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October 1, 2014IM -
At age 53, Local 47 member (Los Angeles, CA) Melissa Etheridge has newfound freedom to create and challenge herself in the modern music industry in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. The seasoned rocker with 17 Grammy nominations and two wins, just launched her first album as an independent artist. Now, the same determined energy that has always steered her career, is guiding her to learn new tricks and explore new territory in terms of collaboration, marketing, and performance.
Melissa Etheridge first showed her resolve to make music when she was only eight years old growing up in Leavenworth, Kansas. “My father bought a guitar for my sister who was 12. They said I was too young to take lessons. I pleaded and begged. My fingers bled, but I kept at it to prove them all wrong,” she recalls.
Exposed to the guitar-driven music popular in the early ’70s, in her youth, Etheridge was inspired by folk music, and in particular, Richie Havens. “I loved the way he played the guitar; he and Keith Richards were probably the biggest influences on me,” she says.
“I developed a rhythmic way of playing that was very percussive and driving and I really took a lot from Havens, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and those sorts of guitar players,” she says, explaining how her style developed. “It wasn’t until recently, the last 10 years, that I started branching out and playing more lead.”
As a teen, Etheridge began playing gigs around Leavenworth, and she first joined the AFM back in 1974. “I still have my original card up on the wall,” she says. And though she was only 13 at the time, she’s maintained her membership all these years.
“The union is important because we are in a business where people would do what we do for free,” she says, adding that the union makes sure that people earning their livelihood through music are looked after. “We have rights and benefits because of the union. We went from wandering minstrels to a legitimate business in about 100 years. So it’s super important to be in the union.”
As Etheridge watched the music industry evolve with the digital age, she’s embraced the technology, always eager to learn new tricks. Her 12th album of new material, M.E., released September 30, is her first album on her own label. It’s a pioneering and innovative project in many ways.
First off, producing an independent record meant a whole new mindset for production. Without a big label backing her, she didn’t have a huge budget up front to go in for two weeks with a producer, she says. Instead, she branched out and worked with lots of different creative minds to make the music for the album.
On top of her own list of potential collaborators were Local 47 member, producer and keyboardist Jon Levine and Jerrod Bettis, who has worked with Gavin DeGraw, Adele, and One Republic. Her management helped her seek out other collaborators like Jerry Wonda and RoccStar.
For some songs, Etheridge’s entire creative process was turned upside down and adapted to her co-writers. She says it was a refreshing learning experience. “It just took a willingness to go into their ballpark, on their field, and do the best I can, and it was delightful!” she says. “I was a guest in their homes, and what a community of people I met!”
“Jerrod [Bettis] would just bring the beats to me and I would take those and write. Like, ‘Take My Number,’ I totally wrote that just off that beat,” she continues. “[Other times] Jon Levine and I created the beats and the music together, and then I would take those home and write the melody and the lyrics.”
“I told Steven Greener, one of my managers, that I wanted to think outside of the box. I said, ‘I’m dying to do soul music, R&B; I have such a love of dance and soul music from when I was in high school listening to The Commodores and Ohio Players, Parliament, and all that stuff, but I’ve always just had to play rock and roll,” she says, referring to the narrow marketing focus of a record company. “Every time I tried to dip my toe over there, it was like, ‘no, no, no.’”
Greener introduced Etheridge to producer Jerry Wonda. “We didn’t know what it was going to be like, but it just clicked,” she says, adding that the songs they worked on together, “Monster” and “Do It Again,” are some of her favorites on the album.
Then, she was introduced to producer RoccStar, who helped her put together “Ain’t That Bad.” “I could listen to that all day long,” says Etheridge of her pleasure with the result.
Working with Wonda and RoccStar meant exploring freestyling, she explains. “The culture of freestyling is an honored tradition, and talk about scary! They just get up there and sing … to be in the moment. It’s quite an amazing art form that I have great respect for. I really learned to trust myself and my own ability to rhyme and just get in there and write the song.”
Etheridge says that it was refreshing to learn new things. “That’s my favorite part,” she concludes. “All the learning and newness of it—I love it!”
In the end, Etheridge had more than enough material for her ample album of 11 songs and four bonus tracks. “There are a lot of other songs that I really like that aren’t on the record,” she says, adding that many of them will most likely be used someday for another project.
From a marketing standpoint, putting out her own album means that Etheridge has jumped full force into the world of social media. “It’s absolutely everything these days,” she says, further explaining her decision to produce an independent record. “I had many meetings and much discussion about the choice of going with a major label or doing it myself. A big part of that was that, with social media, you can reach your fans instantly, and you don’t need the structure of a company to get you out there, so it’s very important.”
Her management helped her design an album cover that also connects directly with fans. The artwork is a mosaic photo of Etheridge, made up of many tiny individual photos sent to her from fans. Fans can go to her webpage and tag their photos, linking it to their individual Facebook pages.
These days Etheridge is also freer in terms of performances. So aside from the tour to promote M.E., set to begin in November, her latest music projects have included performances of solo acoustic shows, as well as concerts with symphony orchestras, something she describes as challenging and amazing.
“I love playing with a symphony, and along the line of doing new challenging things—with my band, if I make a mistake, I can just correct it in the next measure, but when you are playing with a symphony, and you make a mistake, 75 of you are going down!” she laughs. “I have great respect for the music and the ability of the conductor to gather all that musicianship.”
“It’s fun to have three or four people make music together, but when you get 75 people concentrating on one piece of music, that’s a whole lot of energy streaming into the musical blanket we are weaving. It’s gorgeous; It’s amazing. It made me fall in love with ‘Come to My Window’ all over again,” she says, referring to her 1993 hit.
As much as she enjoys the tours and performances, Etheridge admits that she misses her family when she’s on the road. “The most important thing, is that I am doing what I love. Yes, sometimes what you love takes you away from your loved ones, but they know it’s because I love what I do. It is a beautiful balancing act and I’m grateful for it all,” she says.
Along with her busy career, Etheridge also takes time to speak out for causes important to her—gay and lesbian rights, cancer awareness, the legalization of cannabis, and environmental issues. It’s a personal choice, she says, but the right choice for her.
“All of those things affect me and my family deeply, so it’s easy to be an activist,” she says.
While she believes the fight for LGBT rights in the US is currently going well, she feels it is important to now support LGBT activists outside our country. “I am involved in an organization called Uprising of Love [UprisingofLove.org], which sends funds over to international gay and lesbian organizations, in places where they still get thrown into prison and killed,” she says.
Looking back on her career, Etheridge says she feels proudest just to have done her best. “I’m proud that I can stand up and say that every choice I have made, I have made with the best intentions and I’ve done my best. And that’s just about the most you can say as you go along in life. By God, just do your best,” says Etheridge.
Her advice for young musicians is equally simple. Stick with it, even when others tell you that you won’t succeed in music. “You have to do it because you love it, and then love it enough to be smart about what you do. See where it takes you, but know there is no destination. There is no place where you say ‘I did it.’ So even if you don’t think you are succeeding, you are doing exactly what you are supposed to do and learning what you are supposed to learn, because it is all about the journey,” she concludes.