‘Helloooooh! How are you? I’m good, I’m good.” It takes me about three seconds to warm to Melissa Etheridge. The American singer-songwriter has been through hell in the past few years, but you won’t find her moaning. For someone who has endured so much – Etheridge lost her 21-year-old son, Beckett, to opioid addiction last year – she has a remarkable ability to accentuate the positive. And over the next hour and a half, she does just that.
There is a swaggering self-confidence and a soulfulness to Etheridge – she would make a great existential cowboy. She has had hit records across the world (with the notable exception of the UK), won Grammys for her singles Ain’t It Heavy and Come to My Window, and in 2007 secured an Oscar for I Need to Wake Up, a song she wrote for Al Gore’s climate crisis documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
Etheridge is probably as well known for her open-book life as her music. She is one of the US’s first out and proud lesbian rock stars. Yes I Am, her fourth album, marked her official coming out in 1993 and has sold more than 6m copies in the US. “People were like: ‘Do you think coming out hurt you?’ and I was like: ‘Oh God, no! Coming out was amazing for my career.’ It made me unique back then.” She laughs, deep and joyous. “The world was changing in the 90s. The gay movement was coming up, we were organised and it was just a perfect time for me.”
She became an activist for LGBTQ+ rights, the environment and cannabis’s medicinal properties. But her activism was always rooted in life, rather than polemics. Sure, she went on demos, but what she was good at was talking openly about the issues that affected her. So, when she and her then partner, Julie Cypher, had children with a sperm donor (the singer-songwriter David Crosby), she talked about it. When she later had twins with her then wife, Tammy Lynn Michaels, using an anonymous donor, she told us about that, too. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, again she shared it; after having chemotherapy, she performed at the 2005 Grammys with a bald head. As for her response to Beckett’s death, she has done what she always does – talked it out.
She has released an album of previously unrecorded songs called One Way Out. She wrote them early in her career, when she wasn’t out and was worried that they were too personal. Now, she wonders what she was bothered about. One Way Out shows off the breadth of her talents. On the title track, she rasp-rocks at her bluesy best. I’m No Angel Myself is tender and confessional. The album ends with Life Goes On, a defiant anthem written in 2002 that could just as easily have been written about Beckett in the past year.
Etheridge, 60, is talking to me on a video chat from her home in Hidden Hills, a gated community in Santa Monica, Los Angeles. It is a glitzy contrast to Leavenworth, Kansas, where she grew up in a fascinating, if dysfunctional, family. Her mother, Elizabeth, was an exceptionally bright secretary who became a top computer programmer, but was never rewarded for it. “Have you seen the movie Hidden Figures?” she asks, referring to the 2016 biopic about three trailblazing African American women who worked for Nasa in the 60s. “She programmed these massive computers, then the army hired her. She became a GS-15, which is the highest civilian rank you can get, but she got paid half of what anyone else got and all the generals took her work and said it was theirs. So she was bitter, bitter, bitter, but she did this great work.”
Her mother became a high-functioning alcoholic who drank herself into oblivion every night. Etheridge’s father, John, was a teacher who taught the US constitution, coached the college basketball team and was adored by Etheridge and his students. In her 2001 memoir, she wrote that her older sister physically and sexually abused her for five years from the age of six. “I know that all kids experiment and play doctor and that might have been all Jennifer thought it was, but it sure wasn’t that to me,” she wrote. Today, she says she has no relationship with her sister. “It’s understood between the two of us that there’s nothing there except we shared a childhood and it was really tumultuous.”
The family was repressed in a rather English way, she says. They never acknowledged the turbulence going on behind closed doors, instead pretending everything was fine and dandy. Music was her salvation. At the age of eight, she took guitar lessons; at 10 she was writing songs and by 13 she was performing in local bars with a country band.
Her choir director at church told her she had a strange voice, but she realised rockers such as Robert Plant and Janis Joplin also had strange voices and she could sing like them. She idolised Bruce Springsteen. “I didn’t think: ‘He’s a guy, so I can’t be like him.’ I felt I could make the same choices, write the same quality of music, and it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman.”
After a year at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, she quit and headed for LA, playing in lesbian bars. In her mid-20s, she was spotted by Chris Blackwell, the founder and boss of Island Records, and signed to the label. After releasing her first album, she went around radio stations asking them to play the record, only to be told they already had a woman on their playlist. Despite this, her first three albums were hits in the US, while the fourth was huge.
The world was a very different place for lesbian couples then, however. “Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, being gay meant you weren’t going to have children.” Did that bother her? “No, I was like: ‘I want to be a rock star,’ so it was fine with me. Then in the 90s I was with someone who was like: ‘Hey, I want to have a baby.’” By then, Etheridge also wanted children – and realised it would make a statement. “The more gay people have children, the more it’s normalised. People constantly came up to me and said: ‘Thank you for showing me we can have children.’”
But she knows the battle against homophobia is yet to be won. She takes a sip from her water bottle. “That’s one of the things that broke my heart when Beckett passed away. I thought, everybody’s going to go: ‘See, they can’t have children.’” She tells me proudly about Beckett’s older sister, Bailey, who has just completed a master’s degree at London School of Economics.
I tell her I interviewed Crosby recently. “Oh yeah! He’s a hoot, isn’t he?” Does she regard him simply as a donor? “No, he loves them dearly. One of the reasons we chose him as a donor is because he had children.” She grins. “Many of them. He’s still finding children.” How many has he got? “Oh, at least seven or eight. A few years ago, Bailey called me and said: ‘I have another half-sister we found!’”
