveable Feast, breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in Maryland, which ranks eighth in the nation for breast cancer mortality. Given that she has been such an inspiration to so many who have been affected by breast cancer, when asked, Etheridge advised Marylanders to look at their own lives to root out what may be the underlying cause for their illness.
“If they can lift out of the overwhelmingness for a moment and trust that the answers are within them, they can find balance.”
CREDIT: Photo by James Minchin IIICREDIT: Photo by James Minchin IIICREDIT: Photo by James Minchin IIIEtheridge’s new-found sense of balance is evident in her last two albums. She explained that “Fearless Love” is the second of three studio releases that she conceptualized years ago. Originally titled, “Songs of Fear and Love,” the album is about just that, fear and love. Etheridge remarks that it all boils down to those two feelings, and it’s all about striking a balance.
“It seemed to me that the inspiration behind, what started with �?The Awakening,’ was a continuing process into what I was learning. So, even though I didn’t know exactly what the plan was, it’s all part of what I envisioned when I started writing six years ago.”
Indeed, Etheridge, on this latest album, seems to have found the sense of peace for which the Melissa of 20 years ago was so desperately searching. Though she continues to distill all the pure, unmanageable emotion of longing and desire down to fourteen heart-thumping, searing tracks, Etheridge’s sultry voice seems to have more depth that comes with experience and wisdom. There is a calmness underlying each note she sings. She’s still the same Melissa Etheridge that did not shy away from putting her own aching desires on display in “Like the Way I Do.” But, it’s clear she’s learned quite a bit on her journey.
DETAILS: Melissa Etheridge in concert performing greatest hits and tracks from her latest album, “Fearless Love.” $35-95. Gates
6:30pm. Pier Six Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave. PierSixPavilion.com