There’s a gigantic white bear lying smack in the middle of Melissa Etheridge’s living room, but the petite singer seems oblivious to everything but the snapshot in her hand. “Here it is,” says Etheridge. “Isn’t she gorgeous?”
Etheridge isn’t talking about her partner, filmmaker Julie Cypher, or looking at that famous, steamy photo of the couple nude. This time she’s showing off baby pictures—of their 2-year-old daughter, Bailey, and their 6-month-old son, Beckett. At home, surrounded by a jumble of stuffed animals, blocks, and crayons, Etheridge seems happier than ever, a woman in love.
Since 1993 the Grammy-winning singer and songwriter, with her sold-out tours, best-selling albums, and screaming fans, has been making headlines as a genuine rock-and-roll heroine—and a dedicated activist to boot, most recently flying her rainbow colors as the narrator of the new documentary After Stonewall. Now the woman who came out at President Clinton’s inaugural celebration is boldly entering new territory as she promotes gay and lesbian family values.
While lesbian and gay parenting has become a cutting-edge issue in the 1990s, for Etheridge it’s the personal side of raising children that’s truly changed her life. Warm and direct, with tousled hair and a friendly smile, she’s as unpretentious as the mom next door—with a more powerful voice than ever.
So, congratulations! What’s it like having a new baby again? Well, we just went from one to the other, so it wasn’t that huge of a change. But it’s great! We’re so much more relaxed this time; we’re not up listening to every single breath he takes.
Does that mean you two are actually getting some sleep? Well, I sleep a little bit more. Julie’s still breast-feeding, so she’s up during the night. Beckett’s a big boy, and he eats a lot.
And how’s Bailey adjusting? The first month she was like, “Hold me. What are you doing holding him?” Now, five months later, she’s way into it. The routine’s up in the morning, a little bit of Sesame Street, a little breakfast, then off and playing. I’ll go into my office and work and do stuff, and Julie will write in her office. Plus we have a little bit of help on weekdays.
So it doesn’t seem like total bedlam most of the time? No, no, it’s great. And you know, I’m a sucker. If Bailey wants me to come look at the tea party she set up with the Beanie Babies, I’m right in there.
Since it’s frequently much more interesting than what grown-ups do. Exactly. “Gee, I must tear myself away from the business phone call. How sad.”
Has parenting changed you? The whole idea of having a child has made me much more of an activist, more concerned about the world. I mean, I used to be concerned, but it was sort of finite. Now I want the world to be better—perfect—because my children are going to be here after me. Things mean more. Things matter.
Do you ever catch yourself being your mother or sounding exactly like your dad? Yeah, well, I catch myself.… Having children makes me understand more about my mother. It also makes me angrier about the things my parents didn’t do. It’s just so important to me to tell my daughter that I’m an emotional person, that we all are. Whereas when I was growing up, it was, “Don’t cry, don’t cry. Everything’s OK. Don’t be angry. None of us are angry.”
Kids are so perceptive. They’ll notice that, Hmm, Mom’s angry, and she’s not saying anything and stuffing it down, so I think that’s what I’m supposed to do. They just imprint it, and off they go.
So now I say to Bailey, “I understand you’re angry; there’s nothing wrong with that. You just can’t hit the dog.”
What about the way people treat you now? Do your friends see you differently? There are some things people without kids don’t get. You know, we’ll be invited to a dinner party. “Great, OK,” we say, “we’ll be there. What time?” “About 10.” And they don’t understand—we go to sleep at 10!
Do you still get that annoying question, “Which one of you is the real mom?” Oh, yeah. [Shakes her head] I just say, “Julie’s the birth mother, and I’m the real mom.” I’ve adopted Bailey, and I’m in the process of adopting Beckett. But when people ask me in interviews, you know, “Do you feel as close to the children as Julie does?” I’m like, That is such an insane question. When you take the responsibility and you’re there every day, it sinks right in. I would throw myself in front of a speeding truck to save them. There’s no doubt about it.
Do your kids have a relationship with their biological dad? Not really. They know him and know who he is. Of course, Beckett can’t know anything right now. But when they ask who daddy is—boom—we’ll say that’s who it is.
