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Fearless Lover: Melissa Etheridge Sings Her Own Truth

August 8, 2010

Melissa Etheridge’s heart beats with a courage and conviction unmatched by most performers. But the musician’s greatest strength may be her ability to look within and embrace herself as she is, something that has given her a unique niche in the traditionally male-dominated rock and roll landscape. Such courage lies at the heart of Fearless Love, both the title of Etheridge’s current release and her personal credo.

“Fearless love is my philosophy and an anthem for living,” says Etheridge, 49, who will bring her “Fearless Love Tour” to Milwaukee’s Riverside Theatre Aug. 11. “I need to make sure that I love fearlessly no matter what relationship I am in.”

The Leavenworth, Kans., native has long lived the courage of that conviction as an openly lesbian performer, political activist and breast cancer survivor. One revelation from that courage may be best articulated in a line from the current release’s title song: “I am what I am, and I am what I am afraid of.”

“That’s part of the cancer stuff,” says Etheridge, who was diagnosed in October 2004. “If I think that I’m not thin enough or too old to be a rock star, then I’m not thin enough and I am too old. If you put your energy into those fears, then what you fear will become your reality.”

The daughter of a psychology teacher and a computer consultant, Etheridge spent several years at Boston’s Berklee College of Music before heading to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. Signed by Island Records originally to write songs for movies, the label eventually released her self-titled first album in 1988. The disc contained “Bring Me Some Water,” her first hit and her first Grammy Award nomination.

More honors and albums followed, including 1993’s Yes I Am, which many believe referred to Etheridge’s acknowledgement of her Lesbianism. The artist came out publicly later that same year at the Gay and Lesbian Triangle Ball that celebrated Bill Clinton’s election victory.

Prior to all of that, however, Etheridge in 1989 released Brave and Crazy, her sophomore effort. It’s a title she says still describes her as she approaches her fifth decade, even if the current definition of those terms is not quite the same as it was 20 years ago.

“I can’t go out and pretend I am the drug-sex-and-rock-n-roll chick anymore because that’s no longer my truth,” Etheridge says. “Rock and roll is still about danger and living outside of society, and I’ve been living that for a long time. But I am the strongest when I am singing my truth.”

Etheridge’s truth involves commitment to a variety of causes, including gay rights and the environment. When California passed Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, the singer refused to pay her state taxes as an act of civil disobedience. She also recorded the song “I Need to Wake Up” for An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s film about the pending environmental disaster.

The role of music is important in reaching people, says Etheridge, who counts Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading and Bruce Springsteen as her most significant influences. The artists, she says, have a “fearless commitment to story” and understand how words and music combine to influence a song’s capability to touch listeners.

“Music is an amazing gift to humanity,” she says. “Music affects social change because it bypasses the head to reach the heart and soul. For any change to occur we have to feel it as well as understand it.”

Reaching listeners’ hearts and souls is one more way Etheridge is able to sing her own truth.

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