Melissa Etheridge is writing songs because 'these are very inspiring times'
Melissa Etheridge’s latest album is an homage to the great ‘60s and ‘70s songs from Stax Records, but she’s still writing her own material, and it sounds like fans can expect some songs from the heart about what’s going today.
“These are very inspiring times, so, of course I’ve been writing,” Etheridge said with a little laugh. She was speaking from a July tour stop near Atlantis, Georgia. “I would be doing a disservice to myself if I wasn’t writing now.”
Etheridge expects to release a new album sometime next year after finishing up writing by the end of the year. For now, she and her band are touring and will make a stop on July 29 at the Nugget Casino Resort.
The singer-songwriter said that the album will happen next year for sure, as she works best with a deadline.
“I’m the kind of person who never thinks an album is done. I’m workiing right up to the deadline to make something better," she said. "So, I’ll probably end up with 20, 21 songs that I feel are solid, and then I can really edit it down from there. That’s how it usually ends up.”
Etheridge has been practicing the craft of writing for decades now. She was born in Leavenworth, Kansas, and started playing guitar at age 8. After graduating high school, she attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston and then eventually moved to Los Angeles. It was there where she was discovered by the president of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, and signed to the label in 1988.
Her self-titled debut that year was a big hit, eventually selling two million copies. Her next two albums joined that debut in going platinum. Her best know early songs are “Bring Me Some Water,” “No Souvenirs,” “Ain’t It Heavy” and “Like the Way I Do.”
Etheridge’s biggest hit was the album “Yes I Am,” released in 1993. It has sold six million copies and features her only top 10 hit so far, “I’m the Only One,” along with radio hits “Come To My Window” and “All American Girl.” From there, Etheridge continued to have sellout shows and hits, including “If I Wanted To,” “Your Little Secret,” “I Want to Come Over,” and “Breathe.”
In the last decade, Etheridge has stayed in the public eye, both onstage and offstage. She’s become an advocate for many issues, including the environment, medicinal marijuana and gay rights (she publicly came out in 1993). She also won an Oscar in 2007 for “I Need to Wake Up,” a song from the environmental documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Now, Etheridge is at a point in our political history where there is a lot of polarization of opinion. She said that it’s an exciting time for her to enter into that fray with her music.
“I have a bit of a different perspective on this, because I believe that the reason it’s so polarizing right now is because people finally stood and said, ‘This is who I am,’ and they are showing the true diversity of our country,” she said. “And, that’s also caused a great fear among a lot of people, a fear of ‘the other,’ so people who are different than them. But, I feel like we’re moving forward because of all the noise we are hearing.”
In recent years, Etheridge has had complete control of her music. Her last two albums have been on her own label, including “Memphis Rock and Soul.” Released last year, her latest album features Etheridge singing songs from the Stax catalog, some well known but many others more obscure or rare.
Etheridge said the longest process with the recording of the “Memphis” record was picking the songs.
“Stax sent me the whole catalog, all of the stuff, so I just spent days and days listening to everything,” she said. “I wanted to give every song a chance, even the songs I didn’t know.
“So, I narrowed it down to about 100 songs, and then 50, and then once I got to 20 I really sat down with them and just picked 17 to go into the studio. We recorded 15 of those and then released 12 of them.”
Etheridge said she had a simple criteria for the songs she chose: “It just had to feel good to sing. If I’m not feeling it, then I can’t really make anyone else feel it. That’s always how I know if a song is working or not -- how much fun is it to sing and play.”
Etheridge has always loved this style of soul music, and she said she wanted to get things exactly right for the record.
“These are from the musicians that inspired the musicians that inspired me,” she said. “Janis Joplin was just trying to do an Otis Redding impersonation, you know? And Mick Jagger and of those other great rock and roll singers, they looked up to the Staple Singers and all of these great Stax artists.”
“You’re going to the very root of rock and roll, and that’s challenging itself. So then it’s like, ‘OK, do you have what it takes to stand up to this amazing work? Can you have the integrity to interpret these songs?’ And, I certainly tried my best to do that.”
Shaking the fans
Etheridge includes some songs from “Memphis” during her current tour. Her live band includes David Santos on bass, Brian Delaney on drummers and Max Hart on keyboards.
“That means I just play guitar all night long, so it’s just like playing solo, but super-charged,” Etheridge said, adding that she loves playing with what she said was a ridiculously talented band. “It’s back to what I wanted all the way back, to just play in a rock and roll combo and just shake people.”
As for the set list, Etheridge said she likes to do songs from her entire career in a good balance.
“I’m the type of artist who is eternally grateful for the hits I’ve had,” she said. “I know that when I attend a show by someone I like that I want to hear those hits, so I do play the songs people know.
“There are four or five hits that are staples, but then I like to do some deep album tracks from the first, second or third album all the way through the newest one. I do three or four songs from that one. It’s just a well-rounded concert.”