How Melissa Etheridge Learned to Let Go of Fear

By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Lauren Dukoff

(In solidarity with our shared struggles right now, we applaud the decision of Q Syndicate, who provided this article with LGBTQ+ icon Melissa Etheridge, to grant access to their extensive article catalog, that was exclusive to Peach pre-Corona, to all LGBTQ+ publications in the Southeast. That means that you may have read this interview in other Atlanta outlets. This is the full, unabridged interview. Thank you for understanding!)

Throughout her dynamic three-decade career, Melissa Etheridge has beat cancer and weathered the devastating emotional toll of the AIDS crisis. Having overcome her own battles, the music legend consequently became a beacon of strength, resilience and survival and has turned her tribulations into musical catharsis.

Given her collective courage in facing life’s most unexpected challenges, I decided to turn to her recently. I wrote to the music legend and LGBTQ activist on Twitter to ask if she’d be willing to speak to me about how she’s handling the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic and its resulting fallout the day after a national shutdown that closed schools, workplaces, restaurants and forced promoters and artists to cancel tours. Etheridge was about to play a long stretch of shows in the United States and Europe, but that was canceled too.

During our interview, Etheridge brought her cool head and optimistic outlook as we discussed the unsettling state of our dramatically changed world.

How are you? And I mean that.

You know, we are all well. We’re in the new day, the new world, like all of us, and trying to figure this all out, but we’re all good.

Considering everything, I’m glad to hear that. This is our new not-normal normal, isn’t it? And it’s like, how do we shift to this new life that we will be living for probably quite some time.

Yeah. Well, one, the music industry’s been hit so hard. I try not to worry, but it’s like … I worry. My whole crew and band – I’m not making any money, and it’s like, Whoa. All of a sudden it really hits you, and it’s like, Come on, is this two weeks? One month? Two months? How long am I not gonna make any money? I can certainly get by for a while, but my crew and stuff – I try not to worry. But it’s going to be a big, fat hardship.

You were about to go out on tour when some shows began being canceled because of COVID.

Yeah, yeah. Well, it was gonna go till May and then I was gonna have a little bit off in May and June, and then I was gonna go over to Europe at the end of June and come back to America.

And you thought, for a time, that you’d brave it.

(Laughs.) Yeah. I was like, “No, no – I’m not scared of nothing!” But then, all of a sudden, it was like, “Oh, no, never mind. I get what we’re doing now.” It became that the thing that we can do to keep this from spreading is to keep away from each other.

I took a run today and I don’t usually run, but I had your song “I Run for Life” on and it was getting me through so I just looped it. I just played it four times in a row and ran through my neighborhood. It was a great feeling. And I’m realizing that we have to look to small joys right now. For me, that was a small joy. Where are you finding your small joys right now?

I’ll tell you what I’m doing and I just finished: I’ve been going live on Facebook every day at 3 o’clock PST. It just helps me so much. I do two or three songs and just say hey to people. We kind of meet together at the same time and thousands of people all over the world are joining me and it really means a lot.

You said it helps you – how so?

Oh gosh, yes. ’Cause that’s what I do. I sing for people. And when a body sings, it heals. It brings just as much joy to me as it does to other people.

So in addition the financial impact of canceling your tour, it sounds like there’s also a personal loss for you.

Oh yeah. I had taken a big break the last time. I was on the road in November and I was like, “I’m gonna take the holidays off and really not get that going until March.” That’s a big, long break for me, and I like to get up in front of people and I like the adoration of thousands of people, you know (laughs). It makes me feel good! I’m a road person. I love gettin’ on the road with my crew and my band and playing music. I just love it. I do that. That’s what I do. I love it.

What’s so hard to come to terms with is that in times of crises, live music has helped heal. But we don’t have that now, and might not for a while.

Oh, it’s just awful.

But you’re doing what you can to connect with fans on social media. How about connections in your personal life? Is your family with you?

Yes. My two older kids – one is in New York City and she got out and went to a friend’s in Washington D.C. and she’s staying there. I have another in Denver and he’s OK. I wish they were all here. My two little ones are here with my wife, so we’re camping out here. And we take walks and do stuff – and we’re six feet from our neighbors, but we’re all much more friendly because it’s that connection that we miss.

I remember you told me about three years ago when Trump got elected, “I will not fear.” With this, are you scared? Do you fear? And if not, how did you get to that place of fearlessness?

It started 15 years ago with cancer, how I understood fear and how I understood what our everyday is made of, what our world and reality is made of and all its choices and that choice always comes down to two basic emotions: love or fear. All the other emotions can be categorized in there.

I have many choices of how to respond or react to this virus, to everything that’s going on with it. I could be very fearful. I could be fearful for my health, fearful for our system. I could choose fear. Or I could look at it and go, “OK.” And sometimes it’s hard to do this, to say, “I’m going to look at this and I’m going to see what is the loving outcome that can happen here.” And I choose to do that every day.

Like I’ve said, I look at my neighbors and all of a sudden, I’m looking them in the eyes, all of a sudden people are wanting that social connection. Take that away from us and all of a sudden we’re like, “Wait a minute. I want that.” I think this is going to change our whole system. It’s going to change our education system, it’s going to change our health system, it’s going to change because there’s going to be such a humongous economic crash that we’re going to have to change the way our system is set up.

