An Interview with Melissa Ethridge
written by Stacey Sampson
As a purveyor of pretty much any creative endeavor I can get my hands on, I am a strong defender of the cliche, “If you don’t try, you’ll never know.” Far too many of the opportunities that have arrived at my feet stemmed from previous experiences and people I met along the way. If I had not taken a chance on situation “X,” situation “Y” would have never breached my sphere of knowledge.
So when INBA approached me on a blistering hot Wednesday afternoon as I sat in the middle of a meeting, to ask me if I might be interested in an interview with Melissa Etheridge, that very thought came to my mind. After I internally screamed in excitement for about ten minutes, I seized the opportunity to quickly (and ever so cool as a cucumber) reply back indicating that it would be a privilege.
Had I not moved to Spokane; had I not begun my own music career; had I not begun writing again; had I not met certain people in my time here – none of this would have come about. Some other brilliant writer would have received the very same opportunity, and hopefully would have enjoyed it just as much. Nevertheless, my whole “mantra” over the last two years has been to say yes to everything I could. Every experience. Every opportunity. Why? Because when life throws things at you, certain things stick. Not all good. Not all bad. But rather than shut down or run away simply based upon fear, I thought it important to embrace it all. I am a storyteller, you see. Which is one of the reasons I am so deeply rooted in music – it’s all storytelling. And without experiences, no one would have any stories to tell.
Over the span of the last 25 years, Melissa Etheridge has told many stories, and has had, no doubt, many experiences to draw from. I spoke with her about a variety of topics as she prepares for her next stop in Spokane for the August 4th show at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. The one overarching theme of the conversation was, simply stated, to put yourself out there. Let your voice be heard. Don’t shy away from things like fear, competition, injustice, and ridicule. The only way to be heard is to make others listen.
Beginning in 1988 with the release of her self-titled album, Melissa began her journey to be heard. She found early success and acclaim; yet it wasn’t until her release of Yes I Am in 1993 that her music sphere started to grow larger, more mainstream, and touch more people. Her latest release, 28 years later and still ever the rock and roll queen, the 2016 album MEmphis Rock and Soul invokes the spirit of southern soul and blues, incorporated in her Melissa-like style, and harkens back to an older age with covered songs such as Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and other legendary Stax recording studio artists.
In addition to her music, we spoke about the creative process, finding inner strength, and her views on where we are as a society:
SS (Stacey Sampson): MEmphis Rock and Soul is an amazing album. I love that you took older, classic sounds and reinvigorated them to something newer and fresh and in your style.
ME (Melissa Etheridge): That’s exactly what my intention was when I went in. I wanted to show and involve the influences of those early soul rock and roll days, which was the music I was listening to in the 60s and 70s. That’s the music that influenced the music I make. And I wanted to shape those influences and songs and still have myself in there and how I do it today and create this “meal” for everyone, and it’s just been so much fun.
SS: I believe you can really hear it in a singer’s voice when they’re enjoying what they do and having fun. And even going back to your earlier albums, your voice lended itself to that bluesy, Memphis sound. Do you ever go back and listen to your earlier work to see how it’s shaped and influenced your style today?
ME: (laughs) Yes I have. It’s funny to go back and listen and understand that that’s where I was versus where I am now. I’ve worked on my musicianship, my guitar playing, I’ve worked at singing, and even my writing. My writing evolves based on how I evolve as a person; my life experiences are different, and of course, my writing changes.
SS: I read in a previous interview that you don’t limit yourself or any aspect of your life when writing – the only requirement is that it creates a good song. Is that right?
ME: Oh yes, totally! That’s the way I started out, you know when I was a teenager and just wrote about…’oh does that person like me’ – and I took that into young adulthood and I’m even still writing in that place. I think it’s my job as an artist to write about one person’s experience and their reality – so that other people can get inspired from that, and feel it, and think, ‘I’m not alone – this is what I’m going through too.’ So much of what people tell me is ‘I feel exactly like you’ even though, when I was going through it, I felt that I was the only person on earth that felt that way.
SS: It is all about coping, for sure. And in that vein, it seems that as progressive as we’ve become as a society there’s still elements of hate and judgement out there, specifically towards the LGBTQ community. Does it ever get tiring for you, considering you’ve been fighting the good fight for over 20 years?
