Melissa Etheridge needs no introduction. She's been a rock star since 1988, when she signed with Island Records and released her first self-titled album. It went double platinum.
Her next two albums also went platinum and then, in 1993, she released Yes I Am. That CD, which coincided with her official coming out, went 6x platinum (selling six million copies). "Come to My Window," "I'm the Only One" and "If I Wanted To" were huge singles on the Billboard charts, and Melissa was proof that being both an out lesbian and a successful musician was possible, even in the 1990s.
Since then, Melissa has stuck with major label Island and released six other full-length albums, beat breast cancer, raised four children, won an Oscar, married and then, this year, announced her separation from wife Tammy Lynn Michaels. If there was ever a time when Melissa should release an album about coming into your own and loving who you are before you can love someone else, it was 2010.
Like an updated version of Yes I Am, Fearless Love brings the songs about crushes and heartaches and break-ups and pushing past tragedy to keep on keepin' on in that way Melissa does so well. It's been 17 years since she came out and asked us all to do the same, and she is able to laugh about being the token lesbian used for a joke on Saturday Night Live while sharing her love of being a huge gay Broadway geek.
Melissa Etheridge is friendly and thoughtful and open to discuss what's on your mind and in her heart. If you're not a fan of her music, you can at least be a fan of what she's done for lesbians in the public eye, because she's a huge part of the last two generations' (this writer included) freedom to feel good about being gay but not letting that define you in every aspect of your life.
Melissa recently called AfterEllen.com to talk about the writing of her new album, what she thinks about musicians coming out today versus decades past and why she gives Katy Perry the thumbs up.
AfterEllen: It's been three years since The Awakening. You must have had a lot of material and ideas in between your last album and Fearless Love. When did you start writing for the new album?
Melissa Etheridge: Well actually, when I made The Awakening, I had a long vision in mind for three albums that I wanted to do - one right after the other, over the course of however how many years it would take. And I wanted it to be, the first one about awakening, about my story and how I got where I was.
And then I knew the second one I wanted to be about fear and love, and the choices we make in our life. And I know the next one I want to be about oneness and unity and other things. I haven't started writing it, of course, yet. I have this sort of a trio vision of what I want to create so I started thinking about this three years ago. And then in 2008, I started conceptualizing and putting it together. I met with John Shanks, my producer, and then in 2009, I started writing and I wrote from about January until July. I went to the studio in July.
AE: One of the themes that I hear on the album is about being true to yourself and it comes off as very personal. Is that something that happened in your life and then you began putting in into music, or was it you found yourself writing about it and then it was reflected in your life?
ME: Huh. I don't really know what comes first - the chicken or the egg? I know that I have - after breast cancer, I really have been on a journey of identity, of self-love, I suppose. Knowing that I'm no good for anybody else unless I'm true to myself, and love myself and truly know that I'm in this reality, I'm in this world to figure things out for myself - not to be something else for somebody else. And that was the message I started understanding and the journey I started walking six years ago and everything else kind of came from that. Whether the music came first or the actual doing it, I don't know.
AE: I'm sure you're aware of Chely Wright having recently come out.
ME: Oh yeah!
AE: I was just reading this interview with her where she said she was fans of yours and k.d. lang's, but she was scared to buy any of your albums in Nashville because people would think she was gay. Have you ever met her or given her any advice at all?
ME: Haven't met her yet. I actually heard about that, too, and I say well then how many people - or women or men, I don't know - don't buy my albums because it means they're gay or someone might see them. I thought "My gosh!" I mean, I know it's a joke, people will say you know, "A Melissa Etheridge concert is a gay cliche," or something. And I thought about that and said, "Oh my gosh, how tragic, but how funny." Anyway, no, I haven't spoken to her.
AE: It's probably easier now with the internet and iTunes, where nobody has to see you or judge you. So what do you think about the climate now, for coming out? Chely is in country and you are more mainstream in rock so it's a little bit different, but do you think it's easier than when you came out, or do you think it's better for someone like Chely in her career to become successful first and then decide to come out?
ME: I try not to "should" anyone. I think - I know that for the individual, it is healthier, no matter what you're doing in your life, no matter what level of success, no matter celebrity or not, just you're in school or wherever you are, it is healthier for you to speak and walk your truth. You're just going to be happier and healthier, so I would hope that for anyone. When someone's in the public eye, it's twice as much, because you feel like you're lying twice as much, and lying is a very dark energy to swallow, and it will make you sick.
