When he reviewed rocker Melissa Etheridge’s debut album for Melody Maker in May of 1988, Kris Kirk dubbed the work a”very brave album.” Etheridge chose the title Brave and Crazy for her second album. And her rise to rock stardom has included much courage, as well: in general, challenging the male-dominated world of traditional rock to accept a female vocalist and guitarist; and more specifically, challenging that same world to accept her as a lesbian. But Etheridge’s courage has ultimately been worthwhile: she rose to major rock star status by the mid-1990s.
Born in Leavenworth, Kansas, around 1961, Etheridge’s roots provided a powerful affinity between herself and an audience hailing largely from working-class middle America. Although her father, John, had a white-collar job—he taught psychology and coached in the local high school—and her mother, Elizabeth, was a homemaker, the family had little money; they lived at the same level as their neighbors, most of whom worked at the Hallmark factory or in the nearby federal prison, which once housed infamous gangster Al Capone. “I’m glad I grew up in a small town,” she told Rolling Stone’s Rich Cohen. “I grew up with television and radio. I grew up with huge dreams, and yet I had this sort of small-town sensibility. I had what I call values. But they’re certainly not what I mean by morality. You learn to treat people good. There was a real work ethic. And I can’t help but be very open and very straightforward.”
Etheridge has credited her home environment with the motivation that made her a musician, citing both negative and positive influences. She has described both of her parents as loving, but emotionally closed, especially reluctant to express anger or sadness. “So I grew up in a house where everything was just fine,” she told Cohen. “I wasn’t abused. If I needed something, I had it. But there was no feeling. There was no joy, there was no sadness or pain. And then if there was pain, it was just a nod. So I would go into the basement—where we had a rec room—and write. I would put down all these feelings I had. The songs I was writing in adolescence were very intense because here I am going through all this, feeling all these things, but they’re totally denied, and there’s nothing there, you know?”
Although Etheridge’s parents, who both came from alcoholic homes, discouraged emotional expression, they welcomed it in young Melissa’s music. “I was raised… by parents who were good parents,” she told Stacey D’Erasmo when the reporter interviewed her for Rolling Stone in 1994, “but all they wanted was for everything to be OK and not to talk about anything. As
For the Record…
Born Melissa Lou Etheridge, c. 1961, in Leavenworth, KS; daughter of John (a high school teacher and athletic program director, died c. 1991) and Elizabeth (a homemaker and computer analyst) Etheridge; companion of Julie Cypher, beginning c. 1991. Education: Attended Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA 1980.
Began playing guitar at age eight; performed at local venues with band during high school years; moved to Boston, then Los Angeles, 1980; performed in gay clubs in Los Angeles area, c. 1980-88. Signed to Island Records by Chris Blackwell, 1986; released self-titled debut album on Island, 1989; began touring national and international club circuit. Released Yes I Am, 1993; album Yes I Am reached quadruple platinum status; album and three singles hit Billboard Top Ten.
Selected Awards: Grammy Awards for best female rock vocal performance, 1993 and 1994.
Addresses: Publicist —Shock Ink, 629 5th Avenue, Pelham, NY 10803. Record Company —Island Records, 400 Lafayette St., 5th Fl., New York, NY 10003
I went into my adolescence and was also gay, I could take all this crazy energy, all this ’I’m going mad’ energy, and play it, sing it, yell, scream, and people would applaud.”
“I always wanted to perform,” Etheridge recalled in Rolling Stone to Cohen. “I remember being 3 years old—one of the first memories I had—and there was a bunch of people over at the house, and I was dancing around in the middle of them, and they were saying, ’Oh, look at her, isn’t she cute!’ I was like, ’Yeah, this is it, man.’ Later, I would organize the neighborhood kids and do, you know, ’Let’s play rock band.’ And I’d pull the tennis rackets out and the pots and pans just like lots of kids do. I’d always play the tennis racket.” Naturally, Etheridge coupled that love of performing with her love of music—something else her family encouraged.
She received her first guitar, from her father, when she was only eight, and soon became dedicated to it, supplementing a year of lessons with a lot of practice. By the time she was ten, Etheridge had written her first song and decided that she wanted to be a musician. She told Musician’s Scott Benarde in 1989, “My songwriting developed before I did. Writing has become part of my life process. When things happen to me they go through this filter.” When Etheridge was 11, she performed one of her own compositions, a song called “Lonely as a Child,” at a talent contest. During her high school years, she toured the Leavenworth area with a band that played at local bars, where audiences were often engaged more in fighting than in the music, and at the nearby prison.
