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Etheridge comes full circle

Out rock icon talks about her newest release taking us back to her roots; chats election year politics

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On the eve of her 25th year in the music industry, Melissa Etheridge is taking new risks, picking up new instruments and returning to her childhood roots. (Photo by James Minchin III courtesy Island Records)

Listening to Melissa Etheridge’s “4th Street Feeling,” out this week on her home label for 24 years, Island Records, one might agree with the dynamite rock legend’s own description of the sound as “organic.”

After adopting a more pop, adult contemporary sound in the middle of the last decade for singles like her cover of Greenwheel’s “Breathe,” the Oscar and two-time Grammy winning icon has returned to a nostalgic country blues sound that would flow well into a playlist with other artists she says she once played on her Chevy Impala’s 8-track in the ‘70s while driving the strip the album was named for in her hometown of Leavenworth, Kan.

Breaking barriers first by coming out in the early ‘90s and then rocking a Janis Joplin tribute live at the Grammys, bald from radiation and chemotherapy during breast cancer treatment, Etheridge returns to where she was born and raised for her eclectic 11th studio album, while experimenting with some new elements as well — like the banjitar featured in the first single “Falling Up.”

Etheridge, who will be honored at the National Museum for Women in the Arts starting today as part of the exhibition “Women Who Rock,” will bring her 4th Street Feeling tour to Bethesda’s Strathmore Music Center on Nov. 2.

““This next year, 2013, I’ll have been in the professional music business for 25 years,” Etheridge says of the National Museum for Women in the Arts exhibit when she sat down with the Blade to discuss her new album, the tour and the election year. “It’s nice to be honored. To be part of a wonderful community, the wonderful quilt of artists in our society that have brought forth the human experience.”

Etheridge has always been known as a confessional musician, but her personal woes have been on display in a new way with her high-profile 2010 split from actress Tammy Michaels and the contentious alimony and custody cases that have only recently been resolved. Nevertheless, the gravelly-voiced composer sings about her readiness to accept love again on her newest release, telling the Blade that when she sings, “I think I’m ready to try my hand at love again” in the track “Rock & Roll Me,” she’s singing about her budding relationship with “Nurse Jackie” creator Linda Wallem, whom she met through her ex.

““I don’t think we’re ever ready,” she says. “Like if it was up to me I’d still be sitting up in my room, ‘No! No! I’m not going to do that again!’ But love has a way of coming and the relationship that I’m actually in now, she’s been my best friend for 10 years. Believe me, I wasn’t going to go out and look for it, it found its way into my home. I’m very happy. Yes I am ready to try my hand at love again.”

Washington Blade: So the ‘banjitar’: where did you find this instrument?

Melissa Etheridge: It kind of started when I was writing songs to go play on the album, before I went to record. Listening to the radio, listening to popular music trends, I was delighted that people were playing organic instruments. I was hearing mandolins and banjos and real instruments.

I remember thinking, “I can play the banjo.” You know. I’m not terribly good at it, I played it a long, long time ago, but I can play a song on it.

So when I wrote “Falling Up,” I thought, “Yeah, I want to put banjo on this,” so I brought my banjo to the studio, and I said, “Yeah I’m going to play the banjo; not so good at it but you know, it’ll be fine.” And my guitar tech, Mark VanGool — he’s just a genius guitar guy — well why don’t you play the banjitar. I look at him like, ‘What are you talking about,’ and he says, “Yeah, its a banjo body, but its got a guitar neck, so you play it like a guitar, but it sounds like a banjo.” I said “That just sounds perfect!”

So he had one. He brought it. I played it, and the rest is history.

The album might be a dying art, with everyone being able to just buy singles so much. And really, I still think in a collection of music, not just one song. So all the songs are really different. It was hard to pick a first single. What’s representative of this album? It’s really hard. The record company chose “Falling Up,” and I was like “OK.”

Blade: You described that 4th Street feeling as the freedom to put everything you owned into your Chevy Impala. You’ve been on a long journey from Leavenworth Kan., so it’s interesting that the emotional center of this album has us listening to Al Green and Tina Turner on your old 8-track. Why was it so important for you to bring us all back here with you?

