By Laura Latzko
With her raspy voice and universal lyrics, Melissa Etheridge has connected with different generations of fans since her rise to fame in the late 1980s.
The singer is best known for the songs “Come to My Window,” “Ain’t It Heavy,” “Bring Me Some Water” and “I’m the Only One.” She won Grammy Awards in 1992 and 1994 and an Academy Award in 2007. Etheridge released her most recent album, The Medicine Show, in April 2019.
The icon visits the Chandler Center for the Arts on Saturday, July 13, as part of her current tour, The Medicine Show. She recently put on and performed on a cruise to Belize, Mexico, and the Grand Cayman Islands.
During the upcoming performance in Chandler, she plans to mix in songs from her new album with hits from throughout her career.
The performer grew up in Kansas, where she started playing the guitar at age 8. She was performing in bands by the time she was 12 years old.
Etheridge, who came out in 1993 during the Clinton inauguration, has been a longtime advocate for LGBTQ causes and has built a devoted following in the LGBTQ community. She is the recipient of multiple GLAAD Media Awards.
She wrote her 2016 song “Pulse” in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that took the lives of 49 people. The song also speaks to other mass shootings that have happened around the country.
A survivor of breast cancer, Etheridge has also been involved in medical marijuana activism efforts.
During our conversation, Etheridge talked about her evolution as a performer, inspirations, new music, audience favorites, and fan base.
Echo: When you come to Chandler, are you doing a lot of music from your new album?
Etheridge: I’ve been building my show for 30 years. There’s definitely songs that we perform every single night. You’re going to hear the hits. You’re going to hear those songs we love because I’m proud of them, and I love that people have taken them into their lives. They will be embedded in a journey that I will take you on through this new album, The Medicine Show. I’ll do some songs from that, and then I always love to dig in and do some deep-album tracks too.
Echo: Do you get some fans that know those deep cuts?
Etheridge: They love that, off that obscure seventh album. My fans come into my music at different times. Some of them were in the early 2000s. Skin or Fearless Love are their favorites.
Echo: I know that you have a big following in the LGBTQ community. Do you have a lot of younger fans in the LGBTQ community that are finding your music?
Etheridge: It’s either younger LGBTQ folks, or there’s a lot of fans that their parents played the music when they grew up, and they became fans. I see these young folks coming, and they are all different kinds…And then sometimes, I see the whole families come, and that just makes me so happy.
Echo: Tell me more about your new album The Medicine Show.
Etheridge: With The Medicine Show, I wanted to take an emotional picture of what our society is going through since 2017, 2017 to the present, the things that are driving us and changing us. I never wanted to preach. I don’t believe in that. I think art is best when it enters your heart and your soul. These songs are not preachy. They are just songs that we can look back on and go, “Oh yes, I remember.” Whether it’s the opioid crisis or gun control, still these songs are emotional. They have heart. There’s hope in them. When you come to a show of mine, you leave feeling better than you came, that’s my hope.
Echo: With your song “Pulse,” were you trying to send more of a message?
Etheridge: It’s an American problem, but it mostly is affecting our youth. I wanted the song to have a youthful quality. I wanted it to have more of a youthful sound…That’s such a heavy, heavy issue in our society. I just wanted to bring some human emotion to it.
Echo: How do you feel like your sound have evolved over the years?
Etheridge: I think I’ve always been the girl who plays the guitar. I think what’s changed is I’m not so much just relying on the acoustic 12-string. If you go to my show, you’ll notice I have become my own guitar player. I’ve stepped up into the lead guitar. That’s what you can hear on this new album. I think that’s a big way I have grown is I really wanted to become a better guitar player.
Echo: How have you gone about that?
Etheridge: It’s really just about putting the time in, night after night after night after night after night after night. Ten years, 15 years go by, and you get pretty good at it. I was a certain quality of guitar player. I just wanted to get deeper. So, I started studying scales and studying different types of guitar players. You just do it, and you find your own voice, and you go from there.
Echo: Did you know when you were young that you would be a musician?
Etheridge: I always wanted to. That was my desire, was my hope. That was my dream. I just loved writing songs. I loved performing. I could always make music, even when I was going to Berklee College of Music and didn’t have any money. I just went down to the subway, opened up my guitar case and people gave me money.
Echo: Have you performed in a lot of interesting places over the years?
Etheridge: Oh my gosh, yes. I’ve performed for presidents, kings and queens, and I’ve performed in small, little bars with 20 people.
Echo: I heard you recently did a cruise. Tell me more about that
Etheridge: To share a boat for a week with people that love music, to bring them artists to share music, it’s just one of my favorite things I do now.
Echo: Is it a whole different experience singing on boat?
Etheridge: It’s so beautiful. One thing I love is no one is going to tell me to turn it down. It just is a wonderful place to share music and experiences with people.
Echo: You have songs that you are very well-known for, that you still perform. Do those songs have different meaning to you now?
Etheridge: The meaning is definitely the same. I remember why I wrote it. I’m certainly not in those experiences any more. Thank God. So, when I sing them, I come from a different place now. For the audience too, it’s a place of remembering. When I start “I’m the Only One,” we’re going to put our hands up, and we are going to remember it was a moment where we were in our power.
Echo: Do you hear from fans that some of your popular songs, or even more obscure ones, have really touched their lives in some way?
Etheridge: That’s just the greatest when people tell me that there are songs that I’ve written that they’ve taken into their lives and that they’ve made a part of their lives. When I play it, it means something to them that’s completely different than what it meant to me — it’s like me listening to a Peter Gabriel or Bruce Springsteen song.
Echo: What are some stories you’ve heard over the years?
Etheridge: They tell me, “This song ‘Silent Legacy’ helped me come out as an LGBT person.” Or “‘I’m the Only One’ got me through this bad breakup.”
Echo: Do you have any favorite songs, that you love to perform every time?
Etheridge: Any song that I play can be my favorite when I look out in the audience, and people are loving it and responding to it. The song “Like the Way I Do” never lets me down.
Echo: What stick out as great moments in your career?
Etheridge: When my dreams came true, and I got to perform with Bruce Springsteen on my unplugged album. That was one of those wonderful, perfect moments. Playing at Woodstock in 1994 — 25 years later — that was really amazing. Playing to half-a-million people is pretty powerful.
Echo: Was Bruce Springsteen somebody you loved growing up?
Etheridge: When I was trying to make choices in my career, I would always think, “What would Bruce do?” He’s just that sort of artist, that sort of writer, performer. I just wanted to have that integrity. I wanted to have what he has.
Melissa Etheridge performs at 7:30 p.m on July 13 at Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 North Arizona Ave. Tickets start at $72. Call 480-782-2680 or visit chandlercenter.org for more information.