Heading to Maui on the last leg of her "Fearless Love" tour, Melissa Ethridge's latest album ranks as one of the finest recordings the popular rocker has ever made. A consummate work, it's a cumulative synthesis of her varied life experience and influences.
"It's sort of my hopes, my dreams, my thoughts, my philosophy, my anguishes, the shadows, and musically a lot of my musical influences," Etheridge explains.
Her 10th studio album, "Fearless Love," mixes the personal and political, while exploring various facets of how love can conquer fears.
Melissa Etheridge 'Fearless LOVE'
"That's the philosophy part that I try to be living by day-to-day," she continues.
As to the music, the album rocks, with songs like the pile-driving "Miss California" edging into Zeppelin territory, "Nervous" echoing ZZ Top's boogie, and the massive Who-influenced guitar opening, "Company."
Rolling Stone proclaimed it, "Melissa Etheridge's feistiest disc since her 1988 debut." And a Billboard review praised: "The 12-song set comes packed with the kind of room-rousing choruses Etheridge specialized in during her early-'90s commercial heyday."
* Grammy Award-winning songwriter and performer Melissa Etheridge returns to Maui for one night only at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater. Tickets are $35, $55, $75, $100. Call The MACC box office at 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.
"The live shows have become so much fun because of these new songs," she reports. "I kept thinking for some reason I needed to settle down, but I said, no, rocking is what I do best and what I love to do and when I go out and play live that's what I do, so why not put that on my album. That was the order of the day, to just keep rocking."
Among the highlights, one of the most intriguing tracks, the brilliant anthem, "We Are the Ones," is infused with Indian instrumentation.
"In the last two years I made friends with Salmon Ahmad, who was the lead singer with the Pakistani rock group Junoon," she explains. "I got very turned on by a lot of the music coming out of there. I realized how similar it is to our own blues melodies and are own music, so I wanted to put both of these together and that's what I came out with."
Born in Leavenworth, Kan., in 1961, Etheridge began performing at around 10 and later studied at Boston's Berklee College of Music.
What inspired her to become a musician?
"I never wanted to do anything else," she recalls. "Even when I was a kid one of my first memories was when I was about three years old dancing in front of the grown-ups and making them look at me. I did something and they all applauded, and I was hooked. I thought, 'this is it,' this is what I want to do."
Often citing Bruce Springsteen as a primary inspiration she continues, "Bruce came a little later, it was more like the Beatles and the music of the '60s that really got me into it. I started playing when I was about 10 or 11 years old, covering country and Top 40 songs. I was playing in bands when I was about 13 or 14. Then Bruce came along when I was about 15. I didn't really hear him until 'Born to Run." He didn't reach Kansas until then, and when I heard that, it really changed my direction. It was like, 'wait a minute,' I want to do it like that."
A young female rocker working in a male-dominated business sometimes proved challenging.
"It had its uniqueness," she notes. "It's hard in general trying to convince anyone that your music is worth listening to. Being a woman, I and the record company ran into a few difficulties but they were quickly overcome. It all seems silly now."
It helped that some strong women artists were also releasing music at the time, such as Tracy Chapman, Sinead O'Connor, k.d. lang and Edie Brickell.
"It was lovely, it was great that they couldn't say any longer - 'oh, we just played one woman on the radio.' It was impossible."
Etheridge earned a Grammy nomination with her debut album, "Melissa Etheridge." She next won a Grammy for the single, "Ain't It Heavy," from her 1992 album, "Never Enough." And then she broke through to multi-platinum success with her fourth release, 1993's "Yes I Am."
"I think sometimes things line up," she says about the album's huge success. "I just think people were curious enough about the gay thing, they had heard the music, the grunge movement was in and people were definitely giving time to real songwriters and their music. It was the times and the moment and I just did what I loved. To me I was going back to what I was doing on the first album and it worked pretty well."
Among her career highlights, one of the most momentous saw Etheridge at the 2005 Grammy Awards blowing away everyone with an impassioned, inspirational performance of Janis Joplin's classic, "Piece of My Heart."
Despite losing her hair from chemotherapy for breast cancer, she took the courageous step of performing live, even though she was exhausted from her debilitating treatment. The New York Times noted, "That performance was immediately inscribed as legend."
