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Exclusive Interview: Melissa Etheridge

Grammy-winning rocker brings her band to Livermore's Wente Vineyards on September 1

You won’t find a purer rock ‘n’ roll musician than Melissa Etheridge. The 24-karat rocker has been dazzling audiences in clubs, theaters, and arenas for the past four decades. On September 1, the Grammy-winner will bring her band to Livermore’s Wente Vineyards, a month ahead of the release of her new album of Stax Records covers, MEmphis Rock and Soul.

I caught up with Etheridge to talk about her new record, her remarkable single recorded within hours of the June 12 mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, and her very unique wine product. By the way, I've linked up some killer performances throughout the article, so if you see a link, by all means—click away and turn it up to 11.

Your new record, a collection of covers of classic Stax songs, comes out October 7. How did you come to this project?
In the last couple years I have really been looking at my influences—maybe it comes with age, and getting older.

My last album, I brought in a lot of the influences that I grew up with. Growing up in Kansas, there were radio stations that would play the Staples and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, and I loved it.

When I started making music, I was supposed to make white rock ‘n’ roll music. But on my last record, I brought in these soul influences, and it really worked. After that came out, the idea was was brought to me to do an album of Stax songs and the idea just thrilled me. I knew I had to do it.

So, I totally immersed myself in the songs. I worked with the artists who were there, completely surrounded myself. For the great Staples song, “Respect Yourself,” I even brought in Priscilla Renea, to update the song. Or, to take their message from 1970 and go further with it. Because that song is just as relevant now, with today’s racial tensions—it rings just as true now as it did back then.

I’ve heard you do some interesting covers in the past—your take on Tom Petty’s “Refugee” and the guitar-based version of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” on a Howard Stern Show special come to mind. What do you look for when picking a song to cover, and how do you bring your own spin to the performance?
I came from the old school—I came up through the bars, the dance halls of the 1970s and ’80s. I played hundreds of covers and through those covers, I learned how to write. What did I love about Tom Petty’s “Refugee”? It was the power of the thought behind it—“You don’t have to live like a refugee…” That really jumped out, and then the key is being able to make it my own. I had to find that truthful place inside of me, where I could sing it—that is what resonates with the listener.

You introduced this new song “Pulse” within a week of the Orlando shootings. It reminds me of the Neil Young song “Ohio” coming out right after the Kent State shootings. Can you talk about how that song came to you and what it was like to perform so soon after the horrific events in Orlando?
I woke up like everyone else on June 12, saddened and horrified and could barely comprehend what had happened. As an LGBT individual, I know gay bars and have been in them over 40 years. A gay bar is supposed to be a safe place, where you get to be yourself. So when the Orlando shooting happened, it broke my heart.

I had done a show the night before in New York City and went back to my apartment. When I woke up and heard the news, I sort of picked up my Gibson, this old 1957 Gibson that makes me feel good when I play it, and I started writing what I was feeling. 

The challenge, I realized was that I wanted to say, “I hate that person who went into that bar and hurt people.” But I knew that I needed to rise above that, because the only person that can go into a gay bar and do that is someone who is very hurt about their own sexuality.

Even before I knew [the shooter’s] story, I just knew that was the case. It has always been a problem in the gay community—we all need to heal our own attitudes about sexuality.

So, I wrote the song that song on Sunday night and I had a day off the next day. I got in touch with Jerry Wanda, who has a studio in New York City. He cleared the time and brought in the musicians and we stayed up all night and mixed it and Rolling Stone put it on the Internet on Tuesday.

It was an interesting experience. It healed me to be able to create the song, and the wave of appreciation I received was extremely moving.

You are one of the small group of singer-songwriters who received an Academy Award for Best Original Song [for "I Need to Wake Up" from An Incovenient Truth.] I noticed that you were nominated against Randy Newman; in the spirit of “there are no bests in art,” what can you say about Randy Newman as a songwriter?
I love this question, because I love Randy Newman. I would say he is one of the top five songwriters of our time. I remember thinking that he had been nominated, and lost, so many times and I did not want to be the next person to win over him. Of course, I still wanted to win. I think he won the next year, finally!

What are some of your favorite examples of songs that fit perfectly into a movie?
I grew up with the movies that had that theme song—over the opening credits or the end credits. A song can set the tone of its movie. Let me think ...“The Way We Were.” That is the perfect love song and you can’t help but hear it and think of [Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand] looking at each other. It's perfect.

I remember seeing you perform at a Bridge School concert that also featured the late Warren Zevon and the first performance by Simon and Garfunkel in many years. You did a showstopping cover of “Piece of My Heart”—it was more than 20 years ago, but stands out in my memory. What are your best memories of performing in the Bay Area over the years?

That [1993 Bridge School show] was a big one. I remember being so thrilled to be asked to do that Bridge School show, because it is one of the benefit concerts that is really all about the music.

That was one of the first places that I did where I did a Janis Joplin song, because of all the music that came out of the Bay Area. A couple years later I was involved with trying to get the Janis Joplin movie going, and I got to play with Big Brother, which was wild.

Your September 1 show is at Wente Vineyards, a historic winery here in the East Bay. I just Googled “Melissa Etheridge + wine” and a link popped up to “Know Label cannabis infused wine tincture.” What is that?
(Laughs) I am a huge cannabis activist. I believe on so many levels, medicinally and our state of mind, it is important to bring plant medicine back into our lifestyle. In my efforts to do so, I came across this thing about infusing cannabis in wine. It’s actually an old thing that they have been doing for thousands of wine. They have found cannabis in casks of wine from Biblical times.

It is an amazing wine, which we can sell to those with a cannabis card. The THC is not released, so it is not like [a marijuana] edible. This is for the wine lover who wants added body relaxation. It is an amazing product really—we have given the pharmaceutical industry a chance to run rampant, so its time to see what good old mother nature can do for us.

Are you a wine lover in general?
I enjoy the culture and history of wine, but I’m much more of an herb girl. If I do drink, it’s going to be a nice red wine. Or tequila.