So he’s not really involved as a parent? No. A few months ago I was going through books with Bailey, and 99% of them are about Mommy and Daddy. And she said, “What’s the daddy?” And I said, “Well, some people have a mommy and daddy, some people have two mommies, some people have two daddies, some people just have one mommy or one daddy.” And it made perfect sense to her. I think soon she’ll start to understand that biologically you have to have a daddy to exist, and we’ll just deal with that as it comes.
What about your relationship with Julie? Do you ever wonder if you’re ever going to have sex again or read a book again or just talk together like adults for two minutes? We do sit there at the end of the day and go, “What did we do with all our spare time before we had kids?” We must have just piddled it away because we never knew how much spare time we had.… There’s a real strong partner vibe there. You know, maybe the wild sex all day long, all around the house, is not happening as much.
You haven’t been on the road at all since your first child was born. I’ve spent one evening away from Bailey.
Did you miss her terribly? Oh, terribly. I’m about to go away this weekend for the first time, for three days, because my new album’s starting up. I’m doing a video thing, MTV, in Toronto.
This morning I had a little talk with her and said, “I’m going away for three days. You’re gonna go to sleep and wake up, and I’m not gonna be here. But then I’ll be back, and we can play.”
These three days will tell me how secure she feels when I go away. And that will determine how much time I actually can spend on tour and what the road will be like. Or whether I’m gonna drag them around everywhere, which of course I don’t really want to do. But if for their state of mind it’s better to be with me, then I’ll take ’em everywhere, every city. So we’ll see.
I had an out-of-body experience at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when I was talking with Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney about taking kids on the road. [Laughs] I’m like, OK, I’m just going to try to keep my feet on the ground and have this conversation.
What did they say? They said it’s the best thing. Just take them on the road. Of course, both of them had a different experience in that their wives were in the band, and it would be both parents gone if they didn’t take the kids. Julie is not onstage with me. Thank God.
And she isn’t particularly enamored of touring? No, not at all. But she would do it.
Meanwhile you’ve been writing and recording. You have a new album, Breakdown; you’ve narrated the After Stonewall video; you’re writing music for a stage adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s Cavedweller; you’re narrating a new series on Lifetime TV.… But I still haven’t been in front of a group of people singing in a while, and I really miss that. Sometimes Julie will say, “Why don’t you just go find 10,000 people and sing to them?” Because there’s nothing else that can channel all my energy.
I wonder if the image is a problem—how can you be sexy and rowdy and a rock and roller and a mom too? We’re breaking that right now. I mean, look at Madonna. She hasn’t toured with Lola yet, either. But she’s definitely very sexy and very strong. And I have absolutely no doubt about myself [grinning].…
No worries that you’re going to stop rocking and shrink into apron-wearing suburban femininity? Definitely not. The opposite. I will run and fight and go the other way.
Have the kids changed the way you think about your music? The other day Bailey asked me to sing a song. I said OK, and I started singing her Elvis Presley. [Lowers her voice and croons] “Well bless-a my soul, what’s wrong with me?” And she said, “No, Mama, sing me a children’s song. Not a grown-up song.” She totally knew. I was like, OK. [Hums the Barney theme song] “I love you, you love me.…”
I know you wrote one song, a lullaby, for Bailey. There’s a song on the new album called “Truth of the Heart.” And I wrote it because if my children ever ask me what I did about changing the world, I don’t have much of an answer. All I have is my life and how I’ve lived it—and this truth I’ve tried to live by, the truth of the heart.
I don’t think anyone’s gonna find huge differences in my songwriting. A few friends listened to the new album and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but your voice sounds more mature.” [Laughs] I guess I am more mature. But the music itself hasn’t changed. I haven’t gone easy listening at all, no.
But you are doing other things as well—this Lifetime series, How Could It Happen, starting in August. You’re becoming a narrator? It’s storytelling, basically. I narrate stories about women that extraordinary things have happened to—unusual things, coincidences. Or just anything. I was like, “Strong women? I’ll tell the story, sure.”