"When I was diagnosed with breast cancer months before, it was really a journey of crazy things over what does this mean, what's my life, what's my work, what's everything?
"Towards the end of my treatment, I got the call I was nominated for a Grammy for 'Lucky,' and so they asked if I would do this tribute to Janis Joplin. At first I was, 'it just couldn't be done.' I would be so weak. I am bald. But I thought, 'I've got to jump back up on the horse. This is an opportunity for me to do a song that I have done half of my life, which I could do in my sleep, and I'm paying tribute to one of the artists I love. If I didn't do it, I would just sit there and then be pissed at whoever was doing it, so I better go do it.
"I had the opportunity to stand up in front of the world. It was a personal thing for me and it became quite a big statement for the rest of the world. It felt like, 'here I am, I'm getting just right back on it. It was exhausting, but it was cathartic.' "
When faced with life threatening maladies, we are often given the opportunity to reflect on our lives and experience a profound transformation, opening to new ways of being. Etheridge says she experienced a spiritual opening that changed many aspects of her life.
"That's what happened definitely," she reports. "There were moments of being completely alone and still. It hurt to watch television or to listen to anything. The chemotherapy was so hideous that those moments of quiet brought me great peace and understanding about life and what this is. I started to read some amazing philosophies and spiritual journeys (she cites authors Don Miguel Ruiz and Ken Wilbur) and I've been on one since for the last eight years and that's what you're seeing in my music too."
The first album after her healing crisis, "The Awakening," distilled her new insights. "That's exactly what it was," she says.
Addressing a diverse range of subjects from war and politics, to religion and spirituality, "The Awakening" closed with a trilogy of songs that touched on concepts such as the power of intention and the law of attraction.
"I wanted people to understand," she explains. "It was sort of my life story. In a little nutshell. I came out to California and found fame and fortune, but then life happened and now I get it, now I understand and I believe. My path has changed and I wanted to lead people to that."
In recent years, acclaim and awards came through a friendship with former Vice President Al Gore, who called her up one day and invited her participation on one of his projects.
The resulting global-warming film, "An Inconvenient Truth," took top honors in the best documentary feature category at the 2007 Academy Awards and earned Etheridge an Oscar for best original song in a motion picture, for her composition, "I Need to Wake Up."
"I have known him since 1992," she explains. "I like to tell people I helped get him elected president in 2000," she adds laughing.
"He called me up and said that, he had done this slide show and they were making a little documentary of it and would I like to do the music. I said sure, 'cause I thought it would be nice; they'd play it in high schools or something. I had no idea it was going to be major motion picture. I certainly had no idea I was going to win an Oscar for it; that was the last thought I had. When I saw the path was leading to that (the Oscar) I was like, 'wow, cool.' "
Also high on the cool scale, she got to interview the Democratic presidential candidates on TV in 2007.
"I really enjoyed the opportunity and tried to do my best to represent my community and people in general," she says, "to talk to them and present myself as straightforward as I could with the issues we are thinking about today."
A more recent highlight saw Etheridge join the Broadway cast of the hit show, "American Idiot," for one week in early 2011.
She stepped into the role of drug dealer St. Jimmy, played by Green Day front man and "American Idiot" co-author Billie Joe Armstrong.
So what was it like being Green Day-ish for a week?
"That was awesome, one of my favorite things I've done ever," she enthuses. "I would only do it for a week because they work so hard on Broadway, eight shows a week. It was truly delightful to get out of myself, out of my music, and step onto a Broadway stage. It was super exciting."
In a couple of months time, Etheridge will release a follow up to "Fearless Love."
"The Hawaii shows are the last of my 'Fearless Love tour,' which has been going on for two years," she says.
"I've just completed a new album and the single will be out at the end of July. It's called 'Fourth Street Feeling,' and it will be out in September. It's still along the lines of rocking. I think it is a bit more organic than 'Fearless Love.' I play all the guitars on it. It's a bit more organic and rootsy, but still rocking very hard."
* Concert goers may want to come early to dine. Food and drink will be served in the Yokouchi Pavilion Courtyard at the MACC starting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Celebrations Catering and Hali'imaile General Store will serve triple-cheese mac & cheese, barbecue-beef brisket, and Chinese-chicken salad with accompaniments.