“Growing up,” Melissa Etheridge says with a sigh and then a smile. “Yeah. Sometimes growing up involves looking back and getting power from it. Not being pulled down, not regretting. There’s no regrets. There’s no doing anything differently. It’s understanding what I had to do to get where I am now, and loving where I am now and feeling the power I have now.”
Etheridge is considering her new album, One Way Out. The core of the album is seven songs she wrote in the late 1980s and early ‘90s —“One Way Out,” “As Cool As You Try,” “I’m No Angel Myself,” “For the Last Time,” “Save Myself,” “That Would Be Me” and. “Wild Wild Wild.” Rounding out the set are two other previously unreleased songs, “You Have No Idea” and “Life Goes On,” recorded at an intimate and boisterous 2002 concert at the Roxy in West Hollywood.
These songs bristle with energy and emotion, a rock ’n’ roll edge and personal depth as sharp as anything in her canon. The first seven come from a time in which she was finding her first measures of fame with bolstered confidence and ambition. But it was also before she was ready to be fully open about herself. These songs show her finding her voice, but when it came to it she wasn’t ready yet to say it in public.
“It was an emotional space, a tender sort of place that I was reluctant to go to before I came out,” she says. “So yeah, I did hold back on that sort of thing. And now it was really fun to just step forward and fearlessly present these songs and play them. You know, really being set free.”
In 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, Etheridge came across these songs again and found that they spoke to her anew with fresh vantage. A lot had happened in the intervening years. Etheridge had come out, become a parent, risen to status of multi-platinum album sales and top concert headliner, was diagnosed and recovered from breast cancer, won an Academy Award (for her song “I Need to Wake Up” from Al Gore’s climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, gotten married, taken on activist roles on various fronts and had continued to record and tour at as fierce a pace as always. With all of that, these songs needed to be given new voice, new settings.
“I got this idea to get the band back together,” she says. “The original, very first band I ever toured with, which was Kevin McCormick on bass, Fritz Lewak on drums and John Shanks on guitar. These guys are monsters.”
McCormick has been on board since the start of Etheridge’s rise, not just anchoring her band but co-producing her first three albums and co-writing several songs with her. He and Lewak were with her as they barnstormed the country playing anywhere they could even before her 1988 debut album was released. And Shanks came on board shortly after, getting his footing in what would become a career that saw him as a Grammy Award-winning producer and songwriter, including ultimately co-producing Etheridge’s 1999 album, Breakdown.
Completing the reunion was Niko Bolas, who also co-produced and engineered Etheridge’s debut album and its follow-up, 1989’s Brave and Crazy.
Decades had gone by since they’d all last worked together. But when they got going, the years melted away.
“On the first day we had just walked in — Kevin, Fritz and me,” she says. “We had our hugs — I hadn’t seen Kevin in a while. It was emotional and it was wonderful.”
That day it was just the three of them, as it was in the early days on the road together and as the core in the studio making her first several albums. Hugs done, they got set up with Niko Bolas producing and engineering, as he had done on the early albums as well, and got right to work, banging out the song “Wild Wild Wild.”
“That’s the first recording,” she says of this reunion kick-off. “That’s the first take of the first recording. We sat down and I sort of ran through the pattern of the song with them and said, ‘Hey, let’s try one.’ And I played it and sang it. At the end, if you turn it up, you’ll hear me go, ‘Well, it goes something like that.’ And at the start you’ll hear this kind of laugh and a breath that I did in the microphone, because it was like getting in an old shoe. ‘Oh yeah! I remember this. This feels great!’”
And the tone of the sessions was set.
“It so much about barroom rock ’n’ roll, you know?” she says. “It’s ‘Let’s go!’ Count it off: One two three four BAM!”
It took her right back to when they were first together, driving from gig to gig in the early days.
“There’s this chemistry,” she says. “There’s magic. We played night after night after night after night for five years straight. I remember one time we did 10 shows in a row. I went, ‘Yeah, we’re not doing that again.’ But we did it!”
“Wild Wild Wild” itself was originally recorded in 1990 for the album Never Enough, but left in the can.
“I threw it out at the time,” Etheridge says. “I thought it was a little too upfront. I wasn’t out yet. It’s a little intimate.”
Shanks, who’d had his first major touring experience joining Etheridge’s band in 1988 and staying for several years — came in the next day of the new sessions.
“The title track, ‘One Way Out,’ that’s a song that I had started in the studio back then and I even have a recording of it,” she says. “It’s me and John playing, and then the track just stops in the middle. I stop, and I never got back to it. It’s like I got frustrated with the song. And now when I heard it again it’s like, ‘Oh! This song rocks. Why am I not doing this song?’ So it was great. John and I just turned up our guitars and it’s just full-on rock.”
