Your new album is titled 4th Street Feeling and you mentioned that the writing experience was a process of reconnecting with your old days where you'd "hop in your Chevy and play Tina Turner." Given your lengthy career, what was it like reconnecting with the days before any of these things started happening?
It's really different. I'm 51 now. When I look back, it's totally different. Those memories used to be what propelled me away out into my dream of California. Right now I look back at myself and go, "Well that wasn't so bad." I felt like I just needed to get out of there and be someone different. Now I realize where I was is really still what I am. I want to embrace that part of me. There's some R&B and Soul, and country, and rock ... all kinds of textures on this album and all kinds of memories on it for me.
Speaking more on your sound, I recall you saying the album is music that you love to listen to and people like Adele and Mumford & Sons were people who inspired you to push forward with that. Can you speak more on that?
The new artists that I love are the ones that are playing the music that they love. It's obvious. You can tell what music Amy Winehouse loved, she was talking about Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles. It was a compliment, and I thought to myself I want to make the music that I love. Rock 'n' roll does that. Rock 'n' roll takes all these styles and creates from it. I was just inspired and very happy to do that.
In what way would you say rock 'n' roll has evolved?
Rock 'n' roll is a reflection of all these different cultures and the growth that each of them are having. Rock 'n' roll was - and is - the insightful part. It calls for change to do something incredibly different. It's dangerous. In the '60s it was race music, then we were talking about sex, we talked about peace. Nowadays it's the personal conflicts we're up against and it is more of a personal choice than a social choice. That's where I'm writing from. Let's write rock 'n' roll. I wanted to present the struggle of each individual now whether it be about their sexuality or their addictions. It is what it is.
What song on the album do you feel you're best connected to?
Oh. Wow. When an album just comes out, I'm so connected to all of the songs because they are exactly what have been going with me for the past two years. It's been so much fun playing them live because then I find myself every night in the songs and relating to them and singing them. Right now the song I look forward to play the most, however, is "Rock N' Roll Me," I really love playing that song.
So for fans of As I Am and Your Little Secret, what contrasts and similarities are present on this album?
Probably the choice to push myself to my limits that are both on Your Little Secret and As I Am and a certain playfulness. I hope that I've come back to a place of playfulness about my life.
By pushing your limits, do you mean from a performance perspective? Or is the limit in your songwriting?
I'm referring to the limits that I've put on myself lyrically and musically. I'm even playing the banjo and the keyboard. I'm gonna make this sound more soulful. Someone would listen to 4th Street Feeling and not even know it's me. I really wanted to push those limits.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but this was your first experience with a banjo, no?
[Laughs] I'd learned how to play the banjo when I was about 13. They used to call it country western back then. But when I got older and went to rock 'n' roll I never played it again. Then last year the banjo came back into fashion. I was driving along the street and somebody was selling guitars along the street and one of them was like a banjo. I got one and brought it to the studio. It's actually a banjitar, a combination of a banjo and guitar.
You're out and gay, but you're from a small town. So what was that like being from a small town, especially back then when being gay wasn't as big of a trend as it is now?
It was very different back then. It was the '70s, and although I would hear of this thing called the gay liberation, I didn't quite understand what it was and when I was discovering about myself I didn't see it. It was in no media anywhere. People would say there was something wrong with gays and that we had a mental condition. You'd hear these things. The good thing is when I left home, I told my family and they were supportive. And they were happy for me. And as long as you have that support - because so many don't, so many get the fear - I didn't get that. That's what gave me the secure platform to stand up later in my life and not be afraid to say that I was gay. It's like, "What, you have a problem? What's wrong with you?" My family supported me, and that's so important.
One of the biggest moments to happen recently was of course Frank Ocean's coming out this summer. And for the most part, he was welcomed with open arms. So what would you say to new artists or hopeful artists who might feel the need to shy away from being gay for mainstream acceptance?
Two things: 1. It is extremely important to be who you are. If you try to live a life that is disingenuous to who you are, you will get sick and probably die. It's true. And 2. If you enter into a job or an art form where you feel you're going to blame your sexuality for some failure, there's going to be a disservice to you and everyone else. There isn't anything that didn't go my way on being gay. You've got to look at your talent, look at your gift, and see your persuasion as a side-fact. That's really a different issue. You want to be judged on the content of your character, not anything else.
Being gay has absolutely nothing to do with what you have to offer, and I don't think a lot of people get that. Your work shines if you're good, and that's what people care about.
Yeah, I listen to Frank Ocean. He's good. It's good. His gay experience becomes interesting. It's not 'Hey, I'm gay and you better say you like this.'
Not only are you an activist for gay rights, you're also a breast cancer survivor and advocate, you've contributed to reforming a performing arts center, you're involved with AIDS foundations. What encourages you to be so courageous?
Well the 2005 GRAMMY performance was a very personal move for me. I had chosen for the very first years of my career to be open and honest about who I was and what was happening. That came from me coming out about my sexuality and some relationship things. And then it was breast cancer. And I decided this is nothing to hide. This is something that people go through every single day. So when they asked if I'd sing on the GRAMMYS, I had two thoughts. I thought to myself, "Oh my god, I'm bald," and I'd been sick the past few weeks. But I also realized I had the opportunity to show people that this did not defeat me and that I'm okay. I'm just going to be who I am. I find it so crazy in our society that just being who you are is so courageous. What does that say about us?
You have an ASCAP award, two GRAMMYs, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. What else is there left for you to achieve?
Ohhh, a Heissman. Those things are crazy. They're fun, awards and things. And sometimes they help me visualize everything I've accomplished. There's all sorts of things I'd love to do. I want to work in television, I want to work on stage, broadway, film. I just want to create. I love what I do.
In the spirit of election, what are some words of wisdom you have for the undecided?
Well, I definitely voted for Obama again. It's kind of clear. The social differences between Republicans and Democrats are what keep me a democrat. There's the embracing of diversity, that's what I get behind. I'm worried about our government and how it's overrun by the multinational corporations. But that's a big change that's coming inside of America. We want our government to work for us and not the other way around.
Melissa Etheridge play Atlanta Symphony Hall tonight (Tuesday, November 12). $37.50-$102.50. 8 p.m.
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