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Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge has been known for her country and rock hits, but on her new album, "This Is M.E.," she also adds R&B and soul to the mix. Gwen Ifill sits down with the veteran musician to discuss her artistic evolution and the realities of making an album today.
We end the night with a change of pace: my conversation with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on how her life and her music are changing.
MELISSA ETHERIDGE, Musician:
All this is my favorite.
Oh, my gosh. Look at that.
How old would you say that is?
Well, it's a 1982.
It's been a big year for Melissa Etheridge, personally and professionally. She got married to Hollywood producer Linda Wallem, shook up her 35-year music career by founding her own record label, and used it to release her 14th album, "This is M.E."
The 53 year-old rocker was born in Kansas, earning her at one point in her career the label queen of the heartland. Hits like this one from her 1988 self-titled album rocketed her into the spotlight for their raw and honest lyrics. She went on to win two Grammys for the songs "Ain't It Heavy" And "Come to my Window."
In 1993, she came out at an inaugural party for President Bill Clinton.
I'm very proud to have been a lesbian all my life.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
By 2005, she'd earned 14 Grammy nominations and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
That was the year of perhaps her biggest Grammy star turn, singing Janis Joplin's "Piece of my Heart," bald after medical treatment, as she was recovering from breast cancer. Etheridge also nabbed an Oscar in 2007 for the song "I Need to Wake Up" from the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
Now the mother of four says she is defining life on her own terms. I sat down with her recently before her concert at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C., to talk with her about her life, her work, and the last time she went to the White House.
When I think of your music, I think of pop, I think of rock, yet I saw you at the White House at the Women of Soul concert performance. It was a shock to me.
I didn't expect to see you on that bill, and, B, to see you break out the way you did that night.
I tell you, I grew up in the Midwest. And we had one radio station in the '60s. It was an AM radio station, and it played everything.
I could hear Led Zeppelin. I could hear Tammy Wynette. And then I could hear Marvin Gaye or, you know, Motown. And there was no barriers. There was no boxes that the — you know, that these genres were in. And I loved it all. And then, as my career went on — well, first, I played country music, just because that was the music that people wanted to see live.
And then it was, you know, pop music. And then, when I went out on my own, I was — it's kind of rock 'n' roll was where I landed. But I have such a love of soul and R&B. It's — it's — because rock 'n' roll and soul and R&B are — they're — you know, they're related. They're very, very similar.
You know, I did a little experiment, which is I went on Pandora. We were talking about technology. And I put your name in to see what else popped up.
And it was all kind of acoustic women singing melancholy songs.
It was Tracy Chapman from back in the day, and it was Sarah McLachlan, and it was Adele, but not cheerful Adele. It was sad Adele.
It was sad Adele.
What do you think that tells you about how you're characterized?
I think there can be a lot of assumptions made if one only knows me for the couple of hits that they knew in the '90s.
I think, if you give a little more look, or a little more thought into it or even come see me live, you will see that there's a whole wide spectrum of a whole lot of amazing music. And there's a lot of joy, a lot of joy.
Seeing you on stage with Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle pretty much sums it up.
That's what it's about. It is — it's about the love of performing, the love of music and how it can make people feel.
OK. You're 53 years old. You have had an amazing career. How do you define your — your sound now?
Well, this album, where I am right now is, it straddles the R&B, soul, rock 'n' roll all the way over to country.
It — it's — that's why I called it, "This is M.E." It's just the car that I'm driving in is a little — you know a little cooler.
Was it also a different kind of project for you because you were doing it on your own for the first time in how many years without a record label?
The recording industry changed. It — the digital age came in and the game changed. And the money and the attention and the promotion went to those records that can sell instantly to 13 to, you know, 17 years old, because that's what they're — those are the ones who are buying right now, that go out and buy it.
So everything really narrowed down. So it made sense, OK, I can do this now on my own. I'm connected with my fans, I have social media I can use, and so now I own my records, a whole different situation. But I love it.
It affected it mostly by record sales. You can't tell anymore who's listening to your music or who bought it or who has it, because record sales are so low because people don't have to buy it anymore. You go on Spotify, you can — you can listen to it over and over before you make that commitment.
So it's — I wanted to create an album that had lasting — that people would want to keep going back to.
I still believe in the art form of the album, that — that I want to spend 45 minutes with someone. I want to listen to it. I want to — I want to be on their drive from here to there. I want them to have it in the car and share that time with me.
So how has your audience changed? For older women in general in the entertainment business, people think that the audience sometimes shrinks, or that the people, the decision-makers decide it's going to shrink.
But you look out in that audience every night when you're on tour. Is it different?
My audience, there are people that have come to see me for 25 years, and I know them. You know, they're — they're getting older, like myself. And then there's the people along the way who have discovered music. I have people in the audience, I have young — I will get teenagers in the audience. I will get 20 to 30. I have such a mix in my audience.
Tell me about "A Little Bit of Me."
Well, "A Little Bit of Me" is one of the songs that I play just on my acoustic guitar, which is funny, because a lot of the new songs I play on electric guitar.
But that song is — it's kind of like an older song of mine. It's a real comfortable shoe that I play.
And I have background singers for the first time.
Do you have an opening for a backup singer?
Come on. I think you should…
I'm just saying, I could do it.
It would be a dream.
Now, the girls wear little short skirts.
OK, never mind.
Not going to happen.
And then you get a song like "Ain't That Bad" or something where they're — they're — you know that's the naughty side of me, which is — I'm a Gemini. I got lots of sides.
And the naughty side, we're going to hear a little bit more about than we have in the past?
You're going to see that tonight, yes.
Melissa Etheridge is, as she says, sharing time with audiences on a nationwide tour. She shows no sign of slowing down.
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