The Lens

Melissa Etheridge Talks New Memoir, Broadway and Intense High

To the casual observer, Melissa Etheridge projects this image of a hard-driving, bad-ass, rock diva with gritty, turbo-charged hits like “Come to my Window,” “I’m the Only One” and “Bring Me Some Water” but peel back the layers and you’ll find a deeply spiritual individual, a seeker. With a career spanning 3-plus decades, Etheridge is riding high, literally and figuratively, garnering rave reviews for her one-woman Broadway show and sharing in her new autobiography how a cannabis-induced high led to a mind-altering spiritual awakening. It all happened back in 2003 when her then-partner Tammy was baking chocolate chip cookies and, at Melissa’s suggestion, decided to enhance the cookies with some cannabis they’d received as a gift from a friend. Etheridge attributes the intense high to what she calls a “heroic” dose that went into the batch of cookies. Etheridge’s quest for spiritual enlightenment didn’t end there. Far from it. She is a committed devotee of all things spiritual from tarot readings and astrological charts to past life regressions and shaman-guided ayahuasca ceremonies.

Your new memoir Talking to My Angels is not your typical celebrity tell-all. You had this revelation that you wanted to share with the world. Tell me about that.

Well, it’s funny, because the more I’ve lived this, the more I realize everybody has their own path. This is not something I feel the need to preach to the world, or save anybody. This is just my experience. And the best thing I can do is to be a good example of it. You know, saying, hey, this really helped me. Finding your own inner peace is where I’m at with that.

The “heroic” dose of cannabis-laced chocolate chip cookies that led to this intense high – have you tried to replicate that?

I have never gotten that close on cannabis. But with ayahuasca or a good dose of psilocybin or something, we’ll get to that place. As for that first experience, I describe in the book, I don’t think I’ll ever get there again. But that’s okay. The point is not to live in this non-physical realm. That’s where I will be when I’m not here. The point is to know it’s there, and try to bring some of that into this physical space so it helps you deal with life’s difficulties.

It sounded like the ayahuasca journey amplified the messages that you got from that initial cannabis breakthrough.

Yeah, I was able to bring more back if that makes sense. You can have your mind blown in that sort of situation but not fully comprehend what it all means. But if you can bring some of it back and understand that we’re all made up of the same stuff, then you start to realize how much more control you have over your own personal choices. And that can really help you move through tricky situations.

The first 30 years of Etheridge’s life were spent chasing the dream of being a rock star. With uncompromising drive and tenacity, she kept her eyes on the prize and hit the bull’s-eye in her late twenties, releasing her first album and earning her first Grammy nomination. She would go on to become a platinum-selling recording artist with a staggering list of accolades including 15 Grammy nominations, two wins and an Oscar for Best Song for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth on the perils of climate change. As she writes in her memoir: “Thirty years ago, I was living life at full speed. I was riding my fame and music career like a dirt bike at high speed, taking all the bumps, the hills, the narrow trails, looking only forward as I carved my dreams into reality, worked my ass off and made a name for myself.”

You seemed to have a very clear vision of what you wanted from an early age.

Well, yeah. The music in the ‘60s and ‘70s was so incredible. If you were a child or teenager during that era, rock and roll music was a huge part of it. You had the radio and records. It thrilled me to listen to the music. When I started learning guitar and I realized I could actually make the music, that’s where that dream came in. It was like, oh my god, do you think I could do this every day. And I’ve just been building that dream ever since.

There are so many memorable moments in the book from your childhood like when your dad came home with this great guitar and gives it to your older sister. And it’s this soul-crushing moment. Then she didn’t want it, so you got it by default. You had to convince him to let you take guitar lessons even though the teacher said you were too young and that your fingers would bleed. But you were insistent and determined.

Like I said, it was so in the culture. I loved watching the Archie’s [the cartoon, pre-Riverdale] as a child and was fascinated by the guitars they were playing. I was like, oh, what is that? I want to know how to do that. I used to just sit and look through the JC Penney catalog and look at all the guitars and dream of them. Then to have a guitar come into my home …. Finally, when I started learning how to play, it’s such a bigger mountain than you think. It’s much harder. But that’s when it got interesting. My teacher was so good – Don Raymond. He taught me how to read guitar music, which is difficult. He was a very disciplined guitar teacher, and I’m incredibly grateful for him.

In Talking to My Angels, Etheridge takes us back to her early childhood as a tomboy growing up in Leavenworth, Kansas which was known more for the ubiquity of prisons than churning out rock stars. Missy, as she was known, was tormented as a child by an older sister who sexually abused her in secret and scarred by a mother who was emotionally distant. Her saving grace was music and a father who was able to provide the love and encouragement she needed to thrive. Etheridge dated a couple guys during high school, but she started becoming aware that something wasn’t clicking. It wasn’t until her 17th birthday that she experienced her first same-sex kiss with a fellow classmate which brought clarity to her sexual identification as a lesbian. But her romantic relationships were fraught with complicated baggage that would take years to sort out.

You recently went back to your hometown and participated in a tour, riding with a bus full of your fans and pointing out your old stomping grounds, greeting kids at your former high school and sharing your memories of growing up in Leavenworth. That must have been pretty cool.

Yes. I love bringing attention to my hometown, because so many towns in the Midwest are just not thought of. My experience growing up in Leavenworth, Kansas was foundational. But for the rest of the world, Leavenworth is a small town, you know, it’s tiny. The people there were so supportive. I was able to grow up there and learn and have a childhood there. It was so solid. So to go away from there, and then have the city embrace me as a celebrity for the past 30 or 40 years is so meaningful. They’ve been very supportive. It’s not easy in these days of such division, especially politically, that Kansas is so supportive of a big, gay, pot-smoking rock star. But they are, and I so appreciate that.

