Shedding her skin

As Melissa Etheridge prepares her new CD, Skin, for its summer release, she talks for the first time about her split with Julie Cypher, the revelations in her upcoming book, and how she makes no apologies for turning her life into her art

BY Dennis Hensley

April 21 2001 11:00 PM ET

To say that
Melissa Etheridge’s new CD, Skin, gets off to
a provocative start with the song “Lover,
Please” would be a major understatement. She
puts an advance copy of the CD on her stereo, and her
voice fills the room: “A shot in the dark / I woke up
to find / You had broke all the rules / And you
changed your mind / Didn’t I love you good? /
Didn’t I love you right? / And where are you
goin’ / dressed to kill tonight? / Oh, this is
going to hurt like hell.”

Etheridge lowers
the volume, retrieves her visitor’s jaw from the
floor, then laughs the way you do when you fear you
may have revealed too much. “This CD is where
my personal and professional lives have truly
collided,” reveals the singer, reclining on the sofa
in the living room of the home she moved into in
November, in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.
“All my work is autobiographical, but this is right
out of the headlines. It’s so clear and
so…ouch!”

“Ouch” is right, for the headlines
she’s referring to, of course, are the ones
from October, which announced that she and her partner,
filmmaker Julie Cypher, were splitting up after 12
years. The news, coming hot on the heels of the
Ellen-Anne breakup, sent ripples of shock and sadness
through the gay populace. After all, we had just seen them
on the cover of Rolling Stone, beaming like
girls in love, as they told the world that the
biological father of their two children, Bailey, 4, and
Beckett, 2, was in fact rocker David Crosby, a friend of
theirs. What happened?

This is the first
interview Etheridge has granted since the
breakup—and, boy, is there a lot to cover. In
addition to the changes in her personal life and
living situation (Cypher resides in a house just across the
back alley), there’s her ongoing gig as the
host of Lifetime’s Beyond Chance and a
book of lyrics and extremely personal reminiscences
called The Truth Is…, coming out on July 12,
the same day as Skin.

But what we
really want to know is, How is she doing? Is the woman whose
songs and activism have kept us fired up for over a decade
going to be OK? “In the last year, I’ve
learned that what doesn’t kill you doesn’t
kill you,” the jeans and T-shirt-clad rocker says
with a laugh, “and that I’m stronger
than I thought and that I have more power than I
thought.”

Etheridge cranks
up the volume—in time to hear herself scream
“Oh, God!” backward on the CD’s
emotionally raw fifth track, “It’s Only
Me”—then smiles. “And I like
myself more than I ever have.”


The Advocate:

Why did you name your new CD Skin?
Melissa Etheridge: Because there’s like
three or four references to getting out of my skin and
getting back in.

So how naked are you on the cover?
[Laughs] I took some pictures that showed my
shoulders and the new tattoo on the back of my neck
that says "skin" in white ink.

Did it hurt?
It hurt in that kind of good way, and at the end, the
guy put his hand on my shoulder and he said,
“Congratulations, now you’re one of
us.” It was a cool feeling, because I’d
been so used to “I’m gay and that’s
what I am.”

And you can’t be anything else.
Right, and he and I could not be more different.

This morning I spoke with David Cole, the
coproducer-engineer on Skin. He said to
tell you he was up till 3 a.m. remixing your single.
[Laughs] David saved my life. You gotta believe
in the universe of fate or whatever. [Last] summer,
when I felt like things were going to have to change
between Julie and I, at first I was like, “No,
no, no.” We were trying everything possible that you
do to try to salvage a relationship in the end. Then
in September we decided to split. Well, I’d had
these plans to do a one-woman show and a book about my
lyrics, and I just said, “Stop
everything,” and—like when I was a teenager in
Leavenworth, Kan.—I went into the basement and wrote
songs.

So I closed all
my doors and I wrote songs. I had no plans to make a
record, but in two weeks I had 10 songs, so I called my
manager and said, “I want to be in the studio
Monday—find me an engineer-producer who’s a
nice guy, because I’m going to be very
vulnerable.” David was the only one I met. I
looked in his eyes and I went “Yeah.” He
helped me through that whole period. He was there the
day we had to tell everyone we were breaking up
because The Star somehow found out.