Etheridge: Because that’s where my journey took me. I thought in the spiritual evolution of aging and gaining wisdom that I would somehow shed all my old stuff and become something new. What I found is the only way you can become something new is to completely embrace all the old that you are and understand where you came from, and hold it, and even change your past in a way — in the way that you perceive it. In the way that you hold it now. And music takes you right back there. It’s obvious that we’re doing some reminiscing as a society right now. The music sounds like it’s right out of the ‘60s or something, everything is retro, it’s going back. It’s like taking the best of what we did do and growing on it. The organic stuff. That’s what I found. I’m not getting away from this, I’m being in this, and seeing it as something better.

Blade: You sing “Shake it like a polaroid” in your first single “Falling Up” which sounds like a nod to Outkast’s Andre 3000. Who are some other contemporary top 40 artists that you appreciate?

Etheridge: Oh yeah! Love Outkast. Always have. I think they’re very innovative and creative. I can cross all genres. My kids especially — like my daughter — play artists, she first turned me onto Ellie Goulding. She’s a little pop for me, but I appreciate a lot of the singer-songwriter stuff. Loved the Mumford and Sons album, Band of Horses, love Black Keys, (I’m) loving Alabama Shakes. All these great artists that I just want to see live and jump around with.

Blade: You came out 19 years ago and released “Yes I Am.” Just recently, R&B singer Frank Ocean followed your script, coming out and dropping an album; how has the music industry changed for gay musicians since ‘93?

Etheridge: Well, there’s safety in numbers, you know? I think in the ‘90s when those of us were peaking out, it was a sparse field. But I think everyone was kind of watching going, “Well, are you going to lose everything? Is it going to be like what we think?” And it’s all about how you kind of hold yourself in it.

Back then we did it. Did it hurt my career? I say, “I went from selling one million to six million.” People can see that I’m not blaming any of my perceived failures on being gay, so I hold it that way. Its just part of who I am. Its part of the big tapestry of who I am.

Cover art for Etheridge’s new album. (Image courtesy Island)

I don’t think there’s that big of a difference [between the current gay male artist experience and the experience for out lesbian artists]. I think we’re all aware of our society’s hang-ups when it comes to sexuality. We’ve realized that our sexual desires is what makes us different and dangerous. We’ve all grown up with it. We also know that the male aspect of that sexuality can be really frightening to a lot of people, so I think that it is somehow looked at as it’s harder to be a gay man and open in the entertainment industry. You’ve got to be really solid to do that. In general, it’s a little more delicate of a subject, just because of all the fear.

Blade: Four years ago, you took part in the historic Logo-HRC Presidential panel, and you were fairly vocal leading to the general. What do you think of what’s happened since then?

Etheridge: In the last 20 years, especially the last four, I think [the LGBT community has] become wiser about what part we play in this American drama that keeps unfolding in front of us, this experiment called Democracy and America and equality and what it really means. We challenge it to its very core and we’ve seen how we’ve been played in this game. OK, our votes are important, but no one can ever give us full cooperation, or they might be deemed less than, weak, or whatever scares them from giving us our civil rights. So I think this last thing that Obama did, by saying he supports gay marriage, it changes the direction of the stream just enough to kind of give us “Alright, there’s a reason we’ll vote for you again. Yes, you need our votes.” Because we’re a large group of people that cuts across every kind of people. And it also cuts across so many of our deep-seated fears in our whole culture. It’s a challenge. We’re challenged people, and we are challenging. And I think the homosexual community are the leaders in our great societal change right now. We are really pushing it, and I think it’s great.

Blade: What do you think of the Romney-Ryan ticket?

Etheridge: I think it’ll be a really interesting Trivial Pursuit question in 20 years. “Who was that running mate? Who was the Mormon guy?” I think it is fascinating. If you’d have told me in the ‘80s, “Oh my God, in 2012 there’ll be a black president — half black and half white — and he’s going to run against a Mormon with a Catholic Vice Presidential candidate …” But that shows that we are so diverse, that we are really opening up to all. You know what, in this great America of ours, there’s mixed-race people, there are Mormons, there are Catholics, there are every type of person and we have to show the world how it can all get along.

Blade: What are your thoughts on Rep. Todd Akin and his “legitimate rape” statement?