In an effort both to escape Leavenworth and to become a professional musician, Etheridge moved to Boston in 1980 to study at the Berklee College of Music. She left Berklee after a quick two semesters, dissatisfied with the academic approach to music. Her other education, which she felt was more valuable, came from performing: she played five nights a week at a city restaurant, and could take part in a burgeoning contemporary folk movement permeating Boston’s coffee houses. Nonetheless, she felt limited, and came to believe that her true musical home would be Los Angeles.
Of course, when Etheridge arrived in Los Angeles, she discovered that the current there was largely the same as in Boston: heavy metal, punk, and the beginnings of new wave reigned. She secured regular work playing at a gay club, called the Executive Suite, in Long Beach only after much dedicated footwork. Her venues increased over the years, but they remained within the lesbian bar circuit. It was in this arena, nonetheless, that she secured her manager and her record contract.
In 1983 Etheridge shared her demo tape with a woman from one of the bars she played in; the woman passed the tape on to a friend on her softball team. The friend’s husband was manager Bill Leopold, who promptly decided to promote Etheridge. He brought a string of record executives into Que Sera Sera, one of Etheridge’s regular stages at the time. “I was almost being signed at Capitol Records,” Etheridge told Cohen, “almost being signed at A&M, Warner Bros., EMI, all of them coming out.” Finally, in 1986, Leopold brought in Chris Blackwell, the founder and head of Island Records, who was so enchanted that he asked Etheridge to sign a contract on the spot.
Despite Blackwell’s enthusiasm, Etheridge still had one obstacle to overcome: the difficulty of translating her one-woman-and-a-guitar performance sound into a professional recording. When she first went into the studio with her newly acquired back-up band, they produced ten tracks that Blackwell hated; the layers of studio-polished sound had nothing to do with the spare voice and guitar he had heard in the club. Kevin McCormack, Etheridge’s new bass player, discerned the problem and encouraged Etheridge to ask Black-well for another chance. This time, the singer went into the studio with only the bassist and the drummer, and they managed to capture on tape in four days the distinctive sound that Etheridge had been honing over the years. Blackwell loved it, and preparations for releasing the first album began.
The critical response to Melissa Etheridge proved Blackwell right. Critics loved the album’s minimalism, especially for the way it showcased the singer’s unusual vocals. Kris Kirk, in his Melody Maker review, defined his love for the album as a paradox. He declared that “there’s something about this … singer… that can set teeth on edge, induce foaming at the mouth and spark off migraines. Needless to say, I’m beginning to like Melissa Etheridge and her highly unapproachable LP.” Responding both to the production quality and Etheridge’s lyrics, Kirk noted, “Raw is the keyword, and this is the rawest of albums. As in callow. And as in cold, bleak, rawness of emotion.” It sounded as if Blackwell’s instinct was just right. A few months later, Paul Mathur blessed the singer in Melody Maker ’ with the statement that “the promise is tantalisingly great.”
“Bring Me Some Water” made its way onto the airwaves and earned Etheridge a Grammy nomination for best female rock vocal performance. Her musical appearance at the award presentation introduced her to a huge and receptive audience. The reviewer for People initiated one of the fundamental comparisons of Etheridge’s career, suggesting that the vocalist could be “the female Bruce Springsteen.” Despite this kind of coverage and critical interest, which should have placed Etheridge firmly in the midst of the mounting excitement over female musician contemporary folk, Etheridge remained at the fringes of the mainstream.
Used to working hard at her craft, Etheridge threw herself into an expanded performance schedule. She traveled Britain as an opener for another musician and had her own major cities tour of clubs in the United States, including her New York debut in Greenwich Village. She also returned to the studio, turning out Brave and Crazy within a year and Never Enough in the spring of 1992.