How do you find out that the tabloids are going to run something?
They call you and say, “This is going to run in
two days. Do you have any comment?”

What does it feel to get a call like that?
It’s horrible. They must listen to cell
phone conversations, because they knew about us buying
two houses. So in one night we had to call everyone we
knew who didn’t know we were breaking up, which was
mostly everybody.

Did you leave messages for the people who weren’t home?
Uh-huh. Only our closest friends knew, so we had to call
my family, her family. It was really awful.

And you were in the studio during that time?
Yes. I remember that feeling of Well, today people are
opening their newspapers and reading about
me…and my failure. That’s how I felt. I
remember playing the music, and it was so healing, this safe
place I could go to when all this crap was going down.
I don’t care if anyone buys this record.
It’s served its purpose.

Do you ever have a lyric come into your head and think,
This is exactly what I’m feeling, but
it’s not fair to the other people involved
to put it out there?
Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I have complete artistic
license. I’ve always believed that.

Has that ever caused problems?
Oh, yeah. Julie’s been like, “Don’t
tell people that!” But it’s my job.
It’s my art. I’m sorry, it’s part of
the deal.

If Eminem can do it…
So can I! At least I’m not locking you in a
trunk.

Has Julie heard the new album yet?
Yeah. She hasn’t said what she thinks about
it.

When you made the announcement you were breaking up, did
you feel like you were letting people down who had
looked to you as role models? Like, “First,
Ellen and Anne, and now us?”

Yeah. I remember when we found out about Ellen
and Anne, we were arguing at the time. We were yelling
at each other.

That’s a perfect scene for the TV movie.
[Laughs] It was crazy. Ellen called, and we
stopped in the middle of our argument and talked to
her about how Anne was roaming around. This was before
we heard it on the news. It was just a wickedly
strange moment.

I don’t
live my life to be a role model. I realize that being open
about my relationship has put me in that position, but
I’m not going to not break up because
I’m a role model. I did see the waves that it sent
through the [gay] community, and it was sad. But I believe,
as people see how we’re dealing with our
family, that anything that they had believed about us
is still there. We’re still those people. We live,
grow, change. Unfortunately.

Do you have a sense of what couldn’t be solved?
Ask me in a year and I might be able to narrow it down
to a sound bite. I’m still in the middle of it.
I’m still struggling with why one person
can’t—what are the things that won’t
allow them to push through obstacles and keep
going…I don’t know. I don’t know.

What reactions from people have surprised you?
I thought that maybe it would be that thing where you
lose friends in a divorce, but our friends have done
really well. Because it’s not a nasty, ugly
thing with Julie and I, they’ve been able to maintain
both friendships. It’s new for me because Julie
always kept the social thing together, so it’s
been a real lesson for me. Now I actually have to pick
up the phone and go, “Um, you want to do
somethin’?”

Now, the Rolling Stone cover that called you
“The New American Family” came out
in January of last year. Looking back, do you feel
strange about the timing of that?

Yeah. When I went out to promote my last CD,
Breakdown, all that anybody wanted to talk
about was, “Who’s the father?” I
started feeling very uncomfortable because it was this
big, huge secret that had all this power.

It was like being in the closet again.
Right, and so much energy went into saying, “No,
no, no, no.” So Julie and I were doing OK at
the time, and we both agreed that if it ever did come
out, that it would cause something that we didn’t
want our children to be subject to that any older in
their life. So we were like, “Let’s just
put this out there while they’re young,” which
is exactly what we did. Then as the months went by, I
was like, “Oh, fuck, this is coming apart, and
that definitely sucks.” But it was done, and the
story of who the father is was a lot bigger than I
thought it would be. It was crazy. I think that I
really realized the scope of the whole thing when
Billy Crystal made a reference to it at the Oscars. When
they showed Annette Bening, he said, “I hope it
doesn’t look like David Crosby.” It was
strange because it came from such a private,
friend-to-friend thing.

Have you ever thought of recording with David?
We talk about it, but this wasn’t the appropriate
album to work with him on.

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