The Etheridge Edge

Melissa Etheridge on choosing love over fear, motherhood over mayhem

It’s a sad time in coupledom. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the lesbian Democrat from Wisconsin, and her partner, Lauren Azar, are reportedly separating. So are Al and Tipper Gore.

Melissa Etheridge is in the same boat, splitting from wife Tammy Lynn Michaels, with whom she has two young children. It’s a familiar song for Etheridge, who made a similar transition in the 1990s with Julie Cypher, with whom Etheridge also has two children.

Melissa Etheridge
Melissa Etheridge
(Photo by Lester Cohen)

But while Etheridge’s personal life may be stormy at the moment — easily evidenced by a visit to her ex’s blog, Hollywood Farm Girl — her artistic life is celebrating the release of her 10th studio album, Fearless Love.

It’s full of the hard-driving rockers that fans expect of Etheridge, along with the political. “Miss California” is the Kansas transplant’s message to the state she now calls home, the state that voted for the infamous Proposition 8.

Your sweet seduction led me far from home

Your self-destruction gives me sticks and stones

Your propositions make me feel so cold

Etheridge is also taking fans on her spiritual journey with Fearless Love. The title, in fact, embraces her deep view that existence boils down to these two poles: love and fear.

From her home in California, tucked in with a cup of tea — “I have tons of tea in my little tea cupboard. Mostly green and white teas; I’m not a black-tea girl” — Etheridge spoke with Metro Weekly a few days shy of her 49th birthday.
Whatever upheaval may be occurring in her personal life, Etheridge did not seem to fear another birthday. She confirmed instead that, as a Gemini, she might be celebrating in grand style.

“That’s what Geminis do! We love to throw parties on our birthdays. We are noisy party girls.”

And in the case of Etheridge, she is also a mother, an ex-wife, a musician, an artist and, like all the rest of us, contemplating her place in the universe.

METRO WEEKLY: I just made it through my second listen of Fearless Love, and I’m really curious about the song, “We Are the Ones.” It’s my favorite song on the album.

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: Oh, thank you! Mine too.

MW: But the part I’m curious about is the languages in the background. I think I caught some Japanese, maybe some Thai or Filipino. What am I hearing?

ETHERIDGE: There are about 30 different languages on there. I was going to say, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” in all these different languages. But then I was like, “Aw, that’s a lot of work.” [Laughs.] And I’d probably mess it up and say, “I’ve killed all the cats in the neighborhood.”

So what I did is I thought, “I will call my international record office.” My record company has offices all over the world. I put out this memo: “If you would, please, could you just make a little MP3 of these words, ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,’ and ‘I feel you, you feel me,’?” I thought I’d get, you know, five or 10. I got about 50, from Cantonese to Greek, Hebrew and Spanish, from all over the world. And it’s all these people just from record offices, standing there going, “Okay, what am I supposed to say? ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’?”

Something happens when you say that. It’s like you start to feel the emotion, even though you don’t know the language. The whole background is this conversation of “I feel you, you feel me” in all these languages, and I just love it.

MW: Did you write all the Fearless Love lyrics? Are they a peek into your psyche?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah, completely.

MW: The message, the philosophy, that life is a struggle between love and fear, when did that realization come to you?

ETHERIDGE: That was my journey with cancer — right before, during, and definitely since. What happened was I got to the top of the mountain they say we’re all supposed to do. I worked hard and became rich and famous. There was supposed to be some sort of pot of gold at the end of that. That’s what we’re all taught in school. But I got there and went, “Uh-oh,” because all I saw were a bunch of other rich and famous people going, “Uh-oh.” There was no happiness there. There’s no “there” there.

MW: There’s no big, happy compound where all the rich and famous hang out together?

ETHERIDGE: No. Some of us end up jumping off. Some of us end up drinking or taking drugs. Others of us go, “Wait a minute. There’s another door over there. What’s that door?” And that door isn’t about money. It’s the spiritual door.