Etheridge: Things are spread instantly. A sentence can leave your mouth, and in a half hour, your life could be totally changed. I love that instant accountability that we have now. And it also gives us an opportunity to examine ourselves and go “Whoa! These deep-seated beliefs or fears are still there!” There’s a lot of dark shadowy ignorance out there in the world, and its coming to the surface, and we’re going to see it in some of our quote-unquote leaders. I don’t think we should shut him down. “OK dude. Wow. Let’s talk about that. What makes it legitimate or not?” Bring these things to the forefront and then let people vote their conscience.

Blade: It always seems with the LGBT community it’s two steps forward, two steps back. We’ve had months of good news, but we’ve had setbacks in North Carolina, some high profile anti-gay attacks and murders and just last week here in D.C. a member of our LGBT community shot a security guard at the Family Research Council’s headquarters. As an artist how do you respond to these crises of community?

Etheridge: I look at the LGBT community as the balance. We are all searching for balance right now. Our whole society. The whole human race. The gay community — we are examples of balance, because we have both the male and female inside each of us. And that’s pretty special. And when we can learn to love that about us more, then we’ll see that there are emotional distresses in every type of person in every walk and choice of person, and that there’s a lot of sadness and a lot of fear and it makes you perfect and normal. And we have to realize that our diversity is our strength, not only in our community but in our country, in the world. It’s loud and clear we better jump on that wagon, that everyone is different, and you have to celebrate those differences, otherwise we’re just going to destroy ourselves. So I appeal to the LGBT community and say, “Hold yourself as someone very special. Believe in who you are, and hold your balance. And that will help balance the rest of the world.”

 

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Movies

A fine ‘Bro’-mance

Eichner, Macfarlane performances essential to movie’s appeal

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Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner star in ‘Bros.’ (Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that “Bros” is a history-making milestone for LGBTQ representation in the movies — the first gay romantic comedy produced by a major Hollywood studio, written by an openly gay man (Billy Eichner) who also stars in it – and that it was made with queer talent filling virtually every role, both on camera and off. The “Billy on the Street” writer/comedian/actor, true to his brand, has been loud-and-proud about his efforts to foster authenticity and inclusivity throughout the making of his film, and rightly so.

Still, now that his much-anticipated movie is finally out, we can finally stop talking about all that. After all, even when a movie scores as many points for LGBTQ representation as this one does, what really matters is whether or not it’s actually any good.

When Eichner was tapped to make his film for Universal, many may have assumed it would be a showcase for his signature comedic persona — acerbic but disarmingly funny, more than a touch manic, somehow confrontational, defiant, and self-deprecating all at the same time — that would also poke fun at a heteronormative genre beloved just as often by its queer fans for its camp value as for anything else. This expectation seemed all but confirmed when Eichner announced the casting of actor Luke Macfarlane – known for playing handsome hunks in the very romcoms his movie would presumably be sending up – as his love interest.

As it happens, those assumptions were not entirely wrong. “Bros” is unabashedly autobiographical in tone, presenting Eichner essentially as an alternative version of himself if he had been a queer history scholar and author instead of a poly-hyphenate show biz celebrity; his character, Bobby Lieber, has even got a podcast, allowing him to voice the kind of take-no-prisoners witticisms and shrewdly queer observations about life and culture for which both versions of himself have become famous. 

While at a launch event for a new dating app, Bobby meets Aaron (Macfarlane), who – as one of the crowd of shirtless gay scenesters he’s used to being ignored by, he assumes is shallow, not too bright, and not into him at all. It turns out he’s wrong on all counts, and the two men soon find themselves drawn into a relationship, despite some serious issues around commitment and the fact that they seem to have nothing in common.

All of this is a perfect match for Eichner’s comic sensibilities – he’s built his image on calling out society for the absurdity of its assumptions, the illogic of its priorities, the depth of its shallowness, and “Bros” gives him plenty of opportunity to do exactly that, as well as plenty of fodder for his usual zingers and pop-culture references. It’s very much the kind of savagely iconoclastic spoof we would expect from its creator, making fun of social conventions (both gay and straight) and lampooning everything from awards-show stunt fashion to celebrity athletes coming out of the closet to “Dear Evan Hansen” — but it’s not nearly as scattershot as it sometimes feels. There’s a method to Eichner’s madness, and it hinges on reminding us that we are all, from a certain perspective, utterly ridiculous.

