Pieces of her heart

Melissa Etheridge’s ballads are infused with her liberalism, her loves, and her fearless outspokenness,says Ed Power

It doesn’t matter whether you are Republican or Democratic. Corporate money is what is really casting the shots

No sooner had she beaten cancer, her relationship with her long-term partner, Tammy Lynn Michaels, unravelled

THE unthinkable has come to pass. Melissa Etheridge has fallen out of love with politics. “I’ve always campaigned on behalf of the Democratic party,” says the multi-platinum singer-songwriter and activist. “I went out to bat for Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Barack Obama. But I won’t be doing anything for this year’s election.”

The reason is simple. She fears the electoral system is being taken over by money and the cult of personality. “I think we’ve got ourselves into a bit of a fascist state in this country. We have to take a look at what is going on. It doesn’t matter whether you are Republican or Democratic. Corporate money is what is really casting the shots. And the big changes that have to be made will not be made, because of the hold cash has over the system.”

Etheridge is that rarest of artists: a protest singer who sells albums. In a 25-year career she has sold 10m albums and received 15 Grammy nominations. The Kansas native has written genuine anthems — super-smart soft-rock ballads such as ‘Piece of My Heart’ and ‘Like the Way I Do’. She is the closest thing to a female Bruce Springsteen.

On a warm afternoon in Malibu, Etheridge is giving her final interview before departing on her European tour. She is happy to discuss her next LP, which is half-written, and her work as liberal campaigner and gay rights advocate.

Outside her hardcore fanbase, she is as known for her strident views as for her songs. She famously spearheaded opposition to California’s Proposition 8, an attempt to enact legislation banning gay marriage. She’s been to the fore of campaigns against global-warming, providing the soundtrack to Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. In an era when protest singers are a vanishing breed, she is one of the few artists unafraid to say what she believes.

Etheridge was born in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1961. Her father taught at the local high school, her mother was a computer programmer. As a teenager, she performed in local country groups, and after high school went to Boston to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

Academia didn’t agree with her. She dropped out of Berklee, and moved to Los Angeles with dreams of cracking the city’s singer-songwriter circuit. It was while performing in a lesbian bar that she was discovered by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records.

A veteran with a keen eye for talent, Blackwell was smitten. On the spot, he offered her a three-album deal and encouraged her to strip her sound down and make it non-glossy. Four years later, she had her first hit, with Brave and Crazy. She’s been a star ever since.

Through it all, though, Etheridge never quite made peace with her achievements. Doubts persisted. Was she as talented as everyone was telling her? Or would she wake one morning to discover it had all been a dream. It was only with the release of her tenth album, Fearless Love, in 2010, that she accepted she had made it in the music industry.

“It felt like the end of the first half of my career,” she says. “I finally thought, ‘Hey, this might work out for me. I don’t have to worry about a day job. I might just be okay’. It was an enormously freeing realisation to arrive at. I’m working on a bunch of new songs and I must say I’m really enjoying the process.”

Etheridge’s decision not to campaign for Obama didn’t drop from the clear blue sky. She’s been through a great deal in recent years and her priorities have changed.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2004, Etheridge fought the illness in public, appearing on Oprah’s couch on multiple occasions to share with viewers what she was going through.

No sooner had she beaten the disease than her relationship with her long-term partner, Tammy Lynn Michaels, unravelled. The split was front-page news to the American gossip press, which quickly developed an unhealthy fascination with Etheridge’s private life.

Type the singer’s name into a search engine and the first dozen results will concern her break-up. Her music hardly receives a mention.

“You have to make peace with the scrutiny or you will go nuts,” she says. “It used to be that you had some sort of control over what people wrote about you. If you didn’t want the coverage, you could sort of discourage them. Now, it’s a free-for-all. They pay so many people to, in effect, cash other people in,” she says.

Not that she wishes to be seen as complaining. “We’re celebrities — we’ve set ourselves up for it. I don’t always agree or like it,” she says.

Besides, there is no point in being angry about the intrusion.

Whether Etheridge assents or not, the media will want to know about her private life. She can no more prevent it happening than she can stop the sunshine streaming through her window in the morning. “It [the gossip industry] is like a machine. Once it has you in its clutches, you can’t get out. They think that people want to know everything about celebrities when their relationships aren’t working out. You have to accept that,” she says.

Having survived breast cancer, she decided not to be troubled by what other people think about her, she says. “Life is too precious. This is my life — it isn’t about anyone else. I need to make the choices and do the things that make me happy. Everything else — I can let that go away. I truly don’t have the energy for it.”

The illness changed her as an artist and as a person. She won’t go so far as to describe cancer as a blessing, but the long-term impact on her music has been positive. “My music has definitely become more spiritual. I feel I have a license to be spiritual, which I didn’t have previously. I would say I am more spiritual than a lot of the organised religions. I don’t know how much good those religions have done us. What I discovered during my fight with cancer is that spirituality is a deep human need. I keep that knowledge close to me.”

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