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Wide Awake: an interview with Melissa Etheridge

by Lawrence Ferber
If Melissa Etheridge ran a metaphorical lemonade stand, she would serve some of the most delicious lemonade in the world. After all, she has mastered the art of turning lemons into lemonade, morphing pain and life’s challenges into fantastic, transcendent music. Evidence 2001’s “Skin,” borne from and about her heart-wrenching split with partner Julie Cypher (who decided to pursue relationships with men). Her new album, “The Awakening” is the first since her 2004 diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent, arduous battle with the disease. Her ninth album, boasting a purity and truth she attributes to the ordeal, is certifiably one of her strongest, most accomplished and most career-defining works to date.

“Okay,” she responds to the compliment, “but can you tell the universe I’m done with the personal hell stuff?”

Melissa Etheridge's latest CD 'The Awakening' is her first since her 2004 diagnosis of breast cancer.
Both hellish lows and heavenly highs are represented on “The Awakening,” a concept album that traces Etheridge’s life and career from its start. From when the midwest-raised singer/songwriter made her way to California and found her first gigs and same-sex affairs, to the triumphs of today (which include last year’s Best Song Academy Award win for “I Need to Wake Up,” from the film “An Inconvenient Truth”). With an additional theme of time travel, Etheridge takes the opportunity to confront herself of yesterday, as well as the her life tomorrow (with the inspirational “Message to Myself”). She also affords listeners an intimate and raw peek into her experiences in love, relationships and the bedroom with ditties like “Threesome” and “An Unexpected Rain.”

Having recently questioned the Democratic presidential candidates about LGBT issues on the Human Rights Campaign/LOGO’s historic panel, today’s Etheridge is in a healthy and pleasant place. Wife Tammy Lynn Michaels (the inspiration behind Etheridge’s “happy” 2004 album, “Lucky”) occasionally appeared in the background to chime in as we chatted via telephone about the album, why she doesn’t want any more threesomes, and whether she suspects that Hillary is one of the Sapphic sisterhood.

I loved you on the HRC/LOGO Democratic candidates’ forum.

I was so honored to be there. The crazy thing is I was thinking, “I’m going to represent my community,” which is an absolutely impossible thing to do, because our community cuts across every single group, organization and kind of person. There’s absolutely no way you can really represent everybody. We’re not even all Democrats or Liberals or anything. So it was kind of a lopsided thing but what an honor to be there. I tried to conduct myself as best I could.”
Who’s the hottest Democratic candidate, having seen them all in the flesh?

You know, that John Edwards, he’s a handsome boy. And he’s got a million-watt smile.

Were there any awkward Hillary moments?

Oh my god, yeah. I’ve done so much with the Clinton Presidency and I knew him when she was the First Lady. So to kind of stand back and have to say — because I felt it had to be talked about and brought up — “hey, I remember doing all this work for the Clinton campaign and then one by one all the promises were sold down the river and it really hurt.” I understand the politics of it, I do, but I wanted to just confront her [about it]. And it was a little awkward and I don’t think she was expecting that.

Do you get a lesbian vibe from her?

[laughs] No. I think it’s unfortunate that a powerful woman who is succeeding is labeled a lesbian. I don’t know whether to take that as an insult or compliment. And so here she is, a powerful woman and, of course, lesbian stuff all around her and if it had been a different sort of forum I would have said, “Hillary, I’m a lesbian, I know lesbians and you are no lesbian.”

If you could face the Republican candidates next, whom would you like to put some questions to?

Etheridge with partner Tammy Lynn Michaels.
Oh, the only Republican candidate I would even talk to is Ron Paul. Actually, now that I think of it I would like to talk to Mike Huckabee, because he’s a spiritual guy and there’s a little more to him than these other guys who seem to be power-hungry and weird.

Congratulations on the Oscar win. Was that an awkward moment, receiving it from John Travolta and Queen Latifah, for reasons I won’t elaborate on?

[laughs] I was wondering if anyone noticed the subtle irony. And you know who I saw backstage after I won? Jodie Foster. I was like, “what is the universe telling me?” And you know they’re all looking like, “Congratulations, loudmouth!”

So “The Awakening” is a concept album — how would you like listeners to approach it?
I would hope the listener would start at the beginning and listen all the way through and just take that hour if they can find it in their day. I used to grab the latest Bruce Springsteen album and listen to it from beginning to end. Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, their albums were pieces of art and you wanted to know what the artist was saying. I hope people will approach this album that way.

I love the upbeat pop song, “Message to Myself,” and the sentiment of telling and reminding yourself: “I’m sending out a message to myself/so when I hear it on the radio/I will know that I am fine/I will know that I am loved.” Do you want people to adopt that song and say, “This is my message to myself?”

I would. It’s just as cheesy and up with people as you can get, but I truly believe that change starts right inside yourself and you’ve gotta start loving yourself before anything else. Every single choice you make all day long, it has to come from that and if this song can inspire anyone to start on that journey, I’m proud to have been part of it.

Tell me about the story behind the bluesy epic, “An Unexpected Rain.”

It’s me playing in the bars for five years and all the trouble one girl can get into. If you listen to the album from the first song all the way to the end, it’s my journey from the Midwest to California and “Rain” is when I got to Southern California, first started really living the gay lifestyle, out and finding myself and having relationships. It’s about meeting someone at a bar, having that one night stand, but then [staying] in touch with them. [Later on] I got a job in Long Beach and they said, “hey come stay at my place while you play down here” and, “gee, are we kind of girlfriends?” And I was like, “no,” and I chicken-heartedly left, leaving a note, “sorry, its not going to work out — bye.” I gathered some pretty bad karma in my early 20s. That’s kind of what I’m stating, it’s a large apology. I really made some bad choices and I’m so sorry for the unexpected rain and sadness.

