Interview: Melissa Etheridge on Ellen, The Oscars and Rock and Roll

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

With eleven studio albums to her name, she has sold more than 27m records. She’s won two Grammys, yet been nominated for an incredible fifteen. She came out in 1993. In 2007 she won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 79th Academy Awards. She’s a breast cancer survivor and mother of four. Laurence Watts talks to the amazing Melissa Etheridge.

The first thing I notice about Melissa is that in contrast to her raspy vocals, her voice is velvet-soft. I start at the beginning. How did she decide on music as a career and did her parents try to discourage her?

“I was twelve years old when I started playing in bands around town,” she tells me. “I remember the first gig I got paid for. They gave me ten bucks. That’s a lot to a twelve year old in 1973! I started playing every weekend. I’d make $25 a night. Then I branched out and played anywhere I could find work. Soon I was making $200 a week. My parents tried to persuade me to go to college. They figured I could be a music teacher if I needed a career to fall back on. But they could see I was making a living and so long as I felt I was moving ahead it was what I wanted to do.”

Making a living from music doesn’t necessitate being a rock star. Did she set out to be as successful as she’s been?

“I had pretty big rock and roll dreams when I was younger,” she explains. “There were great artists coming out like The Eurythmics and U2. I wanted to be part of that and play those big arenas.”

Did she ever dream of winning Grammys? I tell her I can picture her practicing her acceptance speech in front of a mirror.

“Well, maybe not that exactly,” she laughs. “When I was in high school the Oscars were probably the big one for me. I watched them every year. It wasn’t so much the Oscar I wanted, more the opportunity to talk to the world.”

Etheridge knew she was gay when she was fourteen or fifteen. Did Island Records, the label she’s been with her entire career, pressure her to keep her sexuality secret between 1985 and her coming out in 1993?

“No one knew quite what to do about it, she answers, “but no one was homophobic. Everyone knew I was gay. They knew my girlfriend. They knew where I’d come from too because Chris Blackwell was in a lesbian bar when he found me. I remember having the conversation with him. He looked at me and said, “I don’t ever want you to lie,” and then added, “but maybe don’t flag wave.””

Three albums into her career Etheridge started experiencing problems. By the beginning of 1993 she was being misquoted by journalists.

“I’d always been careful to say “my lover” or “my partner” and one guy just took it upon himself to say I was talking about my boyfriend. I was worried people would think I was some kind of liar because a lot of people knew, they knew I’d come from the bars. So it was really important for me to come out officially.”

And so she did in January 1993 at the Triangle Ball for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Melissa was a guest at the event and was asked to say a few words to the 2,500-strong crowd. She told them she was excited to be there and proud to have been a lesbian her whole life. KD Lang came over and hugged her.

Since we’re talking about coming out stories I ask Melissa how in 1997 she came to appear “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen DeGeneres eponymous sitcom.

“Oh, Ellen and I had been friends for ten years by then,” she says. “We’ve always been around Hollywood together. We’ve seen each other’s careers go up and we’ve always hung out. There was a group of us. It was KD Lang, Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen and myself. It was KD who first did an interview with The Advocate. She was the first to come out. We all went: “Wow!” So then I was like, sign me up, I’m jumping! And I jumped.”

“And then Ellen and Rosie were like: “But we’re in television, it’s different.” And they waited and waited. Then I remember going to dinner at Orzo one night with Ellen and she told me: “I’m going to come out on television.” She told me all about her plan. I was excited for her and said I wanted to be a part of it. So she wrote me into the episode.”

Etheridge is famous not only as a performer, but also as a songwriter. While “Come To My Window” is regarded as her signature song, I want to ask her about two others. The first, Scarecrow, is from her 1999 album, Breakdown. It deals with the 1998 murder of Matthew Shephard.

“When I heard the news about Matthew, Julie was pregnant with my oldest son, Beckett. It cut me open. All I could think about was that he was someone’s son. How sad it was that boys could be so afraid of this that they become monsters. I had to write the song to get those feelings out. Then I thought, what do I do with it? In the end I decided to release it because I wanted people to remember what happened. We don’t need any more of that.”

“A week after the album came out it was the year anniversary of Matthew’s death. I sang it that day and it tore me apart. I could barely get through it. I sang it again at the Equality Rocks concert in April 2000. There were about 60,000 of us in the RFK Stadium and Matthew’s mother and father were in the audience. It’s never an easy song to sing.”

Melissa’s unwavering support of the LGBT community was one reason I was rooting for her when her song “I Need To Wake Up” was nominated for Best Song at the 79th Academy Awards in 2007. The song featured in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Ellen hosted the Oscars that year and despite stiff competition “I Need To Wake Up” won. How did that feel?

“It was just as good as you’d think it would be! It really is! You have to understand, I thought Al Gore was making a documentary that might be shown in high schools. Then I heard Paramount was going to release it in movie theatres. So I thought they’d release it in a couple and it would go to DVD. Then I realised they were releasing it in a lot of theatres. People were going to see it. Then I saw that summer that the world changed.”

“Then came the Oscar nomination came and I couldn’t believe it! Finally, on the night itself I was sitting in the auditorium and John Travolta looked over at me and read out my name. I was like: OH MY GOD!!!”

“I remember walking up on stage and being surprised at how heavy the Oscar was. My arm was sore from carrying it around that night! I remember thanking my family: my children and my wife, Tammy. Everyone applauded. I was like, “Yeah they’re pretty great.” I didn’t realise people were applauding the implication: same-sex marriage. Afterwards I realised it was a really political thing to say, but at the time it was just the truth. You get 45 seconds and there’s a huge monitor in front of you with flashing orange numbers on it, counting down. It’s over before you know it, but it was literally a dream come true.”

Melissa’s career contradicts those who say you can’t be out and successful. Prior to coming out her three previous albums had each sold just under a million copies. Yes I Am, released eight months after her Triangle Ball announcement, sold more than six million.

“I love being asked if there was any backlash to me coming out because in my case there absolutely wasn’t.”

Does she buy the argument, previously put to her by Ellen and Rosie, that TV is different from music?

“I don’t. Ellen’s since proved that. Rosie too. It’s not about whether you’re gay or straight it’s about talent. Look at Neil Patrick Harris: one day he’s doing How I Met Your Mother and the next day he’s hosting the Tonys. You can’t argue with his talent. If you’ve not got the goods that’s bad luck, but don’t blame being out.”

Melissa Etheridge will be playing the following dates as part of her Fearless Love European Tour: Dublin, 14 Feb 2012; Manchester, 16 Feb 2012; London, 17 Feb 2012; Brighton, 19 Feb 2012.