Etheridge, Melissa (Contemporary Musicians)
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 jobe taught psychology and coached in the local high schoolnd 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."
Early Life Inspired Writing
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 basementhere we had a rec roomnd 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 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 oldne of the first memories I hadnd 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 musicomething 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.
Leavenworth, Boston, Los Angeles
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 Blackwell 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."
"The Female Bruce Springsteen"
"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 imageshe 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." CM. 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 knewhat 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 othereased-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 fansen 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 Iven as a lesbianelated 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 outhe point at which she admitted her orientation to herselfn 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."
Yes I Am Goes Quadruple Platinum
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 singlesCome To My Window," "I'm the Only One," and "If I Only Wanted To"roke 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 sponsoredith a massive publicity campaigntheridge'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"he 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 release of 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 multiplatinum 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