Melissa Etheridge: Yes She Is
Celebrating Two Milestone Albums This Month at Gainesville's Botanical Garden

By Lee Valentine Smith

This summer, outspoken singer-songwriter-guitarist-activist-entrepreneur Melissa Etheridge has been celebrating two career-defining moments of her life. Her explosive, self-titled debut from 1988 and the release of Yes I Am in '93 drove the Kansas-born performer into the international consciousness of rock and roll.

Now as she prepares to release a new record early next year, Etheridge is back out on the road with a live show that leans heavily on her two greatest albums.

INsite caught up with the Academy-Award-winning artist at her home in California before she hit the road on the current leg of her Yes I Am tour, which includes a stop at the evergreen North Georgia location of Atlanta's Botanical Garden on the first day of fall.

A couple of years ago, you released "Pulse" as an online single for a commentary on the horrific events of the Orlando tragedy. Has songwriting always been your main coping mechanism?

Oh yeah, it's a way to get something out in the world that can help, raise some consciousness and maybe raise some hope. I've always been a hopeful person, so for me it's always been about keeping your eye on the good stuff and you'll get what you think about, that sort of thing.

Are you working on a song about the state of the union at the moment? David Crosby says there's no "Ohio"-type anthem yet - but he thinks it's on the way.

I think so, too. We're all under the rubble right now, trying to get out. There are some great writers, great artists who're really experiencing everything. We're all just trying to find a way to get out from under it.

I was thinking back on your catalog and maybe you've already written that anthem. "Pulse" or "I Need To Wake Up" are both powerful anthems of the moment.

You know, sometimes I'll find that something I've written in the past may have more meaning later, or maybe even ring even more true in the present, and thank you for thinking so.

Belated congratulations to you on winning the Academy Award for "Wake Up" [from 2006's "An Inconvenient Truth"]. That's definitely rare for a song from a documentary film.

It's super rare! I think in the '60s one song from a documentary was nominated. But this was the first time one had actually won. Very unusual. When Al Gore first called me and said, 'I'm doing a slideshow on global warming, will you sing a song for it?' I thought, 'Oh God, that sounds very dry.' An Oscar was the last thing on my mind, but I loved the journey of how they put it all together and how powerful it turned out to be.

The last time we talked, Memphis Rock and Soul, your tribute to the spirit of Stax Records, was out. That's a great record, but it's been a while since you've released a collection of new, original statements.

Yeah, I think it's taken me a little while to put everything under the magnifying glass and really put it all into the emotional center. That's where I like to write from. I definitely have some songs ready. There's one called "#MeToo." And one that's written about the Parkland shooting survivors, really about all the survivors of gun violence everywhere. It's called "The Last Hello." Right now, I'm just trying to put my energy into, 'How can we move forward in strength?' So there's one called "The Human Chain." There's a lot of inspiration now.

When do you plan to release it?

In January or early February at the latest. I've been listening to some rough mixes and it's really coming along.

I've followed your career since it started, and we're about the same age. I remember when you first hit the club scene and then the debut album happened. How we've made it this far is beyond me.

Yeah, you mean now we're the grown-ups? How did that happen?

It's crazy. But having observed your career over three decades now, I'm wondering how your songwriting process has changed over the years.

It's definitely changed. I'm not the same 27-year-old heartbroken person anymore. I have a lovely relationship. I've learned to find ways to fill myself up and find my own love. I'm not in those angsty places of my first, you know, maybe five albums. So the writing changes as you go along. I still have hopes and desires and I have pain. There's still darkness to contend with but I'm not going to write another song like "I'm The Only One." And that's ok because I've already got that one.

It's always fun to speak with artists who've grown past their earlier personas.

But it is fun to go back and play those songs now. It's freedom. Singing "I'm The Only One" with 2000 people? That's just a blast! Now I can sing it and it doesn't burn me, it doesn't hurt at all. It's just all good.

Let's talk about your two big anniversaries this year. Your first album is now 30 years old and Yes I Am is 25. You released two career-defining records within a five-year span.

In the fans' minds, and I think even for causal listeners, those are the ones they may really know. So this tour leans heavily on them. Right now, I'm celebrating them along with everyone who has taken those songs into their lives and everything they may mean to them. It's just about bringin' them all out and we're just going to sing them! Together.

These are songs that not only mean a lot to you as personal statements, but you've had most of them in your live set for years.

Yeah! But I like to think I'm getting better with them. I always try to stay true to the song. Yeah, we're gonna sing it and love it, but then there's jamming and all kinds of fun that can now go on around them.

Yes I Am became a mainstream breakthrough - but there's always the chance a brave-statement-type album might not seem accessible to most audiences. I liked your concept album Skin, but it wasn't nearly as popular.

Well you just never know. Yes I Am was unusual from the beginning. But I stayed with it and enjoyed every step of it.

Now looking back on the first album, it's so hard to believe it hit the 30-year-mark in May.

Yeah, I must have been five years old or something!

The story goes that your actual first album wasn't released, but then you tracked the self-titled version in four days. Set us right on what really happened.

Well it was just the first draft. I'd worked with a producer that made it sound very '80s. We recorded it and [Island Records president] Chris Blackwell said he hated it. So he allowed me to go back in the studio for only four days and bam, just make it. That's why it sounds so live and real. And he loved it.

So basically it was the same material that became the debut record.

But in the meantime I'd written "Bring Me Some Water," so I think that kinda changed things.

All of your best stuff sounds very live-in-studio, an immediate listening experience.

That's how I like to do it. If I got caught up in, 'What does the radio want to hear?' I'd have been done a long time ago. But I've always stayed true to what I feel and think and how I want to perform the songs. And it's done me well, I guess.

You had a cool cannabis-infused wine project going in California a few years ago but now you've expanded out into other cannabis-related products as well, right?

Yes, I have a brand called Etheridge Farms and we make cannabis products. We have vapes and pre-rolls and all that. We were all told it's gonna make you lethargic and will ruin your life, but in my observation of over 40 years now, it's what you make it. It can be a really good medicine, a great alcohol alternative for relaxation or pain relief. It's not addictive and it's a natural herb from the ground. There's just a whole lot of good things going for it. It is my choice of medicine, so I really wanted to create products that middle-aged folks can understand and trust. So I guess I'm the cannabis space, which is a crazy space to be in right now. But we're putting it all together.

That's a great space to exist in. I know some people who'd like to be there all the time. Speaking for a friend, of course…

[Laughs] Well, become a rock star and you can be there, too!

Melissa Etheridge performs Saturday, September 22 at Gainesville's Botanical Garden. Visit AtlantaBG.Org for more information and tickets.

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