Melissa Etheridge releases a jubilant new disk
by Gregg Shapiro
Melissa Etheridge isn’t the only one who is fortunate when it comes to her new album Lucky (Island). Her loyal legion of fans, who stuck with her through dark and low-key CDs such as Breakdown and Skin, are richly rewarded with the joyful and celebratory spirit of the new release (in stores February 10). Sexy and romantic, most of the songs on Lucky come in the wake of Etheridge’s courtship and subsequent marriage to actress Tammy Lynn Michaels.
Etheridge does an effortless job of balancing confidence and vulnerability in love songs such as “Mercy,” “This Moment,” and “Will You Still Love Me.” She flirts and flies, and she fearlessly wrestles the demons of her world throughout the album. The results are uplifting and empowering. I recently spoke to Etheridge, who was preparing for her Lucky tour.
Gregg Shapiro: One of the first things people will notice about your Lucky is the jubilant mood of the disc. Did it feel good to switch gears after the raw and ragged emotions of your previous album Skin?
Melissa Etheridge: Oh yeah. It certainly wasn’t a conscience thing like, “Oh, I’m gonna be happy now” [laughs]. It’s actually that it is my experience in my life. And thank goodness I’m not still writing back there. Thank goodness the journey has taken me here. The good stuff has happened and the celebration and the joyousness are real and true.
G.S.: Beginning with the title track and ending with “When You Find the One,” the whole album is sort of the musical equivalent of returning to the safety and comfort of home after being in exile. Was that what you intended?
M.E.: Yeah, I guess so. I’ve been so involved with it and inside it that I haven’t been able to step outside of it and think of it as a whole yet. I haven’t played these songs live yet. I haven’t lived them and gone through them. They’re fresh and brand new.
G.S.: There is a flirtatiousness to “If You Want To” that is equally refreshing and suspenseful. I think it’s the kind of song that makes the listener root for the singer.
M.E.: Oh, yeah, and it is flirtatious. It’s like, “OK, I’ve been dead, and you gave me your number. OK, I’ll call.” It’s just that moment, that reaching out, that unsureness. Having written the song, it was fun to go back to it and play with it, [although] in the moment it’s very painful, every step you take.
G.S.: Lucky also has some, you’ll excuse the expression, balls-to-the-wall rockers, such as “Secret Agent” and “Giant.” Do you think it is necessary to include that kind of work on albums to show you haven’t lost that edge?
M.E.: Oh, yeah. Not only to show it but to do it. I make these albums and they go out there. Then I spend the rest of the time performing these songs. I wanted to turn up the volume again. I wanted to rock again. I had been so very down and mellow about the last two albums. It was finally like, “OK, let’s go. I feel it. I feel good. I’m ready. Let’s go.” It’s more fun to play it live. You only have that one chance on the record.
G.S.: Even with all of this uplifting energy, one of my favorite songs on the album is still the one that makes me want to cry—the gorgeous ballad “Meet Me in the Dark.” What can you tell me about that song?
M.E.: I wrote that song when I was kind of in the middle of an identity crisis about myself and my music. After seeing that the record company was not responding to my music, I started to think, Am I obsolete now in the radio world? I’ve never tried to write a hit song. That’s not what I’m made of and it’s not what I’m about. I had this real crisis, and I went into my living room, sat at my piano, and just threw up this song from my soul that I don’t think will ever see the radio waves.
G.S.: It’s amazing, because it really made think of Joni [Mitchell], Carly [Simon], and Carole [King], circa ’71. It made me think of the female singer/songwriters of that time.
M.E.: That we don’t hear much anymore [laughs]. Yeah, I was sad for the state of the music business. I wanted to write the music I used to listen to in the ’70s. I wanted to go back to the rock ’n’ roll ballad of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger, that Midwestern feeling. I just wrote from that. I love it. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
G.S.: I was also moved by “Tuesday Morning,” the powerful and amazing tribute to Mark Bingham. The Ella Jenkins sample from “Up and Down This Road” is the perfect touch.
M.E.: I, of course, as a person and an artist, was affected by 9/11. I believe we all were. It was reverberating and resounding in me. I was starting to write songs for this album in the beginning of 2002, and I had asked a musician friend of mine, Jon Taylor, to throw together some loops for me. I like to write to a lot of the rhythms. He had thrown some together, and he had this one with an Ella Jenkins loop on it. I was like, “What is that?” “That’s an old gospel singer. It’s an old civil rights song.” So I was listening to it and listening to it on this loop, over and over. I started to sing around it: [sings] “You cannot change this.” I said, “Oh my gosh, is this my 9/11 song?” I started to think [about] what was going on with Mark Bingham on Flight 93, and the whole thing. I decided I wanted to pay tribute to this man. I don’t want this part of our gay history to be wiped away or swept under.
G.S.: And Ella lives here in Chicago.
M.E.: I did not know that. I do not know anything about her. All I know is she’s still alive [laughs]. I sent the song to her to ask permission, and the word got back that she loved it, and that made me very happy.
G.S.: You are also known for your live shows, and you are about to embark on a tour in support of Lucky. What can people expect to see and hear on this tour?
M.E.: I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I am to go on the road with an album and with a set list that I have now. I have eight albums to choose from. I’m thrilled with the band I have. I’m just so excited. It’s just like the album. It’s full of joy. It’s a celebration.
At the 2003 OutMusic Awards in June, Gregg Shapiro received the annual honor for Outstanding Support, which recognizes involvement by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.