The last thing Melissa Etheridge ever imagined for her career was activism. But as a long-sought life in rock 'n' roll began to take hold, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter discovered that being herself also meant standing up for herself.
"Seriously and truthfully, I never wanted to be activist," said Etheridge, who performs a solo acoustic concert Saturday at the EKU Center for the Arts. "I'm seriously lazy at heart. I just wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star and live the decadent life. But I didn't do that either.
"The thing is that I love music. The more I would get in it and the more successful I got, the more I saw how I had to be myself in this. The more I spoke the truth about who I was, the more that became activism. 'Yes, I'm gay' or 'Yes, I have cancer' or 'Yes, I smoke cannabis' or 'Yes, I believe the environment is important' — just by saying these things, I become an activist. Kind of what I'm trying to say is you don't have to go out and change the world. All you have to do is look inside and be who you are. That will change the world."
This year, Etheridge is taking the idea of being herself directly to her music. After 25 years with Island Records — a tenure that established a global fan base for her rock/soul-infused hits I'm the Only One and Come to My Window — she is now an independent. It's a role she cherishes as much as that of activist.
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"I began looking at the record labels like, 'Okay, I can do this with you and you might work one single and then you'll put me on the pile' or I can do it myself with my management, which has all the tools that I need to work an album, and they're working me and not just the album.
"I think it's a great day for the artist. I know the record industry is hurting, but I think the artist wins in this whole scenario."
Her first album as an indie artist is near completion, but Etheridge's first recording away from Island came earlier this year with a song called Uprising of Love. Triggered by Russia's demeaning treatment of its gay citizens, which drew international focus during the Sochi Winter Olympics, the song is more a call for unity than protest.
"The experience of the last 20 years in working for gay rights and civil rights and seeing my world change, seeing it willing to shed some light on some dark corners of our psyche and our sexuality, was like getting that boulder up to the top of the mountain. Then DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was knocked down last summer and it felt like we really moved somewhere. We did something. But just weeks later, you get these pictures coming from Russia, and it's like, 'The work is really never done.'
"It is worldwide humanity. I just sat down and said, 'What is the one message, what is the one thing I can say? I think above everything else, what changes hearts and minds is when a person changes their own heart and speaks truthfully so that people go, 'Oh, I know a gay person. They are in my family or down the street or at work.' So that's what Uprising of Love is pleading to. It's saying, 'Look. This is how we can do it. I believe this and it starts with me.'"
Gay rights have been a focal point of Etheridge's life and career since she came out in January 1993, eight months before the release of her multiple platinum-selling album, Yes I Am. Numerous activist and benefit causes would be balanced with her music in the decade to come. But a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2004 reshuffled everything.
"This was at a time when I was really re-examining my life, my career and everything. 'What is this? What is success? What am I doing? What do I want to do?' And then to be broadsided by breast cancer just really wiped the slate clean for me. It really helped me set up my priorities."
Bald and weakened from chemotherapy, Etheridge roared through the Janis Joplin classic Piece of My Heart at the 2005 Grammy Awards, in what fans and critics still agree was a career-defining performance.
"When I was getting up there for Piece of My Heart at the Grammys, I hadn't even been out of my house, basically. I did my radiation treatment that day and then went to the Grammys. I was seriously weak but I think that actually made for a good performance. It kind of settled me down.
"Basically, when I was going there, I just didn't want anyone to make fun of me. I remember my guitar player saying to me, 'You don't know what you're about to do, do you?' I said, 'No. I'm just going to do what I love.' And I was so happy."
Today, with a solo acoustic tour underway and her first indie album awaiting release, Etheridge feels enriched, empowered and a little wiser by her experiences.
"I love being older. I feel like life is really starting for me now. It's like, 'I've finally got the knowledge, the wisdom. It's like, 'Ah, I'm getting this now. I'm good here.'"