It's been seven years since Melissa Etheridge delivered a powerful rendition of "Piece Of My Heart" with Joss Stone in a tribute to Janis Joplin at the 47th Annual GRAMMY Awards. But that wasn't just any performance, it marked Etheridge's first live performance since being diagnosed with breast cancer. Though she continues to win that battle, the disease has left a lasting mark on her music.
Scheduled for release Sept. 4, 4th Street Feeling finds Etheridge revisiting the creative process of her formative years with energetic rock songs powered by her voice and guitar. She's also taking bold musical chances, evidenced by her country- and roots-charged first single "Falling Up." Aside from new music, Etheridge's recent experiences have also led her to find new meaning in earlier songs such as "Come To My Window," which won a GRAMMY for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 1994.
With her career now spanning nearly a quarter century, Etheridge discussed how she has gotten back to creative basics, artists who currently inspire her and the true intention behind 4th Street Feeling, among other topics.
This new album feels very much like you going back to your roots.
The journey that led me to writing these songs [started at] the end of my cancer treatment. When I popped out the other end and started making [2007's] The Awakening, I was like, "Who am I and what am I? Where am I going?" The Awakening was me waking up and figuring that out. And then [2010's] Fearless Love was [about wanting] to blow life into me and not [being] afraid of rock and roll. It was a matter of getting to know myself again.
And the last two years I've been onstage playing, I've been going back to my older songs like "Chrome Plated Heart," [which is] my favorite song that I play because I'm playing my electric 12-string [guitar] and I'm playing lead on it. I'm playing the guitar more and going back to the roots of myself and the music I loved and the way I wrote, [and I'm] going back with the wisdom and experience I have now and the technology sonically to make it the best it can be. Let me do the best of what I do best was really my focus on this album. I don't have to sound like anybody else, look like anybody else [or] write like anybody else.
Was there a moment where you realized you didn't have to prove anything to anyone?
That was something I realized and it became very clear [after] going through cancer and really examining everything. [I had] the time — the months and months of just laying there — to figure out, "Oh, I am me and the only way to be successful is to love what I'm doing and just be me." It's really hard sometimes because you want to go, "What do you want from me? I'll be whatever you want me to be. I can do this" — I'm talking professionally and relationship wise. It's been eight years of a journey of getting back to me. It sounds so corny, it sounds like a movie.
What are the other older songs that you have a new appreciation for?
We don't realize how much we create, especially when we are word people, and how powerful words are. I go back and even like "Come To My Window," I'm like, "Oh my god, wait a minute. 'The blackness has seeped into my chest,' oh my god." You find these things and you find a different way to sing them because they mean something different than they did. A lot of us artists/writers can comprehend before others that words are a way to go somewhere else or take us somewhere else. And so I didn't know that at that time, yet I completely understand it now and try to consciously create with that in mind.
As a fan, what are a few songs from other people that took you other places you didn't even realize?
I go back and listen to Rickie Lee Jones' "We Belong Together," and it's actually a different picture in my head. I understand it differently. And I think that about the whole world now that I'm actually 51. You have a different perspective of your past [and] your emotional experience. Everything is evolving … so as an artist it's great to embrace my older songs and still feel that they are significant to me.
Are there artists that you admire for the way they keep changing things up musically over a long period of time?
Yes, and there are artists that I'm always looking forward to seeing their next expression of their music because I know what the journey is like and it's crazy. I want to see where Jason Mraz goes. I started listening and I'm like, "This guy can play, this guy can sing, this guy can write." I like to watch John Mayer [and] love to follow Radiohead every step of their way in their journey. I'm looking forward to whenever Adele does come out with something else because I think hers is an interesting journey.
Are there songs of yours that you've been surprised by how people interpret or misinterpret them?
"You Can Sleep While I Drive." I've had people come up and say, "Oh, we had this sung at our wedding." I'm like, "Oh my god, really? Wait a minute, it's about leaving someone in the end. What?" Yet, they have their own interpretation and that is what's great about a song, it is yours to make any picture you want to make with it. So I say, "Go right ahead." I know where it came from in me, but everyone else has their own interpretation.
When you listened to the finished 4th Street Feeling album, what do you take from it?
Ask me in two years and I won't listen to it, but I really enjoy listening to it [now] and it is more of an emotional line than I knew at the time. There's a really great line through it that is just one of those magical things that happens sometimes when you put things together. I'm so excited to play this album live, every single note of it. I can't wait to share it with people. That's the whole intention behind the album.
(Steve Baltin has written about music for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, MOJO, Chicago Tribune, AOL, LA Weekly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens more publications.)