Over the years, as a music journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with dozens of creatives with amazing, sometimes heroically brave backstories. One of my most memorable conversations was with Grammy and Academy Award winner Melissa Etheridge.
Prior to her 2011 performance at the Common Ground Music Festival, the acclaimed singer-songwriter spoke candidly about her recent divorce, her battle with cancer and when she came out in 1993. By that time, she was a full-on celebrity, so headlines popped up across the world.
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 acclaimed records that steadily burned further up the charts. That abruptly changed in January 1993, when she came out at the Triangle Ball, a gay and lesbian event celebrating President Bill Clinton.
That same year, with her milestone “Yes I Am” album, she achieved massive commercial success. Constant radio and MTV play turned then-32-year-old into an A-list celebrity. The groundbreaking album was a nod to her coming out and also spawned several now-classic 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 told me with a chuckle. “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.”
As for why she chose this time as the moment to come out publicly, Etheridge said it felt natural and was perhaps a bit overdue, thanks to the press misquoting her.
“It sort of presented itself,” she explained. “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 to the press, her friends and devoted fans already knew she was gay, and she didn’t want to disappoint them by not addressing it openly.
“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, beyond 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 champion another worthwhile cause she’s intimately familiar with: medical marijuana. She is actively involved in getting medicinal marijuana laws passed in states. Recreationally speaking, her entrepreneurial spirit also motivated her to open Etheridge Farms, which received Santa Cruz County’s first non-retail cannabis license. Of course, she is also busy musically, as well. Her next LP, “One Way Out,” is set for a Sept. 17, 2021, release date. Fans can grab the new album on orange vinyl and also catch her live in New Buffalo, Mich. on Oct. 8 at Four Winds Casino.
For more information, visit: melissaetheridge.com