The Holiday Show
7:30 p.m. each night
3701 Mt. Vernon Ave.
Melissa Etheridge brings her “Holiday Show” to The Birchmere for two nights next week (a Wednesday night show was planned but has been canceled). She spoke to the Blade by phone from her Los Angeles home. It was prior to the Woolsey fire but her publicist tells us later her house was spared, though she had to evacuate. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: So you’ll be here three nights, wow. Tell us about your show.
MELISSA ETHERIDGE: I know, isn’t that sweet? I’m really looking forward to being in one place for three to four days, especially around there. Looking forward to seeing a little more of that area than I’ve seen but also the holiday shows, they’re, you know, still Melissa Etheridge shows. We’re gonna do “Come To My Window” and “I’m the Only One” and get all the hits and have all the fun but sprinkled in there will be some holiday songs from my “New Thought for Christmas” album that was released about 10 years ago and just sort of a message of inspiration. I think we can use a little spirit of love at the end of this year. I’m just trying to do my job as an entertainer and uplift people.
BLADE: Do you do any seasonal songs that weren’t on your “New Thought” record?
ETHERIDGE: Oh sometimes we throw in a little “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It depends on the crowd. Depends on how much fun we’re having.
BLADE: How long have you been doing this?
ETHERIDGE: This is about the third year now.
BLADE: Did you ever feel it would dilute your rocker cred to do a Christmas album and tour? Elton John said once over his dead body would he ever do a Christmas album.
ETHERIDGE: (laughs) You kow, I used to think that myself and then about 10 years ago I realized that this was not gonna be a holiday album that’s like fa la la la la. I think the most holiday thing I did on it was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But the other songs I wrote and they’re probably a couple of my more rocking tunes. There’s a song called “It’s Christmas Time,” which is a blistering look at commercialism and, you know, sort of how maybe we should look at what Christmas is. That’s really kind of where I was going. Hey, let’s get more of the spirit and a little less of the religiosity and just think about what it really means to have peace on earth and good will toward everybody. What would that look like?
BLADE: The “Yes I Am” anniversary tour didn’t play our market. Did you sing the entire album or was that just for the cruise?
ETHERIDGE: I played the whole album. On the cruise, I did it in order but on the tour, I mixed up the order a little. Some shows I did about nine of the 10 songs but by the last few shows, I was doing all 10 s ongs.
BLADE: Is an expanded edition or re-release planned for that album?
ETHERIDGE: Yes. It was supposed to come out this month. I don’t deal with Universal anymore. I don’t have a deal with them so they’re doing this and I gave them the content. I have to ask my management, ‘cause I haven’t heard back on when that’s supposed to come out but it’s soon.
BLADE: What’s the extra content?
ETHERIDGE: It’s about six or seven songs.
BLADE: Alternate versions or stuff that didn’t make the cut?
ETHERIDGE: They didn’t make the final cut. They’re brand new songs. One of them is a different version of a song that was on “Your Little Secret” that was going to be on “Yes I Am,” a different version of “Change.”
BLADE: When you were on Island/Universal, did you and your team have much say in what your singles would be? Did you ever push for one and the label insisted on something else?
ETHERIDGE: Yeah, that happens a lot and the ultimate thinking is the label is the one who is gonna work it. They’re the ones who are gonna go out and sell your song to radio stations so you want them to believe in it. So if they’re telling you, “Hey, we believe in this song,” chances are you’re gonna get a better working, they’re gonna work it more if they have the idea instead of me forcing them to do something. So I’ve always kinda gone with that even though I’ve disagreed. But what do I know? I almost didn’t put “Come to My Window” on the album, so I’m not so sure I’m the best judge of what my singles should be.
BLADE: Have you considered putting “Scarecrow” back in your set because of the Matthew Shepard anniversary?
ETHERIDGE: Somebody asked me that on social media but I hadn’t really thought about that. But yeah, it was 20 years ago. I realized because my son is turning 20 and he was born right after that happened. But no, it hadn’t crossed my mind recently.
BLADE: Did you hear about him being interred at the National Cathedral?
ETHERIDGE: Yes I did. … I think, gosh, he would have been 40. The whole thing blew my mind but I love that he’s there in Washington at the Cathedral. It just really, in my own personal experience there’s a little rest there for me.
BLADE: I know you’ve been recording this year. Did you end up getting together with (producer) John Shanks and any ETA on a 2019 album?
