This is M.E. Tour
With Alexander Cardinale
Tuesday, 8 p.m. (doors 6:30)
1215 U St., N.W.
On a rare night home in Los Angeles just a week into her fall tour, long-time out rocker Melissa Etheridge caught up with Washington Blade by phone. Her current “This is M.E. Tour,” which kicked off Nov. 2 in Mashantucket, Conn., comes to Washington next week.
Touring behind her Sept. 30 album of the same name, Etheridge, on the eve of a Sunday night performance at the National Radio Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, was candid on a wide spate of topics. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: The new album feels very textured — more loops, some big, crunchy sounds. Is it hard to discern how far to go with that in the studio?
MELISSA ETHERIDGE: No. I have a rule with all the producers. I tell them right up front, I say, “Look, I’m a live artist, so I need to be able to do whatever they hear on the record live.” Now, not every little huge 10-guitar part or something but my voice, the song, the beat, they have to be able to enjoy that live and I have to be able to do it. Jon Levine (Nelly Furtado, Selena Gomez) was really great at keeping it there and Jerry Wonda (the Fugees, Mary J. Blige, Akon) was so amazing because we created it from the ground up live. … And now he’s performing it with me, so it’s really fun.
BLADE: Are those sounds difficult to replicate on stage?
ETHERIDGE: I told my drummer he can use triggers so it sounds like the record, but he has to hit it. It can’t be a loop because if I want to stop and do anything live, I have to be able to stop. You can do that with stems and take those sounds and put them in the pads so he’s playing live drums but he’s adding the sounds from the pads.
BLADE: I loved the vintage footage in the new video for “Take My Number.” Was that your idea?
ETHERIDGE: That was mine and the director, Dale. When I was making this record, I had just gone through about six months of thinking I was going to put out a box set of old stuff that no one had ever seen or heard, so I went into my attic — actually a storage space like we all have out here in California — and started going through boxes and finding all these old pictures and things. … I wanted to share some of that with my fans and I wanted them to have the feeling I had looking at it of, “Oh my God, it really has been 30 years since I’ve been doing it here in California, wow.” It fit because there’s also a lot of reminiscing in the song.
BLADE: So is the box set on ice for now?
ETHERIDGE: Yes, because right when I was about to finish it I went through this — well it was akin to the emotional and personal change that I went through about 10 years ago, I went through that again last year with my business self so last year I changed management, my record company and everything. … So when I realized I wasn’t going to make any money on the box set, Universal would make it all because they own all the masters, I started thinking, “How can I not make money on the things that I did?” So we put that away for now. Sometime I will present it when I’m not looking at it as a way to make money but just as a thing that I can release to people and share.
BLADE: Sounds like some drastic changes. Were you afraid of burning bridges?
ETHERIDGE: I have worked with some of these people for 25-30 years and I’d had relationships with them my whole career. There are some wonderful, hard-working, amazing people who obviously got me to an amazing place in my life and career and I’m so grateful and thankful for them. But it’s a different industry out there enow. The artist has more control and more power and if you can do it live, if you can bring it, if you can be real and consistently bring it, that’s worth something and you can own your own music and cultivate your social media and career, so I’m very excited about what I’m doing right now.
BLADE: You said in one recent interview that you flatlined after the last album, “4th Street Feeling” (2012). What did you mean?
ETHERIDGE: Well, I had done two or three or four tours in a row where I kind of played to the same number of people. They were wonderful shows and there are people, whether I’m on the radio station or not, there are people who if you put a show for sale in a certain town, those people are going to come see me because they have a great time. Those are my fans that I love and I couldn’t be me without them. But I also think there’s a lot of people out there in the world who, if given the chance, I’d like to think would also enjoy the music and I felt I wasn’t reaching those people. I didn’t want to be comfortable. I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could reach more people and see if I could get more people interested in this crazy thing called rock and roll.
BLADE: It irks the shit out of me in Rolling Stone when they review albums by women rockers and even when it’s a fairly positive review overall, they’ll get in these little digs and say stuff like, “She’s better when she reins in her over-the-top tendencies.” They never say shit like that about Springsteen or Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) or the male rockers. Are you kidding me? Rein it in? It’s fucking rock and roll. They can only stomach women rockers if they keep it safe and “rein it in.” Do you feel it’s sexist?
