We caught up with Melissa Etheridge while she was staying in Niagra Falls in preparation for a performance at the Artpark Festival in Lewiston, New York, to talk about the changing landscape for LGBT equality, the future of legal weed, and the role her spirituality plays in her music. She performs at the Athletic Club of Bend as part of the PEAK Summer Nights series Wednesday, July 22.
Source Weekly: June was a really exciting month. How did you celebrate?
Melissa Etheridge: I was so glad I was with my wife the morning of [the June 26 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage]. She was with me and we were in Iowa of all places, I was playing in Iowa. And just the feeling of relief and celebration and it was so funny that all around the world, so many millions were celebrating love. And I was trying to think, oh my gosh, the people that were against this, how strange it must be to feel like, “Well, they’re celebrating love, what am I celebrating?” What’s the opposite of that, you know? Hate and fear? So I thought, it must be a time when everyone’s like uh, ok. It was just so beautiful to see to feel the relief to feel [that], okay, we’ve all agreed now by a majority that love is love and even though this might make some people uncomfortable, that’ll pass, and we’re all part of this beautiful fabric of America.
SW: It was definitely a nice thing to happen before Independence Day.
ME: Independence Day and right on Pride Weekend. It’s like the justices planned it, it’s like perfect.
SW: How have you seen the landscape for LGBTQ equality change over your career as an out musician?
ME: Oh good lord, it has gone from zero to 100. I came from the early ’80s. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s where there was no mention of gay or lesbian. I remember the first I ever saw it was in a psychology book where they said, “We don’t think it’s a mental illness.” I’m like, oh shit. Oh no. And that’s where it came from. And then when I landed in the early ’80s in Long Beach I found myself among a very political group of people, it was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and organizing was happening on a small level but it made all the difference. That’s really what brought the community together. And once we found there were numbers and safety in numbers, and kinda [got] out of the bars—yeah, we love to have a good time and dance, that’s a big part of our culture, but there’s a whole other part of us—and once we got that together, and then seeing that grow in the ’80s and then feeling the power; in the early 90s I was like no, I need to be truthful, there’s no being in a closet. I’m not in the closet, I was not in the closet to anybody but the general public. So coming out was important, and then watching it go through the ’90s and our struggles. And being a top topic on president debates, we could just feel our power was huge. And here we are, we’re a responsible part of our American community.
SW: What do you think is next for the movement and what role do you see yourself playing as an artist and activist?
ME: Wow. I think the best thing I can do as an activist is to be the best person I can be, is to make the choices that, when people put me in a category of an LGBT person, that it’s a plus mark you know, it’s a good example.
SW: Speaking of political issues—as you likely know, recreational marijuana became legal in Oregon on the 1st. I know you’ve been active in supporting access, particularly to medical marijuana.
ME: It’s funny, I see the cannabis movement very similar to the LGBT movement in that a lot of people that are cannabis users are in the closet and a lot of people don’t even know it because they think that people might look down on them to see they’ve chosen this over all the pharmaceutical options. And it’s also a very old, old, old herbal tradition from hundreds or thousands of years ago, so it’s got this sort of scariness about it and it’s time to come out of the closet, as it were, to bring this amazing medicine and amazing part of our culture that we have turned our backs on. We’ve embraced the problem solving culture of caffeine and stimulants and then alcohol and we’ve really let go the consciousness exploring. We’ve made that illegal. And I think that’s what’s next in our society, to understand exploring your own consciousness is a human right, it’s a civil right.
SW: When did you come out of the cannabis closet, so to speak?
ME: When I went through chemotherapy. Before then I had been a social [user], not a steady user. When I went through chemotherapy and just was so clear on the effects and how much it helped me and saw my option of pharmaceuticals was just a pill for the pain and a pill for the pill you take for pain and it was just ridiculous when I could get releief and my appetite and everything from this herb. That was in 2004. And in 2005 I remember I told [then “Dateline NBC” host] Stone Phillips, I did an interview with him and said, look I want to talk about medical marijuana and so the second time he interviewed me he asked me and there it was.
SW: Do you think your weed-infused wine is going to be available outside California at any point?
ME: I think when there’s recreational, or when California and Nevada go, we’ll just have the gold coast, you know. California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Canada, we will be able to hopefully work out crossing those borders and trading and stuff and I’m just waiting for that to happen.
SW: Your openness about various parts of your personal life has made you a source of inspiration for a lot of people. Where do get your strength and inspiration from?
ME: I read a lot. I have a large spiritual sort of base, in myself, that comes from a great belief about why we’re here and reality and so I get that. My belief about what life is is such a joyous energetic gift and so every day I’m inspired.
SW: So why do you think we’re here?
ME: I think we’re here to create, I think we’re here to learn. I think this is a life school and we are all endowed with this opportunity to live, to be a human being and then to learn to create and to strive for joy, that’s what I think it is.
SW: Sounds good to me!
ME: Right on.
SW: A lot of folks, when I mentioned I’d be talking to you, wanted to know why you so often mention angels in your music.
ME: You know what’s funny, I started writing about angels before I ever really understood my own beliefs and my own spirituality. And I just, I would use the term angels for that unknown force, that unknown place or spirit that seemed to be there either guiding or judging or something. It wasn’t until afterward, right around my breast cancer stuff, that I started understanding the term angels and the spirit of what that is and so now, I sort of use the term still, it is bringing up that sort of spiritual side, yes.
SW: What’s next for you musically and how do you shift between more personal and more political work?
ME: Well they all come from the place that I create from, and that’s just going inside and telling my personal experience, and politics can be a part of that. And the plea or the question that I want to put into the listener about what is life, what is spirit, what is the meaning, and then look at my own experience of my own relations, and what are my relations with my lover with my family? These are the places that I write from and create from and I’m always gonna do that.
SW: When you sit down to write these days, what’s most pressing on your mind?
ME: Hmm. That’s a good question. It kind of depends. It’s always a good place to start from my own personal relationship, like with my wife, I usually start from there and then start looking outward, and then oftentimes it depends on the music, what the inspiration is and what the drive is.
SW: What do you think folks should expect from your show coming up here in Bend?
ME: To have a rally good time. I’m gonna be playing the hits, I’m gonna be playing a couple new songs from the new album, I’m gonna be doing a few deep album cuts and just playing the heck out of the night. You will leave feeling better than you came. That’s my plan.
SW: How do you describe or define your own music?
ME: You know, when I think about that question I always end up with just saying, I’ve just got to call it rock and roll. Because in the end, rock and roll can only be defined as a music that incites, that brings about thought and rhythm and sexuality and spirit and that’s what I try to put in my music so I just end up saying it’s rock 'n' roll and I like it.
SW: Anything else?
ME: Bring your comfortable shoes and dance your butt off.
Erin is the Source Weekly's Associate Editor. Before moving to Bend in 2013, Erin worked as a writer and editor for publications in Portland including PQ Monthly and Just Out. He has also written for the Willamette Week, El Hispanic News, Travel Portland, OUT City, Boston magazine and the Taunton Daily Gazette...