Although the sophomore effort met with some uncertainty, the old enthusiasm resurfaced for Never Enough. Ralph Novak greeted the album for People as “another triumph,” noting the strength of Etheridge’s image—”she is no run-of-the-video pop rock cookie.” While conceding that “musically, Never Enough is rather conventional,” Rolling Stone’s Jim Cullen declared Etheridge’s voice “as passionate as ever, but used with greater subtlety than before.” Stereo Review found that the album “positively shines,” arguing that “overall this is an impressive, fully rounded album, one that sacrifices no emotional intensity or cut-to-the-bone playing in helping Etheridge show the full range of her writing and performing skills. A stunner.” C.M. Smith described the album for Guitar Player, writing that Etheridge “spits venomous leads and cranks out grooves so thick you could trip over them.”
As massive as the critical response to her music was, it was still eclipsed by a public fascination with her sexual orientation, which she expressed early in 1993. When Bill Clinton was inaugurated as U.S. president in 1993, events were held all over Washington D.C., including the Triangle Ball: the first-ever gay and lesbian inaugural ball. It was here that Etheridge “came out,” telling the public what everyone in the music industry already knew—that she was a lesbian.
Although the actual announcement was a spontaneous one, the decision wasn’t; Etheridge had long considered the pros and cons of coming out. “You think there’s some big black hole you’re going to fall into and that all of a sudden people who have loved you all your life aren’t going to love you anymore,” she told the Advocate’s Judy Wieder in a 1994 interview. Nonetheless, her need to be honest overcame that fear, as she told Cohen: “It was something that I felt uncomfortable not talking about. I never lied about it. I never tried to do anything else, but it just would stop there. And as my career went on, and I became more successful, it felt really uncomfortable.”
Etheridge’s particular value as an “out” musician was, precisely, her mainstream audience: she could make lesbianism less demonic to people who, otherwise, would believe they didn’t know any lesbians. As Barry Walters observed in his April, 1993, Advocate article, “No other gay or lesbian rock musician is as mainstream as Etheridge. Go to her shows and you’ll see a combination of fans that’s unlike any other—teased-hair rock chicks with rock-dude boyfriends draped around their shoulders, stray straight-male rockers that wouldn’t be out of place at a Bon Jovi show, and packs of highly identifiable lesbians dressed to impress.”
Of course, that audience was also one of the reasons Etheridge hesitated about coming out. “I have always been the working woman’s singer,” she told Wieder. I come from the Midwest. Mine is heartland music. My audiences are very mixed. So I worried, if I come out, will it make me strange?” But it didn’t seem to, and Etheridge remained dedicated to keeping her music accessible, telling Wieder that “I like that my music reaches not just gay but straight fans—men and women both.”
Cohen raised the possibility that, after Etheridge came out, straight fans might “have trouble relating to openly gay lyrics.” Etheridge responded, “They know it comes from a gay person, but the music talks about the human experience. I mean, I knew that Joni Mitchell was singing about a guy. But I—even as a lesbian—related to her songs and made them my own…. So I hope that any straight listener could just feel the music and feel the words as human experience.”
Once Etheridge came out, of course, the press focused on her sexual orientation in interviews, wanting to hear her life story retold in this new light. She placed her initial coming out—the point at which she admitted her orientation to herself—in her mid-teens, while she still made the effort to be or appear straight, dating the occasional boy. “But they were boring,” she told Kennedy, “there was never that heart-pounding thing.” But she first fell in love, as she told many interviewers, at age 17, when she and her best friend became involved. The relationship, of course, remained a secret from everyone. “It’s bad enough being straight and dealing with adolescent sexuality,” she told People’s Peter Castro in 1994, adding that this was “very hard, very lonely.”
The decision to leave Leavenworth for Boston became a very different story: musical opportunities awaited in the big city, but so did a large women’s community. There, as she told Wieder, she “met all these gay women. I wasn’t alone. There were people just like me.” After leaving Boston, Etheridge came out to both of her parents on separate occasions and was pleased with both of their responses. Recalling the experience for Castro, Etheridge’s mother admitted that, although at first she “didn’t quite know how to deal with it,” she eventually “saw how lovely her friends were and how happy she was,” which had always been her “main concern.”
