As she takes to the road again this summer, Melissa Etheridge is reminding herself of a simple performance necessity.
Actually, it has always been by her side, from the time her debut album was released 30 years to ago to her battle with breast cancer to the two different concert settings she has showcased in recent years in Central Kentucky: a 2014 solo acoustic program at Richmond's EKU Center for the Arts and a full band “rock show” presentation the singer will put on display on Tuesday at the Lexington Opera House.
“I’ve learned over the years that the key is I need to enjoy myself as much as I can to give the best show possible for an audience,” Etheridge said “I’ve always found that when I enjoy it, they enjoy it.
“The solo shows I loved because I got to peel back some parts of me and make parts of me stronger, like my guitar playing. It really forced me to step out as a musician. I couldn’t hide behind a band. It was such a learning experience. But for the last two years, almost three, I’ve been playing with a band that has made me more confident as a musician. I promise you that even though you may have loved the solo concert, this one is going to blow you away. I’m riding this wonderful wave of really enjoying myself and pushing myself to be better.”
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In case you haven’t picked up on it, whether it’s through resilient, soul-charged rock affirmations like “Come to My Window” and “I’m the Only One” or her roof-raising performance of “Piece of My Heart” at the 2005 Grammy Awards (given during a period when the singer was undergoing chemotherapy), what fuels Etheridge is attitude. It is what has endeared her to audiences for three decades, to her ongoing offstage activism and, in the end, to the very thing that has allowed her to truly enjoy herself in whatever concert setting she favors.
“I learned right around the time I was diagnosed with breast cancer almost 15 years ago that attitude — that energy of joy, for lack of a stronger, better, sexier word — is so important. If I set out to do something and I’m joyless, that’s bad for me and that’s bad for whatever the end result is. It doesn’t work. So if I look at something as, ‘Oh, I have to go out and work,’ it really should be, ‘Oh, I don’t have to. I get to.’ That attitude starts with me. I have a choice of how I can deal with it. Then when I go out there thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m so happy to be here, to play this music, to push myself to the edge,’ then I know I’m going to give a great performance because that’s what people are going to feel.
“It’s an energy exchange and it goes across the board in any sort of work. You can work at 7-11 and if you stand behind the counter and really want to be the best you can and enjoy whatever life brings to you, you’re going to shine a light on people. I mean, you can’t help it.”
This summer marks the 30th anniversary of Etheridge’s self-titled debut album, a record that yielded a durable, anthemic radio hit “Bring Me Some Water.” Etheridge’s international fanbase has been growing ever since.
“I actually made an album right before that where I let a producer kind of take control," Etheridge said. "They made it with this sort of ‘80s pop sound that Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records, the label for which Etheridge recorded for nearly 25 years) really hated. He told me that, too. But he let me go back in and for four days just record my songs, and that’s what you get on that first album. It was very spontaneous. Now, it’s just a snapshot of where I was 30 years ago, the music I had been playing years before that, the writing and how I was trying to get better as a musician and as a songwriter.
"There are all of kinds of things I can look back on and go, ‘I could have done better,’ of course. But I’m older now. Still, I’m happy it’s an honest representation of me.
“My job hasn’t changed. I’m an artist. My job is to inspire, to put people in the spirit of love. You can look at a painting and it can change your whole chemical makeup. Your mood changes. You feel better. That’s healing and that’s what music does. If people can listen to a song and, in three-and-a-half minutes, just feel a balance, an understanding of peace, then, yeah. That’s three-and-a-half minutes closer to where we want to be.”
IF YOU GO
When: 7:30 p.m. June 26
Where: Lexington Opera House. 401 W. Short St.