Bringing the Rock and Soul
Three decades on, Melissa Etheridge rocks harder than ever
Next year, the self-titled debut from Melissa Etheridge turns 30. In three decades, the talented singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/activist has released a series of successful, critically acclaimed albums, received many coveted awards including an Oscar and two Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and survived an intense bout with breast cancer.
Known for her self-penned hits "Bring Me Some Water," "Come To My Window," "Like The Way I Do," "Fearless Love" and many more, her latest album Memphis Rock and Soul is a tribute to the influential '60s sound of Stax Records. Touring to support it, her current live show is a raucous celebration of her confessional songs with a few choice covers from the Stax catalog, all infused with the adrenaline of the moment. Etheridge spoke with INsite by phone before a performance in Springfield, Missouri.
Your most recent album was released last October and as fast as the world is changing, it seems like forever ago.
Yeah, it does. I feel very strongly that these are the times - right now - when artists, musicians and poets need to inspire. These are the times. So I am writing new songs and I'll probably record at the end of the year. It's funny though - I'm writing now as I'm hoping that in a year when it comes out, things will be completely different.
Those Memphis soul classics you cover are also from a time of great social change.
Yeah, when I do "Respect Yourself" from the Staple Singers - it's from a definite time of political unrest and racism - and you look around and go, this still applies now. That's one reason I rewrote some of the lyrics, to make it even more applicable to today. The whole story of Stax has that aspect to it. It's a political statement in itself.
I'm glad you're giving Otis Redding some attention on this album. Janis Joplin is often cited as the definitive soulful vocalist, including some early comparisons to your style. But I've always thought you are more Otis-inspired than Janis.
Have you seen the footage of Otis playing at Monterey? You can see Janis watching him. Then Janis, like a week later at the Fillmore, is moving exactly like he moved. She studied everything about him. So when you're talking about Janis, you're also talking about Otis. She was instantly inspired by him. So many of the artists who've inspired me were inspired by Stax artists.
In addition to looking back at your influences, you've also making some very direct social commentary. "Pulse" was such a heartfelt track and thanks to technology, released almost immediately after you wrote it last summer.
That was magical for me. I got off the bus that morning in New York City and my phone was just on fire about what had happened in Orlando. I was devastated. The first thing I want to do when I feel that way emotionally is to play music. So I was at my apartment and I started playing. As the day went by, I thought, "Well this is a song." I called my friend Jerry Wonda from The Fugees; he has a studio and he cleared the whole day and then some musician friends came in. That song was just a labor of love and not a dime was spent to do it. The very next day, we were able to put it on the Rolling Stone website and it was out to the world. It was so satisfying to think that maybe it could help and start some healing. So yeah, the technology was such that I could do it almost immediately.
And you beat the "Ohio" record [held by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1970]. I think they got that single out in about a week or so.
Yeah! Remember that? It was very much inspired by that whole thing.
When inspiration hits, do you have a specific songwriting method? Do you block out time every day to write?
When I was in my 20s and early 30s and before I had children, I would write all the time. I'd just have a guitar on the bed and I'd just be writing and writing. On the tour bus, everywhere, just all the time. Then when I had children, I had to make time to write. I'll go months without writing sometimes, just living, which is important to do.
Life has inspired some of your best songs.
Exactly. I tell people all the time that I'm inspired by life so I've gotta go live some of it.
Tell us about your "No Label" wine - it's unique in that it combines two popular things in one: alcohol and cannabis.
Also two regulated substances in one. It's a very difficult product for that reason. When our country feels more comfortable with cannabis products, I think people will understand that this is an old process and not just something I came up with a few years ago. Herbily infusing wine is an old way of making it and it's not like an edible. So we'll see. It's a good thing that has a long road ahead of it.
Like your career. Next year, your debut album will be 30 years old.
Yeah, how did that happen?
Any special plans to celebrate it?
Well we did a deluxe edition for the 20th anniversary of it. But you know what I'd love to do? I love seeing these artists do a concert that's just one album. I think I'd love to do that, present some shows that's just that first album, and play all the songs.
The industry has changed so much since 1988. What has been the biggest change for you personally?
The biggest change has been the internet. I have the ability now to reach everyone without having to have a middle person or a record company. Just like with "Pulse." Bam! It can be out there and you all can hear it. That's amazing to me. I'm fortunate that I still have a very healthy touring life and the Memphis Rock and Soul album has been on the blues charts since it came out in October. It hasn't gone off the charts. Things take longer sometimes and my career has always been like that. But it eventually gets out there. So I feel good about where things are right now. It feels awesome to reach people and for younger people to be following my music. I love seeing a lot of younger people at the concerts. It's a great journey. I'm not as 'woe is me' as some people in the industry are.
The Pink Ribbon Garden Project is a whole new avenue for you.
Yeah, I just started it this year. It's a long story of how it got started. On my last cruise, we donated some cabins to some Pulse survivors and some breast cancer survivors. I met this really amazing woman [Robin Maynard] who had been helping with Pulse survivors. We were talking about the state of cancer and the state of health and food injustice. I said, "The best thing anyone can do is make a community garden," because growing healthy food makes a healthy body. You can't tell these women, "Ok, you've got breast cancer - now good luck." For those who eat healthier, there's a better chance it won't come back. I said, "Look, I'm coming to town, let me know if you can think of anything we can do." She got together with the city council and they donated a piece of this park for a community garden. Not only will the survivors and volunteers get to work in the garden, they'll get to understand how food is grown and how it works. So it's about bringing whole foods to underserved, underprivileged people. We started in Orlando in May and we're working on bringing it to other cities right now. It's so satisfying. It's a real, natural process. Getting to know the earth is so important for everyone.
The new album is a solid rocker, but in the live setting, those songs really ignite.
We'll do four or five from the new album and this time we don't have the horn section, so we really rock them.
You also rock the classic hits.
I'm so fortunate to have those songs and we definitely rock them. I just want to write songs that can be performed live that can inspire and move people. So the live show is the rock and roll that we seem to be missing lately. With the loss of Gregg Allman, I was thinking about those great jam bands, those rockin' Southern bands where you get a five-minute guitar solo and all those sort of things. That's what I'm bringing, and that's what we're doing.
Melissa Etheridge plays Saturday July 1 at Frederick Brown, Jr. Amphitheater. For more information, please visit amphitheater.org.