AE: Is there ever a time you shy away from doing something because you almost feel like it might be "too gay" and you worry about alienating non-gay listeners?
ME: I think I'm about as gay as one can get. Living my life in the public, talking about my life, putting it out there is what I need to do. Between the gay things and the cancer things and the environmental things, I could do something 24 hours a day. So I do say no to a lot of things, but it's not because I don't want to be perceived as too gay. That's like saying do you want to be perceived as too straight. So no, I don't not do anything because of it being gay.
AE: I know you said you don't like to "should" anyone, but I was wondering how you feel about Lady Gaga or Christina Aguilera in their videos kissing women and using bisexuality whether it's real or for show. Or Katy Perry's song "I Kissed a Girl."
ME: I think it's all great! I think we win when we stop making it so black and white, this and that, duality, you know - you're either gay or straight. You know what? There's a big beautiful rainbow of gayness to straightness. If somebody wants to kiss a girl, great! I'm all for it. I think we get ourselves into trouble when we try to say OK, you're either all this or all that. It's just not true.
AE: A reader wanted to know if you think there's any validity to the notion that artists do their best work when they're unhappy.
ME: No. I think they do their best unhappy work when they're unhappy. They sing the angst well when they're angsting. I think the hardest job is to mirror and reflect what is inside of them to the universe and we're mirrors of society. I think you just do your job. I think your goal is to be happy. To think you have to be unhappy to be a successful artist, that's just suicide.
AE: I could imagine that would be very depressing. I feel like so many interviews we read with celebrities or musicians is when they're at their worst or something bad has happened to them. It seems in all your press lately you are very happy, and that's great to see. One of my favorite songs on the album is "Nervous," and I think everybody's had those feelings that you're singing about. I'm wondering if it's easier to write a song or sing a song like that now that you're a single woman.
ME: Sure! It's a little more fun, yeah! People project all kinds of things onto a song and onto what I'm performing and singing. And my songs are fair game for anyone. And for me, too! I can project whatever I want to when I'm up there singing.
AE: Are you ever worried about Tammy Lynn's blog and what she might write about you on it?
ME: Oh no, no worry. Tammy is a wonderful, creative person. That blog is her soul and her spirit and I would never want her to censor herself. When I'm out here and everyone's asking me the questions and writing down all the answers, she's got to have somewhere to put hers.
AE: And I'm sure she'd never ask you to censor your songwriting in return.
ME: Yeah, no! Not at all.
AE: So we've heard you'll be doing a collaboration with Nurse Jackie creator Linda Wallem. Is that true?
ME: She's like my best friend, so. We've always talked about doing a musical in our spare time. Someday when we can, we'll do it. Now she has a hit show and I'm going on tour. [Laughs] She's just a dear. Linda Wallem is just one of the greatest human beings on the earth and I'm blessed to be such close friends with her. I'd love to collaborate with her. She's a genius.
AE: Would it be original music or songs you've already written?
ME: It would be original music, yeah. I'm going to write it. We're just old gay Broadway show geeks.
AE: Will you please put at least one lesbian in it?
ME: Are you kidding? Yeah!
AE: Just making sure!
ME: Yes, yes!
AE: Is there anything you never really feel like you get a chance to talk about in interviews?
ME: No, good lord - I talk about too much!
AE: Do you ever feel like there are misconceptions about you?
ME: Oh yeah! Because people - they're not going to know me, that don't know me. They're going to project whatever's going on inside of them and whatever they assume. There's always assumptions. I can't go around and tell every million people "Oh, it's not this way - it's this way." I had to let that go a long time ago. I have to live my life and the people in my life know what I'm doing, and you've just got to walk it.
AE: Now that the album is out and you're doing interviews and appearances and gearing up for the tour, what's your favorite part of the process? Is it the day it's released or seeing how it's doing - what's the best part for you?
ME: The best part is when I step on stage and the people are singing those new songs, the ones that I was just having my own little thing with. And they're just there. The singing them, that's the best part. Because when I write them, I think "Oh I can't wait to sing this on stage, and people will do this hopefully!" And then when it happens, it's a reward.
Fearless Love is out now.
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