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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Two Grammys, an Oscar, five platinum-selling albums. She's a singer, songwriter, author, activist, but above all else, a true American rock icon.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Who else could I be talking about but Melissa Etheridge.

(Soundbite of song, "Fearless Love")

Ms. MELISSA ETHERIDGE (Musician): (Singing) When I woke up, I was 17. You kissed my lips in a bad, bad dream. Showed me things aren't what they appear to be. Called me angel and set me free.

MARTIN: That is "Fearless Love," the hit single and the title track of her recently released, 10th studio album. And Melissa Etheridge joins us now - with guitar in hand, I'm told - from NPR West in Culver City. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Hey. Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: There's a funny story about how the album got its title.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you want to tell it?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Sure. Sure. You know, I have - well, I guess I have a teenager. She's 13 years old now - my oldest, Bailey - and an 11-year-old. And this is the first album that they were really kind of understanding what I do for a living. And they were interested. And I started playing the songs for them when I started writing it, over a year ago. And they wanted to know all about it.

And my daughter asked me - of course, you know - well, what are you going to call the album? And I said, well, I'm thinking of "Songs of Fear and Love." And she goes, oh no, Mom, that's just way too long. You can't have a title that long. And I said, well, how about "Fearless"? And she said, no, Mom, Taylor Swift, that's her title. And so I said, well, I don't know. And she goes, how about "Fearless Love"? And I thought it sounded awesome. And she went away, and I ended up writing a song about it and everything. And I'm very grateful to her.

MARTIN: That's a shame, though, isn't it? You're being corrected by your 13-year-old.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No, that's Taylor Swift's song, Mom. You're so embarrassing.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Oh, oops. I know; Mo-om.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But when you started this project, did you have some specific message in mind? There was some specific ethos or something you were trying to evoke?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Oh yes. Ever since breast cancer about six years ago, I've been on a journey, and it's been a spiritual awakening and one of figuring out this whole reality and what we're doing here. And my path has led me to understand that every choice we make is either love or fear in everything, anything we do, all day long. And I wanted to somehow put that into the creative process of this album, to put that in all the songs and all the music and do what, you know, we're supposed to do as artists, and mirror this back into our society. And that was the whole intention of the album.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people will appreciate the rockiness of it. You know, it's got the hard-driving, you know, guitar and all this. And I was just, you know, as I mentioned, you are a mom with four kids and you're, you know, and how does that feel to be rocking out at 49?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: You know what? All I have to do is look to my heroes, my inspiration. I look at Bruce. He's still up there doing it big time on the arenas, rocking. Mick Jagger - let me go down the list of the rock 'n' rollers that are still doing it and rocking hard. And there's no reason I can't do it, too.

MARTIN: What do you do to keep your voice in shape so that you can...

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Ah, yeah, well, I learned, again, a lot of stuff happened after cancer. I learned that the health of my voice has everything to do with the health of my body. So I really started taking a look at what foods I eat. And you know, boringly enough, not very rock 'n' roll, but getting enough sleep. These things have everything to do with the health of my voice. And I feel I'm singing better now than I ever have.

MARTIN: When you first started out, did you ever envision this life for yourself?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ETHERIDGE: I envisioned a rock 'n' roll life. It didn't look like what this looks like, but I'm glad because I didn't really understand what it was. I envisioned the - you know, get me in front of lots of people and I'm singing, and I make lots of money and I'm famous - and that sort of American dream that Hollywood fosters in us.

And then I kind of got here and started doing the work and realized, this is a full-time job. This is something that if I want to be a relevant artist, I need to cultivate and work on my craft. So it's very different than what I thought it would be, yet this is the only real dream I've ever had.

MARTIN: Can I play something from the new album, "Indiana," track six?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: That I think speaks to that. If we could just play a little bit of that because it tells a story and it's kind of what we're talking about now is making me think about it. Could we just play a little bit?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Yeah. Sure.

MARTIN: All right, here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Indiana")

Ms. ETHERIDGE: (Singing) She came to this world on a cold night. Papa turned his head and said, I don't believe she's mine. Single mama raised her in a place where you can look but never touch because we don't have enough. Don't let your hopes get high. Because girls like you can't fly.

