Classic Interview: Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down
Photo: Danny Clinch
Melissa Etheridge’s life has been an open book. We’ve watched her unfold, unravel and unload since she came out in 1993. Perhaps she’s never been more visible than now, winning an Oscar for the song “I Need to Wake Up,” hosting a Democratic presidential candidates debate on Logo, performing at the Live Earth concerts and, of course, becoming a spokesperson for breast cancer. She and her wife, Tammy Lynn Michaels, have added twins to their family (which already includes Bailey and Beckett, the kids she had with ex Julie Cypher). To hear about her new album and new outlook on life, we sat down between brunch and putting the twins down for a nap and talked about how the world looks through Melissa Etheridge’s eyes.
You did a fantastic job with the HRC candidates’ forum on Logo.
That was really a challenge. It’s not easy trying to represent our community, which is probably the most diverse community in the world.
Was there one candidate who impressed you?
I have to be honest. Going into it I was a big Hillary, Obama, even Edwards [fan]. But I came out of that forum being a Dennis Kucinich fan. I listened to him. I was completely taken by what he had to say and how he said it. I started to do research on him, and he’s a courageous leader. He is the kind of leader that this country needs. I mean, he has already brought up in Congress the bill to form a Department of Peace. It’s the kind of groundbreaking stuff that people say, “Oh, that’s ridiculous” and “He’ll never get elected.” Why am I denying that to myself? If I’m going to walk my talk, I’m going to say that Dennis Kucinich is the man who represents the future that I want to see.
You were pretty brave, the way you confronted Hillary Clinton. What were you hoping to hear from her?
The last couple of weeks of the Clinton presidency, they did a fundraiser. I told him, “You know, I came out at your inauguration, and the years since … it was difficult, but at least you called us in and let us sit at the table.” Afterward, he gave me a hug and with tears in his eyes, he said, “I wish I could have done more.” I believed that he knew that he had sold out on those issues—that he really caved in and morally he believed inside of him that it was wrong. [With] Hillary, I wanted to see a little bit of what I saw in [Bill] Clinton that night. I wanted her to go, “You know what, it’s not right. I want to do more.“ I wanted a little humanity in it. I just wish she would just stand up and say, “Yes, this is what’s right.” Because I know that she knows it.
It’s almost like you could see them saying, I don’t support gay marriage—wink, wink, wink.
I mean, come on! Do we have to do that anymore in our country? I don’t think Lyndon Johnson said to Martin Luther King, “You’ve got to wait for everybody to catch up with you. We’re not all ready for equal rights.” No, you don’t do that. You make the radical changes, you do what’s right, because you know it in your heart and in your soul. I’ll get off my soapbox.
No, no, no! When are you running for office? That’s what I want to know.
When I raise my children and my albums are done. Give me 10 years!
You won an Oscar for singing “I Need to Wake Up” in the movie An Inconvenient Truth. How did you get involved in that project?
Al Gore is a friend. He said to me, “Melissa, we’re going to make a little documentary film, and I thought I’d like a little song to go with it.” And I was like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll write a little song.” I had no idea if it would be more than something they’d show in high schools. Actually seeing the slide show changed my life, because it was like, time’s up, I can’t just fudge along anymore. I need to start understanding that every step I take and everything I think about my world affects everybody else. So my last tour was biodiesel. And now at home, I have biodiesel in my garage. I am doing everything that I can and am learning every day how to live and make less of a footprint.
You’ve gotten a hug from a president, a call from a vice president. Does that ever trip you out, the level of influence of the people you associate with?
You know why it doesn’t trip me out? It’s because along this journey that I have been on, I am just a girl from Kansas. Just like everybody else is a person from somewhere. And when I meet these people, I realize that they’re all just people from somewhere, doing their thing. I am honored to know them and speak to them, especially the ones who have done great things in the world, because I see them as people. I see that everyday people, you and I, can do great things, and we can change the world. I have no doubt in my mind that tomorrow, if everyone just got up and thought a little differently, the world would change. I know that.
Thoughts become actions, like in The Secret.
You know what I feel about The Secret? The Secret is like the McDonald’s of the movement. I saw The Secret after I had come upon this wisdom. This wisdom I got when I was forced to be still, when I went through chemotherapy. That’s why I look at the breast cancer and chemotherapy as a gift, because it stopped me. I was just like everybody else, running on my treadmill, trying to get more money, trying to get more famous, when I stopped and the whole world broke over me like a wave. I had to be still because it was too painful to watch television. It was too painful to read. It hurt to listen to anything. Hours and days and weeks on end on chemotherapy, I just laid there in my bed, quiet. Pretty soon, that little tape in your brain, it just runs out, and there’s nothing. When you sit there and have nothing in your mind and it’s quiet, you can actually hear your soul. That was a life-changing moment. It was brilliant. I touched the part that we’re all trying to get to, that we all think is heaven or we think is nirvana. And all it was, was just being still. I just am. And I’m beautiful and amazing and powerful, and everyone is, and there’s just love. It just came to me. I started walking in it. At first I didn’t read it in any book or anything, but it just came to me. And then I started reading. I read everything from quantum physics and string theory to cosmology, to Plato, to Don Miguel Ruiz, to the self-help things. I’m telling you, every single one of them is talking about the same thing. And it’s just the thing that I found [as I was] laying there quiet in my room. Thought becomes reality. All there is, is atoms and space.
