By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Lauren Dukoff
Ain’t it heavy? Ain’t the night heavy? The opioid crisis, national anxiety, school shootings. Our political zoo. The general feeling that the world is always, probably ending. Because she’s a human being even though she’s Melissa Etheridge, this all weighed considerably on the 57-year-old LGBTQ icon when she went into the studio to confront the disheartening present-day with a state of mind she calls “balanced,” resulting in The Medicine Show, her first album in three years.
There were deep self-reflective dives into her past, reframing older experiences with a newer, richer perspective, and there was last year’s tragic Parkland shooting, which happened while she was in the recording studio. To find these songs, wherever Melissa Etheridge finds them (not even Melissa Etheridge knows), she blazed cannabis because, she says, why the hell wouldn’t she? But the real roots of The Medicine Show grow from a place of renewal, reconciliation, reckoning, compassion and healing.
From a stop in March in Copenhagen while on her Yes I Am 25th Anniversary Tour, Etheridge spoke about seeking answers in inner space, the statement she knew she was making with Amy Grant, and being proud of the fact that she led the way for a song called “Pussy Is God.”
When we last spoke, you were in the early stages of writing The Medicine Show. You told me then you didn’t want to create a protest album, that it was going to put a face on some serious issues, which it does. Why take that approach with these topics?
Because – oh gosh – it goes to your soul more than just preaching something, saying, “We should do this.” People are gonna turn off the minute they hear a “should,” you know? And so making it – that’s art. That’s my art. You make it personal, and then that’s how you change hearts and minds, I think.
As a music consumer, what have you been connecting with in terms of songs that speak to our current times?
Well, I do listen to Kendrick Lamar. I listen to a lot of hip-hop.
Some of those hip-hop sounds have even snuck into your own music over the years.
I’m not very good at making it, but I love to listen to it. With some help, I can make it! But even “Medicine Show,” the song, is kind of a rap. So I listen to (hip-hop). Boy, social media now just really connects you up with other artists, and I’ve been watching the paths of other folks. And even pop artists like Kesha, the choices she made, the things that affect the things that affect people and then the art that they make from it. I wouldn’t say I was listening to anybody else and them speaking about their times (while making this album). I listen to their experiences of the time.
By examining the world right now through your own personal lens, did The Medicine Show bring you closer to any kind of truths about the world and the subjects that you wrote about?
I’m pretty solid about what truth is and how the way that I hold my own experience and the way that I define my experience and perceive it is the most important thing. So, taking care of how I receive things is one of the reasons it’s hard for me to condemn anyone else. It makes more sense to me to experience and speak of finding a way to stay out of being a victim and stay out of being a judge. You gotta ride right in the middle. And that’s balance.
I like the word balance, because we’re constantly given opportunities to define ourselves – and we can define ourselves as a victim of something or we can judge others, or we can understand that I make my own life, I make my own choices, and how I’m going to be affected by life. So you can’t really blame anybody else or become a victim. But that’s a whole other conversation. That’s, like, an hour-long conversation.
I recall reading that after your battle with breast cancer you went on an identity and self-love journey. And many of these songs look inside yourself as well as outside. Which songs for you fit into that journey that you’ve been on since beating breast cancer?
My first instinct is to say all of them, even “The Last Hello,” which is just an observation. I was in the studio when the Parkland shooting happened, and their choices – the way that they chose to not be a victim and to come out and say “we need change” – affected me deeply in seeing, “Ah, yes, I’m finally seeing outside of myself,” and what I believed in is how we can move forward and create change. So all of the songs, even the subjects that might seem outside of myself, all come from this journey of mine.
How did your song for Parkland end up being a song about the survivors and not the victims?
When I heard the surviving students, and when I saw Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg get up and speak from their hearts the next day, it was so powerful. I remember reading where there over 150,000 survivors of school shootings – survivors! – and I thought, “Oh gosh, that’s a lot of people alive who are affected by this and how deeply they are affected,” and so instead of writing a sad song about the victims I said, “What about these survivors and how can one give them hope?”
On “The Medicine Show,” you say, “Come on down to mama’s farm,” referencing your own marijuana business, called Etheridge Farms. What would I find on mama’s farm?
You would find medicine. You would find an interest in a growing desire to bring plant medicine to the world, to have people understand health in a different way. And though we talk about – wooo! – getting stoned and people only talk about it in that little area, there is so much healing and understanding and consciousness-raising and awareness that plant medicine brings. I’ve always told people we’re trying to go to outer space but all the answers are in inner space.
How does marijuana enhance the songwriting experience for you? And did it on this album?
