A progressive survivor finds inspiration returning to her rock roots

By Melinda Newman

Melissa Etheridge attracts more than her fair share of what she calls “jumpers”: those overzealous fans whose exuberance leads them to leap uninvited onto her concert stage. “My people know how to watch the front row and go, ‘Oh, there’s a jumper,’” she says with a chuckle. “They can tell.”

Etheridge has inspired just that kind of passion since her self-titled debut album came out 22 years ago, and it’s not only her music that does it. She has inspired fans as a breast cancer survivor (a struggle that informed her 2007 album The Awakening), a dedicated philanthropist, a gay rights advocate and an environmentalist—she won an Oscar for her theme song from the global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

But if her other activities have occasionally overshadowed her art, Fearless Love should place her music front and center once again. In preparing the album, Etheridge harkened back to the artists who first shaped her style—classic rockers like Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and the Who. “The whole album is an unabashed tribute to my influences,” she says. “I understand rock ’n’ roll enough to know that you look at what inspires you, then you turn around and make that music.” She notes that Love songs like “Drag Me Away” were written expressly to be showcased live.

That doesn’t mean that Etheridge isn’t still singing about issues she’s passionate about. “The album is completely layered, and purposefully so,” Etheridge says. “You could listen to a song and go, ‘Oh, that’s a sweet song’ or go, ‘Wait, what’s she talking about there? Is that a statement?’” She says the album’s themes can be most clearly summed up in its original working title: Songs of Love and Fear.

An effusive Etheridge spoke with us about her new album, her admitted history of guitar abuse and exactly how she handles those overexcited “jumpers.”

Did Fearless Love reveal itself as a rock album as you were writing, or did you know it from the start?

I had an intention from the very beginning. Before I’d even written the songs, I got together with [producer] John Shanks and said, “I want to make that kind of record that we loved, that we always talked about—that classic, iconic Led Zeppelin record, that Pink Floyd record that just lasts and lasts. I know we’re all playing this radio game and this hit game. I want to get out of that game and create a new game. I want to make a full-on rock record.” And John went full tilt with it.

Do you usually have a concept in mind before writing note one?

For the last record, The Awakening, I did. But before that I was, “Oh, where am I? What’s the music? Oh, this is what it is.” I didn’t have it before.

Do you think that’s because of the cancer?

Oh yeah. It’s understanding what intention is. Everything is intention. We can either believe that we’re fumbling along and life happens to us—or we can believe that our intention is what creates life in front of us.

Was Fearless Love easier or harder having that intention?

Yes. (laughs) It was harder because it didn’t fit any formula, and we really had to stay true to it and stay fearless about it. And it was easier because I was doing what I love and all I had to do was make sure that I loved every single note, every single thing, every single song, every single take, every single word. I couldn’t second-guess myself.

This is your 10th studio album. You said that you finally feel you have enough songs for the perfect live show.

It’s actually knowing that if I have the most amazing audience—let’s say it’s Madison Square Garden, and they’re all crazed—that I could just keep rocking all night long if I wanted to and not slow down one bit. I know that I could just slam—here’s another one and another one and another one. There’s just something powerful about that.

You didn’t feel that way before?

It’s funny, insecurity is a weird thing. You can be in front of 100,000 people and still ask, “Do they like me?” It’s just the way we’re built. Finally I like myself enough to know I’ll be OK.

How did that influence the record?

It was huge, because I didn’t have to bring any insecurity in. I didn’t have to drag any baggage in and go, “I don’t know, did the record company like it? Will this person like it?” I didn’t have that. I knew that I wanted to make an album that I loved, and I felt pretty sure that there were fans who loved my music and who would love whatever I loved. There was a confidence, a purpose to it.

Where did you record the album?

I wanted to find a place where the musicians, myself and John could all come together and live there for about two weeks, so we went out to this studio in Malibu called the Document Room. I had my chef cook just day and night. There was constant food, so we never went hungry. We had everything we needed—and all we needed to do was play music. The bottom floor was the studio, and the kitchen and the top floor were bedrooms. We just lived there.

How many guitars do you have?

Oh lord, I don’t know. I have so many acoustic guitars, because every time I go out on tour with an Ovation I kill it in a year. So we have to retire them every year.

So your road and studio guitars are different?

Yeah. I want to record with the finest guitars that I have: my [Gibson] J-45 and Fender Telecaster with the F-hole. They’re museum pieces, so if I ever took them on the road I would have a heart attack. On the road, you want a guitar that will hold out. You want to be able to rock it as hard as you can without worrying about your guitar. I usually get three or four and we rotate them so that one doesn’t get more worn out than the others. So between them, they can pretty much hold out. I’ve destroyed a few.

Do you practice guitar every day?

I should, to keep my fingers in shape, but I don’t because I have four children. As I get closer to rehearsal, I’ll start playing at least four or five days a week.

What are some of the crazier things that have happened on stage?

Undergarments that are thrown on stage always trip me out. What does that mean? Those are weird. And I always find it strange when someone jumps on the stage and runs to me. I don’t know what they think they’re going to accomplish.

How do you deal with that?

I used to have this cat when I was a kid. The cat would bite me, and if I jerked back it would really hurt because its claws would just dig in more. But if I just stayed there and let the cat let go, then I could pull away—and that’s what I do. If anyone gets to me, I just wait. I don’t try to get away or pull back. I think, “Somebody’s going to come and take you off of me soon.” The scariest thing is that the people that jump up are pumped up on adrenaline and they don’t know their own strength. They get their arm around my neck and I’m like, “OK, that’s going to hurt for a minute.”

What do you get now from playing live that you didn’t 15 years ago?

Sore! (laughs) In all honesty, I’m in better shape now than I was back then and I train more. I’m doing yoga and kickboxing and getting my body in shape. I could do it 15 years ago and not have to worry about all that stuff, but now I have to keep myself in shape.

Last year you did an acoustic tour, just you and a guitar. What was that like?

It’s a real growing experience because all the insecurities of thinking, “They’re only going to like me because I’m rocking them.” When I can get to that point on “I’m the Only One” or “Piece of My Heart” or “Like the Way I Do” and they’re all standing up, screaming and hollering and it’s only me and my guitar, that gives me a wonderful feeling of confidence. It’s not about how much noise there is, it’s about where that energy is coming from.

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