Melissa Etheridge earned a Grammy nomination right off the bat, with her debut album, Melissa Etheridge; the Leavenworth, Kan., native then won a Grammy for the single “Ain’t It Heavy,” from her 1992 album, Never Enough. But she didn’t attain super-stardom until her 1993 “coming out” album, Yes I Am, which proved that a self-avowed lesbian could thrive in the rock mainstream. Currently, Etheridge, 36, who lives in Los Angeles with filmmaker Julie Cypher and their first child, is preparing to play Janis Joplin in a movie written by Cypher.
What were the assumptions about women in rock when you started out?
Rock radio would say, “We can’t play that because we already have a woman on the radio,” and “We couldn’t play two women in the same hour. We might lose our male following.” But all of a sudden the whole lid was blown off, and these women – Edie Brickell and Tracy Chapman, Toni Childs, Natalie Merchant, Michelle Shocked and the Indigo Girls – were selling records. And people were coming to our concerts, and they were requesting our songs on radio, and radio changed. That’s the way America works. The public ultimately says, “This is what we want.” The world was ready for strong women’s inspired music.
How do you respond to the word “feminism”?
When I was first being interviewed, I didn’t know what to say to that, because it conjured up these pictures – bra-burning, that sort of thing. As more time went on, I started to understand what feminism was. It’s just the right of equality professionally and personally and politically. It’s so reasonable, and the bra-burning image was actually created by the media, because there was backlash. So yes, I would say that I am definitely a feminist.
Are there any advantages in the business to being a woman?
Maybe they try to clean the dressing room a little bit more. No, not really. The music business is hard, and it’s a business, and as long as you make a product that the people want and your company wants to sell, then you’ll be successful, whether you’re male or female.
Has being a musician affected your personal relationships?
I’ve been with the same partner for about nine years actually. So I didn’t ever have to date while I was – I didn’t go through that. We sort of grew through this together, and I’m really grateful for that.
Do you have advice for female musicians just starting out?
Just do it. Just do it from your heart. Be a musician. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be a certain way. Be unique. Be what you feel.
How do you deal with demands from the rock business that rock stars all have to be youthful and beautiful?
You know, I think more about that than I ever did about being a woman. I’ve seen and am inspired by rock stars who are much more senior than I am who are still doing it. I don’t want to try to be 25. I was 25, and I had a great time. I want my music and my performance to reflect who I am at the time and not try to chase something. I had my moment of being the new, hip thing.
Has being a mother changed the way you play music?
I’ve become a little more social. Because you start looking at the world in a very protective way. You start wanting to protect your child. My writing reflects that. You start writing and thinking more socially than sexually, which is where I used to always come from.
Do you plan on becoming pregnant yourself?
I thought about it. Julie just did it so well. It kind of intimidates me. This child is my child. I would die for this child. I might change my mind, but I don’t think I will do it myself. I haven’t really ever told anybody that, but, hey, now I have.
How much of yourself will you put into the role of Janis Joplin?
All of myself. Our experiences are very similar. We both are from small towns, both felt very misunderstood. We were both fearful of being alone, both loved the blues and rock & roll. I certainly had it a lot easier, and I didn’t take the road she did.
Do you feel like you’re a role model for younger women?
I don’t know. I’d like to be. I’d like to think that my music reached somebody that was sitting in their bedroom writing music. I remember Joan Osborne telling me that she listened to me.
What was the greatest moment of your career?
Playing with Bruce Springsteen at my Unplugged. That’s one of those moments where you say, “Oh, yeah, this is a dream come true. Thank you.” Wanting to stop all time and just be there.