If that were all that “Bros” accomplished, it would be enough, but it gives us so much more. Not content to simply settle into familiar territory, he sets his sights on rising to the level of the romance classics he boldly references throughout, from “When Harry Met Sally” to “You’ve Got Mail” to “Manhattan.” With the help of director and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, whose sure-handed cinematic sensibility allows the star’s broadly satirical strokes and flights of absurdist fancy to flourish while still remaining grounded, he succeeds.

In large part, this is because Eichner’s screenplay doesn’t fall into the trap of being governed by the same tropes and expectations it makes fun of. Instead, it undermines them to take us further; unlike many romances, this one goes past the feel-good “falling in love” stuff and explores what it’s like for two adult men to build a relationship that works. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that’s not an easy or comfortable process, especially for a generation that came of age under the lingering shadow of widespread homophobia, but “Bros” is willing to go there – and because of that, its seemingly mismatched and dysfunctional lead couple are infinitely more relatable.

That doesn’t mean Eichner and Stoller ever allow their movie to become a “bummer.” Things might get a little messy from time to time, but what relationship doesn’t? By choosing to give “Bros” the kind of maturity that’s able to weather the storm, they’ve built something deeper and more lasting – the kind of movie that’s worthy of setting a few milestones – without sacrificing any of the comedy. And despite the cynical pose that’s always been at the heart of Eichner’s persona, they’re not afraid to let it get a little sappy, too.

As for its two stars, Eichner and Macfarlane’s performances are essential elements in the movie’s winning appeal. It’s perhaps not too surprising that Eichner, who’s been able to show us hints of his wider range before, rises to the occasion for his debut as a leading man; it’s the kind of work with the potential to elevate him into a whole new echelon of talent. A greater revelation is Macfarlane, who dives way below the pretty surface of Aaron to deliver a braver and more vulnerable performance than anyone might have expected. Together, the two actors find an easy and affectionate chemistry that is not only believable but makes it easy for real-life couples to recognize themselves in their relationship. They front a superb cast that includes Monica Raymund, Dot-Marie Jones, Jim Rash, Guillermo Díaz, Amanda Bearse, Miss Lawrence, TS Madison, Bowen Yang, and Jai Rodriguez, not to mention a host of queer and queer-friendly celebrity cameos from Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Amy Schumer, among several others.

It would be easy to go into detail about the many things that make “Bros” stand out as a piece of “queer cinema” — the way it weaves educational tidbits about LGBTQ history into the story as a tongue-in-cheek primer for straight viewers, or the sex-positive attitude with which it boldly and playfully depicts gay love-making, or its assertion of the differences instead of the similarities between same-sex relationships and straight ones — but it’s better to let viewers discover these things for themselves, along with all the movie’s other pleasures. We don’t want to give any more away, though we will tell you to watch for a scene-stealing turn by Debra Messing, who seems to be having the time of her life.

Other than that, all you need to know is that “Bros” lives up to its hype to become one of the smartest, sexiest, and yes, sweetest comedies of the year so far – the kind of rom-com that’s good enough to recommend even for people who don’t like rom-coms. 

And yes, it sets a lot of LGBTQ milestones, but don’t see it because of that. See it because it’s good.

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Movies

Billy Eichner ready to make cinematic history

‘Bros’ could be first gay rom-com to become box office smash

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Billy Eichner, the gay comedian, is usually the one asking the questions. Eichner came to fame with his award-winning, 2011-2017 truTVshow, “Billy On The Street,” where he would accost strangers on the streets of Manhattan, often with an A-list celebrity at his side. Eichner would interrupt someone in the middle of a jog, an errand, or daily commute, to ask a groan-inducing question or play a silly game. Most New Yorkers did not recognize either Eichner or celebrity sidekicks like Chris Evans, Will Ferrell, Mariah Carey, or Sarah Jessica Parker.