You’ve won two Grammys, an Oscar, GLAAD media awards, what’s next? The Nobel Peace Prize?
Sure! Sign me up! You know what? I don’t try for those things. Those things are the best when they just happen, when I’m doing what I love. Like for “I Need to Wake Up,” I loved the project, the movie and Al. I was honored. I thought it was very important to sing about waking up because I think that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re all becoming aware and awake. It was just a great opportunity to put that message forward. I got this little shiny bare-assed man statue in my room. [Laughs] And that’s fun. But I certainly didn’t do it for that.
Do you ever tire of being the poster child for the gay community?
I am honored by it every day. There are some really great gay leaders now. People are coming out on a local level now, and that’s what makes the difference. And if me being all out and loud helps with that, awesome! I was asked to sing at a NASCAR race last week. Any time I’m asked to go into the heart of fear of the people who fear gay people and think they don’t know gay people, that’s when I want to step up now. I’m through with the us and them thing. We are all just people. We need to stop being afraid.
Do you ever wish you could just go back to playing the bars again?
I do wish that I could walk into a bar and just sing. I have this little dream of walking into a blues bar and there’s a band and we do a couple of songs. That it could just be that. Tammy and I will sometimes go out when we’re on the road and we’ll go into a bar and we know we’ll have 30 minutes before people call other people. We have a drink and pretend nobody knows us, and then we run outside.
Thank you for the invitation to just sit and listen to your new album. And I know you’re calling this a concept album, and I’m wondering why you’re doing that now. Is it because of the place where music has moved, where people are just downloading songs?
Because that’s not the art I’m making. Because, like you, I miss running out and getting an album and knowing that the artist is going to say something to me from the first song to the last. And knowing that the artist is thinking about the world and their soul and things that music transcends. I put that into this album. I’m not an artist who just wants to put a song on the radio. I’m done with that. They have marketed and researched themselves into such a little bitty corner that all the music sounds like everybody else. While I was on chemo and going through everything, I said there is no reason on earth why I shouldn’t love everything I do and everything I make. Isn’t that what you want as a listener? That’s what music’s about.
This album does feel different to me than your other albums, and one of the things that feels different is how overtly political you are. The song that struck me was “Imagine That,” with the references to the anti-war movement. Was there any fear in putting such an overtly political song on an album?
Yeah. Let me tell you. When I started writing the songs, I literally sat down and made a deal with myself. I said, if I fear anything that I’m writing, I promise to go straight into it and do it and finish it. That fear is exactly where I need to go. I would start things and go, “No, I can’t do that.” I did that with “Imagine That,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” with “Threesome.”
“The Unexpected Rain” is so bluesy, it’s sad. What were you really trying to convey with that song?
The concept of the album starts with that dream of Hollywood, of I’m going to California and I’m gonna be rich and famous and I’m going to be gay. While I was looking professionally for those things, of course I was personally looking for relations in the gay community. Actually, right down the street from my aunt’s house was the Pink Flamingo. It was a bar, and I would go there and sit and wait for someone to talk to. I met a couple someones. It was me trying out my gay legs. I met a lot of women, played a lot of games and did a lot of things that I’m not proud of. That song is talking about that, the things that we do to each other, relationship-wise. It was my coming clean. I wanted people to see that there are things we have inside of us [and] if we just talk about it and get it out, we can let it go.
The lesbians are going to be very upset. You’re never going to have a threesome again?
I’ll tell you the story. Tammy was pregnant. She was taking a nap and I was poking around on my guitar. She woke up and she said, “Oh my God, I just had a dream that you and I had a threesome with Linda Evans from Dynasty.” And it really upset her. I had my guitar, so I [sang], “I don’t want to have a threesome.” I just joked around with her and I just started writing it. And I finished it and went, “I can’t put that on the album. Uh oh, now I have to put that on the album.”
I’ve got a lot of friends who are having kids. I’m wondering why you chose an anonymous donor this time?
Having had the experience of my older children knowing their biological father, it’s really great. That was important at the time. [In] my experience with my last relationship, that’s what made sense. They love him, they know that he’s their biological father, even though David [Crosby] doesn’t parent them at all. So when Tammy and I wanted to make babies—she didn’t know her father, really. He really wasn’t a part of her upbringing, so that needing to know who your father is just didn’t exist. We both knew that we wanted these babies, and we are their parents, and we didn’t want it to get any more complicated than that.