ETHERIDGE: Yes, I’ve been writing all year long. I wrote a bunch of songs at the beginning of the year. I had gone into the studio and demo’ed ‘em up. I got ‘em to a certain place and played them for John and said, “Can you give me the John Shanks supercharge,” you know, and he and I went into the studio and we recut them all and I wrote a couple more and it’s all done and mixed and it would have been released at the end of this year except for the “Yes I Am 25,” which now I’m trying to find out when that’s coming out. So we’re gonna release the first single in January and then it’ll be all the way out end of March/April.
BLADE: What direction did this take? I’m sure it’s totally different from the Stax album (Etheridge’s last record “MEmphis Rock and Soul,” a collection of Stax label covers)?
ETHERIDGE: Yeah, totally it is and it’s also different from “This is M.E.” in that, if you know the work I do with John Shanks, it’s very much that sort of production. It’s very, very rock, very big yet we had an agreement that we would not put the kitchen sink in, we would pull back the layers and let it feel very live. It was very important to us that it have sort of a live feeling. I’m really super happy with it. The songs are a mixture, of course, of what we’ve been going through the last couple years but also some very personal songs. I think it’s some of the best writing. Concord Records is putting it out and (label president) John Burk looked at me, hugged me and said, “I think this is some of the best writing you’ve ever done.” And my voice is in really good shape. It’s a pretty powerful record if I don’t say so myself.
BLADE: You’ve talked before about how important it is to you to be able to vary things up with your band in concert yet you’ve been doing some symphonic shows lately and you traveled with a horn section for the last album. How do you keep that vibe going when you play with other musicians beyond your core band?
ETHERIDGE: It’s one of the most difficult things I do because I do shape my shows to be very spontaneous and in the moment and I love to take off and play a little when I want to, I love keeping that going, but you can’t do that when there are 70 people behind you coming in on beat four. So it’s my job as a trained musician to be able to color within the lines and keep some consistency, which I enjoy. It’s actually a good workout for me. I really enjoy it very much. I love playing with symphonies. I really loved playing with the National Symphony Orchestra, that was amazing.
BLADE: Yeah, you were here back in June. Who did your charts? Did you get them all at once?
ETHERIDGE: That was started about three-four years ago. I started with the Boston Pops and they said, “OK, we will arrange about five of your songs.” I think there were five tunes. Then we did a show there, then we did a show in Chicago and another in San Francisco and along the way, each of them paid for two or three arrangements. So I got Keith (Lockhart) to do it in Boston. He’s an amazing conductor and oh, the name just went right outta my head, but another beautiful conductor, he arranged the others and then I picked up a few along the way. I had a couple from Oslo the Nobel Peace Prize concert I did. So we collected them and now I’ve got about, my goodness, about 22 tracks now I can choose from.
BLADE: Did you hear anything from Mavis (Staples) or any of the other Stax folks when your album came out?
ETHERIDGE: Yes, I heard from Mavis. I changed a couple of the words in “Respect Yourself” so I reached out to her and said, “Hey, is this OK?” and she loved it. She said yes and was honored. She really enjoyed it. I heard from the woman who wrote “Who’s Making Love” and I changed some lyrics for that and she said she totally supported that. And then I met Otis Redding’s daughter and she just gave me a big hug and said, “Thanks for bringing the spotlight to my dad,” and just a whole lot of gratitude. It meant a lot to me.
BLADE: There was some backlash this year when “Come to My Window” was used in the Applebee’s commercial. Some people online said it straightwashed what has been such an iconic lesbian song. Did you have any reservations about it and what did you think of the reaction?
ETHERIDGE: (laughs) I thought, well, if they had two ex wives and a daughter in college and three other children in school that maybe they’d understand that sometimes a womn’s gotta, you know, say yes when a big paycheck comes along, you know? I looked up Applebee’s and they were, you know, a straightforward company and come on, it’s been 25 years and no one would touch me. I have never had any music supporting any brand or anything and Applebee’s was like, “Yeah, we’ll take an iconic gay song and yeah, we’ll use it.” So I’m like, you know, if that puts me in the living room of people that would never have allowed anyone to listen to it before, that’s a good thing. I understand people want their songs to themselves but you know, Momma’s gotta pay some bills.
BLADE: How are your kids and wife?
ETHERIDGE: Oh, they’re great. My daughter’s graduating from Columbia, I’m so proud of her. Everybody’s great. The small kids are in middle school so, you know, we’re going through that, but they’re rocking, they’re awesome.
