Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge will appear with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall for Berklee Night on June 12 and 13. Born and raised in Leavenworth, Kansas, Etheridge began playing guitar at 8 and attended Berklee College of Music for a year before leaving to pursue her career in Los Angeles. She was discovered by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell while playing at a bar in Long Beach, and her first album was released in 1988, with her first Grammy Award coming five years later. Her star continued to rise with her fourth album, featuring the hits “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window,” which earned her another Grammy. In 2007, she won an Academy Award for “I Need to Wake Up,” the theme song to Al Gore’s eco-documentary An Inconvenient Truth. She’s become an outspoken advocate for LGBT issues and raised money to fight breast cancer, from which she suffered and recovered. She lives in Los Angeles and married fiancee Linda Wallem in Montecito last month.
First of all, coming to Boston from Kansas was a wonderful opportunity…well, frankly going anywhere from Kansas is pretty great. But Boston’s such a fantastic college city, and it was a great experience. It was 1979. Berklee was still pretty new then, and I was one of maybe six girls in the whole school. We were way outnumbered, especially in the guitar department. It was hard to get taken seriously, and I was raised to take on the world. I kind of wish I’d stayed longer. I’d undoubtedly be a more accomplished guitar player. But I started playing at a place called Ken’s by George, a seafood house down on Boylston. I started playing there five nights a week. I started making money. And then one of my professors came in and didn’t recognize me, so I said, “Y’know what? I’m quitting school.” I was making a living and supporting myself.
I played at a place called the 99, which was downtown on the water, sort of, and a few other places…I got a job at the Copley Plaza the week that it burned, and I took that as a sign that it was time to leave.
Well, it was a funny situation because I was discovered and had been playing for years at lesbian bars in Long Beach, so it’s not like I was ever really closeted. I was always out, and it was my bread and butter. My manager at the time said, “Why would I take you out of a situation that’s paying your rent?” It was also a great place to learn and hone my craft. All the record companies came to see me there. Did some of them not sign me because I was gay? Maybe. But when Chris Blackwell found me, he didn’t care. He just said, “I think the future of rock and roll has a female voice.”
Well, when we were just about to release my fourth album, there was the whole “What do we do about the gay thing?” Chris Blackwell was like, “Well, who cares, as long as you don’t flag wave,” which is pretty funny, since I turned out to be a fairly major flag waver. But I did three albums where I sort of changed the pronouns. It was “they” instead of “he” or “she,” and I wasn’t lying, but I felt like I wasn’t really telling the truth, either, so I just said, “This is ridiculous.” And on my fourth album, I just came out publicly.
Sure! Of course. Any of these businesses that have to do with public persona and popularity, you’re walking that line. And it’s a very personal choice to be public about your sexuality. You have to be comfortable. I find that the ones who had no support or acceptance from their families are the people who are less likely to do it in a public way.
No, it’s much worse in professional sports. That’s why it’s amazing that athletes like Michael Sam are coming out. Now that’s brave.
There used to be. In the ’80s, when we were working on my first album, people would say, “Oh, no. We already have a woman on our playlist.” It was like one was all there was room for, and there was an unspoken rule for a long time that you couldn’t play two female artists back to back. You might lose listeners or something. So that’s definitely changed.
Yes, but also the greatest. It was a huge gift in that it was the ultimate reason for me to change my life, and I’m so grateful because I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. I try to tell people, “Don’t wait till cancer brings you there. Change your life now. Look at what you’re eating, and the stress, and the way you go through your day and what you’re agreeing to in your life, because it will make you sick.
Bruce Springsteen. Big surprise.
Anybody who wants to sing with me. I’ve already gotten my wish with Bruce Springsteen, but I’d love to sing with Stevie Wonder, Pink, Adele, Snoop Dog…sign me up!
I am crazy obsessed with Beyoncé’s new album. I think it’s amazing in every way.
I’ve been compared to so many, and I love that because I have many different influences. I love getting compared to Joni Mitchell, or when my performance reminds someone of Janis Joplin. But what I love even more is when other artists get compared to me. [Laughs]
My favorite song to do live is “Like the Way I Do.” That song just creates an energy that always lifts me up.
[Laughs] Well, I think I rhymed fire and desire a few too many times, but otherwise I think I’ve been pretty good with my lyrics.
Well, I would love that because it would mean my kids could go to college, but I haven’t had many of those. We are actually looking, because the market has changed. It used to be considered that you were selling out if you got a commercial. Now it’s one of the top ways to reach listeners. So I would love that.
I started by learning “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on an acoustic guitar. It wasn’t really until 10, around 1970, that I started playing other stuff like folk songs and country songs. Then I started writing my own songs, and when I was 11, I started getting up in front of people. It was more of a folk thing and a country thing, when a band would ask me to sit in, and eventually it just progressed to rock ’n’ roll.
Classical has a place. There are times when I’ll just need to hear some Bach. Jazz makes me think too much. I’m too much of a musician to be relaxed when I listen to jazz, but I do like to go see it live. I love popular music, alternative…I’ve got 6,000 songs in my iTunes library, and it ranges from chill and electronica to strange old Hank Williams recordings from the 1920s.
Yes, I did. In high school, I went there with a variety show that I was in. It was great. A totally captive audience and the largest one I’d ever seen. There are actually a bunch of prisons around there, and I did a lot with them, but I love being able to say, “I spent 18 years in Leavenworth.”
[Laughs] It’s always been there. Even when I was a kid, I was put in the back of the chorus because my voice was so weird.
Awards are funny. I love having the Oscar. That’s the biggest dream. But when my 7-year-old says, “I like that song, Mom!” that’s the best thing I can hear.