Fans of Melissa Etheridge's earliest hits — "Bring Me Some Water", "Like The Way I Do" — are in for a treat with her latest album, One Way Out, a new collection of previously unreleased tracks written by the singer in the late '80s and early '90s. Back then, some of the feminist and more queer themes in the songs were "a little overly powerful," she says, laughing. "Now I look at these songs and go, 'Oh, I mean, they're innocent now.'"
While Etheridge's lyrics have always included nods to her sexuality, she's purposely stayed clear of too many gendered references in her lyrics. She wanted her music to be universal, relatable to people of all genders. This is as true now as it was in the '80s when she was an unsigned artist playing her guitar and singing in an array of gay bars across Southern California.
To celebrate the release of One Way Out (out now), Etheridge spoke to the LGBTQ&A podcast about how not being publicly out affected her songwriting, never hiding her sexuality from those in the music industry, and what it was like to go back and listen to her 30-year-old demos.
"It did my heart good to go back and listen and go, 'Oh, I wasn't as bad as I thought.'"
You can read an excerpt below and listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts.
JM: When you were first starting out, during your first couple of records you were not out publicly, how did that affect your art? Were you afraid to write overtly gay lyrics?
ME: I was very aware of my lyrics, but the funny thing was even when I was playing gay bars, I didn't write overtly. I never went, "And I love her." I never wrote like that because I did want my music to be universal. If a woman is thinking about a guy, I want her to be able to sing, "Oh, somebody bring me some water." I kept it very gender nonspecific for that reason.
JM: With a song like "Meet Me In The Back", the lyrics aren't specifically gay, but it still has a gay sensibility that LGBTQ+ audiences can hear.
ME: Yes. There was definitely a power to it and I believe that's why so many gays and lesbians heard it and went, "Wait a minute. That's a lesbian singing that because nobody sings like that about a guy," That sort of thing. To me, it was obvious, but again, I kept the specific pronouns out.
JM: Is there an example of a lyric that you changed in a song to make it less specific?
ME: No, I didn't change any, but when I went to write about things, I remember thinking, "OK, well, I can always write about the other woman," the "Go on and close your eyes, imagine me there. She's got similar features," because I'm a woman so I can sing about that. I know I would write things and the way that I would write, I would either write about, "Oh, you're cheating on me with another woman," or "You're with somebody else," or it's me and you. I'm singing directly to you.
I never did a "here" or a "him" about the relationship I was singing about. So I specifically would choose that way to write about it, so I didn't have to write about the gender of the person that's breaking my heart.
JM: That's a lot of mental gymnastics. Did it feel freeing to be able to let go of that?
ME: Well, it became a craft, actually. It became something that I was crafting, and that I still kind of do to this day. I mean, I'll be much more relaxed when I'm singing about my wife and matters now, I will be more open about it, but still, the majority of my songs are genderless.
I want my songs to be relatable. I want men, women, straight, gay, I want it to be the common human experience.
JM: When you came out publicly in 1993, with so few out public figures, did you feel lonely in that?
ME: It was scary in that there weren't a whole lot of people. k.d. lang came out a few weeks before I did, and we were all very good friends back then, Ellen [DeGeneres], Rosie [O'Donnell], k.d., we were in this sort of this gay underground Hollywood, and we were all very much out in Hollywood. k.d. jumped out and did an interview with The Advocate and didn't really ever say she was gay, but it's like, "Hey, you're on the cover of The Advocate, it probably means you're gay." And she was very obvious in her look and demeanor, so it seemed right. It just...it seemed natural.
JM: And you found each other because, socially, you weren’t in the closet.
ME: Yeah. I met k.d. at the first Grammy Awards. I walked up to her, because yeah, I looked at her and went, "Duh, I know this woman," and I met her, and we both brought our girlfriends to the Grammys, so we're like, "Hey, this is my girlfriend," and so, we were out.
Ellen DeGeneres was a huge fan of mine, and knew some friends that knew me and I just met her. And then Rosie was a VJ on VH1 and also a stand-up comic, and back then, we had a lot more time to hang out, and now we have terribly busy lives and we rarely see each other, but back then, we were all living in Hollywood trying to make it, so you do find each other.
JM: Among this community of women, did any of you ever date?
ME: No, it's so funny. None of us, Rosie, Ellen, k.d., me...I'm trying to think. No, none of us ever dated each other. k.d. slept with my girlfriend, which... anyway. But no, I think we were all very sort of powerful... Do I say tops? I don't know. And so, we weren't really attracted to each other. We were friends.
JM: When you were starting out, you seemed to be presenting very femme. Was that the industry pushing you in that direction or was that how you felt comfortable presenting?
ME: The industry really didn't tell me much. I was very blessed to have the record company I had, Island Records. It was Chris Blackwell who owned Island Records and he discovered me in a women's bar. The whole industry knew I was gay because they had all come to the women's bars to see me and didn't sign me, and he did. He liked what he saw. He liked the strong, soft butch kind of woman that I was.
