Melissa Etheridge on the road less travelled

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: "My life completely changed. I'm one of those people who is grateful for the cancer diagnosis."
MELISSA ETHERIDGE: "My life completely changed. I'm one of those people who is grateful for the cancer diagnosis."

Melissa Etheridge is one of most successful and lauded female rockers in history and she did it all while battling prejudice and cancer. Ahead of her Wellington show next week, she talks to Tom Cardy. 

One sign of tempus fugit for a rock star is when fresh young faces cite you as an inspiration. It happened to Melissa Etheridge three years ago while she was performing on a show for American music cable channel VH1.

"Adele was back stage and I didn't know much about her at the time. I knew the one little song she had out – Chasing Pavements. She said `I'm such a huge fan'. My daughter was there and she was so sweet to my daughter. It was so nice for an English girl because my albums weren't as popular in England as they were in other English-speaking countries. It was nice to see that I had been an influence. Now, watching her career, I'm like `Yes, this is awesome'."

Adele, 22, is now one of the biggest selling female artists on the planet. Oh course, there's the flip side. Etheridge then points out that she also has young people come up to her and declare "My mother loves you".

But Etheridge, 51, who plays Wellington next week, can still make a few boasts of her own. She's one of the biggest selling female rockers. She's been nominated 13 times for Grammy Awards – and won twice for best female rock vocal performance in 1993 and 1995. Last year she got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

She also shares a link with Wellington's Fran Walsh and Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie. In 2007 Etheridge won the Oscar for best original song for I Need to Wake Up from the feature documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Walsh won the same award in 2004 and McKenzie this year.

Etheridge has been a professional musician for a quarter of a century. Her self-titled debut album was released in 1988 when the CD was in its infancy. Most people bought albums on vinyl or cassette. Downloading or streaming music had barely been imagined.

But Etheridge says the fundamentals have not really changed. "Of course the industry around it is completely different, yet it's still the same. It's singers singing songs. It's writing songs, it's performing. It's the same – you want to touch people. How that happens and how it gets there – the technology behind it – that's all crazy and different. [But] the feeling is still there."

For Etheridge it's still about writing and performing, with a dozen albums under her belt. (Her biggest selling album in the United States remains Your Little Secret in 1995.) But in the past decade equal coverage – unsolicited by Etheridge – has been given to her personal life. Etheridge came out as a lesbian in 1993 and was in a relationship with film-maker Julie Cypher through most of the 90s. While they were partners Cypher gave birth to two children. In 2000, the same year Etheridge and Cypher separated, it was revealed that the sperm donor and father was musician David Crosby.

Etheridge's next partner, actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, gave birth to twins from a sperm donor in 2006. The couple broke up in 2010.

While with Michaels, Etheridge was diagnosed, in 2004, with breast cancer. As with her sexuality, Etheridge was open. A side effect of chemotherapy saw her perform bald at the Grammy Awards in 2005.

Today, Etheridge is relaxed and philosophical about the attention given over the years to things outside her musical abilities. "I find it fascinating and I can't look at it as `bad'. They're talking about me and that's good," she says. "Of course there's certain things I would have loved to have done more in private but you can't say `I want to be famous here but I won't let you talk about this'. It doesn't work that way, so I kind of hold myself and stay true to myself and be an honourable, honest person. Hopefully time will show the path that I've done.

"I realise people know a lot about me, but, then again, they don't know anything about me."

Etheridge's first three albums had healthy sales and garnered her critical attention, but it was her fourth – 1993's Yes I Am – that broadened her audience and achieved multi-platinum sales. But she wasn't handed a rule book once she was famous. "It was kind of hard knocks. It was `Oh, wow, you say that – and that happens. OK'. I looked around and I saw how it was being done. When I came out about my sexuality that kind of took on a life of its own. It just became bigger than me. It was more like a movement and I was just one of the faces in it."

But most of the time Etheridge's life continues to be dominated by music and family. "I've realised in the last few years that I've become a better guitar player."

What about your singular raspy perfect-for-rock voice? "It's like muscle. If I'm healthy my voice is good. It's stronger."

Herr four children? Etheridge puts on a croaky elderly voice to re-enact some of her conversations with them. "`We only had three televisions. We didn't have phones in the car.' They make fun of it. I look back [on my childhood] and go `It was so much better, we didn't have so much distraction' But I still think they're having a wonderful childhood."

It then seems a little trite to ask, but, as cancer survivor, does Etheridge feel she got a second chance? Etheridge says it was more than that. "My life completely changed. I'm one of those people who is grateful for the cancer diagnosis. I could see where my life was headed, how I felt about what I was doing, the work, the food I was eating, the shape I was in, the stress – everything.

"It saved my life. I'm grateful for it." Then she adds, laughing: "I get corny all the time."

Etheridge says the cancer, as in everything in her life, has had an impact on her music. One example is the theme driving much of the songs on her 2010 album, Fearless Love. "When I say `There are only two choices in life – love or fear', it comes from my experience. It comes from lying there on chemotherapy and thinking about death and thinking about choices and understanding spirit and life. As corny as it might be, that's where I come from."

Melissa Etheridge performs at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre on July 7

The Dominion Post