What happened was I picked up Ken Wilbur’s A Brief History of Everything. I started reading about quantum physics and enlightenment and spirituality.

And then I got cancer.

I was like, “Whoa, what’s that? What’s this fear of death? And what is death?” I just went down the rabbit hole. I came out the other end thinking, “I’m creating all of this on a quantum level. And if I am, then maybe I want to change the world — and I can change the world by just how I feel inside and what I wish and what I put my attention to.” So I want to work with people who want to change the world.

Then Al Gore called, and I wrote “I Need To Wake Up.” I’ve just been walking this path. I can’t be afraid that people aren’t going to like what I sing about. It’s just been six years of this trip, and here I am with Fearless Love saying, okay, now I’m going to take this gift that I’ve been given of writing and singing and performing, this channel that I have, and I’m going to put this lens on it: this focus of fearless love, that if you are not choosing to love, you are choosing fear. And then try to make it entertaining. [Laughs.] That’s the trip I’m on.

MW: That touches on how you’ve been affected by fame, by facing your mortality with your cancer fight, but what about motherhood?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, motherhood, that’s the most important thing! That’s the ingredient that keeps me grounded to earth, to understand my own childhood and how I can influence my children. They are still here to walk their paths, to understand this, the way that they chose before they were incarnated here. Yet, as a mother, it is my job to love unconditionally, to provide that solid ground of love and fearlessness and security.

MW: You’ve spoken before about darkness in your own childhood, but overall was it a good childhood? A happy childhood?

Melissa Etheridge
Melissa Etheridge
(Photo by James Minchin III)

ETHERIDGE: For the most part. It depends on how you look at “good” and “happy.” I don’t want to judge it.

The funny thing is, as you look back that constantly changes. The anger I had for my mother, that sort of fades after a while when I realize, you know what? She was just a person. She didn’t know what the heck was going on. How does any of us know what’s going on? You kind of forgive and let go of a lot of stuff. Your idea of what your childhood was changes. You can change your past that way. I think that’s part of getting older and wiser. You let go of some of that.

MW: Continuing with your relationships, I understand your relationship with Tammy Lynn Michaels has gone through a serious transition.

ETHERIDGE: What a lovely way to put it. Thank you.

MW: Well, it’s not ended, in the sense that you will still know her.

ETHERIDGE: Of course, yeah, I will.

MW: But I bring it up because I want to know, during a painful situation like this, do you get much comfort from your fans? They seem so dedicated. Reading the message boards on your site, it’s as though you’re the nexus of this community they’ve built that actually goes well beyond just writing messages about you. It’s like you were the conduit for them to find each other.

ETHERIDGE: I love that. I find that with news like this, they’re supportive. They send a lot of love and good wishes. The sweetest thing is they don’t judge. They can never understand all of the — no one can, I mean, unless you know me — yet they’re just kind of there. “We send you our love.” It’s very sweet.

MW: But you can’t hug thousands of people at once. I imagine this sort of ethereal cloud, but not something tangible.

ETHERIDGE: Going back to the sort of esoteric part, it’s energy. When they send their good thoughts, that’s energy. And I feel it. That’s what we do with each other. I’m blessed with this huge — like you said — cloud of beautiful energy, of support, of best wishes, of wonderful thoughts. That’s incredible, and I’m very grateful for it. It can be very healing.

I remember when I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt a huge cloud, a feeling, a wave of good thought. That’s energy. Thought is energy. I was blown away. It was one of the things that helped me down this journey. It was palpable. I know that people are thinking about me, praying for me. That’s powerful stuff.

If we understand satellite radios and cell phones, why can’t we understand our own energy in our brains? People are like, oooh. But that’s actually just real.

MW: Is there a particular faith you identify with, or is your spirituality more freeform?

ETHERIDGE: It’s very freeform. I do not say that I’m any particular thing. I’m deeply spiritual, but I’m not Buddhist, anything like that, no.