ME: Let me tell you my world view. We have, as a community and a society, been coming to an understanding of our sexuality over time. And most definitely in the last hundred years. LGBTQ rights, are so connected to women’s rights. For the last 20 years so many people have been speaking for and working for equality and the understanding that this American dream, this American idea, pertains to ALL of us. And that is exactly what we’ve been pushing the last 20 years – all of us.
Which is why you’re seeing such a huge push back from a very very frightened corner of our society that believes in fear of ‘the other.’ They believes there’s not enough, and other people want to take it from them. And if they don’t understand gay, immigrant, religion, or whatever they’re afraid of, they’re going to get loud and try to push back.
I believe we’re living in the times that will be known as the last dying effort of a very fearful part of our nation to understand what America really is. So I don’t worry about now, because I’ve lived it enough years. This huge screaming and yelling of fearful factions – I see that as a good thing because I think that means it’s almost over.
SS: I certainly hope so. You were a pioneer of sorts, because you were out in the music world long before it was considered okay to do so. But you were just being you, unapologetically. It wasn’t a “thing” you were doing, it was just you. I think the community needs people like you to remind newer, younger advocates how far we’ve come, and even though we might be nearing the end, we should never get complacent in giving up our rights, because it’s just so important.
ME: And the way to do that is to just be you. People coming out is the single most important, powerful reason that change happens. People saying, ‘this is who I am.’ From me, to the daughter in the family, to the son. The friend at work. The person down the street. Because then, you take fear out of it. So, if we demand to be ourselves then we’re all going to keep moving forward.
SS: You know, in addition to the LGBTQ community, the music scene here in Spokane is burgeoning. From open mic nights to larger music festivals hosted here, there’s been a real push over the last several years to encourage new artists. What might you say to someone new to the game, trying to find their niche, up against so much competition?
ME: Oh, I would say don’t ever look at it as competition. Music is not a competitive sport. Music is just about expressing, especially now. All artists need to make their art, and create, and balance out a lot of the dark area that’s out there. So for musician, these are important times for people to play. Don’t ever look at it as competition. Look at it as an opportunity. I would say play anywhere, everywhere for anyone, at any time. Just say yes. Playing your music and having the experience of creating your music and sharing it, that’s what its all about. And just because someone else is doing it, it doesn’t take anything away from you. If it’s playing in your living room, or your school, or a bar – wherever that is, just do it.
SS: That’s hugely inspirational. I think a lot of people focus on getting “found” or getting discovered, rather than just playing the music that’s important to them.
ME: Believe me, getting discovered just happens. I played all the time in Los Angeles for 5 or 6 years before I was discovered. Yet in those 5 to 6 years I grew so much as an artist, and I wouldn’t take those years back. Even though I was so worried, I needed time. It’s the process. Every time you play for someone, you learn something.
SS: Getting to have you in Spokane is such an honor. Do you enjoy traveling to smaller cities as opposed to big arena-like shows?
ME: You know, it really doesn’t matter the size of an audience. What really makes the show or the location special is the people. When I come to Spokane, they love my music. They love rock and roll. North America is just filled with great cities that are all so different. I go to Chicago, and that’s different. I was in Aspen last night, and that’s a completely different experience. I love that my career is at a place where I can go to all these places, all these towns, and just have fun doing it.
SS: What do you look forward to the most when you’re on tour?
ME: I look forward to the shows! I look forward to who’s coming to the show that night, who’s been excited for weeks, who’s day was made because they get to go to the show, and hear the music that they love. I am honored to be in that position. I love the musicians I’m playing with. They are so soulful and thoughtful and musical that every night the show is special and I love it. I love it.
SS: I think that’s so important for music lovers. You get excited about a show, you maybe sing the songs in the car before and after the show, and it just lifts you up. And to hear that you’re so excited to bring that experience to people is really inspiring.
ME: Aww, well thank you. It really is just an honor to be able to do that. I mean that’s it, right there – that’s why I love it. And now I’m so excited to do the show in Spokane.
If ever there were better advice to be heeded, this is it. Express yourself. Be proud of yourself. Make your voice be heard, no matter what. Say yes to life, and keep moving forward. You never know what will stick.
Many thanks to Melissa Etheridge, the Spokane Symphony, and the INBA for this opportunity. Don’t miss out on your chance to see Melissa live in concert! Below are the details for the show:
Melissa Etheridge – August 4th at 8:00 p.m. at Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox, 1001 W. Sprague Avenue, Spokane. Tickets are still available at the Fox Box Office, at (509) 624-1200, www.foxtheaterspokane.com, and TicketsWest.