From the January, 2011 issue of High Times comes Dan Skye’s interview with Melissa Etheridge, who celebrates her 60th birthday on May 29.
Melissa Etheridge (2011)
Melissa Etheridge is at the tail end of her “Fearless Love” tour. Her suite at the Palms in Las Vegas overlooks the sprawling desert suburbs. Beyond that: a barren, mountainous emptiness. She scans the stark contrast and laughs: “Ya know, I’m all about finding balance, but it looks like we missed the boat here.”
Etheridge is funny and irreverent as she pokes fun at her image as an activist. As one of the world’s top women rockers—whose music and popularity crosses over several audiences—she acknowledges the power of her celebrity but praises the efforts of “real workers” first. She helps out when she can and tries to “walk the walk,” speaking out boldly for what she believes in.
Basically, Melissa Etheridge believes that we can do better. “We have grown up,” she says, “we are gaining wisdom. Let’s use it!”
A music critic once wrote that Frank Sinatra sang with extraordinary depth of feeling and emotion considering he was a thug at heart. How essential is it for singers to sing from the heart?
Melissa Etheridge: Well, I think that’s what resonates with people. As for Frank Sinatra, I think, yeah, maybe he was a thug at heart, but you still go through pain. He knew how to touch on that.
I know what it’s like to be a performer and have your own inner-heart issues. To put it out into music is really powerful. It can also kill you. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I realized what I could do: I needed to heal my heart more. There is a reason I got cancer. I am sort of a believer in the spiritual aspect of disease.
So you believe cancer enhanced your spirituality?
Melissa Etheridge: Definitely. There comes a point where you sort of realize there is more going on here. For a long time, I had been thinking spiritually, and when I got cancer, it slowed me down. It completely stopped my other life—my success. I had to stop and be completely still.
I was on chemotherapy, and it was horrible. But the pain was alleviated by cannabis. It was awesome… truly. I was able to sit there and really see that health is just balance. Cannabis helps balance. If we had reputable tests done on stress and cannabis and alleviation of pain, doctors would prescribe it all the time—and they should.
Patients often don’t reach that spiritual plane. It remains a question of “Why me?”
Melissa Etheridge: Sometimes that’s what it’s about, too. I think cancer is not a “something” out there that finds you; it’s the body’s way of telling you something is wrong—you’re too acidic, your yin is too much compared to your yang. It’s the whole thing. It goes back to that which is simple—and we complicate it.
Do you have some conception of what caused your cancer?
Melissa Etheridge: It depends how you’re looking at it. Is it something that went wrong with my physical body? Well, you can listen to the doctors. Every doctor I talked to said that cancer starts when cells go bad. I started thinking, “Why do cells go bad?” None of them were telling me why—I had to do my own research into that.
There were extensive studies done by a doctor in the ‘20s and ’30s, who showed that cells go bad when they are too acidic, when our pH balance is off. Our pH balance comes from vegetables, fruits, whole grains and meditation. So you really have to change your lifestyle to do that.
Can you describe the experience of chemotherapy?
Melissa Etheridge: They found a cocktail of poison that will kill every dividing cell in your body. They found these other shots that they can give you to keep the white and red blood cells up. It is drug warfare in your body.
It is crazy. They can take you just to the point of death, and then they let you come back up. Then they do it again. You do it five, 10 times. It’s pretty insane—it’s like what bloodletting used to be. I think it is super-barbaric.
I know there are some cases where there is a tumor or something and chemo has had an effect, and that’s great—but this is a habit. Instead of looking at changing lifestyle, diet and such, they use chemo so the cancer doesn’t come back. There are different kinds. I used AC-Taxol chemotherapy. AC just wrecks your gastrointestinal system; nothing tastes good. Your taste buds are shot, so you don’t want to eat. Pot gives you the appetite. It relieves the nausea so you can eat and have the strength to go through it.
It doesn’t make sense to me. That’s why I think our medical system is in crisis. We work ourselves to death here in America so that, when we are facing death, we’re able to pay for it. What are we doing?
All we need to do is rethink this. We are good thinkers.
Plant medicines have been around for thousands of years—forever. This plant, this weed that grows naturally, has been present since the beginning of recorded history. There are chemical drugs that humans have made, but they cause constipation and other side effects. And you may have to take four more additional medicines to adjust to the one. But you also have something that you can eat or inhale, and it will make you feel good.
Did your music help you?
Melissa Etheridge: When it was at its worst, just after chemo, there would be about four or five days where any light or sound would be so painful, I didn’t want to be touched. If I could lay still and find that center, I would feel no pain. So music—no. Sometimes, two days or a day before the next round of chemo, I’d start feeling better and maybe could listen to music. I would enjoy those times when I could.
How did your kids react to your illness?
Melissa Etheridge: Well, they were six and eight, and I didn’t want them to think I was dying, because I wasn’t. I just told them that the treatment was going to be really hard and I was going to have to lie down a lot. I tried not to get too dramatic.
You’re going to be 50. According to the median age for females in America, your life is two-thirds over. So what drives you?
Melissa Etheridge: That’s funny—-I don’t think my life is two-thirds gone. I actually feel it has just begun. It’s not about the age of my body; it’s about what I am creating. That’s what is so exciting now. I am creating a level—stress-free and fearless. It’s fun. I totally love myself.
Many describe you as an activist. Have you always felt a responsibility toward social causes?
Melissa Etheridge: I think that people project that on me. I just say “yes” and show up to a couple of things. People perceive—because I stand up and say things and speak openly about my breast cancer and going bald—that I am out there fighting the fight. Also, because I did a song about the need to wake up.