By the time she came out, Etheridge was in a very committed relationship with director Julie Cypher. “I’d do anything for her,” Etheridge told Wieder. “If I had to choose, the career would be the thing I’d give up.” The two had met in 1988 when Cypher served as assistant director on Etheridge’s “Bring Me Some Water” video. Despite an immediate attraction, they remained friends only, since they were both in long-term relationships, with Cypher in a four-year marriage to actor Lou Diamond Phillips. But both of these partnerships were already troubled, and by 1990 Cypher was separated from Phillips and dating Etheridge. When Etheridge came out, the two shared a home together in the Hollywood Hills and a life that the “Couples” writer for People portrayed as idyllic, marking a change in public opinion that Etheridge’s bravery helped to bring about.
All this time, Etheridge seemed poised to break through into true rock stardom. She spent much of her year on the road, in the United States and overseas, building an ever-more-devoted fan base. By 1993 she had collected four Grammy nominations; Never Enough’s “Ain’t It Heavy” finally came through for her that year, winning her the award for best female rock vocal performance. Into this atmosphere, in late 1993, Island released Yes I Am, apparently catalyzing the musician’s rise as a household name. This new status had many manifestations. She carried the bill in her first major U.S. tour as well as a guest spot in the highly celebrated Eagles tour, and she won a coveted place on the Woodstock ’94 roster. She also sold out Madison Square Garden, one of New York City’s largest performance spaces. Cohen supplied Rolling Stone’s seal of approval with his determination that “Etheridge has solidified her reputation as one of rock’s most dynamic performers.”
By the summer of 1994, all of Etheridge’s albums had achieved platinum status, and Yes I Am eventually went quadruple-platinum. Probably most important in terms of moving Etheridge from the fringes to the center, three of the album’s singles—“Come To My Window,” “I’m the Only One,” and “If I Only Wanted To”—broke into Top 40 radio, and the album spent over a year in the Billboard 200. By 1995 they all had reached the Top Ten. “Come To My Window” provided Etheridge with her second Grammy for best female rock vocal performance.
Although she had always been an “outsider” at MTV, Etheridge became VH1’s darling. “VH1 … rotates her videos so much she might as well be their official mascot,” Dana Kennedy wrote in Entertainment Weekly. The cable station proved it a month later, when it sponsored—with a massive publicity campaign—Etheridge’s 1995 tour. It was, in the words of Billboard’s Deborah Russell, the “most comprehensive tour sponsorship, promotional campaign, and direct marketing effort in its history.” The station’s 40,000 concert tickets were gone to callers in two-and-a-half minutes. Further proving Etheridge’s megastar status, the station began running promotional videos chronicling the performer’s life and career.
Also in 1995, the performer experienced her own greatest sign that she had “arrived”—the opportunity to sing with her lifelong idol and one of the most enduring names in American rock, Bruce Springsteen. He accepted her invitation to sing “Thunder Road” with her at a taping of MTV Unplugged, recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Opera House. In Time, Christopher John Farley called the performance “magical…, spontaneous, liberating, passionate,” and declared it the “best and most transporting performance in the new series.”
The end of 1995 saw the releaseof Etheridge’s fifth album, Your Little Secret Although berated by critics as being too similar to her previous work, fans eagerly withdrew themselves to her bluesy vocals and emotional delivery. Still, the momentum couldn’t carry the album to the multi-platinum levels of Yes I Am, but she continued to pack arenas with her full force stage presentation.
Melissa Etheridge (includes “Bring Me Some Water”), 1988.
Brave and Crazy, 1989.
Never Enough (includes “Ain’t It Heavy”), 1992.
Yes I Am (includes “Come To My Window,” “I’m the Only One,” and “If I Only Wanted To”), 1993.
Your Little Secret, 1995
Advocate, April 20, 1993; September 21, 1993; July 26, 1994.
Billboard, November 11, 1989; April 4, 1992; December 10, 1994; April 15, 1995.
Detroit Free Press, June 9, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly March 17, 1995; November 17, 1995.
Guitar Player, November 1989; October 1992.
Melody Maker, May 28, 1988; July 2, 1988.
Musician, June 1989.
Out, May 1995.
People, August 8, 1988; May 15, 1989; May 4, 1992; September 5, 1994.
Rolling Stone, May 14, 1992; June 2, 1994; December 29, 1994; June 1, 1995; November 30, 1995.
Stereo Review, June 1992; January 1994.
Time, March 27, 1995.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Shock Ink.