The tides have turned. Eichner, in a few short years, has gone from video class clown to a polished (dare I say very good) actor, writer, and all-around mensch – and ascended to celebrity A-list status himself. In 2019, he starred as the voice of Timon in the Disney live action remake of “The Lion King.” He also voices Timon in the upcoming live-action sequel: “Mufasa: The Lion King.”

But that’s not all. Currently, Eichner is writer, producer, and co-star of “Bros,” a  new romantic comedy about two commitment-phobic gay guys in a relationship—Eichner and costar Luke MacFarlane. MacFarlane—who came to fame playing in schmaltzy Hallmark Channel movies— is another gay (and very good looking) actor; indeed, all of Bros’ writers, producers, and all of the lead and supporting actors (including Amanda Bearse) identify as LGBTQ (with the exceptions of director Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow.) “Bros” is the first ‘almost’ all gay, lesbian or trans major motion picture.

“My day hasn’t even begun,” says Eichner who has just arrived in San Francisco, and where it’s the ungodly hour of 7:45 a.m. He’s just back from the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Bros” debuted to great acclaim.

“The goal was to make the funniest, laugh-out-loud movie as possible, that just happens to be about a gay couple,” explains Eichner. At 44, he is old enough to remember growing up during a time when gay-themed movies had limited releases and smallish audiences. “I went to see a lot of them,” Eichner recalls. “‘All Over the Guy,’ ‘Jeffrey,’ ‘Trick,’ ‘Edge of Seventeen,’ ‘Go.’ But it felt like it was something I did in private. It felt like it did when I was hiding a magazine [for secrecy at home].”

“Bros” is written for contemporary audiences — straight, gay, and everything in between (my words) —who are unfazed by scenes and situations that would have seemed controversial even 10 years ago. And, given the talent behind the project and the early buzz, “Bros” could be the first gay rom-com to become a mainstream box office smash, particularly with director Nicolas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow on board. 

“‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’ ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’ ‘Neighbors…. Judd and/or Nick are responsible for some of the funniest movies during the past two decades,” Eichner enthuses.

One of the most charming aspects of “Bros” is a pivotal scene filmed in Provincetown, Mass., a community with deep gay roots. “Provincetown is maybe my favorite place on Earth,” says Eichner. “It’s as far out on Cape Cod, Mass., as you can get. Being able to film in Provincetown added so much style to the classical romantic story. The town has a rich, gay history but is beautiful, sexy, and fun. It is so welcoming to everyone that Nick [Stoller, the director], who is straight, and married with three kids, takes his family there every summer. It is also the first place that we began filming.” The production was shut down in between filming for more than a year and a half due to COVID-19.

Is there any romance going on in Eichner’s life? When I asked him for a funny story about a first date, he laughed and said, “I’m still waiting to go on one. But, seriously, I met a guy that worked for a cannabis company. He showed up as high as he could be. And of course he was hungry. I should have just called it a night then. But we went out and all he could do was eat. There wasn’t any conversation. But I don’t know if that is funny, or just weird.”

There’s a musical moment in “Bros” that may surprise some Eichner fans—but shouldn’t; he’s a great singer and studied musical theater in college. His love of music predates his bar mitzvah, which he describes as “Broadway meets pop music…I had a life-sized, airbrushed Madonna standee from her ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour. And a standee from [the Broadway musical] ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. I even sang ‘Lean On Me.’”

Eichner’s singing talents are displayed in “Bros,” but briefly. “I don’t want people to think ‘Bros’ is a musical, though,” Eichner wants readers to know. And let me add my two cents: “Bros” is not a musical, at all. It is a comedy that is going to go down in history, in a great way. 

“Bros” is in theaters Sept. 30.

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Out & About

Ladies Tea event to benefit SMYAL

Fall Edition held at Hank’s Oyster Bar

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(Image via Eventbrite)

“Ladies Tea: Fall Edition,” a fundraising event, will be hosted on Sunday, Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. at Hank’s Oyster Bar Dupont Circle. 

Ladies are encouraged to celebrate fall while mixing and mingling at the Up Bar and outdoor patio space of Hank’s Oyster Bar.

Proceeds from the event will go to SMYAL DC, which supports and empowers LGBTQ youth in the D.C. region. 

Tickets for the event cost $15 and can be purchased on Eventbrite

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