INTERVIEW: Melissa Etheridge On Becoming a Gay Icon, Defeating Breast Cancer, and Why You Should Bring an Extra T-Shirt to Her Concert

Melissa Etheridge

“There’s an exchange of energy and spirit between the audience and myself,” says Melissa Etheridge, the iconic singer/songwriter who is bringing her “This Is M.E.” tour to Philadelphia in November. “For some people, it’s the only spiritual thing they do: go to a concert to move, to feel.”

Clearly, Etheridge would know: The two-time Grammy winner has 17 additional nominations under her belt, plus an Academy Award for her song “I Need To Wake Up” from An Inconvenient TruthYet, despite all her accolades, when I spoke with Ms. Etheridge this week she was one of the most practical, wise, down-to-Earth individuals I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing.

“I know that a lot of people throw the word ‘legend’ out when they talk about you,” I said.

“I’m not that old! I’m not that old!,” the 53-year-old joked. “Look, when I take a look around, I’ve been doing this for over 25 years. I think I can be called that. I’ll take it.”

Part of that legacy has to deal with her own sexuality: Ms. Etheridge has been an out lesbian for almost the entire stretch of her career, even when busting through the glass closet wasn’t necessarily looked upon as a wise PR move.

“I had no desire to be closeted to the public. It didn’t feel right,” she said. “So, being gay was the thing I talked about.”

Never one to aspire to be a “gay icon,” it wasn’t until Ms. Etheridge interacted with her fans that she realized the impact of being an “out” person of power.

“The first time someone said, ‘Hey, you saved my life,’ it really changed perspectives for me,” she said. “It means so, so much to hear that. You can’t ever take that away from me. Each time one of us came out, it gave us strength. It wasn’t so scary.”

She took this fearless approach to her public condemning of Prop 8, writing a now-famous article where she said she wouldn’t pay taxes to California as a gay citizen.

“The passing of Prop 8 was a big wake-up call for America,” she said. “We all thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ It turned it up a notch. What we’re seeing now [with the marriage quality momentum] is the result of the shockwave of 2008.”

Etheridge also thinks that, within the next four years, Republican President or not, gay marriage will become a federal right, adding in a half-joking tone, “We have other fish to fry!”

She’s also another icon, something that, clearly, she never aspired to be: a survivor of breast cancer.

“It completely changed me,” she said. “It made me stop, look at my health and my happiness and ask how those two things really are. If I don’t have those two things, I’m not good for anything. My health is my number-one priority. There’s no excuse; that word is not even in my lexicon.”

And, indeed, the shift has required her to re-think her nutrition, what she’s eating, and if she’s treating her body well. To use her words, “food is medicine. We’ve really got to get that in our heads.”

So far as Philly is concerned, she’s pumped to share her newest music with her audience at the Merriam Theater. We talked about the style of her newest album, and how the songs all approach their musicality in unique ways.

“There’s so much variety on the album, because I worked with such a variety of people,” she shared. “I collaborated more than ever. It’s just amazing and completely different than how I usually work. It’s some of the best songs we’ve ever done.”

She’s so confident in the work that she made this suggestion to her fans who are going to attend the November 4 concert: “It’s such a hot, smoking, steamy collaboration, people need to bring a new shirt to wear home because they are going to need it. I guarantee it.”

“So, what keeps you going? When you look out over an audience and you see all of those people, what goes through your head?” I asked.

“They come to that one place to hear music,” she said. “When I play ‘Come to My Window,’ and every single person is dancing and singing and waving, there’s nothing like that, and I am honored and grateful to partake in that with thousands of people.”

Melissa Etheridge is playing the Merriam Theater on November 4; tickets and more information can be found here. Stay tuned to G Philly for a special ticket giveaway.