—Ondine Le Blanc
Singer, guitarist, songwriter
Melissa Etheridge’s “talents and tastes may well help define the music of her generation,” according to Ralph Novak of People. With her hard-rocking but melodic style, she has been compared to singers as various and celebrated as Bruce Springsteen and Janis Joplin, and, as People reported in another article, the reviews of her self-titled debut album “could have been written by a doting relative.” Etheridge has attracted even more attention with her second effort, Brave and Crazy, and Elizabeth Wurtzel in New York was moved to declare: “If you buy only one album between now and the end of the decade, make sure it’s by Melissa Etheridge.”
Born in Leavenworth, Kansas, during the early 1960s, Etheridge began to display her inclination towards music in childhood. “She got her first guitar at age eight,” explained Michael Segell in Cosmopolitan, “and was writing confessional songs by the time she was ten.” Etheridge also learned to play drums, saxophone, piano, and clarinet and was performing in a country band when she was only twelve. According to People, the group played in rough bars, and Etheridge was witness to so many fights that she lost all fear of audiences. When she turned eighteen, she left home to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston.
After Etheridge left Berklee, she decided to take her twelve-string and go to Los Angeles, California, to play a blend of country and rock. But she told People: “I got here, and it was all heavy metal and glitter. I thought, ’Oh, no, there’s no room for a girl and her acoustic guitar.’” Thus Etheridge struggled somewhat, playing in small clubs in the area. She explained to Segell: “I made a decision not to have a day job, which meant I had to sing other people’s music four or five nights a week. And I’m glad I made that decision. I learned a lot about performing.” She elaborated further in People that she gradually added her own compositions to her act. “When no one noticed, I figured, okay, they’re pretty good songs.”
One evening in 1987 Etheridge was playing in a club in Long Beach, California, when she attracted the attention of Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. After hearing her perform for twenty minutes, he signed her to a contract. Before making her first album, however, Etheridge was given the opportunity to write four songs for the film Weeds; her contract also brought her the chance to entertain in small clubs throughout the United States.
But the release of her debut album, Melissa Etheridge, was a far more momentous occurrence. Though it started slowly, both sales and critical acclaim steadily mounted. Segell praised it as “a ten-song primer on the dark side of love”; Wurtzel noted that “nothing [has]
Born Melissa Etheridge, c. 1962, in Leavenworth, Kan.; her father is a teacher. Education: Attended Berklee College of Music, Boston, Mass.
Has played in bands since the age of 12; played in clubs in the Los Angeles, Calif., area during the 1980s; recording artist and concert performer, 1987—.
Awards: Grammy nomination for song “Bring Me Some Water.”
sounded this raw and real since Janis Joplin”; and Novak lauded Etheridge’s “throaty, aggressively emotional, born-to-compete voice.” The songs on Melissa Etheridge center on pain and jealousy, including “Like the Way I Do” and “The Late September Dogs.” The young singer-songwriter confided to Segell: “I didn’t realize it was so much about the same feelings. I just tried to put together my best, most passionate songs, and it turned out that my conflicts with jealousy and pain are the most powerful emotions.”
Etheridge diversified more with Brave and Crazy; as Wurtzel put it, “not all of the album’s songs are about love and lust.” “You Can Sleep While I Drive” concerns the urge to escape the drudgery of small-town life; “My Back Door” mourns the loss of innocence. But Brave and Crazy has also spawned a hit single, “No Souvenirs,” which Wurtzel described as “the catchiest song” that Etheridge “has yet recorded.” Throughout the album, summed Novak, “as hard as she rocks and as angry as many of her songs get,” Etheridge “always keeps a strong melodic presence in her singing.”
Though she has worked hard and long to attain the status she has reached, Etheridge feels fortunate. She confessed to Segell that her “whole career has been a series of breaks.” She also feels little sympathy for her female peers who complain against discrimination in their field, adding: “I refuse to buy the idea that it’s harder for women to make it in rock than men. It’s all how you handle yourself. I was signed because of my ability as a musician, not because of, or in spite of, my gender.”
Melissa Etheridge (includes “Like the Way I Do” and “The Late September Dogs”), Island, 1988.
Brave and Crazy (includes “Brave and Crazy,” “No Souvenirs,” “Royal Station 4/16,” “You Can Sleep While I Drive,” and “My Back Door”), Island, 1989.
Cosmopolitan, March 1989.
New York, November 13, 1989.
People, August 8, 1988; May 15, 1989; November 13, 1989.