BLADE: What are your memories of taping the duets special for VH1 back in the ‘90s? I saw you’re having Paula Cole and Joan Osborne on your cruise next year.
ETHERIDGE: I loved it. They wanted me to play with one other person and I had just had great success with “Yes I Am” and I felt women were breaking down doors in radio and I thought there’s a couple of up-and-coming artists I really was enjoying Joan Osborne’s album at the time and we went and searched and Paula Cole’s album was just coming out so nobody had heard of her. And Jewel was was just brand new and she was just this sweet girl playing so I said, yeah. I loved seeing what happened to all of them. They really got the exposure they deserved, their songs became part of the ‘90s and I love that we’re getting back together on the cruise. We’re just gonna have a good time.
BLADE: Did you know from rehearsals Sophie B. Hawkins was gonna get so into it and start running all over the stage?
ETHERIDGE: Oh my God, you’re really asking the questions. It was so funny because I had totally been like, “OK, I’m a big ‘ole lesbian now, so here’s my music” and I was walking this line of I’m not gonna, you know, push any boundaries too far, I’m just gonna be, “OK, here we are,” then she gets up and no, she didn’t do that in rehearsal. She starts you know, grinding and I was like, “Oh my God, what are you doing?” and I said, “You know, it’s rock and roll, let’s just sing, and I just did my best but whew, that’s a memory I have, yeah.
BLADE: Do you see things now in your early songwriting you didn’t see at the time?
ETHERIDGE: Oh my God, yes, but you have to allow that. I didn’t know then what I know now so I was just going through what I was going through and you just gotta let it all go and be able to live with it. That’s why whenever I made an album, I have to go, “OK, am I gonna be able to live with all of this? I’m going to be singing this song forever and ever and ever, I have to be able to be OK with this.” I really try to stay within those lines.
BLADE: Is vinyl your preferred medium at home? For some reason I picture you having like 10,000 records or something crazy.
ETHERIDGE: I wish I did. I have a vinyl collection but it’s not very large. My son has the big vinyl collection. Not 10,000, but he has a good vinyl collection. I don’t really have a good player. I wish I had a better one. I’m gonna have to invest in that because I really do enjoy vinyl. But I’m digital. I’ve got a Sonos that I crank up in the house. I like the comfort and convenience of digital.
BLADE: Roughly how many guitars would you guess you own?
ETHERIDGE: Oh, wow. Roughly I would say somewhere around 80. Ninety maybe. I have a lot.
BLADE: You have a whole wall of them? Why so many?
ETHERIDGE: Now that’s a difficult question. Yes, I have a wall of guitars in my house and yes I love it and I have them all over the house just in stands and stuff. Why so many? Well I’ve been doing this for over 30 years so I have some older ones and then the acoustics I play, I have about 40 acoustics from over 40 years. I have to get a couple new ones every few years because I’m very hard on them. Then in the last 10 years, I’ve started to invest more in vintage guitars and electric guitars. You can really put some money into those so I had to slow down a little, but you know, they’re all good.
BLADE: There’s this ferocious 10-minute live version of “Like the Way I Do” that’s one of the bonus cuts on the “If I Wanted To” maxi single but there’s no info about it on the packaging. It feels like such a definitive version — do you remember where it was recorded and was that pretty much how you always sang it live in those years?
ETHERIDGE: I think that was recorded at the Roxy in 1988. I don’t know, it might have been later but I imagine we used that one. And yeah, I still end my shows with that and it can be anywhere from 10-20 minutes long.
BLADE: Which of your albums took the longest to make?
ETHERIDGE: “Breakdown.” The record company had completely changed after “Your Little Secret.” I released that in ’95, then I didn’t release “Breakdown” til ’99 although I’d started working on it in like ’97. It was just a very hard time emotionally for me and the record company kept changing ownership and it was just getting harder and harder so yeah, that took a long time to make.
BLADE: Was that continuously or in spurts?
ETHERIDGE: No, in spurts. I started with somebody else, then I stopped, then I started it with John, and then it took a few different times, a few different studios, yeah.
BLADE: Do you prefer to work more quickly? I know the Stax album was made really fast.
ETHERIDGE: I enjoy the quicker because I think it gets a snapshot of where I am and the songs are fresh. “Breakdown” has its own meaning and place and you can hear the sadness in that album but it was what it was.