Singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge is known for more than just her catchy, confessional folk-rock. Though she enjoyed multi-platinum album sales and arena-filling tours thanks to huskily-voiced singles like “Come to My Window” and “I’m the Only One” in the 1990s, she’s recently attracted media attention for performing bald (due to chemotherapy) at the 2005 Grammy Awards; for some gossiped-about romances; and for her frank statements regarding gay rights, the environment, politics and more—including her medical use of cannabis. The Los Angeles-based Etheridge, 49, started using marijuana during her battle with breast cancer in 2004. She recently chatted with CULTURE about her “feistiest”album in 20 years (Fearless Love, released in April), the weirdness of fame and the many joys of medical pot.
You’re on tour right now. How has your lifestyle on the road changed over the course of your career?
I’ve improved the places I needed to in order to still be able to do it all this time later! Like food—I have my own chef now. I insist I have to have really good, fresh food or else I just can’t do it—I’ll drop!
Much of your U.S. tour is already sold-out. Does that give you a sense of validation, or are you well past defining success in terms of just ticket and album sales?
Album sales I look at and I go, “It comes and goes.” So much of that is the record company and the state of radio and the music industry—I try not to hook into that. The ticket sales—that’s where I look and say, “OK, people still want to come see me.” Whether or not I have a hit on the radio, I can still offer them an evening of entertainment that they’re willing to lay their money down for . . . I am honored and I take it as quite a responsibility.
Tell me about the message of your new album, Fearless Love.
The whole perspective of this is I wanted to write songs of fear and love and my philosophy of believing that every choice we make, all day long, everything we do and think and feel and eat and say is a choice between fear and love.
Rolling Stone described Fearless Love as your “feistiest disc” since your 1988 debut. What do you say to that?
I say, “Thank you very much!” I tried to land firmly in my rock ‘n’ roll roots; to really use my influences the way I’ve always wanted to. And I think that’s what rock ‘n’ roll does best. You take your influences; you take what moves you; and then you craft your music through that.
In hindsight, are you more comfortable with your career today compared to your multi-platinum sales in the 1990s and all that went with that level of fame?
Well, I think I’m more famous today than I was then. It’s weird. I’m more “known” now—my music was known [in the ‘90s] . . . Yet, personally, I’m enjoying where I am now . . . it’s a different sort of perspective.
You’re well known as a gay rights activist, environmental advocate and committed Democrat. Is being able to make an impact in these areas one of the great bonuses of your celebrity?
Oh shoot, yeah! You start realizing that people actually listen to what you say. I’ve always tried to be very responsible with that and I always try to make it clear that I certainly am speaking for myself—that there’s no way I could possibly represent any community at all. But I will tell you what I feel and believe and hopefully will live a life full of goodness that could inspire.
Your song “Miss California” on Fearless Love addresses California’s recent gay marriage amendment. What are your thoughts on that situation?
I think that these days will be behind us, where we debated this and actually tried to enact laws that kept people’s rights from happening. And we’re going to go through this time and there will be a time when it’s, of course, all equal and legal. I think the best thing it did for us was have us be aware—the dialogue that went on after Proposition 8 passed was the best part of it.
Are there other social or political issues you’d like to put a spotlight on in the future?
I’d like to maybe change a few minds about how we consider health and healthcare. And what we consider our leaders and what we’re expecting of them. That our current system is bought and sold and run by the multi-national corporations and there’s no way we can ever possibly get change now through our halls of legislation, because they’re all bought and paid for and we need to make changes inside ourselves. How we vote every day at the grocery store; what we’re buying; and the way we behave . . . that’s the social change that needs to happen now.
You’ve talked in the past about your use of medical marijuana while receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer a few years ago. What did pot do for you during that period?
Cannabis during chemotherapy was just a lifesaver. It was a pain reliever; it gave me my appetite back; it settled my stomach from all the gastric napalm going on inside of me. And it also brings a lot of clarity to understanding what disease is. The benefits go on and on and on and on.
More recently you’ve said you still use medical marijuana to ease the effects of acid reflux (a legacy of chemotherapy) and in situations of extreme stress. How has it impacted your life in those regards?
Using cannabis when one is stressed is probably one of the best ways cannabis can be used, because it’s like getting back to normal. It’s a perspective-switcher: you’re like “OK, I don’t need to get this fear or this stress . . . there’s another way of looking at this.”
And you’ve said that you don’t use marijuana to get a “high”—and indeed that you don’t get high. Can you expand upon that?
It’s funny; our concept of cannabis is that it’s a party! And when you take it out of the college, frat house place and really put it into grown-up living, what is this used for? I don’t want to be high; I don’t want to be blotto-ed out of my mind where I can’t function. I’m not interested in that—I’m interested in my quality of life being clear and as fearless as possible so I can get the most out of every single minute.
As a California resident, what are your thoughts on the legal status of cannabis in the state at present?
Oh, I love that it’s the “Wild West”—that we are at the cutting edge of this! The first time I used my credit card to buy some cannabis I was like, “This is it, man—we’re on the right track!’ . . . In California, we started smoking in the’60s and we haven’t stopped . . . I think we’re going to really be on the forefront of pushing to be one of the first “legal” states.
You’ve just been touring in the Netherlands, where the recreational use of marijuana is effectively (if not technically) legalized. Would you like to see a similar situation in California?
Absolutely! And you see pockets of it [here]. You go to Oaksterdam . . . they’ve got that little thing going on. And you can see just tourism-wise what it’s done for Amsterdam—it’s huge! And, again, you just see a bunch of happy people walking around!
Finally, how might America be a different place if pot were legalized nationwide?
We’re going to start to understand what health is. And that’s probably one of the biggest blockages we have to getting it legalized—that the drug companies are not going to want us to because we’re not going to need those drugs anymore and we can self-monitor our balance. When we can just grow our own cannabis in the backyard, that’s a lot of power for the people!
For more things Melissa, go to www.melissaetheridge.com.