Oh, the long nights in the small room with the big dreams. Oh Indiana. You're only dying here, and they don't understand you. It's a tough road but you start slow and before you know it, you're not alone, looking for a place called home anywhere.

MARTIN: Im sorry, I'm trying to keep it together here, because this song always gets to me.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Aw.

MARTIN: It just gets to me.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: Just thinking about that little girl. Was that little girl you?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Well, yes, in a way and also no, in a way. This album is one of the first times I've tried really writing third person. The song is actually about my partner, Tammy, who did grow up in Indiana and had the big dreams and went off and became a television star, and then realized that her - the happiness really comes from family and what you make of your life.

But I absolutely did. I grew up in the Midwest and had those dreams. And you go off and you try and make them come true - and here we are. MARTIN: I was wondering - in fact, I'm glad you told me that it's not so much strictly autobiographical but that it's - how you got into the head of a person who is not you. Because the fact is, a lot of dreams have come true for you.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: And I'm just wondering how you take yourself back to a place of feeling what it's like to want something, and not know how youre ever going to touch it or see it. And how do you do that?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Well, I, you know, I've traveled this road, and you never forget that longing and that dreaming - because that's what we do. That's how we create everyday. That's how we create our reality of what we're doing, is by dreaming. And I remember those dreams very vividly because they're the ones that got me here. And I need to often stand here and go, ah, I made it. I made those dreams come true. So now it's my job to - let's create some more dreams. Let's think what else I can up come with that's going to bring me happiness and health.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with Grammy-winning, Oscar-winning, platinum album-selling, singer-songwriter, rock icon Melissa Etheridge, the diva of divas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ETHERIDGE: I'm going to call you every day to say, what is that again?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's you. Talk a little about the flip side of it. We talked about, you know, how you stay connected to people who are still trying to live their dreams.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Now that youre at this point where you are living so much of your life in the spotlight, where everything you do is something that is meaningful to people who are not you and outside of your circle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm wondering, how does that work?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Well, it's a funny part of it that is hard to describe because - I mean, I can tell you, you know, I'm a mother of four, I get up every day and do normal things. And there's a certain glamorization and lack of privacy that celebrities have. There's a certain, you know - I made a choice a few years ago to step out and speak publicly about my personal life. And what happens is you can speak, you know, about all the good stuff, and then the bad stuff is going to come out, and people are going to see the missteps, or they're going to see the changes. And my breakup from my longtime partner was in the news and that - I wish I didnt have to go through that in front of everyone. I wish I didnt have to answer to the tabloid questions.

Yet our society is filled with these soundbites of, this is how the rich and famous are doing it. And it's a funny thing to live, and I can't possibly live the way that - the things that people project on me, they're just going to do that.

MARTIN: But some of it is very comforting to people. Like, for example in 2005, at the 2005 Grammys...

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...when you came out on stage totally bald, without a wig. You were going through chemotherapy at the time for breast cancer - which you survived, thankfully.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And that was very comforting to a lot of people because they thought, you know what? If she can do that, then what do I have to be ashamed of? When you came out as a lesbian...

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...for many people, that was a very meaningful experience. But on the flip side of it as...

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...we've discussed, having broken up with a longtime partner as a mother, this is something that a lot of people who are same-gender-loving people are still trying to experience. I just wonder whether there's some heartbreak there, where you feel as a role model - wow, you know, your decisions are not just yours. Is there that?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Yeah I feel - often I feel like I'm letting a whole community down. It's like, oh, I'm sorry, guys. And it's funny, the hats that I seem to have acquired along the way by choosing to speak my truth - speak my truth about my sexuality; speak my truth about, yes, I'm going through cancer and this is the experience I have, and guess what, I'm bald. And yes, I'm still going to - that's the truth. And the truth is, there's changes. And I want to be your hero, I do. Heroes fall, and that's how heroes learn. And I'm just doing the best I can.

MARTIN: Well, maybe this is a good time to hear "Fearless Love."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What do you think?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: I think so.

