When Rolling Stone tells Melissa Etheridge that it's easy to hear a palpable sense of excitement and joy on her latest album, Memphis Rock and Soul, the singer reacts giddily. "Awesome," she says, "That is exactly what I want someone listening to it to think: 'Wow, that's fun.'"
Recorded in Memphis with legendary local musicians like the Hodges Brothers, Etheridge's new LP (out Friday) is a sharp left turn for the 55-year-old singer, who has been releasing albums of pained personal declarations ever since her self-titled debut came out in 1988.
But on Memphis Rock and Soul – engineered by Boo Mitchell, the son of famed Memphis producer Willie Mitchell – Etheridge turns to the songbook of Stax Records, covering a selection of songs from the label's mid-to-late-Sixties heyday.
Etheridge's selections range from the familiar ("Hold On, I'm Comin'," "I've Got Dreams to Remember") to the unexpected (William Bell's "Any Other Way," Rufus Thomas' "Memphis Train"), and she delivers the material in slowed-down, rock-informed arrangements that complement her voice.
"This bridge between rock & roll and R&B and soul, it all comes from the same field," says Etheridge. "It all comes from Memphis."
We spoke to Etheridge about the inspiration behind her latest musical adventure, why hip-hop is the new rock & roll and the secret to Bruce Springsteen's entire career.
What was the initial spark behind doing this project? It's nothing like anything else you've done before.
Something people don't know about me is that when I was growing up in Kansas, I had a lot of different influences. Yeah, Bruce influenced me, and Janis Joplin. But growing up you could hear all kinds of music on the radio. You could hear Conway Twitty and Otis Redding and Led Zeppelin, so I didn't think there were any boundaries. In the Seventies there were two stations, the rock station and the soul station. I am just as big a fan of the Ohio Players and the early Commodores and Parliament-Funkadelic as anything. That influence was always there, yet I always felt like I could only be a white rock & roll singer. I really wanted to break out of that with my last album [2014's This Is M.E.]. Myself, I feel like hip-hop is today's rock & roll, because it's the music your mother doesn't want you to listen to, so I wanted to get into that spirit on my last album.
For this new album, my management came to me with the idea of putting an album out on Stax Records. I thought it was so great because not only am I now incorporating that music into my own music but now I'm going to jump in and go back to the source. It all comes from that place where gospel and country and hillbilly music created R&B and soul, and then that created rock & roll. It all comes from the same wellspring.
You can really hear all the fun you're having when you listen to this record.
Making this album was one of my most delightful musical experiences. My whole career has been writing these personal songs and I love it and I've loved doing it, but it was great to get out of my own head as a songwriter and just go out and have a musical experience and dive into a period of musical history. This period in the Sixties was vibrant and alive and it was very similar to where we are now, a lot of racial issues, feminist issues. I really enjoyed immersing myself in Memphis and going down there and really feeling the people and the community and playing with these musicians who have been playing since the Sixties and Seventies and listening to their stories.
Your new album is proof of how much these songs still have to teach us.
Absolutely. These songs were recorded by an interracial group, Booker T. and the M.G.'s: a couple white guys, a couple black guys. Everyone will say that once you walked through the doors at Stax Records, there was no color. It was just a joy of music and spirit and creating soul music, which is the music that inspired everybody. It inspired the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and everything you were hearing coming out of England. They were all listening to this music. I've seen Janis Joplin watching Otis Redding onstage, and then you go watch a clip of her at Woodstock, and she's moving and singing just like him. It's the deep inspiration, the deep birth of rock & roll that came from this music and this spirit. I think the spirit of rock & roll is that which excites and makes people think and moves us beyond our comfort zone, and that's why I really wanted to bring these songs back and reimagine them in a rock & roll way.
Were you at all hesitant to take on some of these iconic songs? It can't be easy to cover Otis Redding.
Oh, absolutely. My first thought was, "Can I really step up to this?" I shied away from some of the songs that have been done so much, like "Try a Little Tenderness." That's been done. I wanted to do "I've Been Loving You Too Long to Stop Now" because hearing Otis do that is probably the number one vocal performance of all time. I like to consider myself an Olympian in a way, like, "Let me try to get close to that world record."
It's great to see how much William Bell is featured on this album, even a lesser known song of his like "Any Other Way."
I love William Bell – he's such a great songwriter and vocalist. When I heard "Any Other Way," I went, "Oh my god, every Bruce Springsteen song can thank William Bell. I've hung out with Bruce and listened to these old songs with him, so when I heard "Any Other Way," I thought I'd just do what Bruce did, just slow the song down and make it rock, because that's my roots.
One of the more interesting moments on the album is your reworking of the Staples Singers' "Respect Yourself." How did that come to be?
With respect to what we were talking about, how timely these songs were, "Respect Yourself" was recorded in 1971 and they recorded it in Muscle Shoals. The guys who wrote that song were keenly aware of what was going on with racial issues in our country. The original lyrics reference the KKK and had this attitude that I felt to be truthful. I felt like I needed to put a little bit of myself in that song and bring it up to this time. I left the first verse alone but then I called Priscilla Renea, who is an amazing singer-songwriter, and asked her if we could update this song and really drive the meaning home.
"Respect Yourself" was one of the songs where I was able to get the original master recording. So we used that backing track that the Swampers played on and then put in some modern sounds. I added some guitar and some low end and modern drum sounds, but I wanted to leave it as pure as I could. I have only great respect for this song, and I'm just hoping that my added artistry is worthy of it.
What do you feel like you've learned from working on this record in Memphis?
I remember writing [1993's] "I'm the Only One" and being really influenced by rhythm & blues and soul music, and I feel like this album has enabled me to sing in the way that so many used to enjoy when I sang songs like "Bring Me Some Water" and "I'm the Only One." By taking these old soul songs, I can do that again, because now I'm happily married and I'm not in pain anymore, so I'm not really going to be writing any of those songs, knock on wood. Singing songs like "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "I've Got Dreams to Remember" have really helped me access that part of me again.