We will be forced to make major shifts in these various paradigms once we get through this.

Yeah. Big corporations are not gonna have anybody to buy their products soon if they don’t look and say, “Something’s gotta change.” And we’re going to change leadership. I truly believe that. I truly believe there will be a huge leadership change and it’s gonna be people with new ideas and new ways of doing this. So this sort of quantum leap that we all felt could come since 2012, there’s big change coming, and we all wanted it. It’s sort of like this big bow that’s been pulled back really far and finally there’s gonna be so much desire for that change now because of understanding how interconnected we are. We’re gonna see that change, and 10 years from now we’re gonna look back and go, “Wow, it was really, really hard but I’m glad it happened because these changes were made.” So that’s how I don’t fear. I constantly think, What’s the good? Look for the helpers. Find the Italians singing on the balcony. There’s beautiful things that show what our humanity is. That’s what we can do now. That’s how you don’t fear.

And I think you’re right: This will bring us into unity.

And it starts with leadership change and that’s going to come in a few months. I think it’s going to be huge. People are going to go, “That sucked, and we’re not going to go through that again.” (Laughs.)

What did you learn about pandemic panic from living through the worst of the AIDS pandemic?

That there are really good, smart people in the world who were made for this, who were made to make change and to put pressure on government and institutions to change. Really smart people that were born for this. And they’re rising to the occasion right now.

How did the first live stream go?

Aww. It was so, so sweet. It felt so good, and it was so great to see people from all over the world. And that’s the thing: The whole world is going through this. The whole world! And music really goes beyond language and goes straight to the heart and I love that. I feel being a musician is being a healer.

A song that helped get you through your battle with cancer is helping me get through this, and it’s Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy,” from her album Impossible Dream, which I’ve had in heavy rotation while physically distancing. Where does a song like that take you?

Sometimes I don’t know what it is about a song that can do that, but a song can just hit a part of your emotional center and it can be in the voice, it can be in the music, it can be when she just sings, “If you get lost, I’ll come out and find you; if you forget my love, I’ll try to remind you, stay by you when it don’t come easy.” Just knowing that one human being sang that to another human being, and then just knowing that it exists in our emotional world can fill that part of you up. So, I’m so grateful for all the other musicians who have inspired me and do that because that’s our job, and it’s our time to do our job now.

You’re feeling the call?

It’s funny: I’m feeling the call to perform. I’m a little overwhelmed by the writing right now because I’m right in the middle of it. You sit down and you go, “It’s too big to look at, it’s right in front of your face.” There needs to be a little distance. Maybe in a few days, maybe when I see what this really is.

Then you might start jotting down some song lyrics?

Oh yeah. I was already in my writing mode. I was already starting to write for my next album. This is going to be a very interesting album. (Laughs.)

What are you listening to right now in your place with your family to help get you through this?

Reggae always makes me happy. Bob Marley. Some old-school stuff. But my wife and I watched West Side Story and then we watched Barbra Streisand in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Barbra Streisand just makes you feel good. So we’re kind of finding comfort in that.

And I saw you were playing Monopoly.

Oh, yes. The kids love that. They love it a little too much (laughs). 

It’s a long game, but you have a lot of time now.

We have a lot of time, and they are fierce – they’re not gonna quit. They play it till the end.

And toilet paper – you good?

It’s funny: Just a few months ago we were saying, “Why don’t we make hemp toilet paper? Wouldn’t that be great?” And I wrote to my friend and went, “Why didn’t we listen to ourselves? Why didn’t we start making hemp toilet paper?”

What were your quarantine essentials? Did you make a run over the weekend?

I actually just went this morning because we have a really great pantry. Because I have two kids, I kind of keep things stocked, so we were fine. But the thing that we always like to do is go to the market a lot because we like really fresh produce and fresh food and that’s the hard part. But I can’t find brown rice anywhere! So I’m hoping we can replenish and everybody will be OK. And I have to make sure we have salad every day because this is not the time to not be healthy, so fresh produce is the thing.

What are you most grateful for right now?

My wife. Social media. I’m glad I got Netflix. And I’m really grateful for the neighborhood I live in. If I gotta be here every day, I’m grateful for my yard and my house.

Is there a song you sing while you’re washing your hands?

Some people are doing “Bring Me Some Water.” If you sing the first verse and the first line of the chorus. “Bring me some water, I gotta wash my hands.” Bring me the water! (Laughs.)

What words of wisdom would you like me to send out to the LGBTQ community?

I would say a couple of things. Just because we’re isolating, don’t emotionally isolate. It’s easy for some of us in the LGBTQ community to do that. Find a way to connect with people. Find the people you can check in with every day and do that. Telephones, social media, whatever the way. And take care of yourself first. Stressful times really lower our immune system, so it’s super important to drink a lot of water and to stay hydrated and exercise. Taking a run, taking a walk. Really, really important. And also know that change happens – change always happens. And we’re in the midst of it. These are historical times. Come from love. And be smart and stay healthy but understand that this too shall pass. It always does, and it will. And there’s great change coming because of it. Good change. Beautiful change. For all of us.

As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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