We’ve Got A File On You: Melissa Etheridge

We’ve Got A File On You: Melissa Etheridge

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Melissa Etheridge has a busy calendar on the horizon. First up are a mix of US and Australia solo dates and springtime festivals. Immediately after comes shared bills with Jewel and the Indigo Girls up to October. For a Grammy-winning career musician who just wrapped a one-woman Broadway show and released the second of two memoirs in 2022, Etheridge could easily justify taking some time off. But then, she wouldn’t be Melissa Etheridge.

Originally from Leavenworth, Kansas, Etheridge landed in Los Angeles in the early ‘80s after a few semesters at Berklee. Prior to getting signed with Island Records, Etheridge built a strong local following by gigging around area lesbian bars, where she honed her raw, raspy howl and contemporary take on bluesy heartland rock.

Her first three albums, Melissa Etheridge (1988), Brave And Crazy (1989), and Never Enough (1992), set the stage for mainstream stardom, which finally came with the release of 1993’s Yes I Am — a triumphant collection of full-throated rawk ballads such as “I’m The Only One” and “Come To My Window.”

Ahead of her 2024 tour, Etheridge talked to Stereogum about her robust career packed with hits, personal and professional challenges, unapologetic activism, and a “stubborn” urge to simply be herself.

Co-Headlining A Summer Tour With Jewel (2024)

There’s so much video online of you and Jewel, particularly in the 1990s. How did you and Jewel first connect?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: It was VH1 in ’95. VH1 had asked me to do a thing called Duets, and they wanted me to get with somebody where we would do duets. At that time, I was like, “Instead of finding some older, established artists, can I find new up-and-coming artists and give them a break? Instead of just one, can I work with two or three other women?

At the time, I had a lot of pull back then on VH1. So, they finally agreed. I asked for Joan Osborne and Paula Cole. And then, they brought to me an artist named Jewel. I listened to just demo stuff. I was like, wow, she sounds great. Singer/songwriter, all good. So, she came on. Nobody knew who most of these women were when we first started, but they certainly went on and had great careers. That makes me really proud and really happy. But that was when I first met Jewel.

How has your relationship with Jewel evolved since then?

ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s funny. I have friends and people that I’m like, oh yeah, I can call this person a friend. Doesn’t mean I’ve seen them personally in the last 10 years. But I know that once you see them, we have so much in common. We are grateful for our careers and for each other. So, we’ve seen each other off and on over the years and it’s always delightful.

Jewel infamously faced a lot of unfair male criticism and misogyny when she was first coming up. Were you ever able to offer her advice for how to face that down while growing a fledgling career?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Having come on the scene in the late ’80s, I definitely saw a lot and met a lot of women that were just coming through and just starting. Each and every one, whenever I could, I would encourage them to love what they do, first of all. To always make any decision and any move from how they feel in their heart, because there’ll be lots and lots of people telling you what you should do. There’s a whole lot of that. And listen and take the advice that you feel is good, but ultimately, it’s up to you and how you feel. Because anything that you have to do, you’re going to have to live with it forever. God forbid, someone suggests something you don’t want to, but [you say] okay, I’ll do it. And then it becomes a huge hit, and you have to [perform] that for the rest of your life. Nothing is worth not enjoying what you do, because that’s the whole point in life: to enjoy what we do.

I definitely was able to say that to [Jewel]. I’ve always said that to many women. As far as the misogyny goes, it was a given back in the ’90s. [It was] just the world we were in. It was mostly protecting ourselves and creating a network of women that are connected, and taking the competitive nature out of females in pop and rock and roll. Because for the longest time it was like, “Okay, there can only be one.”

By the time we got to the 2000s, it’s like, “Nope, nope. You can’t put us all in one box.” A lot of us in the ’90s really kept pushing that thing: “No, no, no. Two of us can be on the radio together. You can actually play us back-to-back. We can all be doing this at the same time. And we do not have to be in competition with each other.”

Not two women playing on the radio back-to-back!

ETHERIDGE: [Sarcastically] Can you imagine? Oh my God, men will just turn the radios off.

Starring In The One-Woman Broadway Show Melissa Etheridge: My Window (2023)

At one point in 2019, it looked like you might write songs for a Mystic Pizza musical adaptation, which ultimately ended up using existing pop songs, including one of yours. Is there any connectivity between that project and My Window?

ETHERIDGE: Oh yeah. Yes, there is.