On the country-rocker “Threesome,” you sing that you don’t want to have a threesome “ever again,” which implies you’ve in fact had some. Tell me about the threesome that broke the camel’s back — and were the women at least hot?

[laughs] Well, you know, they’re interesting. And when you’re in a relationship that is lacking and definitely not fulfilling emotionally or physically and someone comes along, whatever adjective you want to put in there, it is that. But when you find the relationship that fills you up emotionally, physically and makes you a better person and doesn’t tear you down, that you can build a family or a life around, you don’t have time or the need [for anything else]. You’re not aching and looking for that drama. I barely have time to kiss you. We’re in our life, you know?

That said, are you cool with Tammy Lynn having onscreen threesomes on “The L-Word?”
When she worked on “The L-Word‚” it was so funny. She is gayer than gay, like full-on my gal. And so I thought, “yeah, she’ll do her Hollywood thing and maybe have to kiss a guy every now and then,” and of course she goes on “The L-Word‚” and has to kiss a girl and I’m like, “Wait a minute! I wasn’t expecting that!” But we see each other through that, there’s a lot of understanding.

You touch on the concept of time travel on the album — is time travel a good idea and if it were possible would you go back and meddle?

I think if we ever got to the point, the place in our consciousness and society, where we truly understood the concept of time, then time travel would be understood — that it’s all in the mind and you can go back and fix or meddle or make right the wrongs of the past by what you do right now in the present, and in the future. It’s not like science fiction and you’re gonna climb in a machine and turn a knob and go back to 1952. It’s more a concept of what time is. Once we’ve conquered that then we’ll be able to do so much more.”

So, no Melissa going back in time and assassinating Hitler?
No. Sorry. We can deal with the Hitler issues right now in our lives — that’s what time travel is. Learning from our history and past mistakes.

You address Hollywood superficiality on a couple of songs. Conversely, what do you find most real about L.A.?

You know what, I came here 25 years ago with that golden dream of “California, rich and famous me, I’m gonna be a rock star.” And people come here with that. My favorite people are the ones who come from the Midwest or South or anywhere to try and make their dreams come true. That sort of innocence and dream, that wanting a better place, a better life, to create something, to be a writer or singer, that is what I like about this city. The sort of parasites that come around that? Pretty dangerous. And our willingness to shower people with recognition, fame and money, that have really not worked out what they’re doing and their plan and its very superficial? It ends up destroying their lives. We see it happen right in front of us.


Britney, Lindsay, Paris, we watch these actors get skinny, skinnier and skinnier. You meet them in person and cannot believe how really skinny they are, because the pictures add weight and it’s frightening and scary. I start thinking about our society and how sad it is that we’re telling these women “if you are thin enough and make enough money, then you’ll be happy,” which is the biggest lie in the world.

It’s twisted, but Paris Hilton could get more people to listen to — and not question or debunk — the environmental message and facts than Al Gore.

Isn’t that twisted? It blew my mind when Michael Moore was bumped off of Larry King for Paris Hilton. Yeah, totally knocked off to have the Paris interview. I went “Whoah!”

If the Melissa Etheridge of 25 years ago were to move to L.A. today would she be caught up in the “American Idol” thing?

Oh, I would be “anti-American Idol.” When I was playing the bars in the 80s, “Star Search” told me they wanted to put me on the show. I said, “uh-uh, not for me. I don’t want to become famous that way.” I would so not be on “American Idol,” no, no, no.

Does Hollywood understand you or do you get approached with ridiculous and inappropriate ideas like “we want you to be in a sitcom called ‘Let Her Eat Kate’‚” or something?

Oh yeah! Constantly. Every day I get these crazy offers…I’ve made some missteps, but overall I’ve been able to walk this path and steer clear of the untruthful things. Because I have a fan base, because I’m able to perform my songs live — that’s my favorite moment, to be live in concert — everything else I can put secondary so I can say no to a lot of things.

So what if “American Idol’s” producers asked you to be one of their celebrity tutors or judges next year?

You mean again? They ask me every year! The very first year I was like, “ah, this is cool.” And I enjoyed watching it. And the second year I remember calling one of the contestants who sang one of my songs. I knew the musical director there and I was really into it and might have considered it at first, maybe the second year. But common sense came over me and I went, “just because I’m enjoying it does not mean I have to be in it!”

How are the new twins, Miller Steven and Johnnie Rose?
Oh, they’re beautiful 10-months-old, just starting to walk and talk and get into the world and discover things. Every day is different and beautiful.

Tammy Lynn’s blog, www.hollywoodfarmgirl.blogspot.com, received a lot of attention in January when she wrote that entry about the Isaiah Washington fracas.

That freaked her out big time. I don’t mean to speak for her, but she loves the blog because she gets to put out her own feelings. And because she’s raising the kids right now, it’s a fulltime job, so whenever she can run into the room and get 30 minutes to herself she does it.
Does she have a favorite song on the album?

Oh, I wonder. [to Tammy] Honey, do you have a favorite song on my new album? [Tammy responds in the background] Awwww, you’re sweet! “I’ve Loved You Before.” It’s about her. It’s really, really nice [to sing songs about her]. It’s really tender and then you get to share it with the world. But the first moment of actually singing it to your loved one is really sweet.

info: www.melissaetheridge.com

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