The music of truth

April 14, 2012

Melissa Etheridge

Melissa Etheridge

It's the honesty and deep feeling in Melissa Etheridge's music that have won her many fans. Claire Low speaks to the singer ahead of her Canberra performance

Melissa Etheridge is in her 50s now, with two Grammy Awards and an Oscar, four children and fame for her political and gay rights activism. Even so, she finds it quite easy to wind back the clock and remember her three-year-old self dancing in her living room for a spellbound audience of adults. ''Everyone's looking at me and I'm thinking, 'I love this.' ''

Fast-forward in time and you'll find a teenaged Etheridge performing in a show choir. If you think this means she feels much fondness for hit TV show Glee, which is about the lives and loves of a diverse bunch of high-schoolers in a show choir, you'd be mistaken. ''Oh my god, shoot me,'' has been her response to having to watch the Glee concert with her daughter.

Still, this reporter presses her. How could a former show choir singer turned rock idol fail to love Glee?

''Well, it's like, do I love SweeTarts? I loved them in high school. But do I want to eat them now? No.''

Etheridge has got to have a soft spot for Glee somewhere. She did, after all, let the show feature her song, I'm the Only One.

''I appreciate it for bringing music into young people's lives,'' she says. ''So when they did call and say they wanted to do I'm the Only One, I was like, 'Are you kidding?' ''

Glee proved a tremendous booster for the sales of the song via iTunes. ''I'm very grateful for Glee.''

Asked if she identifies most with the Rachel Berry character - the bossy ingenue with killer pipes - she explains her teenaged self was more like Puck.

He's the swaggering bad boy who knocks up the blonde cheerleader. It's hard to imagine someone less like Etheridge. In what ways is she like Puck?

Etheridge roars with laughter.

''Never mind,'' she says.

The Kansas-born music idol is coming to Canberra for the first time in more than 20 years. She is to perform at the Royal Theatre in mid-July.

The more one learns about Etheridge, the more intriguing she becomes. She's a mother of five-year-old twins, she has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and she happens to have taught Brad Pitt how to fly fish in her swimming pool.

The bluesy-voiced singer with the lyrics heavy with yearning says songs need not come from a place of pain. ''I think they just have to come from a place of truth. Truth doesn't necessarily mean pain. People have to be able to reach a truthful place when they sing.''

It's this honesty in her music that makes it feel like a soundtrack to matters of the heart.

In I Want To Come Over, that lamenting voice sings of being drawn to a former lover in spite of the ache of rejection: ''I want to come over. It's a need I can't explain.''

In Bring Me Some Water, she wails with the burning jealousy of someone who knows the one they love is physically loving someone else: ''I don't know how I'm gonna survive.''

It's the truth in Etheridge's songs that fans respond to and hasten to laud her for. ''They say the music helped them through heartache or health issues or whatever it is. I love it. I especially love when young people, sometimes young gays, come up and say, 'You really gave me a reason to live.' ''

Has having an out-and-proud gay activist for a mother taught her children certain lessons about love and sexuality? The kids are 15, 13 and five.

Etheridge says, ''I don't know. You'll have to ask them later. My oldest is 15 and just venturing into that world. She's not telling me everything right now.

''But I think she understands she has choices and she should find somebody who's good and loves her.''

In addition to her gay rights activism, Etheridge has spoken up on political matters. She was an Al Gore supporter in the late '90s and wrote I Need To Wake Up for the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Her activism these days seems to be affected by a certain amount of disillusionment.

''I have realised that, especially in America, aside from some pretty important social issues - gay marriage, medicinal cannabis and stuff like that - Republicans and Democrats answer to the same big-business corporations that are holding us all hostage. I put my energy more into organisations that are really working on moving past that. I see Obama and some social issues that are getting better, but I still see the same serving of oil, big business, drug companies. Everything's the same.''

One thing that has changed is her understanding of herself now that she has beaten breast cancer. ''It has changed my life for the better. It set me on a path of understanding what health is, what life is, what joy is, what I want out of life. Cancer isn't something that just picked me. It is my responsibility to take care of myself.''

She favours artists who, like her, have lyrics full of meaning and has covered Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. Of the new artists, she admires British songstress Adele who is someone with whom she'd love to collaborate. ''I was listening to her Grammy performance [of Rolling in the Deep]. Like, woah. That's good stuff.''

This reporter can't resist asking Etheridge to record a cover of Rolling in the Deep, the chart-topping heartbreak song that dethroned Lady Gaga's Poker Face to become the biggest-selling digital song of all time by a woman in the US.

''Just for you? All right,'' Etheridge says, laughing.

Her career in music is lengthy, but she refuses to consider retirement.

''Music is such a big part of me. I'm sure I can't get up and strut around forever, but I hope to be able to sing and play.

''I'm looking at the guys in front of me. As long as Mick Jagger is up there, as long as Bruce Springsteen is up there, they're still ahead of me. I'll go as long as they go, at least.''

What she ultimately hopes listeners get out of her music is some feeling: a sense of joy or peace in knowing someone feels the same things they feel.

''Or just that it helps them drive down the road, arrive somewhere. That it gives them some relief.

''I would love to have made a difference in the world, maybe just make the world a better place.

''Make it easier for those who are different.''

Melissa Etheridge is performing on July 14 at the Royal Theatre in Canberra. Tickets are on sale from 9am on April 20 through Ticketek.

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