In the weeks following my phone interview with Melissa Etheridge, her son, Beckett, fell victim to a fatal opioid addiction at the young age of twenty-one. As part of her healing process, Melissa played an online concert “Heal M.E.” Saturday, June 20th, which raised money for—and awareness of—opioid addiction. The performance is available to stream on Melissa’s website.
The thoughts Melissa shared during our conversation in regards to spirituality, life, death, and the oneness of humanity, take on a new meaning with the passing of her son, and make her messages of hope, love, and unity all the more powerful.
Growing up in Kansas, what sparked your initial interest in music?
Melissa Etheridge: I grew up a child in the sixties and a teenager in the seventies, which were years filled with amazing music. Rock and roll was coming alive. I had an older sister who was into The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, while my parents were very much into the folk rock scene and soul r&b. I had this wonderful mix of music that was played in my house, even down to the AM radio station we used to listen to, which played everything. I’d hear Marvin Gaye, Tammy Wynette, and The Rolling Stones. I didn’t see different genres, I just created a desire to be one of [the performers].
When I was eight years-old, my father brought home a guitar for my sister, but I wanted to play it, and I bugged [my parents] until they let me take lessons. Then I just started playing.
How much do you think your desire was influenced by growing up in a household that exposed you to all those different types of music?
Melissa Etheridge: It was all about that because we didn’t have much else. [Music] just delighted me. As I kept playing, I kept getting better. It was what I wanted to do twenty-four-hours-a-day. I would constantly play my guitar and I would constantly sing for my friends.
When I was in about seventh grade, I got to be in a talent show that then led to a little variety show that we’d take around to the old folks’ homes and prisons and things. Then a country band asked me to be in their band. I was twelve or thirteen and in my first band! These were professional dudes who had regular jobs, wives and kids, but on the weekends, we’d all play in bars. I learned and played everything. All through junior high and high school, I was playing [music] professionally and would be making fifty bucks a weekend. For a fifteen-year-old, that’s a lot.
It’s fascinating you were able to make money doing what you loved at such a young age simply by following your desire.
Melissa Etheridge: And the path just kept opening up in front of me. When I graduated high school, my mother and father said I should go to college for music because I should “fall back on teaching music.” So in 1979, they sent me to Berkeley College of Music in Boston. I went for a couple of months but got a job playing at a restaurant five nights a week and was like, “I don’t want to go to school anymore, I want to do this for real.” So I started writing and playing, and I guess I’ve been able to support myself with music ever since.
What prompted your move to Los Angeles?
Melissa Etheridge: In 1981, I came back to Kansas City from Boston. I stayed there for one more year playing in hotel lounges, making enough money to save a little because I always knew Los Angeles—in the early eighties—was where the music business was. You had to either go to New York or LA.
I had an aunt who lived in LA and I knew I could stay on her couch. So summer of ‘82, I drove out to Los Angeles. Of course I was thinking I could just bring myself, my acoustic guitar, play and be discovered. I went to The Troubadour and every other place I thought I could play and they were filled with spandex, hair and heavy metal bands. I was like, “What’s this?” I finally got work in women’s bars, because socially, I had been going to the lesbian bars, and I made my own way. I set my equipment up in the corner—I had a little PA system—and played music during the cocktail hour. For five years, I played at three or four women’s bars like that outside of Los Angeles.
Which subsequently led to you to write songs for movies.
Melissa Etheridge: The whole thing was an amazing experience. Of course at the time, it was excruciatingly hard because I was like, “Will I ever be signed?” I thought I was so old at, you know, twenty-three. Yet, with each experience, I was writing, I was learning more about performing, and word of mouth [about me] was getting out. Record companies would come see me, and I don’t know whether they didn’t sign me because I didn’t sound like anything else out there in the eighties or because, you know, I was a lesbian. I have no idea. That was until Chris Blackwell of Island Records, the man who discovered Bob Marley and U2, just an amazing business man, saw me and was like, “Why haven’t you been signed?” After that, the professional part of my career took off.
The year you released “Yes I Am” is synchronously the same year you came out publicly. To have that record become a multi-platinum success must have been validating on a number of levels.
Melissa Etheridge: I had three albums before “Yes I Am,” which is an entire career for some people. It was a time personally that I really felt I just had to be me, make the music that I loved and be open about who I was. I made those choices and hoped I would still have a career after. The beautiful thing was, it showed me when I was honest, when I was myself, when I really came from that place, major success happened. I went from selling one million records to selling six million. It was a really interesting and special time in my life.
