Melissa Etheridge earned a Grammy nomination for her self-titled debut and then went on to win one for her song Ain’t It Heavy. But neither superstardom nor true critical acclaim came until the release of her 1993 coming-out album, Yes I Am. Its success proved that a self-avowed lesbian could thrive in the rock mainstream.
Same Same caught up with her ahead of her first Australian tour since 1996…
Ask Kansas-born, California-based Etheridge what she’s been doing in the six years since she last toured Australia and she laughs deep and long. It’s a sound as throaty and raspy as her distinctive singing voice.
“Well, you know, I’ve been through some domestic bliss, some domestic discord. I’ve been a mother and I’ve battled breast cancer. I’ve won an Academy Award and, even more strangely, gotten a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!”
She pauses, laughs again, and continues: “So, to sum up, I’ve thought that maybe I’d die and I’ve completely reevaluated my life, in lots of ways. You don’t stare death down and walk out of that absolutely unaffected. I don’t mean to sound like a walking cliché, but it’s just the truth. I was shit-scared there for a pretty long time.”
“There are only really two emotions: love and fear.”
In late 2004, Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent both chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She retreated from public life, spending time with her then-partner, actress Tammy-Lynn Michaels and their three children.
She then made a blistering return to the live performance realm when she belted out Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart at the 2005 Grammys. Bald-headed from her chemo, she laughingly describes the occasion as “my second coming-out, but this time with cancer!”
2006 saw her write and record a song for An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary chronicling former US Vice President Al Gore’s crusade to draw attention to the issue of climate change.
The largely acoustic I Need To Wake Up later won Etheridge the Academy Award for Best Original Song and appeared the same year on her greatest hits album, The Road Less Travelled.
When asked about those years, Etheridge says “it was all very strange” and confesses that, even with the benefit of hindsight, she “still finds it very hard to describe to you.”
“On one hand, I was diagnosed with an illness that could have killed me. On the other, I had one of the best opportunities of my career come along, insofar as I got to work with Al Gore. It was great and it was terrifying. There was always that duality, that light and dark, and I was always very aware of that.”
In early 2010, Etheridge released Fearless Love, her first studio album since beating cancer. She calls it her “document of monumental self-change and self-discovery.”
Writing it, however, was far from easy. That process meant she had to reflect not only on her own mortality, but the very public break-up of her relationship with Michaels. It was, she tells me, “incredibly challenging and very tough.”
“I’ll be completely honest and I won’t bullshit you. Ever since I went through breast cancer and had that whole health thing, I have been very interested in life, but in a way that I can only describe to you as different to what I was previously. Ever since that, ever since becoming a mother, I find I come at things from a completely different perspective,” Etheridge says.
“I’ve studied all kind of philosophies and religions. And, yes, it did change me enormously. The one simple fact that I came away from it with was that there are only really two emotions: it’s love and fear. Everything is that duality and in every moment you are choosing to feel love or to feel fear. Trying to put that into a piece of work, to show this, to explain this, to paint a picture of it, to see that it looks that way here and this way there, that was really the purpose and the impetus that was driving me with this record.”