Melissa Etheridge's career exceeded expectations even before she was a household name. Though she wanted to sign with female-focused indie label Olivia Records, its rejection eventually led her to press on and find a home at Island, the significantly more prestigious major that released her eponymous debut in 1988. In 1993, Etheridge's confessional, country-tinged rock found crossover fame with hit singles like "Come to My Window," from the six-times platinum Yes I Am. That alone is no small feat, yet Etheridge parlayed this success into the kind of durable mega-stardom that eludes many.
In addition to touring the world, Etheridge became a highly visible spokesperson for the then-nascent, now-ubiquitous LGBT rights movement (its ubiquity being more than a little due to her efforts). After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she took up that cause as well, and today, she is cancer-free. Earlier this year, she married her partner, writer and producer Linda Wallem, with whom she raises her four children in Southern California. Etheridge turns 53 this year, has had enough success and visibility for three lifetimes, and has young'uns to steward — so isn't it time to pack it in?
Apparently not, as Etheridge is not only keen on touring more, she is, in fact, trying something new. Her current run finds her alternately playing solo and with symphony orchestras in select cities. We recently spoke with Etheridge about performing with the San Francisco Symphony and what she thinks is the next frontier of American civil rights.
SF Weekly: What led you to decide to work with an orchestra?
Melissa Etheridge: My agency, CAA [Creative Artists Agency], came to me with the idea, and I just jumped at the chance. The idea of hearing my songs with a symphony [orchestra] is like a grown-up dream come true.
Have you rehearsed with these orchestras? Have you heard what this will sound like?
No! [Laughs.] I've just heard samples on a keyboard.
Is that thrilling or scary?
Oh, it's going to be 100 percent thrilling. Yes, there's a fear, because there's not a band where, if something goes wrong, you can just say, "Let's take it from the top." But you know, I love a challenge, I love staying on my toes.
I know the SF Symphony has recorded with Metallica before. Tell me how they approached you.
They really like to think outside the box. They want to keep themselves in the game of popular music, and cross over to keep people coming to symphonies.
Do you have any roots in classical?
Well, my parents had a vinyl of Ravel's Bolero and when I was 10, I just thought that was the greatest thing ever. Then there was a London Symphony Orchestra recording of The Who's Tommy that I was just in love with.
You've been aligned with a lot of activist causes, including the LGBT and breast cancer. Did you ever feel like you wanted to be only an artist and not be identified with these causes?
My goals as an artist were always to make music, tour the world, and be a big success — I did those things. But along the way life happens. So when I came out, which was a really important thing for me as a person, I became aligned with that. When I found out I had breast cancer, I became aligned with that. I think cannabis should be legalized, so now I'm aligned with that. These things that are part of my natural state of being get looked upon as activism, but I'm just doing what I love.
With all the pot clubs in California, that's got to feel kind of validating.
I like where our society is going. [Laughs.] To be comfortable with our diversity as a human race is where our success lies in our future.
What do you think is the next major hurdle in U.S. civil rights?
I think in the future, we'll be looking at our penal system; the way we punish people will completely change. That's what's coming — it's all about how we look at ourselves and how we punish ourselves.
You've said that you believed you were as good at guitar as you were ever going to get at age 30, but that you've changed your mind about that. What spurned that change of mind at age 53?
I had that belief in all [aspects of my life], and it's just not true. Life gets so much better in all things; it's so much sweeter. I now play so much guitar on stage every night and it's such a joy. I was [initially] forcing myself to go out there and play more. It's been a great metamorphosis.
Do your kids think you're cool?
There's nothing you can do to make yourself cool to your kids. My 17-year-old is growing out of it, but when they were younger, it was like, "You think your mom is embarrassing? My mom goes up in front of thousands of people!"