Melissa Etheridge’s new album, “Fearless Love,” is somewhat of a stylistic departure for her.
“Having done this now for 20 years, I have the pleasure now of making an album for the art, simply for the pleasure of it,” says Etheridge in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home base as she prepared for her 50-city summer tour, which brings her to the State Theater in New Brunswick on Friday, July 16.
“I love the freedom I have to do exactly what I want and to be fearless about it. That was the whole plan of this album, to be fearless in every note, every word, every melody, and just rock as hard as I wanted to, and be fearless about it.”
Etheridge has been with the same record company for 20 years, and she wanted the opportunity to rock out, to jam. Since she’s been in the game for more than two decades and sold millions of records, she had the artistic freedom to call the shots. “I have an incredible record company that lets me do what I want to do,” she says. “They don’t suggest things — they might say ‘please,’ but they don’t threaten me. If I wanted to do an album of spoons, they’d say OK.”
Etheridge brought a new ensemble to this record. Her musicians — John Shanks on guitar, Victor Indrizzo on drums, Sean Hurley on bass, and Jamie Muhoberac on keyboards — had never played with her before. She says she was searching for a new sound.
“It started with planning this album. I met with (Shanks, who produced the record), and we decided that we were going to use completely new musicians, and that he was going to bring in top guys, the top musicians who were out there right now,” Etheridge says. “So I let go of the musicians I had, and wished them well, sent them off with love, and entered this project brand spanking new. I looked for the best road guys out there and put together a whole new band.”
It wasn’t hard for her to find new musicians. “The quality of musicians here in LA, this is where you go, here and New York, if you’re at the top of your game. All of these guys have played with, collectively, Chris Cornell, Gwen Stefani, Alanis Morissette, to Shakira. They’ve played with everybody.”
She had the opportunity to perform with fellow female rockers Joss Stone and Natasha Bedingfield, both British soulsters, as backup singers on a couple of cuts from the disc.
“I love these gals, they’re really good singers and have an appreciation for the roots of music,” says Etheridge. “R&B and rock and roll. Especially the English gals. The throwback to R&B, from crazy Amy Winehouse on up, they’re just amazing.”
Etheridge, a two-time Grammy winner and and one-time Oscar winner (for the soundtrack to “An Inconvenient Truth”), turned 49 earlier this year. She was born in Leavenworth, Kansas, to father John Etheridge, a teacher, and mother Elizabeth Williamson, a computer consultant.
Etheridge is known for her music of course, but she is also known for her advocacy for causes close to her. In 1993, when she publicly acknowledged that she was a lesbian, she instantly became an icon in the LGBT community.
In 2004 Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy. She has been a strong campaigner for that cause as well, and has written about her experiences in songs and memoirs.
Cancer, says Etheridge, “is the greatest thing to ever happen to me. It changed the way I look at food, and stress, and the choices I make in my life, and it’s changed my work to where I’m not fearful of saying what I want to do, this is what makes me happy, and this is the kind of music I want to make, down to this is what I am going to do today to make me happy. I’m looking at life with more gratitude and love and just walking that walk day to day.”
Etheridge says she hopes other women who are confronted with cancer can see opportunity rather than something to fear. “I would hope that those who are stricken with cancer now take the opportunity to change their lives,” she says. “Cancer doesn’t just happen to you, or fall on you during the middle of the day because you’re there. There’s a reason; cancer is a symptom of a life being out of balance. I would hope they take the opportunity to understand what health is, and what balance is, and take back their life, hold onto their life and understand it’s theirs. Every choice they make . . . they don’t have to sacrifice themselves. They’re the only ones living this life. They have to learn to say yes to themselves and no to a whole lot of other stuff.”
Also, partly because of her cancer, she has been a huge advocate of the use of medical marijuana. Earlier this year, New Jersey became the 14th state to allow the legal use of medical marijuana, though the administration of Governor Chris Christie has yet to implement the law.
“I think — I know for sure — that it is not only going to be accepted as the medicine that it is. Also I think it will be decriminalized and legalized, because it is a spirit, a plant spirit that we need, and we need to stop fearing it, and it will change our health system,” she says. “Medicine, our allopathic medical system, is all out of whack. We pay doctors when we get sick. The old ancient Chinese would pay doctors when they were healthy. So let’s just switch this paradigm. Plant spirits, cannabis being one of them, are part of that.”
In 2003 Etheridge married actress Tammy Lynn Michaels and also became an outspoken advocate for the legalization of same-sex marriage in every state. But her same-sex marriage has not been immune to the same pressures that heterosexual couples have faced. Rumors began surfacing late last year that Etheridge and Michaels were on the rocks; in April the two announced that they were splitting up.
Although Etheridge says the couple arrived at the split mutually, Michaels seems to have a different take on things. On her blog, Michaels, 35, hints at being “blindsided” by the split and says Etheridge unilaterally made the move, and she continued to profess her love for Etheridge.
Asked about the split, Etheridge says, “it was a horrible thing to go through. We have children. I’m still in the midst of it, redefining. It’s hard to go through something like that, and it’s really hard to go through something like that in public.”
On Michaels’ reaction, Etheridge says, “She’s a vocal gal, and she’s going to get her feelings out, and that’s only fair. I get to sit down and talk with (reporters) and get my side of the story out — well, not really my side, but my feelings — and she’s got the right to get her feelings out too.”
Etheridge has two children (13 and 11), with former partner Julie Cypher, with whom she broke up in 2000, and three-year-old twins with Michaels. The little ones, says Etheridge, “will probably spend most of their time with their other mom when I am on the road, but the big ones, when they’re not in camp and doing other summer things, will be on tour with me.”
Being away from her children, says Etheridge, “is the price, the sad part of touring.”
Melissa Etheridge, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Friday, July 16, 8 p.m. “Fearless Love” tour. $35 to $100. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.