No offence, I say, but, of all the men in the world, why choose the decadent Crosby? “Because, one, he gave up parental rights. Bailey laughs at this: at the time, I was very good friends with Brad Pitt. There was a moment when I considered Brad, but he wanted children so badly. I was like: ‘He’s not going to stand back and not be a father and not be in their life.’” Also, Crosby’s wife, Jan Dance, was hugely supportive, Etheridge says. “They had had fertility issues and had some help. They were like: ‘We are so grateful for that that we would love to pass this on.’ It was very loving. The kids looked just like David. They had the cheeks, those eyes. Beckett looked the most like David.”
Is it true that Crosby, a recovering addict, blames himself for Beckett’s addiction, thinking it might be genetic? She nods. “But he can’t. Everybody has choices. You can’t just say: ‘Oh, that’s David Crosby’s son, so …’ That doesn’t work at all.’” Has she said this to him? “Yeah, I tried to.” Does he accept it? “I hope so, because it’s nobody’s fault.”
She talks about how Beckett struggled. “Teachers would say: ‘He just glowers at me.’” She smiles at the memory. “He looked like he was angry all the time.” And was he? “I think he was afraid.” He was a gifted snowboarder. After a bad accident, he started taking painkillers, which led to his opioid addiction.
I ask how a parent gets through the death of a child. “You don’t,” Etheridge says, quietly. “I’m constantly thinking about him. Constantly. His pictures are up. We talk about him. The way I make myself OK is I actively do not choose guilt or shame. In his last year, I said to myself: I need to make choices now, because there is a possibility that he may not live. I need to know I did everything I could for him, but also take care of myself. It is not my job to save him. I can’t quit everything I’m doing to try to convince him not to take heroin or opioids. That’s not the way humans are made. He was an adult and he was making his choices, so I came to peace with that a few months before he died.”
She pauses. “When I say ‘peace’, it’s not like: oh, it’s fine he’s dead.” She says that, after her cancer, she studied all sorts of stuff – quantum physics, quantum biology, ancient religions. She was trying to make sense of life. In the end, she realised that only if she was happy could she make others happy. She also realised it was pointless blaming others, as she had blamed her family for her unsettling childhood. “Well, then how can I blame myself for my son? Just so much as I know I made my own choices, the same thing with Beckett.”
He had moved to Colorado, where he still managed to mountain bike and snowboard, despite his dependency. “I thought he was going to be happy. But the pandemic was really hard on him. The isolation. All of a sudden, the parks were closed and he crumbled.” Etheridge sent the police to check on him three times. The third time, they found him dead.
It is 18 months since Beckett died. Etheridge says it is pointless to grieve. She prefers to celebrate him. “I believe that, when I think of my son in loving ways, I am close to him. His spirit is there. When I am grieving and sad, that’s when I think I’m far away, because I don’t think those things exist in the non-physical world, so you have to be in a loving state to connect with loved ones. He wouldn’t want me to be ruining my days thinking awful things. So it’s my job to stay in a state where I can connect.”
Does she have nice memories? “Oh yeah! He was so sensitive. I think this is a common thing in people we lose this way. I would have the deepest conversations with him at 11 years old. We would talk spirit, the world, history, existence, everything. But when it came to things like school, if he couldn’t do things perfectly, he didn’t want to do them. So he’d never start anything. It just stunts you. I spent years sitting there with him and his homework going: ‘Just pick up the pencil.’”
I ask if she was in any way relieved when he died. Again, she pauses. “If I dig down and I think about it, yes, there is a certain amount of relief. That’s actually harder for me when it comes to the guilt – how relieved I am. I’m just being honest. It was so hard for years. It was making me ill again. If he was in trouble, it affected everything. When he died, there was awful, awful sadness. Horrible. But there absolutely was relief I didn’t have to be afraid to look at my phone any more. I was relieved for him, but, yes, for me, too.” Did it take a long time to admit she was relieved for herself? “You’re one of the first people I’ve admitted it to. Talking to my wife, I would absolutely say there is relief.”
Etheridge has been with the actor and writer Linda Wallem, who co-created the TV series Nurse Jackie, for 11 years and married for seven. They share the same date of birth (29 May 1961) and pretty much everything else. “The relationship is ridiculously wonderful,” she says. “We are mad about each other. We spend every single day together and it’s perfect.”
Etheridge’s previous long-term relationships, with Cypher and Michaels, ended disastrously. Despite appearances, she didn’t really believe in herself then, she says. “I was trying to have the other person make me better. And it never works.” What does she mean? “Well, I used to think I wasn’t pretty. And if somebody I consider really gorgeous likes me, then I must be pretty. I’m validated.” She laughs at the stupidity of it, says those days are long gone and returns to Linda. “Her sense of humour is just top, so we laugh. And she’s very intelligent – and intelligence is very sexy. And she’s kind.”
As for her 15-year-old twins, “they are magnificent, gorgeous”. When she thinks of her three surviving children, she can’t help thinking of how tortured Beckett was. “I look at the other kids and think they’re fine. They all love to be here.” As long as she stays positive, she says, she can still connect with Beckett. So, all in all, she has little to complain about, she says.
Etheridge is one of life’s great survivors. Her ability to overcome the horrors life has thrown at her is astonishing, her positivity infectious. After saying our goodbyes, I find myself singing the chorus of the final song on her album at the top of my voice for hours on end. “La la la life goes on …”
One Way Out is out now