Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge was moved to hear how her music had affected fans during a conversation on KCUR's Up to Date on Friday before a weekend of performances with the Kansas City Symphony.
"I've got to tell you, every time I come back here, I see more of the beauty," Etheridge, who grew up in Leavenworth, told guest host Brian Ellison. "When you’re a teenager, and you're growing up, and you're a young adult, you're like, 'I've gotta get out of this small town.' And then you go and see the world and you come back and you go, 'Wow, this is such a cute, little, sweet, lovely community. It's just beautiful, and I fall in love with it more and more every time I come back."
Etheridge's fans returned the sentiment.
"Brian, when you meet Melissa Etheridge will you please tell her that in 1988-89, her first album saved my life," one of Ellison's friends wrote in response to his pre-show Facebook call for thoughts about the singer. "It was the album I would play on constant repeat when I would drive around San Antonio, wishing I were anywhere other than in my 20-year-old pregnant body. The strength in her voice empowered my own voice at a time when I didn't feel very empowered. Please thank her for me."
"Oh, see, that’s everything right there," Etheridge said. "When I was in my early 20s, driving around, aching and wanting to be more, or wanting to understand, or wanting to grow or create or whatever that was, that desire, that ache — I would put it in my music. I did not know, did not understand, that music has the capacity to then reach into another person and give them relief from that ache, and you share this commonness. And the more personal I got with my music and my words, the more people related to it. That’s been one of the biggest pleasant surprises."
After a conversation about Etheridge's Oscar-winning song "I Need to Wake Up," from Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," and how she became an activist for larger global issues while maintaining the personal core of her music, a listener named Patricia asked: "Can resistance be art?"
"Oh yes. Art is resistance," Etheridge said. "On November 9 (2016, the day after the presidential election), I said, 'I will write.' Art always saves us.... In times of crisis, of humanity, of darkness and misunderstandings, art helps us through. Art always softens us and helps us to understand. So yes. It's a calling to all artists to do what you do."
— Courtney Lewis (@TinaLikesBooks) September 22, 2017
"I have such a deep connection, and it’s so healing to me to hear people that take my music into their personal life and get hope and relief or whatever they get from it," Etheridge said, "it means so much because that’s ultimately what you want art to do, so thank you."
Ellison then read another message he'd received from a woman named Tina.
“Listen, I am no stranger to stars. Lived in Pasadena for over a decade and worked with numerous ... everybodies. Ms. Etheridge, however, is my modern day equivalent of Janis Joplin (funnily enough, a person she wanted to portray for many years on film). Her voice is what I imagine feminism to be if it were manifest — raw, decisive, indecisive, vulnerable, rough, engaged, committed, loving, hurt, strong.”
"Oh yes," Etheridge said. "I love that. Interesting — feminism and all the shades it has taken over the decades and what it looks like today. I love that description."
Considering Tina's characterization, Ellison wondered, where did Etheridge see herself in history?
"I don't know about you, but I have been living my life. You get in it every day, and one day you wake up in your 50s and you’re like, 'Wow, how did that happen?' And you look back and you realize: I have a lot of stories. I have a lot of experiences. I've seen a lot of things, been around and around and around again. You see patterns and you don’t sweat the small stuff so much anymore. I guess this is what they call wisdom, understanding, there's a certain calmness that comes to you at this time of life, having lived it so much," she said.
"I look at our world, our nation, our community here," she continued, "and I see everything everyone’s done before, from racial issues to feminist issues to class issues. All these people trying to come together and I know my experience in the LGBTQ community, having been a visible part of that, I’m so honored to have been part of the movement — because it really did move forward in the 90s. And that helps us understand our own personal issues."
The full interview, in which Etheridge also talked about her most recent record ("Memphis Rock and Soul"); growing up gay in the Midwest and coming out as a lesbian in the early 1990s; the song she wrote in response to the Pulse Nightclub massacre; and what it's like to play with 70 other musicians in the Kansas City Symphony, is here.
Melissa Etheridge with the Kansas City Symphony, September 22-24 at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, MO 64108.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.