As lesbian music icon Melissa Etheridge prepares to play the closing ceremony of NYC WorldPride 2019, we look back with her at her at her dad’s influence, her battle with cancer and what it’s like conducting personal relationships in the public eye.
The Growl of Gravel Roads
Melissa Etheridge’s voice has the growl of traveling gravel roads in the Ozarks — a region the artist knows well. “I used to play roadhouses all over that area,” the Kansas-raised Etheridge says with her legendary rasp. “I was only thirteen or fourteen, so I couldn’t have gotten into them without my father there to encourage me and take care of me.”
“I grew up with a mishmash of music,” Etheridge tells me. “I never felt there was a box I had to fit into,” she says. “My style — sort of pop rock with a bit of country, soul and R&B — has always made sense.” She counts The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin and Al Green among her earliest musical influences, along with Led Zeppelin and the country music she heard growing up in Kansas.
But she insists that there was no bigger influence on her life and music than her father. “My dad was the child of migrant farmers. He grew up dirt poor, and when I say ‘dirt poor,’ I mean dirt on the floors,” she says. He ultimately attended college (where he met Etheridge’s mother) on an athletic scholarship and became a basketball coach and teacher.
Etheridge says his death greatly impacted her decision to come out to the world in 1993 during President Clinton’s inaugural ball. “Be true to yourself. Be true to your life and your choices,” Etheridge remembers her father telling her. “What I am and who I am is clear, largely because of him. I’ll always be his girl. He was my biggest fan.”
The Public Eye
Coming out instantly made her an LGBTQ rights icon, but Etheridge admits that status has not always been easy to bear. “On one hand, so many in the gay community come up to me every day to thank me and say how much I’ve inspired them. But on the other, I’ve also become a figure, a symbol,” she says. “People can contrast their own lives against mine and make snap judgments about what they feel is right: I like that! I don’t like [that] she did that!’”
Etheridge sighs as we turn to her two previous, very public relationships. First, there was Julie Cypher, former wife of Lou Diamond Phillips. The pair were among the nation’s first highly visible gay couples. Their relationship lasted a decade and produced two children.
Later, there was Tammy Lynn Michaels. The couple had a commitment ceremony in 2003, and Michaels gave birth to the couple’s twins in 2006. However, they split in 2010 and endured a very public battle over finances, child support and custody.
“People take you out of any human context, so you’re just an idea, a concept,” Etheridge says about the difficulty of trying to be a role model in the era of social media. “People were split; people were upset; people had their own opinions; but they didn’t have any idea what was going on inside my life, my relationship, my four walls.”
Ultimately, Etheridge gave up on making everyone happy. “It’s hard because it’s human nature to want people to like you,” she says. “It’s not always going to happen.”
Cancer And Change
Stress, Etheridge believes, was a key factor in causing her to get sick. It was a year after her album, Yes I Am, was released (and earned her a Grammy for “Come to My Window”). That’s when the singer was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was fortunate my cancer was operable,” says Etheridge, who underwent chemotherapy and celebrated a decade cancer-free in 2014. “Once I was cancer free, I spent a lot of time investigating what caused cancer to enter my body and life, and the one thing that rang truthful to me was that I had control over both: my body and my life.”
Etheridge realized she’d been focusing on the outside of her body. “If I take care of my interior, if it’s healthy, and the foods I eat are whole foods and good foods, if I am happy — truly happy — then I can help prevent disease,” she believes. Etheridge cites the philosophy of
Dr. Dean Ornish as a significant influence on her wellness choices.
“I know the stress I take on is just as hard on my body as everything else. I can limit the possibility of disease,” she says. “Once I made the change, cancer did seem like a gift in that it brought about such huge, positive changes in my life.”
Etheridge remembers moments during chemotherapy when she felt close to death. “Cancer is the lesson of life and death. Every single one of us is going to die, and to come this close to death is life-changing, and it should be,” she says. “I was there when my father passed, and being there, I realized that a body is a body, and the soul goes on. I wanted my soul to go on, for him, for my kids, for me.”
Who She Was Waiting For
In May of 2014, Etheridge married her longtime best friend, Nurse Jackie creator Linda Wallem, just days after both women turned 53. “One day I looked at her and thought, Hey! … Well, maybe so! … I was a single mother of four, which was challenging to say the least. I asked her to stay with me after she finished shooting Nurse Jackie, and it all just clicked.”
“My family already loved her, but it was hard for me to see because it was the total opposite of my past relationships, when it was always, ‘Oooh, I find them sexy!’ and then later, ‘Oh! I hope we can be friends!'” Etheridge remembers. “She was already my nearest and dearest friend.” Her voice drops to an emotional hush. “It was the most intimate experience I’ve ever had,” she says slowly. “It was like being home.”
At home, Etheridge says the two entertainment titans challenge each other every day. “One of my favorite things about our relationship is that we respect each other creatively. We challenge each other,” she says. “We’re in male-dominated entertainment businesses, which are in a great state of change. We’ve broken down some barriers, and we now carry a lot of creative influence. We inspire each other not to write what people want to hear, or what we think they want to hear, or what people tell us to write, but what calls to us.”
Love What You Do
“If you love what you do, and start from that level of creating what you want and what calls to you, I believe success follows, especially in entertainment,” says Etheridge. “Is it easy? No. But you’re starting at the right place.”
“Who Are You Waiting For” — one of the most intimate songs of Etheridge’s career — was written for Wallem. Etheridge debuted it at their wedding. “I wrote the first verse and as the weeks went by, I realized I was writing my wedding vows. If you listen to the vocals, I’m choked up. I’m raw. I can barely go on. To find a true love, to find such a safe place with Linda is a blessing, and I can never be grateful enough to have received such a gift.”
Etheridge says her children are also a gift, and they, too, challenge her, especially in regards to her musical tastes. Her teenage daughter is into alternative and indie music. Her son turned her onto Drake and Lil Wayne.
“All those different influences?” says Etheridge. “I love that.”
Making Modern Music
“The recording industry is going through massive changes, and yet … music itself has not changed,” she explains. “Music is a part of everyone’s daily life. What’s changed is the way we get and share that music.”
With the advent of Spotify and the myriad other ways people download and stream music today, Etheridge says it became clear she didn’t need the middleman of a major label any longer, so she launched an independent label, ME Records.
Etheridge values the fact that having an independent label allows her to own her music. “One of the big differences from corporate to independent is going from having a specific budget upfront … to offering a back-end to producers and writers,” she explains. “You sit with them and collaborate in their studios. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s the ultimate creative experience.”
The singer continues to be grateful for her latest new chapter. “Life is a blessing,” she says. “We just have to remember that. We work harder on messing it up than making it beautiful.”
Find out where you can catch Melissa Etheridge on tour at melissaetheridge.com.
She will also be performing at the closing ceremony of WorldPride 2019 in NYC. Read more.
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Last modified: June 27, 2019