Me, I got out there and went, "Oh gosh, what's the world going to say?" I think the only time that they ever went, "Oh, we want you to do a little bit more makeup on you," was the third album I did. I did two photoshoots for Never Enough. One was kind of sporty, soft butch and then they brought in another makeup person and that's when they cut my bangs. And you'll see on the back of the album, there's this really gorgeous picture of me. That was about as glam...I let them do that here or there and then by the time Yes I Am came out, which was the next record, that photoshoot I went, "No, no, no, I'm being myself," and from then on, everything you've seen has always been how I feel and who I am.
JM: Even though your sexuality was known within the industry, did you have worries that it would affect your career?
ME: Well, sure, but I had had such a positive experience from when I came out with my family. My father was like, "OK, I don't really understand it, but as long as you're happy, fine." My mother, she had problems anyway with herself, but then by the time I was 25, she was like, "OK," and she had met my girlfriend. So I was out to my family. It wasn't a problem. I was definitely out, I was in the community.
And what happened was there was an interview I did with Music Exchange. It was a music store, and they had their in-house magazine. It was my first cover of a magazine and I did this long interview with this guy, and all neutral pronouns, and when it came out, he had changed all the pronouns to me saying, "My boyfriend." And it horrified me because I thought, "Oh my God, people are going to read this and think that I'm lying," that I'm all of a sudden saying, "Oh my boyfriend." And so, that horrified me. I thought, "Ah, this is devastating. I've got to come out." I made the choice. I was going to come out on Arsenio Hall's show because he was the one guy who would sit down and actually interview me. So I was like, "OK, I'm going to come out on his show," but then I played the Triangle Ball at Clinton's inauguration and I just said, "Hey, I'm so proud to be a lesbian," and then that was it.
JM: With Arsenio Hall, are you saying that none of the other talk shows were interested in having you come on to talk about it?
ME: Yeah. I think David Letterman…I would play a song, but that was it. I would never sit down and talk. Arsenio Hall was the only one I had sat down and talked with.
JM: With the misogyny and sexism in the industry, things we’re talking more openly about with the Me Too movement, did your queerness protect you from those experiences?
ME: Yes, it did. Actually, I totally, totally think that, because anytime... I mean, I remember... Oh man, OK. I'd seen people start to, back in the late '80s even before I came out, maybe the record executive or whatever that was with me...everyone that worked with me knew I was gay, but maybe the person I was talking to didn't know and you would get this kind of extra attention and then all of a sudden, someone would lean over and say something to them and they'd go, "Oh, OK," and back off. So I had a couple of main people start to approach me and then obviously they got the word and I never heard from them again, so.
It definitely protected me. It was like, "Oh no, there's nothing here for you to sniff around."
JM: All of the songs on the new album were ones you recorded previously, but never released. Were they songs you didn’t like originally? Did they not fit on the albums? How were you thinking about them?
ME: Well, when I went back, a few years ago, I investigated all these old demos I had and I started listening and I was like, "Wait a minute. These are really good songs," and then I said, "I need to go record these."
I started realizing that some of them, I didn't put on albums because one, some of them, I wasn't out yet and they were a little...there's a song on the album called "Wild Wild Wild" and it's very...I am singing to a feminine...it's just obvious. The other person's very feminine. I remember I loved the song and I was like, "I can't," and I stopped myself from doing it.
Then songs like "As Cool as You Try" and "Save Myself" are really, I mean, they're very feminist based, very powerful based that that fit perfectly now. We're there now, but 25 years ago, 30 years ago, they were a little overly powerful. If you were around or an adult back in the late '80s, early '90s, you kind of remember there was a big feminist backlash, so it was different. And so, now I look at these songs and go, "Oh, I mean, they're innocent now."
JM: That surprises me because you had songs like “The Boy is Strange” where you’re not trying to hide the queer story in it.
ME: And I did that a lot on purpose. I remember writing that, because I wrote it about my girlfriend's ex-husband who was a friend of mine and how now he couldn't be because I had an affair with his wife...whatever, but not proud of it, but OK. And it's a song about he doesn't know how to be friends with me now and the boy feels strange, but we really got along and we were really good friends. And so, and I knew when I put that out, people would go, "What? Huh?" But I did it on purpose like that. That was absolutely what I meant to do.
JM: You're now 60. What was it like to hear the younger Melissa in action?
ME: A couple of things happened. I appreciate that I think I've gotten better as a singer. I've gotten healthier. I'm a healthier body and I sing a little more full than I did back then. All performers are incredibly insecure, you would just be surprised. And so, it did my heart good to go back and listen and go, "Oh, I wasn't as bad as I thought."
One Way Out is available now.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay. New episodes come out every Tuesday.