Melissa Etheridge willingly addresses the complexities of life — in her music and personally
JONANNA WIDNER | Contributing Writer
It was soon after a contentious presidential campaign that Melissa Etheridge came out publicly as lesbian. That was nearly 20 years ago, but it can be easy to forget how different the world was then — a time when coming out could adversely affect album sales, alienate a fan base or outright destroy a career.
Or so everyone thought. Once Etheridge came out, none of those apocalyptic fears came to fruition. In fact, the singer-songwriter went on to sell millions of albums, win two Grammys and earn fans worldwide — gay, straight and in between. She solidified her stardom rather than marginalizing it and became, for many, something more: an icon, a role model.
Still, those two decades have been anything but smooth sailing for her. There have been highs — hit albums, an Oscar, four children (young twins and two teenagers) — and lows — some not-so-hit-albums, two very difficult breakups, battling (and overcoming) breast cancer and chemotherapy — all of which took place in a very public way. Etheridge wasn’t just a rocker; she was The Most Famous Lesbian In Music.
Her new album, 4th Street Feeling, has the feel of someone who has been through a harrowing journey and is looking back on it — not just on the past 20 years, but on the time before. Yet it simultaneously looks forward. It’s a complicated album, but, Etheridge seems lately to have come to peace with the complexities of life.
“There’s a lot of different emotions on the album, a lot of different points of view,” says Etheridge in a telephone interview before her arrival in Dallas for a concert at the Majestic Theatre on Saturday. “There’s a lot of joy, sure, and a lot of looking forward, and also some looking backward and some cathartic parts.”
Such a melange works: 4th Street Feeling is Etheridge’s strongest work in years, both lyrically and musically.
Etheridge culled from her childhood memories for much of the album’s material, and this is when the songs work best, when the imagery paints a picture of a kid growing up in the gritty 1970s in Leavenworth, Kan.
“I’ve found that as I get older my memories become more alive, like they can change, take on different thoughts and feelings,” she says.
“When I was much younger, I couldn’t wait to get out of my hometown. And now I think, ‘Wow that was a great time.’ I’m looking back and incorporating that in my life and feeling that it’s OK to embrace that now.”
Much of that looking back takes the form of very specific imagery on the album: The title track is named after a street in Leavenworth, and references to old cars pepper the lyrics (the line “I got my old man’s Delta 88” leads off the CD, and the title track recalls “when everything I had/could fit in my Chevrolet.”)
Musically, there are departures from what Etheridge’s fans may expect.
“Along with looking back lyrically, the music takes on that feeling, that kind of ‘70s soul. The influences are very clear,” Etheridge notes.
“The beautiful thing, when I grew up, was listening to that one AM station in the ’60s and early ’70s. They used to play Led Zeppelin, then Marvin Gaye, then Tammy Wynette. I got to know all that music — I didn’t know there was anything separate.”
Despite all its nostalgia (tinted with a smidge of anger: “A Disaster” and “Be Real” make it clear Etheridge still has a few things to say to her exes), 4th Street’s secondary theme trends forward, toward acceptance and — dare we say it — happiness. “Falling Up,” with the line My heart is heavy/but the rest of me is fine/So here’s to me/let’s drink a cup/I’m falling…/falling up, reflects the attitude of someone who has turned 51, who can hold the contradictions of life in perspective.
“It’s my life,” Etheridge says, her voice gathering steam across the line. “It’s the ups and downs, it’s the ins and outs, it’s the great story of my life. I’m grateful for every lesson I’ve learned, and I’ve got so many more to go. I’m grateful for it all.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 12, 2012.