Did that experience give you the confidence to live your life honestly in all areas from then on?
Melissa Etheridge: Absolutely. And I tried to be an example of that to people. I was like, “Look, I made this choice, I stepped up and stepped out, and it was better than I ever dreamed of.” And I’ve lived that way ever since. My little motto is: “Speak True.”
It sounds like you’re quite spiritually grounded.
Melissa Etheridge: I would say it was always there, but [spirituality] didn’t come to the forefront of my life until right before I went through breast cancer. I had an experience with an unintentional heroic dose of cannabis, which really opened up that part of me. Since then, I’ve watched documentaries, read books and studied things on the nervous system, the brain, the pituitary gland, the pineal gland and all the things that we call “spiritual” or “enlightenment,” and how connected they all are with plant medicine. I truly believe it’s the link—what we’re looking for—in medicine today.
How does cannabis continue to play a role in your life today?
Melissa Etheridge: I am a daily cannabis smoker. At the very least, I will smoke at the end of the day to unwind and go to sleep. Beyond that, it depends on what I’m doing. If I’m writing, I will use it for inspiration. I’ll use a sativa to get my brain all sparkly.
Does it aid your creative process?
Melissa Etheridge: Well, I understand that when I smoke, it really levels out the balance between my left and right brain. My left brain being the problem solving consciousness. My right brain is of course intuitive, inspired, connected to the now. When I smoke, it quiets my left brain and opens up my right brain to more inspiration, while silencing the critic in my head. It allows me to play and really enter that creative space that all human beings possess..
Is there a difference between your creative process now versus the eighties and nineties?
Melissa Etheridge: It’s very different. The creative process in the eighties and nineties was just me. Before I was professional and on the road, I would write at home all the time. I’d work at the bars at night, and then all day long I’d be in my bedroom writing, unless I was out chasing girls. I settled down in a relationship in the nineties, but I’d be on tour ten months out of twelve. So I would write in hotel rooms, on buses and would just create and create and write. Then I had children, which changed everything.
I now have to schedule the times to write, and that’s where cannabis really helps. I can’t just freeflow all day long. Ten o’clock, I’ve taken the kids to school, I’ve fed everybody, done this, done that. From 10am to 3pm in my office, I can smoke, I can write. So the creative process has definitely changed, and yet, it’s just as satisfying.
Do you ever feel if you don’t maximize the time in your office that you’ve lost the window?
Melissa Etheridge: That’s the part of silencing that inner critic, the part [of you] that says, “You’re not going to think of anything right now,” “You don’t have time.” It’s the part that really just has to relax and go, “It’s okay, I can sit here for four hours and end up doodling the American flag on a piece of paper, but I gave myself time to enter the creative space.”
I don’t always create, I don’t always get anything done. One thing I always promised myself was I would never give myself a hard time. If an hour goes by and I’m not having any fun, I just quit. I’m not going to write anything good if I’m not having fun. The opposite is true, too. If I’m on a roll creating, I’m like, “Let’s order a pizza because I’m writing and not stopping.” You just go with the flow.
How did starting a family impact your music?
Melissa Etheridge: Well, it changed me. So what was coming out of me changed. All of a sudden, I wasn’t writing all the “I’m the only one, you broke my heart” [stuff] since that wasn’t part of my life anymore. I mean, I went through two failed marriages before I landed on what I really needed and wanted in life, but [starting a family] changed me. I was older and I saw things differently, which is when the cancer came, as well as the heroic dose of cannabis. From my awakening on, there was a lot more – as we’re calling it on this call – “spirit” in my work than there had ever been before.
In what capacity was spirit in your life prior to the heroic dose?
Melissa Etheridge: Before that, [spirit] was this place I would go to write music. It was a place where I understood what music was and what I would do when I got on stage. That was the part of me that maybe I couldn’t show to people during my regular life. But when I got on stage, I was able to channel this energy.
I was also part of the big women’s movement in the eighties in Southern California. I was opened up to a lot of ancient spiritual knowledge. Even though I didn’t quite understand it, I was able to take it all in. You can be aware of it all, but until you really awaken to it, it’s just there.
Your awakening deepened your connection to spirit.
Melissa Etheridge: It really brought it into focus. And I think we all have that opportunity. We all have the awareness of [spirit]. We all have our own things that we call God. My awakening was the understanding that the capacity to understand spirit exists in all of us. We all have the ability to connect to it.
