“We ask for consideration and respect for our family as we go through this difficult period.” So said Melissa Etheridge and her partner of nine years, Tammy Lynn Michaels, in a joint statement announcing their separation on April 16.
Less than a week earlier, the 48-year-old singer sat down in the office of her Los Angeles home for an in-depth chat with Southern Star.
In retrospect, it seemed rather carefully timed — Etheridge getting the media commitments surrounding the release of her new album out of the way before the announcement so she wouldn’t have to battle through endless questions about the split.
The husky-voiced rocker was in a playful mood, giving little indication of the shock announcement that was on its way.
The nearest she got to an admission of trouble in the home was when Southern Star asked how she planned to juggle her upcoming tour (set to visit Australia, she confirmed) commitments with the responsibilities of being a wife and mother to four young children.
“That’s probably the hardest part of my life right now, balancing my work life and my private life,” she sighed.
The album she’ll be touring, Fearless Love, is a return to her arena-rock roots after 2007’s downbeat The Awakening. Etheridge described it as a record with its musical influences very much worn on its sleeve.
“When I met with [producer] John Shanks, I said I wanted this album to just ring with rock and roll. From Led Zeppelin to Coldplay, from The Who to Kings Of Leon. Everything that’s rooted in the rock and roll tradition.
“The title track, all of the songs really, are about my way of looking at fear and love and how everything in life is a choice between the two.
Every day, every choice you make is one or the other, and it’s about staying on the path of peace by staying in the ‘love’ category.”
It’s a particularly gay notion — the idea of needing to move past your fears in order to love openly.
“Yeah. I think we’re special people in that we’re forced from the very beginning to have to be fearless about love.”
On the whole, the album seems a product of its time. While The Awakening documented Etheridge’s 2004 struggle with breast cancer, this record strikes an altogether more hopeful tone. Tellingly, it’s the first record she’s released since Barack Obama became president.
“I think we’re all in a hopeful place,” she said, choosing her words carefully.
“I think America’s gonna figure out that it’s not about whether we have a Republican or a Democrat in the office, it’s about the multinational corporations that are running the whole world right now and that we need to stand up and take our communities back. The times right now are very hopeful and full of spirit.”
And it seems Etheridge’s political outlook has softened in recent years — in 2008, she wrote a column for The Huffington Post in which she supported Obama’s decision to have conservative Christian and gay marriage opponent Rick Warren speak at the 2009 presidential inauguration.
“Maybe if they get to know us, they won’t fear us. I know, call me a dreamer, but I feel a new era is upon us,” she wrote.
Does she think her attitude towards the anti-gay rights brigade has become more conciliatory?
“As age and wisdom has found its way to me, I think what I’m seeing most is that tolerance starts with ourselves, and that the only way to change the world is to change how we feel about ourselves inside,” she explained.
“Once we do that, then we can stand together and emanate that into the world and say, ‘I tolerate you. You can be whoever you want to be — you can hate if you want, but I stand here in my love and my truth’. ”
Speaking of tolerance, what does Etheridge think the climate’s like for younger gay performers nowadays? In the 17 years since she came out on stage at the Triangle Ball, a gay celebration of President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, it’s hard to tell if life’s gotten better or worse for openly gay artists — just look at the furore that erupted last year when openly gay singer Adam Lambert dared to kiss another man on stage.
“I think it takes an artist who’s confident in themselves and doing their best work to move through that barrier, to carry that weight. Over and over as artists emerge, it will be more of a ‘flavour’, and not the definitive description of that artist.”
And then there was Ricky Martin’s recent announcement… “And wasn’t that a surprise!” Etheridge laughed.
Some expressed disappointment that his admission couldn’t have come 10 years earlier, when he was at the peak of his career.
“Our community’s never going to be happy,” she said. “We’re never going to satisfy everyone. I mean, I wish I had come out at the beginning of my career and not waited for five years, but it is what it is, and let’s celebrate truth whenever it does come out.”
info: Fearless Love (Universal) out now. Visit www.melissaetheridge.com