Melissa Etheridge’s first three albums, which she affectionately calls “The Red One, The Black One and The White One”, earned her a loyal audience, along with critical acclaim for her deeply personal songwriting and emotional delivery. It was the release of 1993’s ‘Yes I Am’ however, powered by singles ‘I’m The Only One’, ‘Come To My Window’, and ‘If I Wanted To’, that made her into a world famous commercial superstar.
This Fall, Etheridge will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the album’s release by playing it in its entirety on select tour dates.
In this conversation Melissa talks about the album, her coming out that same year, where she learned to captivate an audience, whether friends randomly produce guitars for her at parties, and why hugging Kansas City Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid is so exciting for her.
Robert Ferraro: Melissa, before the album’s hit singles and videos, the Grammy, and the 5 or 6 million copies sold, how strongly did you feel about Yes I Am? Did you see any of this coming when you released it 25 years ago?
Melissa Etheridge: You know, I feel like I see it coming with just about every album I make. [laughs] No, I realized pretty early that you can’t ever know what’s going to hit, what’s going to be big, and what’s not gonna be big, so I really went into it saying, “I’m just going to make music that I love, music that rocks me, and maybe somebody else will like it.” I do remember wanting to get back to the first album though. I felt like my previous record had been kind of experimental and fun, but I really needed to get back to basics.
Robert: I’ve always noted that the three big radio hits are pushed up to the front of the album – what ‘old’ folks like us used to call ‘Side 1’.
Melissa: Yes! [laughs]
Robert: It’s a tactic often employed by artists who have recorded only a few good songs and a bunch of filler, but that is most definitely not the case with ‘Yes I Am’, which is strong throughout. What was your reasoning behind it?
Melissa: I joined Island Records, and I remember when they were releasing U2’s ‘Joshua Tree’, and the president of the label said that the first three songs were going to be the three biggest hits (Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You ). They knew going in that they were going to release the third song, the second song, and then the first and that they would all be big. I remember thinking, “Oh, wow.” People were buying albums then, and you couldn’t rearrange songs, so it was important. By the time Yes I Am came out people were buying CD’s, but still listening to them from beginning to end, so I put the singles up front and ‘I’m the Only One’ straight up to the very first song. I wanted to make that impression right away. I wanted to say, ‘Boom….this is where I’m at.’
Robert: A creative move as much as a commercial one.
Robert: ‘Yes I Am’ changed your life in terms of fame, and I assume financially as well, but that may not have even been the biggest adjustment for you in 1993. Earlier in the year, you came out to the public at large.
Melissa: Yeah, I came out in January while I was still making the record, and the album was released in September. I had already written the song ‘Yes I Am’ though, and already decided to call the album that. This was back when you had to turn in your (album title and materials) months in advance because it took so long to physically make an album.
Robert: You made several records before you came out, the irony being that of the many attributes you possess as an artist, authenticity may be your greatest. Did you feel stifled when you were having to use pronouns in your writing and possibly be coy in other ways?
Melissa: At the time, I knew that if any reporter did their due diligence they would find out that I played in a lesbian bar for years, and had a very large, enthusiastic lesbian following. If you came to a show of mine, you’d find men and (heterosexual) women and plenty of screaming lesbians. Just like today. [laughs] But it was really a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ type of deal back then. Honestly, I was just waiting for someone to ask me. I really did the pronoun thing because I wanted my music to be relatable to anyone who wanted to relate to it. I didn’t want it to just be lesbian relatable. I wanted all kinds of people to feel the music as just an overall emotional situation, not a specific one. I love that many different types are able to sing ‘I’m the Only One’ at the top of their lungs and it means all kinds of different things.
Robert: Sure. Heterosexual males, for one, don’t have to work especially hard to find your music relatable, especially when you’re singing about the challenges of having relationships with women.
Melissa: Yeah! I always felt like I had more in common with straight guys than anybody, you know? I really wanted to say, you know, “Aren’t woman crazy?” [both laugh]
Robert: You’ve never been shy in acknowledging and celebrating your influences. Still, I wonder if there was a particular album or time in your career where you felt that you truly inhabited your own voice. A time where influences may have fallen away a bit, and you really started coming through.
Melissa: Mmm…wow. That’s a good one. Ok, well, I’d always been kind of chasing that Springsteen vision, that sort of…it wasn’t so much that I wanted to sing like him or write like him, because like you said, I wanted to be authentic…but I wanted me to come through…I wanted to paint pictures of my mid-western upbringing, and how much rock and roll meant to it, and carrying that rock and roll flag. I think ‘Yes I Am’ would have to be the place where I was really stepping out. Songs like ‘Silent Legacy’ and ‘Ruins’. I wasn’t thinking I wanted to emulate anyone there. That was really me going, “I’ve got something to say and I really want to put it out here like this.”