Okay, I do live my life environmentally. I drive a car which uses biofuel because I want to be that way and see that change in the world. And every now and again, I will show up for a biofuel event, because I do believe that we need to get off petroleum. But there are people who are doing a lot of hard work 24/7, every day. We can all be crusaders by speaking truthfully. That’s the biggest work that I do.
Last year, 141 scientists signed a letter which stated there is no reason to impose public policy because there is no convincing evidence to prove global warming. How do you respond to that?
Melissa Etheridge: I think whenever any conflict comes up, whatever it is, we all benefit if we can pull out of the conflict and look further. Anytime we divide ourselves—when environmentalists say it’s the end of the world, and these people say that we’re far from it—we can try and find a middle.
I think it~s kind of obvious that we can’t go on making plastic. There are things we need to change environmentally. As for global warming, I don’t think were going to burn to a crisp in a few years, but I am not an alarmist. We need to get off of oil—not just because it is hurting our earth, but because it is hurting our cultures.
Do you see any parallels with the issue of marijuana?
Melissa Etheridge: It’s all the same thing—but we are growing up. We grew up in a very polarized society: good and bad, black and white, straight and gay. My parents grew up in a seriously racist society with serious divisions. But I think that we are reaching the age of wisdom. We’ve seen this a few times where we say, “Let’s think clearly about this.” I think we are finally at that place with marijuana. We all know it’s not hurting anybody. It has been part of the culture for years—America has always had a pot culture.
You use marijuana medically—probably recreationally as well, which is the same thing when you get down to it…
Melissa Etheridge: There you are—excellent! Yes, that’s it! Who’s to say that at the end of the evening, after my day is done, that it isn’t excellent medicine to relax with? It’s great medicine! You get a good night’s sleep, and thank you very much.
Are there certain strains that you favor?
Melissa Etheridge: I’m very much a sativa girl; the indicas just put me to sleep. I mean, if I’m having trouble steeping, then, medicinally, I would use an indica. But a sativa allows me to function and still keeps my stress level lower, and that keeps my acid reflux lower.
Mathematicians say their thought processes are characterized by equations. Musicians say they think musically. Do you?
Melissa Etheridge: Everything has rhythm. Life has rhythm. Every thing has a vibration. I hear things; my life has a soundtrack. Our whole world is music. It’s why music has never died. We need it in our lives.
Everything has rhythm. Life has rhythm. Every thing has a vibration. I hear things; my life has a soundtrack. Our whole world is music.’
People often comment on your raw, edgy rock voice. How does a singer find their voice?
Melissa Etheridge: I started singing country music first. I enjoyed rock ‘n’ roll music, but the first band I was able to be in played country music. I have these recordings of me when I was about 14, and it wasn’t really so different. I don’t know anything you can do to get a specific voice.
Before you came out publicly as a gay woman, you said you worried about how you would be perceived.
Melissa Etheridge: Yeah, it was fear of not knowing, because there really wasn’t anyone that I could look to and see what it might be like. It was difficult—not knowing what was going to happen, but knowing that I couldn’t live without being out.
Any misgivings about that?
Melissa Etheridge: At this point, it is “no.”
You had a lot of success before you came out, but now your personal life is covered by TMZ. What’s that like?
Melissa Etheridge: It sucks. It’s horrible. You really can’t win that game—you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. No one knows the truth, no one knows what’s going on—it is so personal. There is no way I could sit down with anybody and talk about that stuff. People want to make judgments: “This person is good; this one is bad.” You have to know it’s just mythology.
Ken Mehlman recently came out of the closet. He served in the Bush administration and actually opposed gay rights. Any reaction?
Melissa Etheridge: Part of me is like, “Yay, good for you!” Then there’s “Motherfucker, go back in the closet!” Every time someone pushes the hardest and hates the most—well, it turns out you are what you fear. They hate themselves.
Where do you feel the most pressure in your life?
Melissa Etheridge: All of it I cause for myself. I believe that anything that is out there, I am creating. So I can’t blame anybody but me. And I would probably say that the place I’m learning from most right now is my own personal and emotional relationships, whether it’s those with my children or with grownups. It’s about finding my way—and how much power I give other people.
What is the biggest misconception people have about you?
Melissa Etheridge: I don’t know… I’m taller than I am? [Laughs] People are going to think what they think.
Has anything in the media gotten a rise out of you lately?
Melissa Etheridge: Media is just junk food. Any news that I need to hear usually finds its way to me. But all that noise—it’s just noise.
Right now, people are very fearful of the economy, and social issues aren’t their foremost concern. Do you remain optimistic?
Melissa Etheridge: Yes. Fear has been a societal tool: Keeping us in fear of our jobs and our money keeps us separated. But I am very optimistic that millions of people are starting to see that communities work. When we all work together, it’s better for all of us.
We are going through the chaos. Chaos is necessary for change—and we are going through huge change right now. We are going to look back, and we will see that we are all older now. We’ll remember the turn of the century and how our whole society crumbled because that paradigm, the capitalist paradigm that has taken over the world, doesn’t work.
Then we realized that it comes from ourselves. There is spirituality. There is a connectedness. There is a wisdom in the thousands of years of history and mythology. The scientific paradigm has reached the point of the spirit. So I am very optimistic. I will sit here and share a bud with you and talk about it for hours. I also incorporate it into my show—emotion and hope, intentional creation—but very subtly. Some of the audience doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. But I meet people all the time and they’re like: “Something is happening!”
We are all starting to vibrate. That’s why music is important—it’s all vibrations. I believe we are beginning to vibrate on a higher level. We are starting to comprehend.