For years and years and years, all the way back to high school, [I had] a huge love of Broadway and musicals. Writ[ing] songs for musicals has been a big dream of mine. As I’ve gone on, you do what works and you work what works and you keep your dreams out in front of you. When I met my wife, who’s a television producer and creator, her and I both shared this love, and we have started numerous projects that then just went to the wayside.

When the Mystic Pizza people reached out to me, I assumed that they wanted me to do brand-new songs for it, and we could write the musical. And when they came back and said, “No, we want to use your old songs,” I was like, “Oh, well, that’s just a jukebox musical. And that’s not really …”

But unfortunately, publicists get a hold of things and they [say], “Melissa’s doing the Mystic Pizza [musical].” It’s like, before we’d ever even decided anything. So that gets put out in the public. And then, when COVID hit, it was a really introspective — for all of us — time in my life. My son passed away. That put me in a place of really examining my life. I wrote a book [and] a one-woman show about my life and how I’ve handled other things, but also the death of my son and how to move forward from that. It all came from that mix of everything.

Early Days Gigging Around Bars In Los Angeles (Mid-‘80s)

In the early days of your career, when you were playing around women’s bars and clubs in Los Angeles, did you have any thought around what might be asked of you if you were “discovered”? What you might potentially be asked to hide about yourself in order to appeal to mainstream audiences?

ETHERIDGE: Wow. I remember even in the ’80s being very gay and playing women’s music festivals, bars, meeting some of the leaders of the women’s movements and all these things. But knowing that I wanted to be in mainstream [music] — as I kept writing, I would always write from a universal general, non-gender specific place so that I could sing truthfully, but also not limit myself. I didn’t ever want to limit myself, and I didn’t feel like I had to or that was even part of it.

When the heat started happening and records started being sold, people started asking me about my personal life because my songs were so personal. By the time the third album came around, I was like, “Oh, you know what, this is going to come to a head soon.” I knew at that time, I felt confident. I was 32 and living a very out life, and I didn’t want to be closeted anymore.

I really came to the point where if people weren’t going to listen to me because of my sexuality, then they’re really not listening to me anyway. I just stepped on that bridge and just walked across.

Signing A Publishing Deal To Write Songs For Film (1986)

What did it mean for your bourgeoning career, getting a publishing deal to write music for film?

ETHERIDGE: It was the first time I got a steady paycheck, other than the bars that I was working at, which was just cash. One of the guys in charge of all the writers — one of the administrator guys, not the guy who signed me, not Lance Fried — but someone else would get my songs to people. My songs were very personal to me, and they weren’t like pop hits that Whitney Houston wanted to sing or anything. He finally told me, “Look, we might not be placing your songs, but we just signed you because we believe that you are going to be a big star and we want to have your publishing.” I was like, “Oh, so I’m not failing here. You’re just playing your bets that I will someday get signed and things go.”

In the meantime, I did write a song for a bad ’80s movie called Scenes From The Gold Mine. I wrote a couple songs for that. I wrote a couple songs for a movie called Weeds with Nick Nolte, and they were just paychecks. They weren’t anything big, but it was fun to be around that business and stuff, and I sure learned a lot.

Island Records Shelving Her First Album (1988)

What reasons were you given for Island rejecting your debut recording? The one just before what would be released as your proper self-titled studio debut?

ETHERIDGE: Well, Chris Blackwell at Island Records was the guy who signed me. This is back when the record companies were led by guys who loved music, who really weren’t so much into it for the money. Chris Blackwell was an Englishman who lived in Jamaica, and he brought Bob Marley to the world, and he went forth with that. He’s just this great music guy who’d made a credible label called Island Records that now had U2, Steve Winwood. It goes on and on and on. Someone finally told him to come down and hear me play, and he did.

So, he signs me [after] hearing me in the club, and I’m just playing solo with my leather jacket on. Then, he runs off and does Chris Blackwell things. I’ve never made a record. I’m trying to find producers, they’ve never heard of me. No one wants to work with me [because] I’m brand new. [My manager] finds this guy who he knew — he was connected mostly up in San Francisco. We find Jim Gaines, who was an engineer on Steve Miller and Journey records and Huey Lewis and that sort of thing. I was like, okay, fine. I had no idea. I came from Kansas. I’ve never made a record. I don’t know anything.

So, we go up there and Jim Gaines puts together a record that’s very ’80s, very keyboard-based, but sounds like an ’80s track out of San Francisco. I bring that to Chris Blackwell. He listens to it, and he literally says, “I hate this. Where’s the girl in the bar that I saw?” And I thought, “Oh shit.” We convinced him to give us four more days. We went in and recorded the first album, and that’s what it was. He wanted that raw, live rock and roll sound, and that’s what he got.

