Melissa Etheridge

by Dan MacIntosh

Melissa Etheridge is not just a talented singer/songwriter; she's also an Academy Award winning musician (for "I Need to Wake Up" from the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth). Furthermore, she's certainly no frail little flower, with a powerful voice that can rock hard on favorites such as "Bring Me Some Water" and "I'm the Only One."

What you may not know about Melissa, though, is she has also (after many years acting as her only instrumental accompanist) become quite the accomplished guitarist. It means she's as inspired by Keith Richards' rhythm guitar prowess as she is by Bruce Springsteen's lyrical storytelling.

Her most recent album, This Is M.E., was issued in 2014.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): The latest album has a lot of lyrics that talk about loneliness and being alone, so what inspired writing those types of songs?

Melissa Etheridge: The well of loneliness is in each of us. Whether you're at the end of a relationship, or you're successful, or whatever, you can still feel alone.

The first song, "I Won't Be Alone Tonight," that was written actually about the guy I was collaborating with, Jon Levine the producer. It's funny because I can't help but be influenced by the souls that I'm working with, and he's a sweet guy, just a wonderful guy, and he would spend all day long in that studio looking at that screen making music. All day long. He had no life. And I said, "Dude, you've gotta get out!" He said, "I know, I have a girlfriend." And I said, "I don't see a girlfriend anywhere in the studio."

We wrote the music to that song and I went home that night and I wrote the lyric like I was him. I totally just put myself in his shoes and I wrote "I Won't Be Alone Tonight."

Songfacts: This interview is for Songfacts, so I wanted to talk about some of your bigger songs. A song like "Bring Me Some Water," does the meaning for that song change for you over the years? When you sing it, do you feel different emotions than when you first wrote it?

Etheridge: Oh my gosh! I don't know if it's different emotions, it's just that the intensity is always different.

When I first wrote it, it was very painful. It was very true. It was awful. I don't like this at all.

When I'd play it, I'd be, [sounding in pain] 'Ahh...bring me some water.' It's awful. And then, that relationship went away and I'd be in new relationships and sing the song and I'd be, like, I don't feel it anymore.

The song is really fun, but I can remember those feelings of betrayal. Now, I'm not there emotionally, yet I can go right back there and jump into that suit and play.

Songfacts: When you sing songs that reflect a painful period your life, does it bring you back to that painful place?

Etheridge: It doesn't bring you back where you have to viscerally go through it again. It's almost safe. Let's release that, without actually hurting us. We're not in that situation anymore.

Songfacts: Who are your songwriter influences?

Etheridge: My top ones would be Bruce Springsteen, Joan Armatrading, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Rickie Lee Jones and Joni Mitchell. It's the ones that sing it right and scratch their own skin to really put it into a song.

Songfacts: One of the names you mentioned, Joan Armatrading, is woefully underappreciated in this country. Why do you speculate people don't realize how great she is?

Etheridge: Because she was outside of the box in the '80s. People could not put her in any of the boxes. They could understand it through Tracy Chapman, but not through her. Tracy Chapman came out, and Joan Armatrading had been doing this for ten years. She was outside of the box.

Songfacts: I talked about some of the songs that I've liked of yours. Do you have any favorites, especially with your hits, that you just always love to play?

Etheridge: I love playing the hits because people love them so much - that's what's so fun about them. But I would say my favorite is "Like The Way I Do." That song is just a monster to play and I love how people love it. Also, "Bring Me Some Water" is a blast.

Melissa made her first appearance at the Grammy Awards back in 1989 when she performed her first single, "Bring Me Some Water," which was up for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance (it lost to Tina Turner's Tina Live in Europe). She would win that award in 1993 ("Ain't It Heavy") and again in 1995 ("Come to My Window").

With 15 total nominations, Etheridge can safely be called a Grammy legend. In 2015, she headlined the Grammy Foundation Legacy Concert, held three days before the ceremony. She played "I Need To Wake Up" and "Lean On Me" at the show, and also joined Aloe Blacc for a performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
Songfacts: I saw you at a recent concert where you did "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

Etheridge: Oh my gosh, just a few weeks ago!

Songfacts: Yes. And the thing that was strange was you didn't sing on that, you just played guitar. I didn't realize what a great guitarist you are, which makes me wonder if you've ever considered doing an all-instrumental album?

Etheridge: It's funny because I've gotten to be a better player in the last five, ten years. That's been my journey on that last few albums: to lean more on my own playing and become a better player. So instrumentally, yeah, maybe I suppose.

It's funny how that turned out. They asked me to do "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with Aloe Blaac. I said, "Yeah, but I wanna play guitar." Waddy Wachtel was in the band and he was, like, "No, I want to play!"

Aloe's singing, and he's singing so amazingly, so I said, "Dude, you're gonna sing. I'm not gonna sing. I'm gonna play." And because of that song, it was so much fun.'

Songfacts: Let me ask you this, then, who are your guitar influences?

Etheridge: Very different. Electrically, I'd say Keith Richards. That rhythm. Not about playing fast, more about feeling. I like him, and I like Richie Havens and Jose Feliciano.

Because I played solo for so long, all my guitar playing I had to accompany myself, so it comes from this rhythm background. So it's those kinds of guitarists. And I love Gary Clark Jr.

Songfacts: Your last album came out in 2014, so I imagine you've got other stuff you're cooking up. Is that right?

Etheridge: Yeah, that's the nature of the business now. You don't have to wait so long. So I do.

Songfacts: What can we expect? Phrase it like a trailer for a movie.

Etheridge: It's like a trailer for a movie that you've just begun shooting. That's what you're getting right now. It's very much in the same vein of This Is M.E. in collaborating with Jerry Wonda, working on songwriting. It's hard to say. There's not a big change or difference from the last album, but I've only done, like, two or three songs, so we've just started.

July 7, 2015. Get more at melissaetheridge.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Ckdarys from Penna.I've only recently really listened to a couple of your albums but i was 3/4deaf for 58 years now I have aids and cam hear and cell phone with lyrics helps alot you are so true to life. I love your songs.
  • Carol Stovall from TexasMs Etheridge will always be a favor to me...
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Songs in Famous Movie Scenes: '80s Edition

Songs in Famous Movie Scenes: '80s EditionMusic Quiz

You know the scenes - Tom Cruise in his own pants-off dance off, Molly Ringwald celebrating her birthday - but do you remember what song is playing?

Subversive Songs Used To Sell

Subversive Songs Used To SellSong Writing

Songs about drugs, revolution and greed that have been used in commercials for sneakers, jeans, fast food, cruises and cars.

Song Cities

Song CitiesMusic Quiz

Nirvana, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen are among those who wrote songs with cities that show up in this quiz.

Krishna Das

Krishna DasSongwriter Interviews

The top chant artist in the Western world, Krishna Das talks about how these Hindu mantras compare to Christian worship songs.

Graham Bonnet (Alcatrazz, Rainbow)

Graham Bonnet (Alcatrazz, Rainbow)Songwriter Interviews

Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai were two of Graham's co-writers for some '80s rock classics.

Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne

Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of WayneSongwriter Interviews

The guy who brought us "Stacy's Mom" also wrote the Jane Lynch Emmy song and Stephen Colbert's Christmas songs.