MW: Politics have also played a part in your music, including on Fearless Love. “Miss California” is a good example. Do you get any flak from critics or fans who you might ask, “Please, just lighten up. Give us pop?” Do you need to have purpose in your art?

ETHERIDGE: People who would want me to do that wouldn’t bother telling me. They’d just leave. I think my fans want me to be myself. They want me to be truthful. And I do try to put the message inside an entertaining box.

MW: What issues are front and center for you right now? Wonky readers in D.C. will want to know. Are you hoping for a concert to save the Gulf Coast, by chance?

ETHERIDGE: I tell you what — and I’m going to tie it back in with the esoteric part we were talking about — what’s most important to me is the individual journey.

Especially in Washington, D.C., filled with people who know, “We have to have peace, so I’m going to go out there and fight for peace.” Okay, how about you find peace within? How about you solve the conflict inside yourself? Because we will never have peace outside until each of us has peace inside.

When enough of us say, “I don’t have to make someone else do something for me…. If I walk my path and give my attention to the things that bring peace and make me happy, then my world will be peaceful,” it changes the whole hologram.

MW: That’s a hard message for political people to swallow.

ETHERIDGE: I know. They’re very “left brain,” and I’m talking from a “right brain” place. [Laughs.] But that’s my job.

MW: Do you actually like D.C.?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I do. It’s gorgeous. I love the energy. Everyone’s so intense, and yet they mean so well. It’s sort of like the entertainment industry, except you’re all just smarter. [Laughs.]

MW: “Hollywood for ugly people”?

ETHERIDGE: I didn’t say that!

MW: You’ve played a Clinton inaugural ball. You’re buddies with Al Gore and an advocate for a healthy environment. But when it comes to gritty politics, do you get down in the campaign trenches?

ETHERIDGE: Not recently, because I have a different view of politics now. But, oh my goodness, in the ’80s and ’90s I did everything from [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. [Barbara] Boxer (D-Calif.) to Howard Dean. And [Rep.] Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) — he’s my favorite. I love, love Dennis Kucinich.

But I have actually come to a point where I see very clearly that the whole “us and them” thing that the Republicans and the Democrats have going, this tug-of-war, if you pull back just a little bit you see that there’s a whole entity, a whole other power structure that doesn’t care if it’s Republican or Democrat because they own both. They’re calling the shots and nothing’s gonna change. All that really separates them, really, when you get down to it, there are some social issues. I think Obama’s proving it: He’s not going to go against the drug companies or the oil companies, health care, the insurance companies…. They own this. We’re in a soft fascism. The Democrats and the Republicans better wake up soon to that, or it’s going to get a little ugly.

MW: Are you disappointed with President Obama? That debate in the LGBT community is very loud in D.C.

ETHERIDGE: There’s a fine line that everybody tries to walk in pleasing everyone instead of, “This is what’s right,” or “This is what will move us ahead for peace.” I think it’s good for us to be disillusioned with our leaders. We’re going to come to an age where, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” No leader is going to come along and change this. We have to change this. We vote every day by what we eat, what we buy. We have to change this paradigm. We have to change it by changing ourselves, by agreeing, “I’m not going to eat that crappy food anymore. I’m not going to watch the crappy TV that makes me want to buy the crappy stuff, and keep this cycle going.” It’s up to us.

We are the ones, and we can do that. The millions of us are more powerful than the few of them.

MW: You could probably tailor that to fit a Tea Party rally.

ETHERIDGE: Yes, it is the same thing, I’m tellin’ ya.

MW: But you won’t be playing any Tea Party rallies, will you?

ETHERIDGE: Uh, no, I won’t be doing that. They haven’t asked me. Wouldn’t that be fun? [Laughs.]

MW: I remembering you back in D.C., performing for the Millennium March in 2000. Do you think we’ve come a long way since then?

ETHERIDGE: Ultimately, I think we are still moving forward. I think we’re tumbling, but we’re moving forward. People know that for us as a country, as a world, to move forward we have to embrace all of our diversity. We will never all be the same, love the same, have the same color, and worship the same. We’re not supposed to. That’s what all these conflicts are leading us to. The whole conflict that we are having, the discussions and the conflict about gay marriage means that we are working it out. We’re just in the middle of it right now. It will be worked out. It has to. There’s no other choice.

