Rock, soul and Melissa Etheridge
Melissa Etheridge heads to the Niagara Fallsview Casino for two shows, Oct. 19 and 20. PHOTO: Darren Brown/Postmedia
When asked how much she likes coming to Canada these days, Melissa Etheridge offers a pause then sharp laughter.
If she liked it here before, she's head over heels now.
“That's an understatement,” she says, on the line from Nashville where she's ready to record her 13th album. “I'm not going to move to Canada, because I truly believe we stay here and we fight for this wonderful country the best we can to get it back on track. But man, you guys are really inspirational.”
She has been many things these past 30 years – gay rights advocate, cancer survivor, Oscar and Grammy winner – but the one that sticks most for Etheridge is 'protest singer.' For someone who has spent her career singing about making things better, election night in the U.S. last November was a surreal gutpunch.
She has had 11 months to process it. And she's surprisingly more hopeful than angry.
“Yeah, election night was rough,” she says. “I was just like everyone else, sure that this nightmare was going to be over. We would move on. But I've always taken the approach that I am more effective singing from the heart than I am preaching. I never wanted to tell someone what they should do, I always wanted to give them an example or inspiration to be the best that they can be.”
To Etheridge, Donald Trump as president – bitter as it is for so many – is a necessary pill to swallow for what comes next.
“What I believe is this is making all of us ask for better,” says Etheridge, 56, who plays the Fallsview Casino Oct. 19 and 20. “These will be the dark times before this great change that I believe is coming. We elected the first president of colour, we were all moving in this direction, and there's a lot of fear involved in that. There was kind of a backlash, and now I think we'll move further.”
The challenge for Etheridge is to not let pessimism about the current climate affect her new music.
“That's exactly where I find myself,” she says. “How to protest, yet how to inspire? How to be awake in these times and use the gift of music, which is an incredible medium that I can reach past people's minds and get into their hearts.”
The other hurdle? Angry songs about 2017 may already be out of date by the time the album comes out in 2018.
“That's the thing, I don't want to write something that's happening right now and people go, 'Well, that was last year, it's all changed now.' I mean, wouldn't that be great? I'm hoping it will be (changed). So I'm trying to write a little bit futuristic and hopeful, also.”
Since her debut album nearly 30 years ago, Etheridge's life has been a series of fascinating highs and lows. After playing clubs for years, she was signed on the spot one night by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. The rugged rocker Bring Me Some Water off her self-titled 1988 debut earned her the first of 15 Grammy nominations – she eventually won for Ain't It Heavy off her third album, 1992's Never Enough, and her rousing anthem Come to My Window off 1993's break-out album Yes I Am.
Released the same year Etheridge came out as a lesbian, it remains her biggest-selling release. Arena tours and Rolling Stone covers followed, but so did the emotional strain of a very public break-up with longtime partner Julie Cypher, and later actress Tammy Lynn Michaels.
In 2004, Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer. She credits medicinal marijuana with a huge part of her recovery from chemotherapy, and has been a vocal supporter of legalization ever since.
It's another reason she loves Canada so much: “(You're) showing how a nation can legalize and regulate this plant medicine...again, I just think Canada's one of the coolest places on Earth.”
Even as her album sales slowed, Etheridge was making waves: During their relationship, Etheridge and Cypher had two children fathered by sperm donor David Crosby. More magazine covers followed.
“Sure, there's some stuff I didn't wish the whole darn world knew, but I wouldn't trade it,” she says. “There's certainly more positive about being a hundred percent myself and being out there that's good.”
Her recent albums are still mature, confessional affairs, leaning close to R&B and soul. In concert, classics like I'm the Only One, Bring Me Some Water and Like the Way I Do still get a rousing reception, but she'll also bust out some Otis Redding, Joan Armatrading and Staple Singers covers.
Expect plenty of both at the two Niagara Falls shows.
“I will definitely do the hits because that's what we love – nothing like singing I'm the Only One at the top of our lungs – and then I usually look at what songs I did last time I was around there.
“I've been playing a whole lot of guitar, so if you haven't seen me in awhile, you're going to see a different act. I've really been challenging myself to be a better musician and more entertaining guitar player. I'm always different.”
And to the relief of fans, 13 years cancer free. And feeling better than she has in decades.
“I just got my head on straight about what my health is and how much my own emotional health has to do with my physical health,” she says. “Really basic things that we're not taught or we don't listen to and understand how important those things are. I'm doing great.”
- Who: Melissa Etheridge
- Where: Niagara Fallsview Casino
- When: Oct. 19 – 8:30 p.m., Oct. 20 – 9 p.m.
- Tickets: Start at $70 www.ticketmaster.ca or 1-877-833-3110