Photos by: Lauren Dukoff
For over three decades, Melissa Etheridge has been one of modern rock and pop music’s most powerful voices, as well as one of its most engaged activists. Though she had achieved moderate success in the late ’80s, 1993 marked the year Etheridge both broke into the mainstream with her pivotal Grammy Award-winning album Yes I Am and fearlessly came out publicly as a lesbian. In the years that followed, Etheridge toured all over the world, enjoyed continued mainstream success with her music, and used her platform to speak out for LGBTQ rights and raise money for a variety of charities.
In 2004, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and took a break from public life to undergo treatment. Ever since she successfully beat the disease with radiation therapy, Etheridge has become an avid supporter of cannabis legalization, telling CULTURE back in 2010 that “. . . cannabis during chemotherapy was just a lifesaver. It was a pain reliever; it gave me my appetite back . . . the benefits go on and on and on and on.” Her convictions would lead her to become one of the first famous women to enter the cannabis industry commercially.
Recently, CULTURE got the chance to catch up again with Etheridge and hear all about writing new music and performing with 30-plus years of experience under her belt, as well as her cannabis business venture, Etheridge Farms, which anticipates a rollout of its new products in early- to mid-2020.
You released a new record called The Medicine Show earlier this year, and 2019 is also the 30th anniversary of your second album, Brave and Crazy. What’s changed for you in your approach to record making between now and when you got started?
Thirty years ago, it was the record that got you in front of people, it was the record company that promoted it, and you put a record out and you could tour behind it. The record always led everything. Over the last 30 years I’d gotten into a cycle of putting out a record pretty much every two years. I’d make the record, put it out, tour for a year, and continue touring while I was making the next one. A few years ago, it started changing. With the shrinking of the record and radio market, anything that wasn’t geared toward 13- to 17-year-olds didn’t have a space. My career then very much evolved, and I became much more of a live artist who every now and then gets to put out a record.
“My cannabis business is requiring a lot of my attention right now, and so I thought, ‘It’s OK if I’m not running right back into writing a new album. It’s fine.’ I think The Medicine Show is still just finding people, and the more I tour for it, then the more people will know it. I think I can take my time.”
Is it liberating to not feel the pressure to put out a record every two years?
The funny thing is, I still make them every two years [laughs]. Just because it’s kind of a habit; it’s the rhythm. It’s funny though, because just the other day I was thinking, “Wow! I don’t have to go into writing if I don’t want to right now.” My cannabis business is requiring a lot of my attention right now, and so I thought, “It’s OK if I’m not running right back into writing a new album. It’s fine.” I think The Medicine Show is still just finding people, and the more I tour for it, then the more people will know it. I think I can take my time.
Is it still scary or intimidating to put new music out there after all these years, or does it just feel natural?
I really enjoy social media now. When I used to put a record out, the only feedback I’d get were from people I knew personally, the record company, the radio maybe and reviewers. Once I went on tour, if people applauded, I’d think, “Oh, they liked that!” But I never got to get an immediate response from the fans, the ones I really make my music for, until about 10 years ago when I got on social media. To be able to hear instantly from people who left work, bought my album, listened to it, and let me know what they think of it, that makes it not as scary anymore. I remember that Rolling Stone didn’t even review Yes I Am, they just didn’t even touch it, and at the time I was saying, “Oh my God!” But a year later it was massive. So, I don’t get my feelings hurt like that anymore.
“Because of the regulations, the black market is still very strong, and it makes being in the regulated market and making a commitment to follow all the rules really expensive; it’s hard to be compliant.”
When you go into writing mode, do you still draw on the same things for inspiration that you did earlier in your career?
I draw inspiration from my life, so that’s what’s changed. Thank God I’m not going to write another “Am I Only One” because that’s a heartbreaking song; that came from a whole lot of pain. I’m glad I’m not writing that anymore. When I went through cancer 15 years ago, that was a really spiritual awakening and marked a big change in my life, so I wrote a lot from that. Now, I find myself in my late 50s, and I’m looking at the world, love, life and spirit. I’m drawing from the same things I’ve always drawn on, they’re just different now.