What about the Janis Joplin movie? Where is that? Ah. The trip of my life. It looks like it’s going to be made. I’m no longer attached to it or involved in it. You know, Hollywood is a crazy place, and films—I don’t understand how any films ever get made. I mean, this was something that started with Julie and me in our living room, writing and wanting to bring the story of Janis to the world. And yes, people come on board and get involved, and all of a sudden it’s going down the road without you. And you’re standing there, and you’re like, “Oh, OK.”
That must be kind of upsetting. It was because it happened so slow and just drug on and on and on. There was a point that I had to jump off and say, “Look, I gotta get on with my life. I can’t invest another two years in this.”
So no more of that. No, Julie is still producing it. So the family will be involved, but I’m just not involved as the actress.
But you did get involved with the After Stonewall documentary. You know, the narrative moved me as [the producer] told me the stories. Having been there now for the ’80s and the ’90s and what’s happened—it’s so inspiring when you look at how far we’ve come in the last 20 years. And we’ve got a long way to go. But I am out and sitting here in this big old cushy house in L.A., and it’s fine. I’m making a record, and I’m on a TV show, and I have kids, and people want to take pictures of them—and I won’t let ’em. I mean, the fact that I’m out and here is incredible.
I was telling this story to Urvashi [Vaid] last night; she was over with Kate [Clinton]. A couple of weeks ago, for Take Our Daughters to Work Day, the Museum of Tolerance asked several professional women to come to this symposium. I was the gay one, you know? The gay rock star. Fine, whatever. The audience was teenage girls. We got to speak a little bit, and then they asked questions. I thought, If I was in high school and some big old dyke came to talk… In the first place, they would never make it to the high school in Kansas.…
Much less be the honored guest. Much less be the honored guest, exactly, and a role model. And the girls came up and said, “Oh, I want your autograph,” and, “Can I have a hug?” I was like, This is so cool. These are definitely straight girls, by the way—15-, 16-, 17-year-old girls not caring a thing about me being gay. Just, “You’re cool; we like who you are.” There’s so much more hope now.
Do you worry about your kids experiencing homophobia? I haven’t been faced with that yet. That’s gonna make me crazy. Why spend so much time hating people who love? There isn’t some sort of moral cooties that gay people are going to pass down to our kids. Let’s look at our culture and stop scapegoating.
It’s scary when you realize your kids are not going to live sheltered in your house. They’re going to live in the whole culture. [Laughs] No, our children are just going to live in our house.
Right over there? [Pointing to playhouse] In that pink and purple tent? Yup. That’s as far as it goes, right there.
Really, parenting makes you aware of how much you cannot control. Two weeks ago I thought, If I can’t even send my daughter to a public school in Littleton, Colo.… That hit every parent hard. And Littleton was a big slap in the face to the nation because here was the perfect white, straight, suburban family environment, and those boys were hurting so much. I just ran in and hugged my kids and went, “Oh, my God, how do we go on?” But the way we do is to know that all children are our children. Even if their parents are right-wing Christian, gay-hating—whatever—those children need to be loved and understood. The signs are out there.
Did that make you think about your own teenage years? It made me think more about what I’m doing right now in my parenting. All I can do is to love my child, give her and him the strongest sense of self they can have, a sense of their own right and wrong. So that when they go out in the world, when I’m not standing by their side, they can have enough love for themselves and others because they have been loved, and they can face anything. [The caregiver walks past, carrying Bailey, who’s asleep.]
I saw you just touch your heart when you saw her. Oh, no, did I?
Do you still have that in-love feeling that you did when she was a baby? Constantly. There she is, 2, 3, 4 months old, and people are saying, “Just wait.” And I’m like, There’s no possible way I could love her more. But every day I love her more, every day. Yesterday Bailey said, “Mommy, you’re so nice.” I could sit here and bore you with stories about her.
Does it feel different having your life focused this way? Yeah. It feels good. It feels purposeful. There’s something about having all your dreams come true. In 1994, ’95, with the music…
You got it. I got it all. Thank you very much. Then there was a little bit of an empty feeling, like, Now what do I do? And then, boy, when Bailey was born in ’97, it was clear. This is the purpose of my life. And it puts everything else in place.