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Melissa Etheridge (kind of) opens up

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Rocker talks life after ex, getting remarried and upcoming album

Come to her window, but Melissa Etheridge won’t be around. Why? Because she’s everywhere else — on tour through the summer and in the studio laying down tracks for her first album since 2010’s Fearless Love.

And, in the midst of a heated custody battle with her ex, she dished about both during our recent interview: what to expect from the new music (songs about her split, of course), tentatively due in September; how, despite her breakup, “it’s not as heartbroken” as past albums; and, of course, getting underwear-bombed onstage.

How’s life treating you these days?

It’s pretty incredible. Very full and very fun. There’s always a new adventure around the corner. I have four kids and I’m very happy.

What’s it like raising teens?

My kids are 13 and 15, and I have two 5-year-olds; surprisingly, it’s very similar. (Laughs) They require all of your attention and they don’t remember anything you’ve told them.

What’s inspiring this upcoming album?

Life has always inspired whatever I’m singing about, so events in my life in the last couple of years: new love, saying goodbye to an old love, and my kids and my hopes and my dealings of life are all there.

So Lucky meets Skin?

(Laughs) That’s funny, but no actually. Better than that. I was pretty down-and-out during Skin — that was hard! I’m in a much better place and I feel much better, so I think it’s more up. It’s hard for me to tell when I’m just starting, when I’m just making it, but I feel like it’s not as heartbroken as Skin was. We’re never going back there.

But some fans miss sad Melissa.

I know! Some people say Skin is their favorite and I’m like, “Aww, I’m sorry.” (Laughs)

On your last album you started writing from other people’s perspective. Will there be more of that on the upcoming album?

I found that I’m writing from another point of view as if it were my own. They’re memories, like, “What if I was still there, what would this be like?” I’ve written a couple of those.

It’s been a couple of years since you and Tammy Lynn Michaels split, though it’s still making headlines. What’s been the hardest part about going through a public breakup?

That it was public. (Laughs) Some private pains and anger and heartache get out there and no one understands, nobody except who is in the relationship knows what’s going on, and there’s always two sides to everything. I don’t ever like to do anything public; whereas she might take things public, I keep very quiet about it, so that’s hard.

People naturally make assumptions and start rumors. Is it better not to say anything or to clear the air?

You know, I wish it was possible to just go on and say, “Hey, this is my truth, this is it,” but it never stops. When you engage in that then you’re in it and it gets all mucky and you can’t win. You can’t change what people think. Some people are just out there assuming away and I can’t change that. So I accept it. It’ll all be in the past soon.

Except you’ll be reliving it on this album.

(Laughs) Yes, that’s the thing. And that I can control. I can control my art, and I can control what I say and how I say it.

Do songs that you’re performing from decades ago bring you back in time? Like, how do you feel when you’re performing “Bring Me Some Water” now?

Well, certainly the feelings aren’t the same. I’m not in that place anymore, yet it’s a blast. I imagine it’s like acting: You’re just truthful in the moment when you’re singing it, but you don’t have to live it.

What about performing still gives you goose bumps?

The audience. Whenever I can find a place, an audience that is receptive, there to enjoy themselves and have a good time, and they come with an expectation, that can really move me.

Your shows lure a lot of lesbians. Before settling down into motherhood, you … um … had a lot of options.

(Laughs) It’s rock ’n’ roll, you know!

Do fans still toss panties onstage?

Oh yeah, they tend to do that. I’m like, “Really? Don’t you want that for later?” I’m not fond of that, but you know, it’s an expression, I suppose.

How do you put together your set lists?

I use kind of a spine. There are a handful of songs that I’ll do every single night for the fans and the people who are just coming for the first time: “Like the Way I Do,” “Bring Me Some Water,” “I’m the Only One,” “Come to My Window.” Then after that, I try to mix it up with songs from all the albums, tunes that hardcore fans would be really excited to hear, and I try to play from the newest album.

Is there a certain song in your catalog that’s still the closest to you?

They really are like children; you can’t pick one. So many of them have parts of me in them and I wouldn’t say there’s one. I feel like that about all of them.

How’s the musical you’re working on with your girlfriend, Linda Wallem, coming along?

I hope soon we’ll have something out there, once she finishes with Nurse Jackie (Wallem is a writer for the show) and I finish with my album — but yes, when we have the spare time we’re working on it. It’s very close. We’ve worked on it for a while now.

More like Les Miserables or Hairspray? 

It’s more like … like nothing you’ve ever seen. (Laughs) It’s an original script with original songs. I’d rather it be more like Jesus Christ Superstar meets Bye Bye Birdie or American Idiot. It’s a real hybrid thing.

How did you get interested in that? 

I’ve always loved musicals and Broadway. I mean, I am gay! Come on. (Laughs) But when I was much younger I loved Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. I loved the drama in them and I always thought that was the ultimate, so that’s still my dream.

Where do you think we’re headed on the path to equal rights?

It’s absolutely going to the Supreme Court because there’s no place in the Constitution that says “everyone except those gays.” This is America for everyone, and every time this sort of challenge comes up, the Supreme Court — no matter how conservative — has to put their own personal bigotry aside. I believe it’s going to pass the Supreme Court and that’s going to change a lot of things. That means the fight won’t have to go all the way to the Supreme Court anymore, and that’s where we’re going to start seeing big changes. And then that’s when we’ll all sink into the ocean and the world will end. (Laughs)

Is marriage in your near future?

You know, three’s a charm! That’s what they say. But this time I’d be getting married because she has a job and I wanna marry her because she makes a lot of money (laughs) — no, she’s a wonderful gal. She’s just amazing, and if and when we do it, it would be for my family and really for the reasons that you get married when you’re older.

With more celebrities being public about their sexuality nowadays, how do you reflect on your coming out? How does it compare to now? 

Now it can be just a part of someone, not the definition. Still, if there’s a gay joke, it’s me at the end of it. (Laughs) You know, it defined me for a long time. In a weird way, my cancer kind of knocked that out, but for a long time that’s what I was known as, so I think now you can come out and still rely on your work. I know now that it’s about my work; it’s no longer, “How unusual that you’re gay!”

How does it feel knowing that being out in your life and in your music changed so many LGBT people over the last couple of decades?

It’s just starting to come back to me now. Recently I did interviews with Australia press, because I’m going down there this summer, and (a reporter) said when she was 18 and I came to Melbourne it meant so much to her and it helped her come out. It was just a beautiful thank you. It’s really coming back to me right now that what I did 20 years ago really made a difference in the world, and that’s a very nice feeling to go to sleep with at night. To have people come up and say, “Thank you, that made my life better.” What more can a gal ask for?

Chris Azzopardi

As editor of Q Syndicate, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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