You mentioned earlier how your cannabis business is taking up more and more of your time, and that’s something we here at CULTURE are very fascinated by. Your company, Etheridge Farms, received its business license earlier this year. How exciting has that been for you?
It has been an intense, exciting journey. Ten years ago I thought, “Ah, this’ll be a piece of cake!” And I jumped into the cannabis industry, and it has been a real journey, and I’ve learned a lot. I hooked up with a couple of very honest, respectable and credible people who manufacture and know the cannabis industry. I partnered up with them; they’re the ones in [Santa Cruz , California] where we got our license from, and we’re the first and only manufacturing license for cannabis in Santa Cruz County. With Etheridge Farms, the main focus is medicinal. I feel like so much of the cannabis industry has lost sight and the opportunity to reach people about how great of a medicinal plant cannabis is.
“I feel like so much of the cannabis industry has lost sight and the opportunity to reach people about how great of a medicinal plant cannabis is.”
Can you tell us a bit about the mission of Etheridge Farms and what you hope to achieve with it?
The mission is to bring quality, organic medicine to people in order to alleviate pain and bring an understanding of wellness and where cannabis fits into that.
How hands-on are you with product development?
Oh, completely. My partners and my wife and I are ground up on this. That’s why I’ve gone through this, that’s why I didn’t white label, because I wanted to know about it from seed to shelf. I know exactly what’s happening here, because that’s the kind of medicine I want.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that you want to help create representation for middle aged women in the cannabis industry with Etheridge Farms. Why do you think they’ve been neglected?
Because it’s not very sexy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had women come to me and say, “Explain all of this to me, because I can’t go into a dispensary.” They’re intimidated to go in because it’s not marketed to them—it’s marketed to people who already understand cannabis, are young and hip and are using it recreationally. If a woman wants help with menopause, she’s not going to go in and talk to a 23-year-old hipster. She’s not going to do that. These are women who have been taking Ambien and drinking wine every night and are done with it, because it’s taking a toll on them and their bodies.
You’ve been an advocate for cannabis legalization for a long time now. Is it validating to see states and even the beginnings of the federal government starting to come around to legalization after so many years?
It’s amazing! I love how far it’s come, but there’s still so much misinformation out there, and the regulations are almost impossible. Because of the regulations, the black market is still very strong, and it makes being in the regulated market and making a commitment to follow all the rules really expensive; it’s hard to be compliant.
To get back to the music, you’ve got a bunch of dates coming up to round out the end of the year. Earlier you talked about how your songwriting has changed over the years, how has your approach and appreciation for touring changed since you first started?
I’ve grown so much as a performer and as a human being. It’s funny, I had some friends over from out of town the other night, and I’d just gotten this new TV. We were checking all the features on this smart TV—we found YouTube and started watching all of these old videos of me that I hadn’t seen in forever on this big massive screen [laughs]. I was watching myself from 1990 and thinking, “Aw!” And having an appreciation of how well I could do back then and also remembering my state of mind and how I never took any of it in. I think the big difference is that now I can take it in. I’m not a tortured 27- or 33-year-old—I believe in myself. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I’ve got to be good at it or I wouldn’t be able to do it, and I’m able to relax and go, “Wow! I enjoy this!” About 10 years ago I started playing more lead guitar, I mean like really getting up and playing guitar deeply and practicing, and it has made my joy of performing just triple. I’m not just singing and accompanying myself, now I get to stand up there and play guitar solos and I really, really enjoy that. My experience of performing has deepened, and I’m just so grateful.
“Oh Lord, between my children, my music and my cannabis, that’s pretty much my life! […] I enjoy it, but it takes a lot of focus, and the music is there to relieve me of my tension.”
In addition to all of these wonderful things you’ve got going on, do you have any other additional ambitions for yourself, your music or your companies in this year and beyond?
Oh Lord, between my children, my music and my cannabis, that’s pretty much my life! Really though, with the cannabis business we are set to finally put out product by the end of summer 2020, so that’s taking a lot of my focus. I enjoy it, but it takes a lot of focus, and the music is there to relieve me of my tension. I’m just living life.