Early on in her career, Melissa Etheridge let her music do the talking. While rumors swirled about her sexuality and personal life, she decided to rock rather than talk, churning out Grammy-winning records and burning up the charts. That changed in 1993, when she came out at a gay and lesbian event celebrating President Bill Clinton. These days, she's known for so much more than her music: Gay rights advocate. Cancer survivor. Medical marijuana activist (and user). Artificial insemination poster child.
All the while, she's tried to maintain a balance between being an international music star and someone who wants to lead a quiet, normal life. And she's still rocking at 50.
Etheridge talked openly and, at times, downright effusively about these and other topics during an exclusive interview with REVUE in advance of her upcoming performance at Lansing's Common Ground festival. She also revealed that she might soon add another unofficial title to her already lengthy resume: Broadway musical composer.
After three decades in the spotlight, rocker Melissa Etheridge has come to terms with the fact that sometimes she's going to be grist for the media mill.
Sunday, July 17
Common Ground Music Festival
Adado Riverfront Park, Lansing
Her April 2010 divorce from her partner of nine years, Tammy Lynn Michaels, and recent romance with a long-time friend helped reinforce another lesson about the media machine: sometimes it's better to ignore it.
"I try to not pay attention to it," Etheridge said. "Sometimes, some of the nastier stuff, that hurts and I'm embarrassed mostly. But the other stuff, no one knows what's really going on, nobody can tell. It's a funny machine that just needs fodder to keep it running -- sometimes I'm a part of the fodder."
Months after her divorce from Michaels, news began to spread about Etheridge's committed relationship with Linda Wallem, creator of Showtime television series "Nurse Jackie." She said the happy couple prefers living a quiet, media-free lifestyle in Los Angeles.
"I'm definitely trying to stay out of the press because Linda is a very private person," Etheridge said. "She was my best friend for nine years, so it's an interesting relationship. I've never been friends with someone for that long and then entered into a romantic relationship.
"Usually it's that you enter a romantic relationship and hope you can be friends," she added. "This way, she already knows everything. She's my friend and it's really pretty amazing. I'm happier than I've ever, ever been."
After revealing that she's already writing a follow up to Fearless Love, her 2010 album, she also mentioned she's collaborating with Wallem on a new project that could be Broadway bound someday.
"I'm also writing a musical at the same time as the record, so I [have] a couple irons in the fire," Etheridge announced. "Linda's actually doing the story... it's really edgy and cool. I'm very excited about it."
As for the plot, Etheridge wasn't ready to divulge that information; however, she did confirm that performing the lead role in Green Day's Broadway production of American Idiot back in February motivated her to jump into the musical headfirst.
"It helped move it to the forefront," she said.
She was also happy to talk about her four children, the first two she had with her former long-term partner Julie Cypher. The defunct couple caused a stir in early 2000 after Etheridge announced that folk rock legend David Crosby had fathered both children through artificial insemination. Cypher (who gave birth to both children) and Etheridge split in September 2000.
While it's not a typical way of giving birth, Etheridge said her children still see Crosby and his family, who lives nearby.
"Oh yeah, they call him their ‘Bio Dad.' They're a big part of each other's lives," Etheridge said. "It's like an extended family. They love David and (his wife) Jan who have a son, Djano. He's just a year and a half older than my kids -- that's their big brother, they love having a big brother. They are very close. David is just a wonderful human being, he's been through a lot, but he's a great guy."
In between all of the publicized drama, Etheridge wrote a biography, won two Grammies and 13 nominations, and even earned an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2006 for her tune in An Inconvenient Truth.
While her first three albums are critically acclaimed, it wasn't until 1993 that she reached massive commercial success with her fourth album Yes I Am. The album spawned several hit singles -- including "I'm the Only One" and Grammy winner "Come to My Window." Etheridge looks back fondly on the whirlwind success.
"That album bought my house," she said with a laugh. "I loved that it was my fourth album that was my biggest, it wasn't my first, and since then I've been trying to make up for it."
Yes I Am was also a reference to Etheridge's coming out. In January 1993 she announced it at the Triangle Ball, a gay/lesbian celebration of President Bill Clinton's first inauguration.
"It sort of presented itself," she said. "It's where everything was leading me. It was coming to a point where my choice to be gender neutral and just say (in interviews) ‘my partner' or ‘my lover' wasn't working. I'd be very evasive and not put a gender in there, but I found sometimes writers would just say things. This one magazine article quoted me as saying ‘my boyfriend' this and ‘my boyfriend' that. I was like, ‘Ahh! I did not say that!' It was horrible."
Etheridge said prior to her coming out, her devoted fans al ready knew she was gay and she didn't want to mislead or disappoint them.
"I didn't want anyone to think I was lying. Enough people knew. I played gay bars -- that's where I was discovered," she recalled. "I said, ‘This is ridiculous. If people are going to stop listening to me because I'm gay, I don't want them listening to me. They aren't listening to me for the right reasons.'"
Since then, she's been active in the gay rights movement; Etheridge often lends her time and name to environmental and social issues, too.
"It's funny, the activist stuff just happens very naturally," she said. "I don't seek it out. I find the most activist work I do is just to live my life in a truthful manner and speak truthfully about it. That becomes activism in its own way. When asked by organizations that do the activism, I will lend my name."
Her bout with and recovery from breast cancer encouraged her to support another cause she became intimately familiar with: medical marijuana. She is actively involved in getting medicinal marijuana laws passed in states.
"I believe deeply in the compassionate care of cannabis and plant medicines," she said. "I don't have to go out of my way to do it; [people] come to me and say, ‘It's about to go to the floor in Illinois, can you call the senator?' You betcha' I will."
While it's still a controversial matter for some people, Etheridge said medical marijuana helped her eat sufficiently during chemotherapy treatments.
"I'm a rock star, I'm in California. It's a lifestyle here. But I was not a medicinal user, which I am now, until the effects of chemotherapy started wrecking my intestinal system," she explained. "The side effects [of pain pills] are horrible. Or I could just use (marijuana) and it can give me an appetite, and take the pain and depression away."
Today, Etheridge said she is "healthier than ever, healthier than I was before cancer." She continues to write, record and tour - though she now splits her time in a few directions.
"That's the everyday balance," she said. "I love to write, I love to sing, love to play, and I love my children. It's a balance between all of that. It's constant, every day. That's what I do. I'm lucky that I love all of it ... I'm very excited. I think I'm in the prime of my career."