Savvy, July 1989.
Born: Melissa Lou Etheridge, Leavenworth, Kansas, 29 May 1961
Best-selling album since 1990: Yes I Am (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "I'm the Only One," "Come to My Window," "If I Wanted To"
Singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge is one of rock's most successful female artists of the 1990s, having sold more than 25 million records since her debut in 1988. Etheridge's up-front, blue-collar rock combines gut-wrenching vocals with emotional lyrics straight from her often-broken heart. No lightweight pop-rocker, Etheridge straps on an electric guitar and jams just as hard as the male rockers she admired in her youth. Later in her career Etheridge's personal life sometimes overshadowed her music.
Etheridge grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas, the daughter of a traditional middle-class household in America's heartland. She received her first guitar when she was eight years old and soon began performing at local events. Etheridge would stay up hours into the night listening to her favorite rock artists in AM radio's waning years of eclectic pop music programming. She loved the Allman Brothers Band, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, and other blues/rock-influenced bands.
Etheridge's parents were surprised and pleased to discover that their daughter had a gift for music. Even as a teenager performing at local events, she possessed an effusive stage manner that later marked her professional career. Etheridge moved to Boston in 1980, attended the Berklee College of Music, and began playing regularly in that city's coffeehouses and clubs. After two semesters she left Berklee but stayed in Boston for nearly two years supporting herself as a security guard in the day and performing at night. Etheridge returned to Kansas for several months and worked as a waitress to earn enough money to pursue her musical ambitions in Los Angeles, where she settled in 1982. She built up a steady following in the Los Angeles area, performing her own compositions. She found work as a songwriter for the movie Weeds (1987) before catching the attention of Island Records in 1986. Her self-titled debut, Melissa Etheridge (1988), was slow to catch on but eventually went gold after she performed the album's hit single, a searing Grammy-nominated rocker called "Bring Me Some Water," at the 1989 Grammy Awards ceremony.
By 1992, after the release of the album Never Enough (1992), Etheridge was a star on the rise. Never Enough went gold shortly after its release and earned a 1993 Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance. The album was followed by the triumphant Yes, I Am (1993), which contained the hits "Come to My Window" and "I'm the Only One." Yes, I Am went double platinum before the year was out and scored Etheridge another Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Performance in 1994. Yes, I Am also marked a significant year personally for Etheridge as she publicly acknowledged what the music industry had known for years—she was a lesbian. The album's title put an exclamation point on that announcement, which was a spontaneous decision by Etheridge during a gay and lesbian event in celebration of President Clinton's 1993 inauguration. Since much of Etheridge's fan base consists of blue-collar heterosexual men and women, some feared that the announcement would negatively affect her career. These fears proved groundless, although her personal life began attracting the media's attention. Etheridge's relationship with filmmaker Julie Cypher (they met in 1988) received extra notice when the couple decided to have a family. In 1997 Cypher gave birth to a daughter, and the following year she had a son through artificial insemination. Singer/songwriter David Crosby is the biological father of both children.
Etheridge is often compared to the late rock singer Janis Joplin because of the way she pushes her raspy vocals to their utmost limit. In 1995 she performed Joplin's hit "Piece of My Heart" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies in honor of Joplin's induction. Etheridge's allout style also applies to her songwriting, which often consists of heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics about wayward lovers; jealousy is a recurrent theme in Etheridge's music. Her grassroots rock sound has elicited comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. However, her next two releases, Your Little Secret (1995) and Breakdown (1999), contained traces of electronic drumbeats and other techno touches.
Throughout the 1990s Etheridge used her celebrity to advance gay and lesbian causes and dedicated her song "Scarecrow" to the Wyoming gay-bias murder victim, Matthew Shepard. In 2000 Etheridge's personal life made headlines when she and Cypher split up. The separation was extremely difficult for Etheridge, and she cathartically chronicled her feelings about the relationship in the album Skin (2001). Except for drums and bass, Etheridge plays every instrument on the album: keyboards, guitars, and harmonicas. The following year she released a two-hour long DVD, Melissa Etheridge Live . . . and Alone. The DVD features a twenty-two-song solo concert at Hollywood's Kodak Theater, commentary by Etheridge on her career and personal life, and some rare footage of her early live shows.
