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In Conversation with Melissa Etheridge: Songwriting Comes from a Personal Place | Come on Gals, Keep Rocking!

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 17 – Fall 2021
The Bells & Whistles

Melissa Etheridge, the iconic American singer-songwriter on the music scene since 1985, has numerous accolades that include multiple Grammy awards, platinum and double-platinum records, and a star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. We were able to catch up with Etheridge via Zoom from Dillon, Colorado, while she was on tour to discuss her career, life since the pandemic, her new album One Way Out, the upcoming Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp (an all-female music camp) that will be held in Los Angeles in January 2021 after the Winter NAMM Show, her annual cruise, and what is on her musical horizon.

NOTE: This article originally appeared on our Fall 2021 edition which can be seen at the link above. 

First off, I really enjoy your newest record. It’s awesome. The songwriting is just so raw, and the riffs and your vocals—it’s just so emotional and gritty. So what was the inspiration behind some of the songs that are on this newest record?

Well, the interesting thing about the album is those songs are older songs—they come from the late eighties and the early nineties. They’re the songs that I wasn’t quite prepared to release, as some of them were written before I came out. I wasn’t out publicly yet, and I felt like they were a little too, like obvious that I was singing about a woman or even very feminist in nature. I listen to them now, and they are just harmless, you know. But 30 years ago, yeah, it was a little intense. So, the songs are about relationships, mostly because that’s what I was going through at the time. I was very confused and frustrated and also excited about the world. You know, it’s a lot of all that.

So you just kind of reconnected with some of those songs. You must have a vault of songs you can kind of dive back into once in a while. Did any of them change? Are the arrangements still kind similar to how you envisioned them 30 years ago?

Well, most of them kind of stayed the same. Most of them were just really straightforward, great songs like “For The Last Time,” “As Cool As You Try,” “I’m No Angel,” and “Wild Wild Wild.” Those are very much just how they were. And then the song “One Way Out,” I actually had to finish; it was like half a song. So I finished up that and sort of worked that out, but most of it, they were pretty solid.

Photo by Elizabeth Miranda

I guess it goes to show that it’s important to document your songwriting and catalog it in case you ever want to come back and visit it. Over the last 30 years, how do you feel that your songwriting has changed? I think as people go through different life experiences, they change. As a songwriter, how do you feel you have grown?

That’s what happens, you know, the songwriting comes from the personal part of me, the personal place in me, my experiences, my hopes and dreams and pains and joys—all of those things—and that changes as my life goes on. Like so many songs on One Way Out are about a little bit of heartbreak, a little bit of desire and want and frustration. Not so much going through that anymore. Nowadays, it’s different stuff. So, my subject about what I’m writing to has changed, and my musical sort of my abilities have changed and grown. So, you know, it grows with it.

I’d like to talk about this awesome Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Guitar Camp for women in January. There are so many great teachers lined up. Can you talk a little bit about how you became involved in the camp?

I was really, really thrilled when they asked me to do this female-focused rock and roll camp. You know, rock and roll has been so male-oriented forever. There have been so many great artists, and some will be there. Nancy Wilson. Orianthi—if you haven’t heard her play guitar, you haven’t lived; nobody plays better than her; she’s ridiculously good. To have that female power, you know, and it’s funny because I saw some social media reactions from some guys saying, ‘Hey, how come I can’t?’ You’ve had 30 years of this.

Yeah. Give us one little shot.

Usually, I don’t like to exclude, I don’t like to do that, but I think this is a really cool chance because a lot of times, well, I know myself that from my own experience, female guitarists can’t just—because we’re more about cooperation than competition—we’ll kind of step back and let somebody else go. It’s not a hundred percent in our nature to lean in and do that. And that’s what rock and roll is, is leaning in and standing up and taking that spotlight playing. So I think an all-female camp gives more opportunity for women to kind of say, ‘Hey, I’m safe here. I’m with girls. I’m not going to make a fool of myself in front of a bunch of guys. I’m gonna step in.  I think it will be really supportive, and not only just guitar playing but emotionally too. It’s a really, really cool thing to do.