Is there any chance that you might ever release that Melissa-as-Huey Lewis album, perhaps as a novelty for fans?

ETHERIDGE: I would love to. I have no problem with it. Now, the record company owns it, not me. It’s up to them to put together something like that… I let some of the fans listen to it over the pandemic when I was streaming. I let them listen to some tracks, but I didn’t make anything available.

Casting Juliette Lewis In The “Come To My Window” Video (1993)

What made Juliette Lewis seem like the right person to cast in “Come To My Window”?

ETHERIDGE: At the time, there was this guy named Brad Pitt, who was a good friend of mine. We were all starting these careers. His girlfriend, for a minute there, was Juliette Lewis. When we approached her, I was like, “Oh, Juliette would be genius.” She was just starting to pop. We were all just on that little bubble place just getting ripe and ready to go.

[Director] Sam Bayer, who is a genius video guy from the ’80s and ’90s, he just set up the camera. Everyone else left the studio [except for] me and him. He just said, “Go with her.” And she just did her thing. We gave her a couple prompts, and she’s just a brilliant actress. I was so blessed to have her in this really powerful music video that we made.

India.Arie References Etheridge’s Bald Grammys Performance In “I Am Not My Hair” (2006)

How did you find out about India.Arie’s referencing your 2005 Grammys performance in her song “I Am Not My Hair”? Assuming you were told at the time, of course.

ETHERIDGE: I performed for the Grammys, and then a month later is the Academy Awards. Usually a few weeks later, the Academy Awards comes, right? I’m at a party the day before the Academy Awards. It was a big old celebrity hoo-ha thing, and India.Arie walks up to me.

Now, I had met her before. She was one of those women that I said, “Do what you love, don’t worry. You got it. You’re amazing. Be yourself.” And she walked by and suddenly, she goes, “Oh, Melissa, I’m writing a song about you.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” She goes, “You were so inspiring. I’m writing a song.” That was it, and I didn’t think about it. Then, months later, I hear, “I Am Not My Hair.” Someone sent it to me, and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I wept — because I’ve been writing songs about and for people for my whole life. It was the first time that it had come back to me like that, where I had inspired an artist to do what they do and write, and I was the inspiration for that. It meant so much to me, and it still does. It just really, really, really, it touches my heart.

Inspiring Taylor Swift To Pick Up The Guitar (2000)

ETHERIDGE: It was probably 15 years ago when I first met [Taylor Swift]. She was just starting out. That’s when she told me that she came to see me in Reading, Pennsylvania when she was 11 years old and wanted to play guitar. That meant so much to me.

Have you run into Taylor much since then?

ETHERIDGE: Other places I’ve seen [her], it’s been hello and a hug or a wave from across the room. At this point, I’ve realized that the more I do, the smaller my world gets, and it’s just a matter of sanity. Your social calendar gets small. So, I don’t expect for her to give me tons of time whenever I see her, but a wave and a hug is all one needs.

Did you catch the Eras Tour?

ETHERIDGE: Oh my God, [my daughter] and I, we met in Chicago and saw it and just had a blast.

What were your impressions of the production, as a fellow stadium performer?

ETHERIDGE: It is such an incredible feat to fill a stadium with sound and lights and performance. You feel so small on a stage in a stadium, and it’s almost like you can’t get bigger than the audience, even with amplification and video. The way she arranged her tour, the way the thrust went all the way out, the stage went all the way out in the middle. The way the video support was — it was all so amazing.

She made it feel personal and intimate. She got down to just her and the guitar. Dynamics are so important in a thing like that, and she absolutely took the moment. She made the big things big and kept people’s attention for three hours. I do a two-hour plus [show], but I’m not a three-hour girl.

Performing The Role Of St. Jimmy In Green Day’s American Idiot (2011)

What’s the backstory behind your filling in for Billie Joe Armstrong on Broadway?

ETHERIDGE: It’s actually through my wife. The theater and production company that was doing American Idiot was Jujamcyn, which was the Roth company. The son, Jordan Roth — he was married to Edie Falco, who was on Nurse Jackie.

So, I met Richie, the manager, and Jordan, and knew them. They said, “Hey, Billie Joe’s going to be gone for a week. Would you consider filling in for a week?” Putting a woman in that role is super cool, I really like that. What a great experience. And oh, boy, was that something I don’t get to do — singing and dancing with people. That was a whole new experience.

Performing With A Stoned Action Bronson On Ancient Aliens (2016)

Speaking of singing with people, how did you wind up accompanying Action Bronson on guitar while he freestyled about racing four-wheelers through the jungle?