MARTIN: All right. Let's hear it. Thank you.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: All right. I got my guitar right here in my hand. All right.

(Soundbite of song, "Fearless Love")

Ms. ETHERIDGE: (Singing) When I woke up, I was 17. You kissed my lips in a bad, bad dream. Showed me things aren't what they appear to be. Called me angel and set me free. You gave me life in the cold, cold dark. But you ran away in the morning spark. Made me think that reality oh, is not where I want to be.

But I am what I am. I am what I am afraid of. So what am I afraid of? I need a fearless love. Don't need to fear the end. Oh, if you can't hold me now you will never hold me again. I want to live my life pursuing all my happiness. I want a fearless love. I won't settle for anything less.

I walked my path, had worlds collide. I lost my way and I fooled my pride. This lover's ache wouldn't feel so strange if I could only change.

But I am what I am. I am what I am afraid of. So what am I afraid of? I need a fearless love. Don't need to fear the end. Oh, if you can't hold me now. You will never hold me again. I want to live my life pursuing all my happiness. I want a fearless love. I won't settle for anything, anything less.

MARTIN: All right. You go, girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ETHERIDGE: There I go.

MARTIN: Take that, Taylor. Sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of strumming guitar)

MARTIN: I'm not being a hater but take that, Taylor Swift. Take that.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Oh, no, no, no, no. She's got a lot of time. She can catch up.

MARTIN: What do you think of the new crop, you know, of them?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Hmm. I love music. So I look out into the music world, trying to find the kind of music that people are making, what's going on. And the funny thing is, I find that our industry is so eager to sign up the new young thing that they're signing these artists before they get seasoned, I think. I wasnt signed until I was 27 years old. Can you imagine now? That would be like over the hill.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: And...

MARTIN: You'd be cast as the mom, you know.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Yeah, that sort of thing. Yeah.

MARTIN: You'd have a talk show and, you know.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Twenty-seven years old and I already played for - I played for years in high school, in bands, and then I played for five years in clubs in L.A., so I was very seasoned. I knew how to play in front of an audience. I knew what I wanted. I got to work on my writing for a long time. And I just kind of see this - it's more disposable. It's like junk food music, sort of thing. Yet, when you really want to find that artist that's going to be around for a long time youve got to season them up a little bit. They got to get some miles on them.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you? What else do you want to do?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: You know what? The biggest mountain is to be truthful with myself - to love my work. To walk through this, to whatever I do, every song I write, every song I sing, it's got to be truthful. It's got to be real to me. And that's a challenge, to not be afraid that maybe it won't be of the moment, maybe it will be. Who knows - but to walk through that.

This album is part of that. And then, just watch what the world brings along. I'm going to be writing songs and singing for a long time.

MARTIN: Well, you sound good.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: I feel good.

MARTIN: All right. Well, great. What should we go out on? Do you want to play one of your classics for us?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: I think I want to play another song from the new album, if that's all right. And hopefully this...

MARTIN: Oh yeah, I'd love it.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: ...this will be a classic; that's what we're hoping.

MARTIN: All right. What do you want to play?

Ms. ETHERIDGE: This is called "Company."

(Soundbite of guitar strumming)

MARTIN: OK. "Company."

Ms. ETHERIDGE: "Company."

(Soundbite of song, "Company")

Ms. ETHERIDGE: (Singing) If you ask me, I will say I'm fine. All pink like birthday girls and valentines. But then the stillness of the night reminds that I don't like to be alone. My thoughts are race cars running 'round my head. They burst into flames and crash into my bed. Until I fall into a dream instead, where all my lovers turn to stone.

And all I want is company, someone to understand this misery. Send a reflection of myself to me, 'cause everybody needs some company. Someone to understand this misery. Send a reflection of myself to me 'cause everybody needs some company.

MARTIN: That is multi-platinum, two-time Grammy-winning, Oscar-winning, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge. She just played "Company," from her 10th studio album, "Fearless Love." It's out now. Thank you so much for stopping by.

Ms. ETHERIDGE: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin, and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Radio Public Consortium.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

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