Friday, May 24, 2013

Flashback Friday: Melissa Etheridge

(Once upon a time I did a telephone interview with Melissa Etheridge in advance of her Pensacola concert, which was opening for Sting in Feb. 1994. This is dated Feb. 19, 1994, though I believe it ran earlier than that.)
Melissa Etheridge affirms: `Yes I Am'
Melissa Etheridge is at it again, so smile when you read the title of her latest album release, Yes I Am.

Is she becoming more politically active while disclaiming any agenda? Is she echoing her own ``coming out'' statement regarding her sexual orientation? Is she still writing gender-neutral lyrics to raw rock'n'roll music?

Ask her and she would have to say, Yes I Am.

Etheridge, 32, earned a Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance in 1993 for the single Ain't It Heavy from her 1992 album, Never Enough. Her throaty delivery, backed by deep emotion and searing guitar, would make tracks from Yes I Am Grammy contenders as well, if they were being awarded to female rockers this year.

 ``Needless to say, it's frustrating. I feel there's a real movement of female rock music, and (the lack of nominations in the category) is an oversight,'' Etheridge said. ``It points out to me a lack of rock radio play, which these nominations are based on.''

Etheridge points to the rise of the punk rock ``riot grrls'' as one of female rock's new movements. She said she ``likes the extremes'' represented by the militant feminism and blatant anti-male stance taken by the groups, which often hold no-men-allowed concerts and as a rule exclude men from front row seating.

``When the extremes move, they push the middle and I don't look like such a `bad feminist' anymore,'' she said.

Etheridge's current gig is opening for Sting on the Southeastern leg of his 1994 American tour. They will perform at the Pensacola Civic Center on Feb. 19. On the day before rehearsals began on the West Coast, she spoke via telephone about music, religion, and sexual expression.

So much has been written recently regarding Etheridge's sexual preference and her friendship with country singer k.d. lang, that one might expect the songs on her latest release to reflect her newfound openness. Not necessarily so.

Her new disc opens with the driving guitars of I'm the Only One, a song that could be interpreted for either straight or lesbian singers: she is losing her lover to another woman — is the lover male or female? In Etheridge's case, the answer would be the latter, but the song could be just as meaningful coming from the throat of straight female performers.
``I made a decision a while ago that I would write the songs truthfully but still try not to exclude anyone. The passions and desires and feelings cross all boundaries. That is the same for everyone,'' she said. ``A man can listen to my songs and say `I know that feeling.' A straight woman can listen and say `I have felt that way.' I don't want to limit myself or that experience,'' she said.

Etheridge — who once said she was the product of a stale, white-bread midwestern environment — shares a home in Hollywood with a passle of pets and her companion, filmmaker Julie Cypher, who shot Etheridge's earliest music video. Although Etheridge said her music was open to personal interpretations, ``self-examination'' is her catch phrase. Any political, social or sexual message comes out of ``peeling back the layers,'' opening her feelings and thoughts for ``total revelation'' to the audience.

``I believe there is a way to create from and write from a totally honest part of yourself and speak directly from that,'' Etheridge said. ``But sort of like eye witnesses to a crime, everyone will see something different in it.''

Etheridge had a religious upbringing and performed both in Catholic and Protestant churches during her youth. She said she's ``not a religious person per se,'' but the influence of those years appears in her music, particularly in the new song, Talking to my Angel.

``On each of my albums there is at least one song that refers to angels,'' she said. ``I grew up in many different churches, and was struck by their icons and symbols and religious knowledge, and realized the power they have in our society. So the terms `angels,' `devils,' `God,' are incorporated into much of my writing. I'm talking about spiritual forces, a muse, inspiration, the spirit and memory of loved ones I've lost. They take on a new form that I call `angels.' ''

There is also a hint of darkness in Etheridge's songs, the plaintive voice of the outcast seeking approval and love, yet reveling in her differences. Having been embraced both by straight and homosexual audiences, and having gained public recognition through her award, she can afford to do both.

``In my personal exploration, I've found that there really is a `dark side' to all of us. You find it in our religions, books, even movies. People try to exorcise it, but there comes a point when you can't get rid of it,'' she said. ``So much fear and intolerance comes from that darkness. We're afraid of so much that we don't understand.

``I try to overcome my past inheritance of ignoring that side of me, so I draw it out, write about it, talk about it — shed come light on it. That's my philosophy, how to find some inner peace.''

(The rest of the story: I drove with my wife to Pensacola to see the concert; Etheridge's manager said I would have two tickets waiting at will-call. Instead, there was a pass to photograph the first two songs of Sting's performance, but no tickets. The show was sold out. We turned and walked away. Monday, the manager called to thank me for the article, and was apologetic when I told her about the ticket problem.)
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