ETHERIDGE: One of my finer moments, yes.

In 2004, 2005, I came down with breast cancer. That was 20 years ago. 20 years cancer-free, healthy, that’s all done. The way I got through it, through all the chemo and everything, was cannabis, lots of it. When I came out of that in 2005, I vowed that I would help to create a different stigma around cannabis, and especially medicinal cannabis for cancer.

I got a hold of everyone who, at the time, was doing anything in the cannabis space. There were these little underground things that were happening, and I was saying yes to whatever little crazy thing came on, because I wanted to give more eyeballs and more interest in cannabis. There wasn’t a lot to do, but like Joe Rogan and that back then. [Editor’s note: Etheridge appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience in 2013.]

I’ve been a cannabis advocate for a while, but that is not for the faint of heart. Now, I have a foundation that raises money for plant medicine and such for opioid use disorder. I’m big in the plant space, so I really believe strongly in plant medicine.

Boy, it would make a huge difference if federally we could get it rescheduled or legalized. It’s so precarious right now… That sort of change needs to come at the governmental level. Every year, more states come online, and you hear of billions of dollars in revenue being raised for these states. And you also hear of people finally, families getting the medicine they need for their children with epilepsy, for their mother with cancer, just these things that it’s really good for. Hopefully, the stigma around it will go away.

Covering Tom Petty With Diarrhea Planet At SXSW (2014)

In 2014, you covered Tom Petty with Diarrhea Planet, a name I never get tired of saying. How did you connect with them for that gig? I imagine you also had opportunities to meet and know Tom before his passing? Particularly because you also covered “Refugee” in 2005.

ETHERIDGE: I actually met Tom at my very first Grammys in 1989, and I met him with George Harrison, so I was quite overwhelmed. But they were both very delightful and very nice and very complimentary. After that, I knew a lot of his musicians and folks, but I didn’t really have a relationship much with him and decided to do his song [“Refugee”] just as I was a fan. Once I did, after he heard it, word got back to me that it was his favorite cover song that anyone had ever done of his songs. That always made me feel great. He really enjoyed it, and multiple people told me that. So that made me very happy.

Now, the Diarrhea Planet thing happened about 10 years ago. I was going to go do something at SXSW, and this is back when SXSW is like, “we’re unsigned people and unknown people,” and they were really mad at the famous people coming and doing anything. I had just changed management and I was coming in to do a talk or something there.

I was just starting to get on Twitter 10 years ago and having fun. There was Diarrhea Planet and Midgetmen, those were the two bands. [The Midgetmen, now known as THEMM!] quote tweets my thing: “Oh wow, I see SXSW is really helping independent artists like Melissa Etheridge,” being snarky. So, I got back to him: “Well, hey, why don’t we get together and play while I’m there?” And he’s like, “Really?” He thought I’d never show up because he was just playing in the back patio of some restaurant somewhere, him and Diarrhea Planet.

It ended up being like, I don’t know, eight guitar players or something. It was this massive jam. They still couldn’t believe when I rolled up. I’m like, yeah, no, we’re playing it. So, we play that song. Once you get more than three guitars, it sounds like mud, but that’s rock and roll, right? So, we played, I had a great time. I pretty much got the independent world on my side going, okay, she’s alright.

Publicly Coming Out At The Triangle Ball Celebrating Clinton’s Inauguration (1993)

I know that in my life, when I’ve done anything even remotely transgressive, people have told me, “You’re so brave.” But in my mind, I’m not being “brave.” I’m just… being myself? Whether it’s chasing personal happiness or speaking honestly in public. After you came out at the Triangle Ball, did you have a lot of people commenting on your “bravery”? And how did that feel to you at the time?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, when there was so much feedback coming, saying, “Oh, you’re so brave,” I was like, “Why is it in our society that me being just who I am is defined as brave? Isn’t that what we should all be, is ourselves?” I used to just go, that’s just crazy. 

But unfortunately, in this day and age, there’s a lot of thought that we all should be a certain way. And one of [those thoughts] was back in the ’90s was heterosexual, everything else is, you’re on the weird spectrum and we don’t know what’s wrong with you.

So yeah, coming out, sure that takes a certain amount of braveness, but it’s also just stubbornness. It’s like, I’m not going to bend and change for your comfort. Isn’t that what rock and roll is about? Being an outsider and a deviant? That’s what it’s all about. So, I just kept on going.


Check out Melissa Etheridge’s upcoming tour dates here.

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