Melissa Etheridge is an icon. There, I said it. The story of her contribution to LGBT popular culture is a brave one. The singer/songwriter came out more than two decades ago, a time when few, let alone the famous, had the guts to break down the barriers of homophobia. And ironically for her, it wasn’t until she publicly announced her sexuality and released her fourth studio album in 1993 that she was solid in the world of rock and roll.
Now, after 25 years in the music biz Melissa Etheridge will make her first-ever Canadian Pride appearance at Toronto’s WorldPride celebration.
You came out of the closet 21 years ago! How has the world changed since then?
I think gay rights were and are at the forefront of human rights. We represented it because ours was a difference that you could hide. It wasn’t one that was on our skin or in our body… it was a difference that came from our heart. So it was debatable and questionable, and yet the more we stood firmly and said, “No this is who I am deep inside to my core, this is what I believe,” the more people understood that maybe there wasn’t one way that we were supposed to be and maybe there is a gorgeousness to this diversity. Michael Sam [a 2014 draft pick] is going to be massive in professional football [and might become the first openly gay athlete in the NFL after being picked by the St. Louis Rams]. I love that the ones coming out are so smart and so well spoken… I love it!
Back when you came out things weren’t like this, you pretty much stood alone. Do you remember being scared?
It was scary and exciting. It was unknown. I would have parties at my house and Ellen DeGeneres, KD Lang, me, Rosie O’Donnell would all be in one room kinda talking about it… we were all out; we were out to our families, we were out to our friends and inside the industry everyone knew. We were very strong, smart people and thought, “What’s it going to take to step across that boundary and into the public?” KD jumped off first, then I jumped and then Ellen and… it was fun, it was exciting. Of course, some ugly stuff comes up, but that’s just the way of the world.
As far as things have come in many parts of the world, it seems as if things are getting worse in others like Uganda, Nigeria and Russia.
You were gay, you got hung, you were dead. The more that Western countries move into the light, those places are also being pulled into the light. Now we are looking at them and yeah, it’s going to be a long road. The more each of us comes out, the more comfortable we are with ourselves, the more we can change the world.
Can you talk a bit about your latest single Uprising of Love and how the issues of the LGBT community in Russia inspired it?
It was my effort to send a message, to shoot an arrow into the sky and make it light up. It was sending them our support. I’m not going to go to Putin and say, “Change that law.” That’s not going to work. What is going to work is changing the hearts and minds of people. The law will follow afterward; that’s how it works.
And a portion of the proceeds goes to support a coalition you also founded of the same name?
Yes. Uprising of Love is a part of the Russian Freedom Fund, which also gives money to the LGBT leaders in Russia now. I met them, these sweet darling people who are putting their lives on the line… It reminds me of the leaders in the early ‘80s. They are standing up and trying to organize with no money and they have no people to help them, but that’s the only way to get the gay community strong.
Switching gears slightly, you’re working on a new album
I’m in the middle of creating the album; I’m with a different management company, it’s very new ground I’m on. I’m going out and searching for inspiration from many different people. I’m collaborating more on the musical production process, so you’re going to hear things that are a bit out of my comfort zone, out of the box that you may have placed me in. Nowadays through technology it’s about making me and my guitar or me and my piano the centre and then surrounding it with these different sounds. That’s where I’m at and I’m really loving it and enjoying the whole experience.
After so many years in the industry, do you still get nervous about releasing new material?
I can’t worry about how the world receives it and I don’t. It is such a joyful process on my part; I’m so blessed to have been able to do this for this long and for this to be my work, to go create music. I know that if I do my job, which is to create music that I love, then I know I’m doing it right. I can’t guess what other people love and want but I know I have to stand by it and go, “I love this. I want to sing this, I want to play this, I want to listen to it.”
There are whispers in the Twitterverse that you are planning a collaboration with Adam Lambert. Any truth to that?
Oh yes. I was performing at the Family Equality Council and afterwards Adam got up and sang and just slayed me; I was totally thrilled. His fans and my fans were all demanding a duet so I tweeted him and said, “Hey
Adam, the fans have spoken, what do you think?” And now we are talking. We’re both making records right now so I see no reason why there cannot be a collaboration on either his or my record coming out very soon.
In all your years on tour, do you have a favourite memory?
It’s a toss-up between singing with Bruce Springsteen and the 2005 Grammys when I was bald and it was a big personal triumph for me.
You’ve only ever done one Pride show in Pittsburgh. Are you excited about coming to WorldPride in Toronto?
Yes. I’ll give Toronto a little secret. This summer something is happening in Toronto that I am going to be a part of that is going to be so awesome, and it has to do with Pride. That’s all I’m going to say.
You have a fiercely loyal fan base and such a great influence on the world. How does it feel to inspire with every step you take.
It becomes a responsibility. All of a sudden I have to think about the choices that I make because not only do they affect me and my family, but they also affect people who are watching my story and looking for guidance. And that’s big; I take it seriously as a mother in my family and also as a leader in the gay community. I’m honoured to be in that position.
You’re an Oscar winner and a two-time Grammy Award winner. Will you round it out with an EGOT?
You know it. I would not be a very good gay if I didn’t try for the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). I’m marrying into television [to American actress, writer and producer Linda Wallem] so someday I’ll get that Emmy, somehow. Also my partner and I are so very close to a musical on Broadway, so believe me, those are two very important things in my future. In the meantime I’m just doing what I do.