Yeah. I know a few of the girls that will be teaching. We’ve interviewed Orianthi a few times. And we know Britt Lightning as well. When I learned about the camp, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, like, this is amazing.’ Honestly, if you’re a female and you play guitar, that has to be on your list of things to do in January. So during the pandemic—and now we’re in this weird Delta variant situation—you were doing a lot of live streaming, and probably like most musicians to keep your sanity. How do you feel you made it through these difficult times?

Oh my gosh. Well, that was rough. Having to cancel tours is just against my nature. And then slowly realizing that music and live performance is the last thing that’s going to come back. It’s still just starting to. We were going to play Jazz Fest, and it just got canceled. So, it’s still difficult, but the live streaming really helped me really. It gave me something to do. It gave me something to learn. I really liked that. I was able to practice, and, you know, I got to know my songs. I ended up playing every single song I’d ever recorded, which is a lot of songs, over two hundred. So, I ended up doing that and really connecting with my fans and building a community. It was a great experience, the streaming, but it does not replace live music. I have to admit I’m really enjoying the live audiences and such.

It’s gotta be nice to be getting back out there again. And speaking of that, can you talk a little bit about the cruise you have scheduled for November. That is probably a really great way to get in touch with your fans because they’re all going to be on a ship with you.

I love the cruise. The cruise is so much fun, so if you’re a cruising kind of person, there are still a few cabins left, so come on and join us. We’ve got some great artists. We’ve got Jewel, Lindsay Ell—another amazing guitar player—Brittany Spencer, and Antigone Rising, all different kinds of music. We got a group called Dorothy that just rocks like crazy. A lot of fun artists. There’s a lot of women, but everyone is welcome. Everyone is absolutely welcome. And it’s going out in November on Norwegian, and they just won a court battle to make sure that everyone’s vaccinated. So you gotta be vaccinated to come on the cruise.

You recently won the Music for Life Award during Believe in Music Week in January 2021, which replaced the Winter NAMM show. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that meant to you?

Awards are fun. It’s fun to be acknowledged by your peers. It was really nice. They were acknowledging the work we were doing with streaming and keeping connected with the world and with my fans. And NAMM is just a great organization.

You have had such an amazing career. As you know, musicians have ups and downs throughout their careers. Can you talk a little about your experience in having such a long career? Were there things that you consciously did to keep your career going, or do you feel that you just went with your heart, and it just kept taking you down the road?

When I started, I was 12 years old in Kansas. I started a long time ago, and I played in bands in bars. I played in cover bands. I played in bars and restaurants and all kinds of things. And then, I played solo in my early twenties until I finally got a record deal. I got my first record put out when I was 27; I got the record deal when I was 25. I was always making a living at it. I could always go down to a restaurant and get a job on a Friday and Saturday. I could always pay the bills. I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to give this up.’ I was self-contained—I had my own little sound system, and I could just set up anywhere. So, I knew I could always make a living at it. And it was just the expansion of it, like, ‘Can I get a record deal? Can I start playing? Can I get my second record, you know, can I keep doing this?’ And that’s just how it rolls along. And man, 40 years later, here I am. So I’m really happy with how it’s gone.

We’re all really happy that you’ve given so much good music to the world. A lot of your songs are so relatable. As you mentioned, you wrote the songs on your new album 30 years ago, and they’re still just so relatable to pretty much everyone.

Thank you. That’s what I always want my music to be, you know, to connect with people. And I believe if I connect with myself and I speak truthfully and really challenge myself, that I can still have people that will be interested in the new music.

As you know, we’re Guitar Girl Magazine, all about inspiring and encouraging female guitarists, but at the same time, we have a lot of male fans that subscribe and read the magazine, so we’re not just limited to women. There are a lot of people who want to make the transition from the practicing musician in their bedroom to the performer. Do you have any advice on what steps to take to go from the bedroom to gigging?

