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‘Nothing to be afraid of’: Melissa Etheridge on activism, loss and unearthing old songs

The award-winning musician, cancer survivor and activist is performing at Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen on Friday, Aug. 12.

Melissa Etheridge
Melissa Etheridge: “I didn’t like myself closeted. I wanted to be out and be fully myself, knowing that if anybody loves my music, then they’re loving me.”
Photo by Elizabeth Miranda

Melissa Etheridge has been using her raspy voice to speak from the heart and to speak truth to power for decades. A cancer survivor, LGBTQ and environmental activist, Grammy and Academy Award winner, she’s loud and proud and doesn’t let the world keep her down.

During the pandemic, she rallied by stepping up her virtual game, especially after the loss of her son to opioid addiction. This week, Etheridge was scheduled to perform at Canterbury Park on Aug. 9, which unfortunately has been canceled due the singer contracting to COVID-19 (she tweeted she was feeling fine). As of this writing, you can still catch her on Friday, Aug.12 at Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, Minnesota, if you happen to be up that way.

I interviewed Etheridge about the album she’s been on tour promoting, “One Way Out,” released in 2021. In the album, Etheridge revisited older material from the late 1980s and early 1990s that never made it onto an album. It’s pretty fantastic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sheila Regan: Congrats on your latest album. It sounds great. What was it like for you to go back and revisit some of this old material?

Melissa Etheridge: It was really healing because when you’re in the moment, and when you’re young and creating stuff, you don’t know what’s good and what’s not. You’re just afraid of everything. And so I put those songs away, because I didn’t believe them, I didn’t trust them. It was really nice to come across them 20 years later, 30 years later and go, ‘oh, these are great and a part of my past self,’ and enjoy it. The hurt and any of the conflict that was in it didn’t matter anymore. It was just fun to play them.

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SR: Was this a project that you started during the pandemic, or does it go back earlier?

ME: I had done it a couple years earlier around 2015-16. I thought I was going to have CDs, but quickly realized no one’s buying CDs anymore. I had recorded them, and I put them on the shelf. And when BMG asked in 2020 if I had any projects, I said, ‘I got one right here,’ and they loved it. So we went ahead and did it.

SR: Was that helpful to have something to kind of work on during that time?

ME: Oh, yes. Oh, very much anything that would keep me busy was very helpful at that time.

SR: You have always been such a strong advocate for different causes. What are you feeling about the world right now?

ME: You know, what? Our sweet world. I believe in us, as a people. I do. I believe that our biggest blessing is our whole population. People are different. As a society, we have found ourselves with instant information, instant news, and we see what’s happening around the world, and in our own homes and everything instantly. We’re constantly confronted with the other. Throughout history, our biggest issues have been with the other. We blame the other for not having enough money. They took my job, they took my whatever. That sort of belief that the other’s marriage or the others choice, the other’s job somehow takes away from me. And that belief has been there for a long time. It’s not going to go away instantly. I’m not going to change the world by trying to tell it to be any different. I’m just going to go out there and I’m going to be a peaceful, loving person, I’m going to show by an example of my choices and who I am— don’t be afraid of my marriage. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

SR: I love the song, “That Would Be Me” from your new album. You talk about getting loud. It’s a great rabble-rouser song. What was the place you were at when you wrote that? How does it ring true for you now as you as you sing it?

ME: I wrote that right before I came out. That’s me, telling myself, ‘Come on. Someone’s getting angry, someone’s getting loud. Here I am.’ It was my own opening up. I have to care less about what people think of me and more about what I think of myself. I didn’t like myself closeted. I wanted to be out and be fully myself, knowing that if anybody loves my music, then they’re loving me. I could take it in. Otherwise you can’t and you don’t get to enjoy anything.

SR: What are the most important issues that you’re wanting to fight or that you want to be loud about?

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ME: Well, I’ve learned something since writing that song. I’ve learned that what you push against just stays in your life. What you resist persists. I try not to fight anything. I try not to be against things, I try to be for things. I’m for love and peace. I’m for health, I’m for understanding. I am for all the beautiful, wonderful things that are waiting for us in our future. There’s so much that we’re on the edge of understanding about: our minds and ourselves and our bodies. So I am for that.

SR: Anything in particular at the forefront?

ME: I lost my son a couple of years ago to opioid addiction. That’s probably forefront in my heart right now. We have a foundation called the Etheridge Foundation. We make grants to organizations that are researching new forms of pain relief and how to get people off of opioids: through plant medicines, pharmaceutical alternatives. A big thing that’s everyone’s starting to come around to is psilocybin, MDMA, ayahuasca, all kinds of alternatives to opioid addictions and our struggles with pain.

SR: I’m sorry about your son.

ME: I’m one of many hundreds of thousands of families that deal with this every day.

SR: And you have a cannabis business?

ME: I do. It’s very difficult right now. The situation has been just horrific because of the federal situation. We have no banking, we have nothing. So the only ones who can be successful are the Canadians who have federalized banking. The Canadians come down and buy everything up. It’s kind of sad. America has really squandered its opportunity to be the leader in this plant medicine. I’m still hopeful that someday they’ll get it together.

SR: When you lost your son, it sounds like you moved into advocacy. Besides that and working on this album, what else helped you through that time, with the loss and also with the impact of the pandemic?

ME: At first, I started to do a daily 20-minute concert on Facebook. And then when my son died, I threw myself into building a streaming studio in my garage. We built that and then for a year and a half, we had a show— we called our efforts Etheridge TV. It’s still up. You can see the content, on People would join us — thousands of people every day, five days a week. We would do shows and that really kept me sane and kept me connected and actually connected me back up with my older songs that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Now, every night on tour I dip into some deep track material that I play alongside all the hit songs that we do.

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SR: What’s been the biggest surprise as you dip into that stuff?

ME: One of the biggest surprises is how much I love some of the songs. Also many of the fans that come to see me aren’t just hit song fans. They love the deep tracks and the whole albums.