Robert: Your live work is also personal and distinctive. You’re renowned for having a one way dialogue with the audience before, during, and after songs. It’s long become a trademark of yours. You couldn’t possibly have been doing this since day one as a performer, could you? It seems like something you’d have to work up to.
Melissa: When I was a kid, I watched and learned from these great cats I played with. My first bands were made up of these dudes who could really play. They had regular jobs so we only played on the weekends, but they were amazing! They taught me how to talk to an audience, and they taught me how to be entertaining. I especially learned this in my early twenties when I started playing solo, because people would come to the bar just for a drink and they would be talking, and I had to figure out how to get their attention, keep their attention, and make them want to come back and see me again. That’s what was on the line. They eventually would come back just to see me play, and once that started to happen…once people started paying money to just see me, ’cause they wanted to see me? That was it man. That was making it. [laughs]
Robert: Talking about your early days causes me to mention that you wrote a revealing autobiography titled ‘The Truth Is: My Love and Life in Music’. From a distance, at least two things stand out about it. The first is that it has some of the most incredibly positive and passionate reviews anyone can ever find for an artist bio. Secondly, it was written in…2001. Melissa, you’ve lived five lifetimes since then.
Melissa: I know! At the time, I remember thinking, “I’m writing a book…now? I’m just getting started.” I do think about doing another one…I have so much more to write about. That book was written with Laura Martin, but for my next one I have visions of me being in the beautiful lands of Oregon, in a cabin in the woods, writing for four months and coming out with a book. That’s really what I’d love to do. I just haven’t found that kind of time yet. [laughs]
Robert: On the topic of writing, you have an innate ability to write emotionally effective songs for specific events or causes – the Pulse Nightclub shootings, Matthew Shepard’s murder, Cancer, the environment, etc. Is there a particular reason why you are so good at that?
Melissa: One of my favorite things to do when I’m writing, is to put myself into a situation and take on the protagonist or antagonist’s emotional mindset. With Matthew Shepard, I started with what hit me the most, and that was the guy on the bicycle ride who thought Matthew was a scarecrow on the fence. I started with that because that goes deep. I can feel that emotion. I can feel it in my throat. So, that’s where I go in. I think my job as a writer is to express our collective emotional experiences.
Robert: Switching gears, but speaking of collective emotional experiences…I think many people, outside of say, Raider and Bronco fans, find your love of the Kansas City Chiefs very endearing. You’ve won an Academy Award, a Grammy award, and you’ve played more than one Presidential Inauguration, but you went all fan-girl on us because you hugged (Chief’s coach) Andy Reed. What gives?
Melissa: [boisterous laugh] You’ve got to understand, I grew up in Kansas! I grew up in a deep mid-western world. My father was an athletic director, and he was a basketball coach and a football coach, and that was my childhood. I lost my father when I was 30, and I just miss him like crazy. He was a big part of my life. He drove me around to all my gigs, and he was just a great role model for me. Sundays were beautiful…we’d come home from church, and I’d sit there and watch the game with him and he’d explain everything to me. It was a very intimate family thing. So, my warmness for the game and the players comes from that…from my childhood…and that’ll never change. At the end of every season, I swear that I’ll never get that upset or excited over football again. Then the months roll by and here I am again, like, “Whooo!” Back on the train. [laughs]
Robert: The great songwriter Holly Knight is a friend of yours, and you recently played a fundraiser at her beautiful home, solo, with just a guitar and a mic. It seemed that you were basically playing in her foyer, right?
Robert: Obviously that appearance was planned, but are you the person who gets thrust into these situations? Are you at a christening, or a birthday party and somebody feigns surprise and says, “Oh, look, Melissa…a guitar!”
Melissa: [long, boisterous laugh] I think my friends know that I’m in for that. I love what a song can do to a group of people. There’s nothing like, “Hey, everyone, let’s get together and clap our hands and sing a song.” It’s a beautiful power, and it’s a uniting thing that I have a talent for and I never bemoan it. I’ll sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to anybody, you know? I’m like, “Yeah, give me the guitar.” I don’t begrudge it at all. But I’ll only sing other people’s songs, I won’t sing my songs. [laughs]
Robert: No impromptu “Come To My Window” at a birthday party, huh?
Melissa: No. You gotta pay me to hear that one. [both laugh]
See Melissa’s tour dates here: https://melissaetheridge.com
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Find Melissa’s music on iTunes: Melissa Etheridge iTunes
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