Shanks, of course, went on from his early time with Etheridge to become a multi-Grammy Award-winning producer and songwriter working with Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Stevie Nicks, Kelly Clarkson, Michelle Branch, not to mention producing Etheridge’s 1999 Grammy-nominated album Breakdown and 2010’s Fearless Love. Etheridge admits that she was a little sheepish having him not only to step back into just being a band member here, but also to let him know that she would be handling the majority of the lead guitar work, something she’d been doing since 2010.
“John was like, ‘Really? You don’t want me to produce?’” she says. “And I said, ‘No, dude. I want you to play the guitar.’ And it was really raw, just perfect.”
The tight group gives a sonic thread that ties together many of the song, a tough, sexy, swampy, edgy feel with some echoes of the Rolling Stones here, T. Rex or Suzy Quatro there.
“It was very reflective of that great, core rock ’n’ roll,” she says. “Niko said, ‘We’re doing it as live as we can.’ It’s all about the rhythm, all about the beat, and Niko just getting the sounds massive, huge.”
The stomping “As Cool As You Try” is a prime example, the beat pounding out a core message that has infused rock since it began, that you can write your own story, create your own image.
“‘As Cool As You Try’ is probably more relevant now than ever, since identity is where we’re at now,” she says. “There’s no longer that one thing that makes you cool. You just have to feel cool yourself and you’re cool. That’s basically what I’m saying.”
She turns more ruminative on a few songs, including “I’m No Angel Myself,” written to a former partner.
“It’s about finally just getting over something and forgiving somebody and going, ‘You and I are so similar, and I get it. I understand you. You know, I’m no angel myself,” she says. “I remember writing that out and then after I wrote it I went, ‘Right, I’m not going to record that.’ And so it sat for a long time and then I went, ‘Wait! This is really a good song!’ And I was just so far past that. I’m two divorces past that! It’s such a memory of the past now that I can sing it and enjoy the song for what it is. And it’s very beautiful. It’s one of my favorite songs now.”
That sense liberation to say what’s in your heart, to be able to be yourself loudly and proudly, was behind an off-the-cuff spoken preamble Etheridge made as the band was vamping the intro on “For the Last Time,” another crisp rocker.
“We were just kind of swamping it up and I just started telling a story to get them in the mood,” she says. “We’re playing and I just started talking about what the song was about, how things were getting hard back then. I was just setting the mood, and of course Niko kept it in. And again it’s 100% live, the vocal.”
Somehow that message ring truer today, even shadowed by with some tough, tragic turns. In the past year she’s had to find ways to break through grief after the death of her son Becket and isolation of the pandemic, channeling her emotional and creative energies into EtheridgeTV, live video sessions five nights a week from her garage studio mixing solo performances, insightful conversations about her life and career and much-coveted connections with her loyal, supportive fans. And now having just celebrated her 60th birthday (and that of her wife Linda Wallem, the two of them born on the same day just five hours apart) with a concert at Los Angeles’ Ace Hotel in front of a scaled-down audience, she finds these songs and these performances more expressive, deeper, richer, more in-the-moment than they seemed even back when she wrote and recorded them.
The two Roxy songs, though from a different time, fit perfectly with the others, both for the live electricity and the spirit. Backed by her then-steady band of bassist Mark Brown, guitarist James Harrah and sensational drummer Kenny Aronoff, she thrilled the crowd packed into the small club with the new songs.
“‘You Have No Idea’ is so much fun,” she says. “You can hear me smiling as the audience hears the lyrics for the first time.”
It was an instant sing-along, with the audience joining in on the chorus’ sha-la-las.
“And the same with ‘Life Goes On.’ Everyone was singing along,” she says. “Sometimes I get embarrassed about what I write and I don’t understand it. Now it’s almost 20 years later. But it’s about being crazy, fresh and brave.”
The song itself was about looking back, and in it she has some fun with some ‘80s references.
“The audience was going nuts when I was playing,” she says. “I go a little flat on one of the choruses and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I want to release this.’ My wife said, ‘Nobody’s going to know!’ I said, ‘Okay. It’s warts and all. This is a live performance. Here you go!’”
And that, as much as anything, is the thread of One Way Out, the excitement of standing up and saying who you are, and saying it loud, with rock ’n’ roll. For that, it couldn’t come at a better time.
“To me the arc of One Way Out is that there’s a strength in pure rock ’n’ roll, and I was made to play rock ’n’ roll,” she says. “These are things that I hadn’t grown into yet. I’ve found my power now and can now sit comfortably in the driver’s seat of these songs and present them enthusiastically. And I can’t wait to get out and play them.”