Etheridge became the center of the media spotlight again in 2003, when she announced her engagement to actress Tammy Lynn Michaels. She spent much of 2003 juggling motherhood and a full touring schedule. Etheridge has defiantly stood for gay acceptance and has been unafraid throughout her career to express her relationship tribulations in music. Etheridge's popularity is a testament to both her personal and artistic honesty in addition to her passionate performing style.
Melissa Etheridge (Polygram, 1988); Brave and Crazy (Polygram, 1989); Never Enough (Polygram, 1992); Yes, I Am (Polygram, 1993); Your Little Secret (Polygram, 1995); Breakdown (Polygram, 1999); Skin (Universal, 2001); DVD Melissa Etheridge Live . . . and Alone (Universal, 2002).
Etheridge, Melissa, bluesy rocker, a cross between Janis Joplin and Bruce Springsteen, b. Leaven-worth, Kans, May 29, 1961. Melissa Etheridge’s career broke just as the early 1980s album rock wave crested. She was the right artist at the right time with the right song, a bluesy rocker, “Bring Me Some Water,” While the tune didn’t hit the pop charts, it started Etheridge on the road to stardom.
Etheridge was born and raised in Leavenworth, Kans., a place she claimed instilled her with big dreams and small-town sensibility. She attended the Berklee Coll. of music in Boston, leaving after two years for L.A. By 1984, she had attracted a good-sized following. A&M hired her as a songwriter. She worked with Nick Nolte, teaching him how to sing for the film Weeds. She also contributed to the soundtrack. She played clubs aroundL.A., and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell caught her one night in Long Beach and signed her.
Etheridge went to work on her debut, but the overblown album she left the studio with didn’t thrill her or Blackwell. Blackwell sent her back and she re-recorded a stripped-down version of the album in four days. The album produced the rock hit “Bring Me Some Water,” which she performed on the Grammys. The album went platinum and topped out at #22.
Etheridge spent much of the next two years on the road, although she did take time to record a track for the 1990 film Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael, probably a leftover from the sessions she was doing for her next album, 1989’s Brave and Crazy. The album lacked a “power track” like “Bring Me Some Water,” but had star power with guest artists like U2’s Bono. The album also went platinum and topped out at #22. After another two years on the road, Etheridge put out her third album, Never Enough. It peaked at #21 and went gold, but after three albums, Etheridge was beginning to get respect. She appeared on both the Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman.
Always an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and other causes, Etheridge attended the Triangle Ball, a gay and lesbian party celebrating the Clinton inauguration in 1992. At the urging of her friend k.d. Lang, Etheridge publicly announced that she was a lesbian. Although this might have seemed like a public relations disaster, it seemed to help in Etheridge’s case. Less than two months later, she took home a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female. She appeared in the film Theresa’s Tattoo, contributing two songs to the soundtrack.
Less than a year after coming out, she released the Hugh Padgham produced Yes, I Am. It entered the charts at its peak of #16, but stayed on the charts for two years. It took nearly a year for the first single, “Come to My Window,” to reach the singles charts. While the archetypal power ballad only hit #25, it stayed on the chart for nearly a year. Where it took her earlier albums several years to go platinum, Yes, I Am was double platinum in less than a year. In 1995, she was asked to perform “Piece of my Heart” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of Janis Joplin. She performed “Come to My Window” at the 1995 Grammy Awards and took home a little gold gramophone statuette for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
Ironically, her biggest hit, “I’m the Only One,” was climbing the charts at this time. A sinuous piece of pop, it would hit #8 and top the Adult Contemporary Chart. The final single from the album to chart, “If I Wanted To,” hit #16. All in all, the album went quintuple platinum.
Her next Padgham produced album, Your Little Secret, came out in December of 1995 and instantly hit #6 on the charts, and certified platinum in a little over a month. With Etheridge fronting a hard-rocking, stripped-down, four-piece band, the album featured more electric guitar, but the standout track was the ballad, “Nowhere to Go.” She won the ASCAP award for co-songwriter of the year.
Etheridge continued to perform extensively and appear for causes ranging from gay rights to animal rights. Her sixth album, Breakdown, came out shortly after this was written.
Melissa Etheridge (1988); Brave and Crazy (1989); Never Enough (1992); Yes I Am (1993); Your Little Secret (1995); Breakdown (1999).