Well, I would say the most important thing is to love what you do and to be easy with it. There’s a reason they call it ‘play’ music. It’s playing; it’s fun. And as long as you’re having fun with it, then it will be satisfying to you. Also, are you a guitar player, or are you looking for other musicians to play with? Look for that community and find other musicians to play with. That’s always helped me and inspired me to play better. And, you know, you find new music. Socializing with a community of musicians is important to get with. Everyone’s unique. You’re not going to play just like anybody else.

I had to go through a long time of going, ‘Okay. You know, I’m playing lead but I don’t play like Eric Clapton.’ And that’s okay. I don’t know all the Stevie Ray Vaughan licks. If I wanted to sit down and learn them, maybe I could, but I don’t want to. I want to play. I want to play what makes me happy. So you start there, and then you just look around and play for anyone and everyone, and it just grows. As long as you’re loving it, then it’s going to bring you joy.

That’s great. Right now, are you collaborating with anyone on new music that you can speak about?

Yeah, there’s an interesting song that is coming up that I did with country artist Trace Adkins. He’s got his 25th-anniversary album coming out. He did a song with Luke Bryan and Pitbull. We did a duet together, and it’s a darn good song. And I love it. It’s called “Love Walks Through The Rain,” I think the album comes out on August 27th. I’m really excited about that song. It’s a really great song. I was really happy to be asked by Trace, and I think it’s just a really cool collaboration.

I’d like to ask a few fun questions. Barring the last 18 months, do you have any routines that you do when you’re on the road to keep yourself grounded or keep your sanity—you know, stay mentally and physically healthy?

Well, the road becomes one big, long routine. It’s, you know, workdays on and workdays off, days on and days off. When you travel, you learn to be real light on your—you don’t want to carry a lot of stuff with you. You learn that ‘Okay, I only need two or three pairs of pants.” Really, that’s all. And to stay healthy is really the most important thing. So watch what I eat, and then I’m exercising. Sleep and drink lots of water, especially here in Colorado. It’s dry here, but lots and lots of water. So those things taking care of my body because I consider myself like an athlete. It’s just so important to stay healthy body-wise and mind. And so those things, you know, walking, getting out—my wife travels with me, and that’s probably the best medicine that I have.

It’s nice to have that support and to, you know, have that familiarity with you. So, if you didn’t do music, what do you think you would’ve ended up doing in your life—like in a different parallel universe?

That’s hard to imagine because I’m really not skilled at anything else but music (laughs). My father was a high school teacher, and I always imagined that if I didn’t do music, I would still like to stand in front of a classroom and teach and exchange that. So I probably would have been like a teacher or something.

That’s awesome. I could see that. And now, with the upcoming guitar camp, you get to kind of do both. Is there anything else that you’d like to tell our readers about any upcoming news or about music/life tips?

Well, I’m really loving being on the road. It’s just really where I do my best work. I would say just in these times, health is really important. I think we’re seeing how important health is. Again, health begins in the body and in the mind; if your mind is troubled, your body’s going to be troubled. So find those things that work. We have more control over our minds than we know; we really can be in charge of our thoughts, and there’s a lot of things out there to help you. Meditation is one thing. There’s a great app called Headspace that’s just really easy. A lot of people think meditation is really hard, but it’s really easy. It’s just about calming—giving your mind a break for like 10 minutes can do amazing wonders to your whole body. Especially in this kind of crazy time, it’s good to get away from the chatter and the conflict and settle the mind—and listening to music is a great way to do that.

Each and every one of us has our own connection with our hearts and minds, and we’re all growing.

I think that’s really important because there was an era that was not that long ago, that people didn’t really want to talk about mental health, especially people who are, like yourself, in the spotlight. It was like a taboo subject, but I think with the way the world is today, having people who have so much popularity like yourself, hearing them talk about it, takes that stigma away from it being some bad thing. We all have brains; we all have bodies; we have to take care of these. In this day and age, it’s good that people are connecting physical health with mental health, so I appreciate you mentioning this.

