Melissa Etheridge has been making raw, personal music for nearly 30 years. And while it's been alternately referred to as folk and blues, to Etheridge it all comes back to rock.
"I've just got to call it rock 'n' roll," she tells the Source. "Because in the end, rock 'n' 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."
That directness has become a calling card for the musician who famously came out publicly as a lesbian in 1993—four years before Ellen DeGeneres—and openly shared her fight against breast cancer, and subsequent support for medical marijuana, with her fans.
We caught up with Etheridge while she was staying in Niagara 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.
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. 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: 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. In the early '90s I was like no, I need to be truthful, there's no being in a closet. So coming out was important, and then watching it go through the '90s and our struggles. And being a top topic on presidential debates, we could just feel our power was huge. And here we are, we're a responsible part of our American community.
SW: Speaking of political issues—as you likely know, recreational marijuana became legal in Oregon on July 1. 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. 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 relief 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: Your openness 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: What should folks expect from your show in Bend?
ME: To have a really 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.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
To read the full Q&A, visit bendsource.com.
5:30 pm, Wednesday, July 22
Athletic Club of Bend, 61615 Athletic Club Dr.
$45 for the show, $90 with dinner