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Melissa Etheridge, 62: ‘There Was No Plan B’ for My Career

The Grammy winner discusses her musical heroes, her big hit song and her unconventional voice


VIDEO: Melissa Etheridge Rewinds Her Career’s Biggest Moments

Melissa Etheridge isn’t shy about reflecting on her life. This fall, the 62-year-old singer-songwriter released her second memoir, Talking to My Angels, and performed a limited-engagement Broadway show, Melissa Etheridge: My Window, featuring storytelling and music. Next up is a documentary about a recent concert she played at a women’s prison in her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas, as well as a corresponding live album. We sat down with Etheridge for insights into some important moments from her past.

What do you consider your musical awakening?

My mother and father had a really cool record collection of ’50s and ’60s artists, and so I kind of grew up with music. But the big aha moment was probably when I was 6 or 7 or 8. My parents took me into Kansas City to see the movie Funny Girl. And when Barbra Streisand was singing “People,” it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard and seen. It opened the floodgates to want to create music and make people feel like that. Ray Charles had that effect on me, too. When I heard him on the radio, it touched a place inside of me.

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What was the first record you bought with your own money?

My father bought me my first record, and that was Carole King’s Tapestry. I loved that. And I think the first one I bought with my own money might have been, like, Loggins and Messina. But my sister was four years older than me; she was the rock and roll wild child. She had Led Zeppelin; she had the Rolling Stones, Humble Pie — great heavy rock artists. And later I started listening to that. I [was] probably right around 15, you know, right when you really start changing.

spinner image singer songwriter melissa etheridge posing for a a r p
Photo by Dylan Coulter

When did making your own music happen?

My father brought a guitar home for my sister when I was 8, and I begged and pleaded to play it. They said, “No, your fingers will bleed.” I went and took lessons and my fingers did bleed, but I kept playing. I got serious at 10 and started writing, and it started unfolding. I was in a talent show, then I was playing in prisons and old folks’ homes. From there, I played in country bands in bars. Now I have very strong calluses.

Did you have a plan B for your career?

No, I never learned to be anything else. I was able at a very young age, at 12 years old, to make money singing. So I always knew, hey, I could go down to the mall and put my guitar case out and, you know, eat. So there was no plan B. I was just going to go as far as it took me.

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You have such a unique voice. Where did that come from? You probably didn’t sound this way at 12.

I did have a very strange voice as a kid. The choir teacher used to stand me in the back because my voice was so strange. I could sing well, but I sounded different than the other kids. I started singing in whiskey-and-smoke-filled bars when I was 12. And I starting singing country music first, like Tammy Wynette, who would sing with big full-throated songs, and Linda Ronstadt — all those artists that I really admired. I never understand how low my voice is until I’m on the phone and someone says, “Yes, sir, what can I do for you?”

spinner image singer songwriter melissa etheridge standing with a guitar
Photo by Dylan Coulter

You had a top 10 hit in 1993 with ‘I’m the Only One.’ How did that song come about?

It’s just an old blues riff, and I was in a relationship that brought me some heartache. And I was thinking about how this person was attracted to another person. And it was like, “Ah, come on, you know that I’m the only one.” I never wanted to write a song that was like, “Oh poor me.” I needed to say, “No, you’re wrong.” And God, I still love doing this song live because people just raise their fists and it’s very cathartic for me every time.

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