Concert Spotlight: Interview with Melissa Etheridge

Rock Superstar’s First Ever Carnegie Hall Performance Celebrating the Music of Aretha Franklin

Melissa EtheridgeGrammy-and Academy Award-winning Kansas native Melissa Etheridge has been recording music for nearly 30 years. The blues rock guitarist and singer-songwriter brings her grit and vocal power to Carnegie Hall for the first time March 6 for a one- night-only celebration called The Music of Aretha Franklin.

Joining a range of noteworthy musicians such as Kenny Loggins, Taj Mahal, Todd Rundgren, Glen Hansard, Allen Stone, G.Love, CeeLo Green, Ledisi, Sam Moore and more, the evening will consist of soul singer Aretha Franklin’s greatest hits, with many surprises, collaborations, and possibly Aretha herself hitting the stage. Longtime Franklin fan Melissa Etheridge spoke with NYC Monthly about her love for the vocal icon, how her 2005 Grammys performance is still talked about on a regular basis, and some of her best memories of visiting and living in New York past and present.

How did you come to be involved in The Music of Aretha Franklin celebration at Carnegie Hall?

Any opportunity to sing an Aretha Franklin song is a dream come true. I’ve never performed inside Carnegie Hall, and I’ve never walked in the doors. When you grow up, as a child Carnegie Hall is an example of greatness. Growing up in Kansas it was the ultimate of music; it’s always been in my mind.

In 2005, you did a duet with Joss Stone for a tribute to Janis Joplin with both “Cry Baby” and “Piece of My Heart.” You were on your way to beating cancer and fighting on that stage in a way I think Janis would have loved. It was one of the most powerful Grammys performances I’ve ever seen.

I swear a week doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t mention that performance, and it’s been 12 years. It definitely was a huge point in my life. I had gone through cancer, I had gone through the treatments, I had radiation treatment that morning before the Grammys performance, I had just finished my last radiation and chemo.

I had not been out in public for months, and to go to the Staples Center and this worldwide stage was kind of crazy yet it was so important for me, and I said dammit, I’m going to do the best I can. I’m just grateful for that opportunity, personally for myself and also something that can affect so many people.

This is M.E.was your 13th album, you had a live compilation A Little Bit of Me: Live in L.A. and most recently your 2016 record MEmphis Rock and Soul. You have appeared on The View, Good Morning America, and Live with Kelly and Michael to promote your records, among other shows. What’s it like writing and recording songs now that you are no longer just a musician, but also a family person, a mom, someone with some life experience?

Well sure, it’s very different in that I’m not the 20s/early 30s young woman running around finding myself being in rock & roll, falling in love, getting my heart broke; those are the things I was writing about. You become a mother, you get older, you see life through a different perspective, and then going through cancer that flipped everything on its head. And yes, that does change the music.

I will write from memory, I will write from this or that, but most of my music is geared toward a healing aspect of music and experience. In October, I put out an album MEmphis Rock & Soul. That was an opportunity to go back with my voice and sing some good old broken songs. The time I spend on the road and the work I’m doing is different, but it’s exactly what I want to be doing right now.

Do you have any particularly special stories about your times visiting or touring New York City?

Well, I have had such a relationship with New York City in that I went to Boston, Berklee College of Music. So in 1979 I went through West Point to visit some friends and the train went through NYC, and it was the first time I’d seen it. Driving through the train in Harlem, my first impression was: this is frightening. And I got signed to Island Records, which was New York-based. To me it was just overwhelming. “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” just rang true to me. I remember playing The Bottom Line and that was huge to me, and by the time Yes I Am came out and I got to play Madison Square Garden, that was huge to me, another big dream.

So later, when I got together with my wife (Linda Wallem), she was the creator of Nurse Jackie and she had an apartment in New York City, and so once I started living there even though I’m based in Los Angeles, I’d go to the apartment. That is a completely different way of being in New York City.

I was walking down 14th Street with my wife and this woman, she was a Latina woman, goes “hey,” and she goes “I see you mama,” and it was such a sweet New York fist bump moment, like she was a big fan. And that’s how New Yorkers treat each other, I don’t need your autograph but hey, I see you. The way New York City holds itself, it’s a really special city. And my daughter goes to Columbia University; she’s a sophomore and loves it.

You are sharing the stage for the Aretha celebration with so many other greats: Kenny Loggins, Taj Mahal, Todd Rundgren and more…and maybe Aretha, herself, will even join you on the stage. What is it about this one-time special event that will be particularly noteworthy for you, and why do you think fans should not miss out?

Oh you’re not ever going to get an opportunity to see me sing the song I sing. It’s just such a celebration. My fans know that when I do something I do it 150%. I just love Aretha Franklin and soul music, and it’s a great cause. And it’s my first time at Carnegie Hall. Oh yes, my parents were big fans. She’s just a goddess and a queen.