Yeah! This whole album is totally fueled by cannabis. Oh goodness, yes. (Laughs) For one, it quiets the left side of my brain; the left side of our brain is in charge of keeping us alive, keeping us from stepping out in front of a car; it worries about the future, it regrets the past, it’s that voice (saying) “you’re no good.” Its job is to keep us alive, so it worries. And cannabis, scientifically, I can go into detail: Cannabis quiets that part of your mind and it allows the intuitive (to kick in), the right side, which is all in the now. In the infinite now. Which is really all there is. And that place is where I can open up to the thoughts and instincts and inspiration. I mean, I’ve been writing songs for a long time and I’m the first one to understand that they come from nowhere. (Laughs) I can’t explain to you how I got that idea. But that’s what it does. It quiets it.
When have you written a song high that you didn’t think you could’ve pulled off otherwise?
(Laughs) I don’t know! I’ve never thought about it that way. I suppose I could pull it off in another way, without it – but why? That’s a funny question.
I guess I wonder if it really allows you to tap into something that you don’t think you could without quieting the left side of the brain first.
Well, I don’t think I have to be in the world of cannabis to do that. I think one can meditate and one can get to where plant medicine can get them but, again, why? (Laughs)
You’re scoring the stage adaptation of the 1988 film Mystic Pizza, starring Julia Roberts. Are you done writing it?
Oh no, I just started writing it. Once I said “yes” to doing it, they made a big press release. I was like, “Oh my god, I haven’t even started.”
What’s the connection between the story and what you bring to the table as a musical and lyrical artist?
What I liked about it is it’s a very strong woman story. I went back and I watched the movie, and I remember it making a big impression in the ’80s because it was three lead women and their stories, and it’s about immigrants and it’s about taking the Old World into America and keeping those secret ingredients. Then it’s about the freedom to go find your own dream. It’s a beautiful little story that I think has some beautiful moments, and it’s my first try at this.
As someone who’s won two Grammys and also performed during the telecast, was a change palpable this year for women and the LGBTQ community?
It’s easy to look around and see a lot of change in how our society’s holding women and sort of the empowerment that women have felt since the presidential election of 2016. Because you feel that slipping back and you’re like, “No, no, no, no, we were moving forward,” so you see a lot of empowerment in #MeToo and just equality and equal pay and in the music business. The music business is funny.
It’s run by 90 percent men, and so it was sort of the last place (to change). And the men in charge of the Grammys, they’ve been around for a long time (laughs) and we witnessed (Neil) Portnow’s, “Well, women need to step up” comment. I wanted to put on my album (and say), “Well, Neil, did I step up?”
But you feel a shift from even opinions like his?
So much. It’s an awareness. It’s a, “Oh, we never thought about it that way,” and that’s what’s happening. I don’t think anyone did it nefariously. I don’t think they said, “We gotta keep the women down.” They just didn’t think about it. And that’s the problem right there: The myopic view of music, as just men making music. I myself have even looked and gone, “Wow, I didn’t think it could be that way either.” It’s been a real change for the last two years. It’s been pretty amazing.
You and recent Grammy winner Brandi Carlile went back and forth on Twitter about how much you admire each other. She actually recorded background vocals for your 2004 song “Lucky,” but you didn’t know each other at the time, right?
Yeah, no. Josh Freese was producing the track and brought her in. She was in Seattle, but then I ran into her at some music convention thing where she ran up to me backstage and said, “Oh my god, I’m such a huge fan.” I’ve been watching her career since then, and I love her music so much and I would love to do more with her and would love to be in more contact with her. I’m just so proud of her.
When I think about your collaborations, one of the most unexpected to me is your duet with Amy Grant on “You Can Sleep While I Drive” in 2000. Growing up, it meant a great deal to me as an Amy fan. My gay world and my Christian world were colliding. At the time were you aware of the significance of a major Christian artist performing with a very out lesbian?
Absolutely! I met Amy in 1988 at a hotel in Amsterdam. We hung out and talked, and she’s just a sweetheart and a big friend. I’d seen her around at things, and when she and Vince (Gill, who she married in 2000 after a divorce from Gary Chapman in 1999) got together she got flack from the Christian community, and so she always had the belief that it’s un-Christian to hate someone for loving and did not stop for one moment from saying, yes, she would come and sing with me. I thought it was huge and I was very aware of what it meant.
Looking ahead, you’re headlining the WorldPride Closing Ceremony, which takes place June 30 in Times Square. What kind of message do you plan on bringing to the event?
I’m doing three songs and I’m probably gonna stick to the big gay songs. (Laughs) I’ll have to look and see what the audience is like. At the moment I know I start the thing off that night, so maybe … I really don’t know. It just means a lot to be there. It means a lot that there’s a thing called WorldPride. Just amazing being there, and I’m just gonna love being in the presence of my brothers and sisters.
Which LGBTQ artists give you hope for the future for LGBTQ inclusion in music?
I can’t tell you how excited I am about King Princess. (Laughs) Ahh! Dig her! My daughter’s really into her, and so we’re listening and all of a sudden “Pussy Is God” comes on and I just said, “Well, I’m glad that 25 years ago I did what I did so that today a woman could release ‘Pussy Is God.’” It’s like, so my work here is done. Thank you.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.