ETHERIDGE: You know Joey, sometimes I think you are the little devil on my shoulder. You know, like there’s an angel over here and a devil over here because it’s like you know the little funny things in my life that are kind of buttons for me. You have that sense of justice that I have that sometimes gets me in trouble like we did last time (comments Etheridge made in a 2013 Blade interview about Angelina Jolie went viral). But I made an oath to myself a long time ago, like 20 years ago, that I would always answer truthfully what was asked of me. I answered truthfully and I do not regret that at all. It opened up some amazing conversations, not just with me but across the nation, so it’s all good. But yes, back to Rolling Stone. My wife so gently just sort of, you know, pats me on the head and says, “Oh honey, don’t let …” because, yeah, I think those things. Why do they call it histrionic on me yet I’m singing the exact same type of thing Steven Tyler sings and you said it exactly. My rock heroes were people like Robert Plant, and he was up there singing like Janis Joplin who stood up there and sang like a black woman. It’s soul. And I mean “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” Steven Tyler presents like the male androgyny yet when I showed up on this end of androgyny it was like, “Whoah, wait a minute, there’s something uncomfortable about it” and it’s taken them a long time. But I’m being patient now. I believe that they will all understand that part of themselves and that a stronger older female is not strange. It’s actually a very ancient part of culture that we sort of let go.
BLADE: The coverage of women rockers often feels so grudging. There’s the old boys club like U2, the Stones, Bob Dylan — and I’m certainly not suggesting these acts aren’t deserving — but they fart and Rolling Stone gives them a four- or five-star review. When you or Sheryl Crow or people like that are profiled, they want to talk about your family, your kids, who you’re dating, this whole domestic thing. The male rockers get a little of that but it’s so out of proportion. Does this bother you?
ETHERIDGE: Well, it doesn’t bother me but it is one of the reasons I made the album that I made. There’s a song on it called “All the Way Home” that was banned from being played in Barnes & Noble, right? So Barnes & Noble, bless their hearts, wanted to play the album in their stores but they said they wouldn’t play that song. It’s too lusty, it’s too “I got lightening in my eyes and a fire down below.” I just get all naughty on this album because I think that’s so much of what rock and roll is. Rock and roll comes from that black woman who’s singing naughty songs that we’re not supposed to hear. But we’re under our sheets listening to her sing. That’s rock and roll and it’s easy for me to represent that. That’s why I have the band I have now, it’s a more soulful band. That’s where I was with making this album. Even though it’s more technical, it’s like the roots of rock and roll but with technology, with purpose.
BLADE: So many veteran acts just keeping milking the hits on endless tour and maybe they put out an album six or eight years ago, maybe not. You’ve kept them coming every two years or so. Are you just the kind of songwriter who would go crazy without some outlet? How do you keep that drive when the money is all in touring?
ETHERIDGE: Oh yeah, people have told me it might be better if I went away for awhile. And I went like, “I don’t want to go away. What do you mean go away? This is what I am, this is what I do.” Even my mother a few years ago, she said, “Don’t let people think this comes too easily for you.” I’m like, “Why not? This is what I do, what I love.” I love to write songs about the human experience that I’m having and I love to get on stage and say, “Oh my God, did you feel this? Can you relate to this? Can we exchange this energy?” … It’s just amazing. I love doing it.
BLADE: You often put six or eight cuts from the new album in your show. Do you sense your fans are OK with that as long as you hit the staples like “Come to My Window” and “Bring Me Some Water”?
ETHERIDGE: Right. This tour was sort of a gamble for me but one I really, really believed in because I see my fan base, the ones who come out and yes, of course, they love “Come to My Window,” they love “I’m the Only One,” and thank goodness there’s those six or seven songs that they know I’m going to play. We have a great time and I love those songs, I’m so grateful for those songs. And then the rest is my choice. It might be the kind of tour where I dig a little deeper in my catalogue and pull out deeper album cuts and they’re like, “Oh, she did this song, this night,” that’s great. I love doing that. But every now and then an album comes along — and actually I haven’t really felt this strongly about one since the mid-‘90s — but I feel so strongly about the music that I play so much of the new album because I really do believe the audience will enjoy it. I believe there will be enough people who have listened to the album that they’re going to lose their minds and the other people are gonna want to go home and buy it. I’m rolling the dice on that, but I feel really confident.
BLADE: Covers albums are all the rage this season — Bryan Adams, Bette Midler, Aretha Franklin. What song would you love to cover someday?
ETHERIDGE: My whole childhood like from 13 to 27, I sang other people’s songs all the time. Something crazy rock and roll like “Mississippi Queen” (Mountain) or Springsteen “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
BLADE: You’re not one of these artists whose stuff has been anthologized to death with these ICON CDs you see at Target and all that. Is Island going to start that now that you’re gone?
ETHERIDGE: It will be something that’s not much in my control, yeah. I haven’t ever pushed for that kind of thing because I love the feeling of being sort of a little bit underground. Even though I’m successful, always being a bit on the outside. The box gets full and falls over and I’m still there outside the box so then I’m on the beginning of the next thing. I stay in between the lines and I like it there. I love it.