Melissa Etheridge’s career has been undeniably magnificent.
The Kansas native continues to reach impressive highs more than 30 years after she started playing the club circuit around Boston while attending the Berklee College of Music. Today, she’s an iconic singer-songwriter—and an inspirational force in the LGBT community.
She’ll be playing at Morongo Casino Resort and Spa on Friday, March 2. During a recent phone interview, she discussed her Midwestern upbringing.
“I grew up with the feeling that you play fair, work hard, and you love yourself and your family,” Etheridge said. “The Midwestern values stick with me, and I think the best of people.”
Early in Etheridge’s career, four songs from her first two albums were included in the film soundtrack for the 1992 film Where the Day Takes You, a low-budget film about teenage runaways in Los Angeles—with an incredibly impressive cast that included Sean Astin, Will Smith, Lara Flynn Boyle, Christian Slater and other actors who would later become big names.
“Before I was signed to Island Records to record, I had a publishing deal at A&M,” Etheridge explained. “(A&M publishing head) Lance Freed saw something in me, but A&M Records never signed me for whatever reason, so I was a staff writer, and there was this bad B-movie called Scenes From the Goldmine that this guy Marc Rocco was directing. I met him, and he immediately became a big fan when I put out my first album. When I was recording my second album, he was making Where the Day Takes You, and he really wanted to use those songs from my albums, and I was like, ‘Dude, thank you! I appreciate that.’ The film was never really big, even though there were a lot of stars in it, but it was an amazing little film, and I love what he did with it. It was a pretty dark movie for back then, but it was about longing and 20-something angst—and that’s kind of what was going on at the time.”
Etheridge has never been afraid to get personal in her songwriting.
“I never felt (afraid),” she said. “In the beginning, I wondered, ‘My goodness! Am I revealing too much about myself?’ But that was back before anyone knew anything about me. The one thing I realized is the more personal I got, the more universal I became. People related to it, and it was an interesting phenomenon.”
In January 1993, during Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Etheridge performed at the Triangle Ball—and came out as a lesbian. Etheridge’s career was taking off: That same year, she released her fourth album, and her most successful to date, Yes I Am.
“I always think the best of the world, and I think the world has the capacity to really do anything. I just came out with honesty, made a record that I loved, and felt like the songs were from my heart and the best I could do,” she said. “I just believed. I stepped out and was very happy. I’m sure there are people who didn’t buy it because they knew I was gay, but I think most people just liked the music. I think the general population is more capable of what we think they are capable of.”
I personally believe one of Etheridge’s most shining moments came at the concert to celebrate the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in September 1995 in Cleveland. She performed covers of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Love Child” and The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.”
“Ooh, that was fun! They approached me and said, ‘We want to pay tribute to the girl groups,’” Etheridge said. “I thought that the greatest were The Ronettes, and ‘Be My Baby’—you don’t get much better than that. Then you have The Supremes, and my favorite song growing up was The Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader of the Pack.’ That was the most bad-girl kind of song. I put them all together, and I thought, ‘Can I make this a monstrosity of a melody?’ Man, that was a lot of fun doing it, and we just rocked it, too.”
When Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006, Etheridge was amazed at the success of not only her song “I Need to Wake Up,” but of the documentary itself.
“It was a pivotal point in documentary filmmaking in the sense that documentaries really had a way to get information to people in a straightforward way without going through the censors and corporate advertisers,” she said. “You just make your documentary. Seeing the boom that happened after that was amazing. I remember when Al (Gore) first called me and asked me if I would write a song for his slideshow, and I thought how sweet that was. Then he said, ‘They’re making a documentary of my slide show.’ I thought it was great, and I thought it would be shown in some high schools. To see the effect and the great work it did, and the changing of the world—that summer was astounding for me. I learned a lot just by creating work you love and bringing it to the people.”
Touring with an environmentalist mindset is difficult for many artists, given that tours are notoriously not environmentally friendly, thanks to emissions of tour buses, the usage of disposable plastics during mealtimes, and so on.
“It is a very difficult process, and we do the best we can,” Etheridge said. “For many years, we toured on biodiesels, and then they just sort of faded out. I’m seeing where we are going, and I think fossil fuels will be a thing of the past soon. But in the meantime, we do the best we can. We don’t have Styrofoam, and plastics are discouraged.”
Etheridge said she still feels good about her music career, despite all the changes in the music industry.
“My love has always been performing live, so I don’t complain about that at all,” she said. “I have thousands and thousands of people who still want to come see me, and I’m so grateful for that. I’m also still creating music, and I’m making a new album right now. I see the changes, yet I don’t see it as a bad thing. I think people still consume large amounts of music, and it still defines where they’re at personally. When they travel or clean the house, they listen to music. The way the general public gets its music has changed, and I think you just do what you love and don’t worry about how people are getting it—because if it’s good, it gets out there.”
Melissa Etheridge will perform at 9 p.m., Friday, March 2, at Morongo Casino Resort Spa, 49500 Seminole Drive, in Cabazon. Tickets are $65, and were close to selling out as of press time. For tickets or more information, call 800-252-4499, or visit www.morongocasinoresort.com.