But the rock star dream ultimately left a void in terms of life’s deeper questions and making sense of childhood trauma and relationships gone awry. Though the intense cannabis high (which Etheridge describes in her book as a really long orgasm) occurred two decades ago in 2003, it enhanced her connection to Spirit and sent her on a quest to learn as much as she could from a wide range of sources across many disciplines from Maya Angelou to Eckhart Tolle and Don Miguel Ruiz. Seeing how one’s perception governs one’s experiences gave her a completely new sense of agency and control. These authors and fellow seekers gave her the tools to make sense of the trauma of her past and transcend it. As Etheridge says: “It taught me how to practice love and live a life of Spirit.” Etheridge explains that for much of her life she had compartmentalized the good from the bad. This new insight taught her to understand that human experience is such that the two opposing forces – good and evil, light and dark, joy and trauma – coexist and that the best way to process the negative is to shed light on it and acknowledge it. I asked her to elaborate on this dichotomy.

Well, from what I understand, we exist in a dualistic reality. It consists of light and dark, good and bad. What makes reality so amazing is that we can choose. There’s a place of understanding that peace can’t exist without war and war can’t exist without peace. It’s just understanding that I’m going to do what I can to raise the awareness and the vibration of peace.

Etheridge has also been on a journey processing the death of her son Beckett who died at the age of 21 of a drug overdose in 2020. In her book, she talks about processing that loss and releasing the guilt and shame that are often associated with the loss of a loved one to addiction. There’s a school of thought that painful things happen to us for a reason so we can learn from it. What was the lesson that Beckett taught you?

Beckett is the biggest teacher in my life. Even when he was alive. Because his choices would be so different from what I would choose. I learned to allow and not feel like I had to jump in the fire with him to save him. Because that makes me ill. I could not get sick enough to make him well. It doesn’t work that way. I worked the last few years of his life supporting him and seeing him in the best light I could. And staying in the best shape I could to give him an example of choices he could make for himself. So, Beckett really taught me, and continues to teach me, how to love myself. Because it would be quite easy to fall into a hole of guilt and shame when your child dies. He taught me not to do that.

Her Broadway solo show Melissa Etheridge: My Window just completed its nine-week limited engagement at Circle in the Square Theatre. Through storytelling and song, she walked audiences through her life, from her childhood, through messy marriages, her battle with cancer to her spiritually peaceful present. She accompanied herself on guitar, piano, drums, and looping machine.

What prompted you to tackle Broadway?

That’s been a dream for a long time. When I was growing up in Kansas, along with all the rock and roll, I loved Broadway musicals. I had the London Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Pete Townsend’s Tommy. That’s the one where Rod Stewart is singing “Pinball Wizard” and it’s got Roger Daltry and Richie Havens. It’s an incredible recording. The classical take on rock and roll was so cool. That’s also when I was exposed to shows like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. To take rock and roll and make it theatrical, to make it something you can watch on a stage, really fired me up. I was a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Steven Schwartz and even Sondheim. My wife [Linda Wallem] and I, even before we were a couple – we had a love of Broadway. So, we always wanted to do a project together. Then during the pandemic, after Beckett died, it became about telling my story. When I started drafting the book, I finally got an offer to come do the show. After Bruce Springsteen showed that a rocker could make the transition to Broadway, I said, okay, I think I can do this. I didn’t want to do it like Bruce did. I wanted to do it closer to the musicals that I love. It’s kind of an amalgamation of both.

You seem to really seek out challenges.

Etheridge’s eyes light up and she responds with an emphatic “Yes.”

Is there something on the horizon that you’re looking toward?

Oh, always, always. I have so many dreams. I’ve lived long enough and done this long enough to know that there’s no final destination like “I’ve reached the mountaintop, it’s over.” I don’t want that. I always want to put something out in front of me. I always want to have a challenge. That’s the juice. I’ve never really tackled anything in television. And I think that’s a great medium now that it reaches so many more people with streaming services. Creating something for TV, that’s the kind of thing that I look forward to. 

Since Etheridge’s wife Linda Wallem (who co-wrote her Broadway show) is a TV writer who has worked on a string of hit shows like Nurse Jackie and That 70s Show, that seems like a natural progression. You’ve channeled your music into activism as well. You wrote the song “Pulse” to honor the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and you wrote the song “I Need to Wake Up” for Al Gore’s documentary on climate change An Inconvenient Truth. How do you decide to take on certain social issues?

It has to be something where I feel the call, where I feel like it’s something that that I can lend a voice to that will have a greater impact than a news report would. With Pulse, I knew that my community – gay and lesbian – was just devastated and frayed. To provide that relief, that’s where I feel I can do the most good. I’m not going out looking for things. But if something really touches me, I let that instinct guide me.

Your book is divided into two parts: “before” and “after” to distinguish between your state of mind before and after your spiritual awakening. It feels like there was an evolution in your songwriting with albums like Awakening and The Medicine Show and a shift in the kind of subject matter and themes you’re exploring.

Yeah, I shifted as a person. I had those experiences, and my biggest worry was no longer about waking up wondering if my girlfriend was being faithful. That’s gone, thank goodness. My view of this life and everything has changed. So that is what I write about. I realize that a lot of people aren’t there, so they’re not going to relate to that music. But I’ve got to write the music that comes from a genuine place. But I love it when people go back and discover the other music that comes from a deeper place. I like that a lot.

Talking to My Angels is available at Amazon.com. Pro tip: the audio version of this book includes many of her songs throughout.

Featured Photo: Paul Castro

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Steve Gottfried

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