Spirit became the music. If you look at my body of work from the first album up to the awakening, it’s one type of voice. From the awakening on, you’ll see there’s an infusion of spirit within the work. There’s a hopefulness and an understanding of life that I didn’t have before.
Was there ever a hesitation to take your heroic dose of cannabis?
Melissa Etheridge: No, because I was just starting to actually bring cannabis more into my life, right before cancer. It was still a social, weekend thing for when the kids would go to their other house and I would kind of let go.
When I took the heroic dose, my partner at the time had never consumed an edible, so I suggested we make some chocolate chip cookies. She was the type where if a half-a-cup was good, two cups was better. She made these really delicious cookies that were so potent, she fell asleep. Meanwhile, I went on this heroic cannabis journey that I’d never experienced before, nor did I intend to have. I thought we’d just giggle and have some fun, but it really popped me out of there.
Almost a year after I came off that heroic dose, I started walking through an epiphany that [I was on] a spiritual path. A few months later, I got the cancer diagnosis, but I wasn’t afraid of dying. I said, “I’m going to take [cannabis] as medicine and I’m going to consume it everyday all day long while I’m on chemotherapy.” I saw that it helped me with eating, it helped me with sleeping, it helped me with depression, it helped me with pain, and I kept getting this major insight that this medicine needs to be—at the very least—a choice.
How did your heroic dose transform you?
Melissa Etheridge: It was an understanding. You’ll hear it in all the great religions and all the great spiritual practices. It sounds easy and simple, and it is, but it’s very profound when you clearly understand the oneness of humanity. We’re spiritual beings having a human experience. We are connected to a larger consciousness. Each of us has a spirit and we each have free will. We each have free choice in this dualistic reality, this reality of light and dark, good and bad, right and wrong, up and down. In this reality, we’re always going to have the darkness and the light. The lightness defines the darkness. When you understand that in a spiritual and intellectual way, it changes every choice you make.
After my head popped, I started reading everything and got into quantum physics. All the answers are there. As far as [scientists] can go down to the waves and particles that we are, it’s all vibration. We are vibrational beings, it’s a vibrational universe. That vibration is generated by our own observation, and you understand that there are only two vibrations in the world: love and fear. The next step is spiritual. It’s intelligent, creative design. It’s all too perfect. We, as individual observers of this reality, create our reality. We draw to us vibrationally that which we are. The key to this whole game of reality is to vibrate that which you want. If you want peace in the world, you vibrate peace. If you want love to come to you, then you become love. Then that becomes a practice, and all of a sudden you see that the Vedas, the Hindu, Buddha, Christ, that’s exactly what they were teaching. “Ask and you shall receive.” What you’re asking for, you’re giving in life.
[The insight] is divine and beautiful and it brings you to your knees, and yet it’s also very practical and works very simply. It’s a practice. You just practice it everyday, you don’t do it perfectly, you just practice it and see what the universe unfolds in front of you.
Do you feel now more than ever a greater purpose to your music and what you’re creating?
Melissa Etheridge: The purpose was always pretty great. I wanted to emotionally lift people up and inspire and share experience with them. With what we’re going through right now [regarding coronavirus], the music becomes much more about healing than entertainment.
But by virtue of the music being both healing and entertaining, you’re hitting the bullseye.
Melissa Etheridge: That’s what I want. The beautiful space right there where it all comes together.
In some ways, intentionally or unintentionally, your desire to play music as a kid was you vibrating to create that reality.
Melissa Etheridge: That’s why it was so easy for me to understand, because I had manifested it. I grew up as a lower-middle class kid in a podunk town in Kansas. I dreamed, desired to feel what it was like to perform for people. Once [a spiritual understanding of life] became clear to me, I knew that if I had manifested [my life thus far], certainly I could manifest anything.
For the last ten years, the path has been to manifest bringing cannabis to our nation and the world, with an understanding of how it helps us medicinally and with our spiritual connectivity. I feel like my company, Etheridge Farms, has a special place in cannabis, medicine and understanding. We’re going to be distributing products, mostly tinctures, prerolls and topicals for medically focused products. So I’m very much involved in that, and also justice reform, [helping] people get out of prisons who were put in there for having a joint on them or something along those lines. Really helping to correct that gigantic wrong, and of course, help with legalization all over the country and the world.
Follow @melissa_etheridge and check out https://www.melissaetheridge.com/ for tickets and tour dates