Ever since Melissa Etheridge came out of the closet at a 1993 presidential inauguration party, she's been a strong voice for gay pride, candidly discussing her 12-year relationship with lover Julie Cypher and the couple's decision to have children with a little help from sperm donor David Crosby.
Now, following her painful breakup with Cypher in September, Etheridge has evolved into a voice for the brokenhearted as well. True, she's always written emotive music with yearning vocals and insistent acoustic guitar strums tunes that sounded like breakup songs even though she was immersed in a long-term relationship. But on her new record, Skin, Etheridge, stinging from her split with Cypher, has crafted a confessional journey that aches with vulnerability and betrayal.
Two weeks before the album's July 10 release, Etheridge will open up even further with the release of her revealing, unflinching autobiography "The Truth Is ..."
Etheridge sets the tone for Skin with the bristling first track, "Lover Please," which begins with a lazy guitar rhythm and static-y electronic percussion but quickly evolves into a stormy distorted rocker, climaxing with a bluesy talk-box guitar solo.
As turbulent as the music is, the lyrics speak even louder: "Didn't I love you right?/ Then tell me where are you going dressed to kill tonight?/ Oh, this one's gonna hurt like hell."
"That was the first new song I wrote," Etheridge told VH1's Rebecca Rankin recently at the Soho Grand Hotel in New York. "[It's about] coming to the realization that [my relationship] is over and the only choice left is to break away. All the begging and pleading and fear is in that song."
The first single from Skin will be "I Want to Be in Love," a rootsy, melancholy song with a spare keyboard line, synths that glide like violins, and despairing vocals: "I have wrestled with my demons and woke up with only me/ Oh, I want to be in love."
"I think if 'Lover Please' was released first, people might think, 'Oh, she's so angry,'" Etheridge explained. "So it's nice that I had 'I Want to Be in Love' [to release first]. I do believe in love. I know because it exists in me. I believe it can exist in me and another person in a healthy, together way."
A video for "I Want to Be in Love," directed by David Hogan (Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow) and starring Jennifer Aniston, was shot last week in Los Angeles and will debut on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" the week of the album's release.
"Jennifer was my friend long before she met Brad [Pitt], and she was a true fan of my music," Etheridge said. "I mean, she'll sit down and [compliment me], and it's almost embarrassing. So she understood my music, and the timing worked out right. It was truly our friendship, our mutual respect of music and the places that we've come to in our lives that allowed us to come together and create something."
Although Skin contains obvious singles, Etheridge said the album is best absorbed as a full body of work. It's not exactly a concept record, but it does tell a story, chronicling the singer's recent feelings of betrayal ("Lover Please," "The Prison"), isolation ("Down to One," "Goodnight," "It's Only Me") and the realization that it's time to move on ("I Want to Be in Love," "Heal Me").
"Doing this record was a totally healing experience," she said. "People have asked me if I've maybe given away too much with it, but writing and performing music has always been the safest place for me. I grew up in an emotionally repressed environment where I couldn't put anything out, [and now] I can put out and receive emotion in this very safe place. This is probably the first time that the world knows exactly what I'm talking about, but that's the type of artist I am. I write from what I know."
On past albums, Etheridge has worked with a variety of other musicians and producers, but for Skin she wanted the performances to be as personal as possible, so she played nearly all the instruments herself (guitar, harmonica, keyboard, mandolin) and produced the record with the help of David Cole (Richard Marx, Mariah Carey). It was a fairly ambitious and involved endeavor, especially when you consider that Etheridge hadn't even planned to create a new album before breaking up with Cypher.
"I was going to write my book and maybe do a theatrical play," she said. "Then my life took a serious change, and I went in and did what I had to do personally, which is write music about what I'm going through. I was trying to help heal myself by writing these songs, and I realized after I had written them that they were really good. So I called my manager and said, 'Get me in the studio.'"
Since Etheridge wrote and recorded Skin on her own, it makes sense that she'll embark on a solo tour to support the record. The Live and Alone tour starts in Washington, D.C., on August 6 and runs through September 30 in Denver.
"Once again, it's a singular thing," she said. "But it's not just me sitting on a stool or anything. I so can't do that. It's my interpretation of my music and my songs through myself. I'll play acoustic and electric guitar and keyboards. It's going to be a little lonely, but that's OK 'cause I will really appreciate when I do tour with a band again."
As if Skin doesn't reveal enough about Etheridge's personal life, her book provides enough juicy information about her dysfunctional upbringing, her gay lifestyle and her split with Cypher to satisfy even The National Enquirer.
"One reason I wrote it was because people go in and they find things about you and turn them into little sound bites. And it's like, wait, we're talking about 10 years of my life. There's so much more to it. It meant a lot to me to be able to tell the whole story and have control over how it's presented."
Melissa Etheridge tour dates, according to Island Records:
- 7/22 - Winter Park, CO @ Winter Park Ski Area
- 8/6 - Washington, DC @ Warner Theatre
- 8/7 - Washington, DC @ Warner Theatre
- 8/8 - Washington, DC @ Warner Theatre
- 8/11 - New York, NY @ City Center
- 8/12 - New York, NY @ City Center
- 8/13 - New York, NY @ City Center
- 8/14 - New York, NY @ City Center
- 8/16 - Lowell, MA @ Lowell Memorial Auditorium
- 8/17 - Lowell, MA @ Lowell Memorial Auditorium
- 8/18 - Montreal, QC @ Place des Arts
- 8/24 - Toronto, ON @ Massey Hall
- 8/25 - Detroit, MI @ Detroit Opera House
- 8/26 - Detroit, MI @ Detroit Opera House
- 8/28 - Chicago, IL @ Chicago Theatre
- 8/29 - Chicago, IL @ Chicago Theatre
- 9/4 - Atlanta, GA @ Atlanta Civic Center Theatre
- 9/5 - Atlanta, GA @ Atlanta Civic Center Theatre
- 9/7 - Miami Beach, FL @ Jackie Gleason Theater
- 9/8 - Miami Beach, FL @ Jackie Gleason Theater
- 9/10 - Fort Worth, TX @ Will Rogers Auditorium
- 9/11 - Fort Worth, TX @ Will Rogers Auditorium
- 9/14 - Long Beach, CA @ Terrace Theater
- 9/15 - Long Beach, CA @ Terrace Theater
- 9/16 - Long Beach, CA @ Terrace Theater
- 9/17 - Tempe, AZ @ Gammage Auditorium
- 9/20 - Oakland, CA @ Paramount Theatre
- 9/21 - Oakland, CA @ Paramount Theatre
- 9/22 - Oakland, CA @ Paramount Theatre
- 9/24 - Vancouver, BC @ Queen Elizabeth Theatre
- 9/25 - Seattle, WA @ Seattle Center Opera House
- 9/26 - Seattle, WA @ Seattle Center Opera House
- 9/29 - Denver, CO @ Paramount Theatre
- 9/30 - Denver, CO @ Paramount Theatre