Melissa Etheridge
Melissa Etheridge
(Photo by Lester Cohen)

MW: I caught a brief interview with you on Showtime. You were talking about your song “Nervous,” off of Fearless Love, being used on Nurse Jackie. You mentioned maintaining your “rock ‘n’ roll edge.” How does a mother of four do that?

ETHERIDGE: Rock ‘n’ roll is a state of mind. Rock ‘n’ roll is speaking the truth. Rock ‘n’ roll is being fearless. Funny, the choices I make every day, that I’m a lesbian mother, I stand up in front of the world and sing about very intimate, sexual parts of us. Rock ‘n’ roll is challenging the norm. Just by living my truth, I find that I challenge the norm. So that rock ‘n’ roll edge is just there because it’s the truth.

MW: Do you have some way of retreating from that? Some place you can go to get away from the edge? Some oasis?

ETHERIDGE: My home. My children instantly ground me. [Laughs.] That’s where it is. This family life is very grounding. It’s so good for me.

MW: It’s hard to imagine you making dinner for four kids.

ETHERIDGE: That’s what I do, though. [Laughs.] And breakfast and lunches. Yeah, that’s what I do. That’s the truth. I know there’s a perception of what a rock star does. That is my job. It’s a huge part of me and I love it. It’s a huge part of me and my soul. I think more jobs should be like that. That’s great, but it is my job. Then I have a life of children and family.

MW: So at some time, the phrase, “Eat your vegetables,” has passed your lips?

ETHERIDGE: Lord knows, yes.

MW: Back to Fearless Love, it sounds both classic Etheridge, but, again, “We Are the Ones” is a departure.

ETHERIDGE: That’s what it is. This is a natural progression for me in my journey as a rock ‘n’ roll artist. This is me understanding my core as a rock musician. It’s also the evolution of my spirituality. It’s all of that. Some people are like, “It’s going back to your first albums, yet we’re going forward.” Yes, that’s exactly what it is.

MW: Can you point to any fears that you’re trying to overcome?

ETHERIDGE: There is no try. You either do it or you don’t.

MW: Did you get that from Yoda?

ETHERIDGE: I know! [Impersonating Yoda] “There is no try….” I’m not trying to overcome. Every choice I make in life is a choice between love or fear. That’s the whole idea, that there’s duality, that there is love or fear. And pretty soon you start to realize there’s no good or bad, that it’s all just love. Every day is a gift of learning that.

MW: Do you have any advice on recognizing fear? That can be a big step itself.

ETHERIDGE: Let me say this: We came here on purpose. We all chose to come here. However you look at it, whatever your spiritual affiliation or religious affiliation — or lack thereof — don’t you just get the sense that this isn’t an accident? That the consciousness you have every day that’s telling you what you have to do, where you have to go, and what you have to be — who’s listening to that voice? The part of you that listens to that voice, that part of you chose to be here. And that part of you can help you understand what is love and what is fear.

It’s a lifetime practice of waking up and taking a breath and finding the part of you that listens to that other voice, to that mind that’s telling you what you have to do and what’s going on and what you need to be afraid of. And you can make choices from listening. You can make choices, and then in your day see the results of it. Just look. Books will come into your path; read them. Someone will say something, you’ll see something on a billboard; believe it. You put it there. You’re actually creating all this. It’s a path.

MW: Is there anything you’d like to add to that? About fear or love, your family, the album?

ETHERIDGE: You’ve really allowed me to say a lot of the stuff that I love to say, so I feel very good.

Melissa Etheridge performs Tuesday, July 20, at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda. Tickets are $37-$102. Call 202-397-7328 or 800-551-SEAT, or visit ticketmaster.com. Her album, Fearless Love, is available in stores and online at iTunes and Amazon.com.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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