Absolutely. It’s important to each and every one of us; nobody’s perfect. You might go on Facebook and think there’s some perfect people on there, but there’s not—they really aren’t. Each and every one of us has our own connection with our hearts and minds, and we’re all growing. This is the life school, so we’re supposed to be learning.

And I think, too, it’s hard in the music industry because you have this idea that if you get to be a certain age, or if you’re like, ‘if I don’t have a record deal by 19, like, oh my god, my life is over. I’m not going to have a career.’ You have to look this way; you have to weigh this much. You have to fit into these parameters that I don’t know still exist as strictly as they did in the music industry in decades prior. I grew up in the early to mid-eighties, and it was a whole different ball game. How have you seen that change over the 40 years that you’ve been in the industry?

In the eighties and nineties, the music industry was run by the record companies and the radio stations. There was a lot of money being made, and they were really focused on the video channels and what you looked like. It was very difficult and, and it was a little crazy-making. Nowadays, there are so many ways to reach people—on the internet and on social media—to get your music out there. Those guardians of the gates that used to be there telling you that you weren’t tall enough or thin enough or whatever, they don’t exist anymore—they might be in our heads. If you’ve got good music, you can get it out there, and you can make it be heard.

The way technology has evolved, you don’t necessarily even need a recording studio.

When the pandemic came, I changed my garage into a streaming studio, so it’s not necessarily a recording studio, but we have done recording in it. I’m actually thinking about modifying it and really getting it to be more of a studio studio, so yeah, I do.

Thank you so much for everything that you’ve done for people in music, and not just women in music. Your songs connect with everyone. Best of luck with all your tours and the camp.

Well, thank you very much. I appreciate that so much that I’m looking forward to it all, and come on, gals, keep rocking!

One Way Out tracklist:

“One Way Out”
“As Cool As You Try”
“I’m No Angel Myself”
“For The Last Time”
“Save Myself”
“That Would Be Me”
“Wild Wild Wild”
“You Have No Idea” (Live)*
“Life Goes On” (Live)*

*Recorded at the Roxy in Los Angeles in 2002

Vanessa Izabella

Born and Raised in Miami, FL, Vanessa started playing music at a young age. Progressing through high school, Vanessa was playing and performing on multiple instruments including guitar, piano and trumpet. She was awarded a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. During her time there, she studied the guitar playing of such influences as Pat Martino, Slash, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Eric Johnson and many others. After graduating with a degree in Music Business, she went on to work with such artists as Pat Metheny and Christian McBride. After years in the business end of the industry, she decided to pursue her own performing career and moved to Atlanta, GA. Once in Atlanta, she was playing with several groups, and doing recording sessions.  A year later, she was chosen as a finalist by Beyonce to audition for her all-girl backup band. Vanessa has traveled the world playing guitar, visiting countries such as France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Japan, South America and the Caribbean. She has performed on the bill with such renown artists as Darius Rucker, LA Sno, KISS, Skid Row and Paramore. She is currently recording and performing as the front woman for rock trio, BAST. www.vanessaizabella.com

Vanessa Izabellahttp://www.bastmusiconline.com
Born and Raised in Miami, FL, Vanessa started playing music at a young age. Progressing through high school, Vanessa was playing and performing on multiple instruments including guitar, piano and trumpet. She was awarded a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. During her time there, she studied the guitar playing of such influences as Pat Martino, Slash, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Eric Johnson and many others. After graduating with a degree in Music Business, she went on to work with such artists as Pat Metheny and Christian McBride. After years in the business end of the industry, she decided to pursue her own performing career and moved to Atlanta, GA. Once in Atlanta, she was playing with several groups, and doing recording sessions.  A year later, she was chosen as a finalist by Beyonce to audition for her all-girl backup band. Vanessa has traveled the world playing guitar, visiting countries such as France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Japan, South America and the Caribbean. She has performed on the bill with such renown artists as Darius Rucker, LA Sno, KISS, Skid Row and Paramore. She is currently recording and performing as the front woman for rock trio, BAST. www.vanessaizabella.com
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