Medicine Mama

Newly rocked-up Melissa Etheridge hits Hampton Beach

On her latest album Melissa Etheridge leads off rocking, with a title song focused on a favorite topic. It’s what Queen’s “We Will Rock You” would sound like if it was about legal weed, and its anthemic chorus is a singalong staple at shows.

The Medicine Show, Etheridge’s first collection of originals since 2014’s This Is M.E., is also one of her best. Standouts include “Faded By Design,” which echoes her hit “Come to My Window,” the grownup love song “I Know You,” and “Last Hello,” a tearjerker written to honor victims and survivors of the Parkland mass shooting.

A recent phone interview began with discussion of a new song that finds Etheridge calling on people’s better angels.

Your idea for “This Human Chain” came from real events, right?

Yeah. The last couple of years I was kind of taking the temperature of America, and we have a fever. I was looking for something good and [found] this story of this guy who was drowning and people on the beach formed a human chain and pulled him in. I thought human chain, I like that… I was thinking at the time they came together, I’m sure no one asked about their sexual preference or who they voted for, they all just grabbed hands and saved someone, because that’s what we do. We’re humans. Later, because I wanted to talk about it in concert, I said maybe I should find out what beach that was, so I Googled [and] found about 10 stories of different times that people were drowning and people formed a human chain, and thought oh my God, this happened more than once…

“Faded By Design” sounds like you’re telling the hounds of hell they’re barking up the wrong tree, and it’s also a way of saying every day is a treasure. Is that a good read of what you were trying to get across?

Absolutely! It’s like… I know you might not understand plant medicine is medicine, you might not understand these choices I’m making, might not understand why, it might be scary to you but don’t worry. This is something that’s been around for thousands of years, and it’s a choice. This is by design. 

When you got the cancer diagnosis and began self-medicating, was it new to you?

I was just a social sort of smoker. If someone else had it, maybe I’d take a puff.  I didn’t understand it as medicine until my good friend David Crosby, when I was started chemo, said, ‘look, you gotta take the marijuana… my friends say that’s the only thing.’ I thought well, I’ll look into this. After the first chemo they handed me all these pills – ‘this one’s for pain, this one’s gonna make you constipated, so this one’s for that’ – and I thought, oh my God I’ve already got all these chemicals that they just pumped in me, this is insane. So I started smoking regularly, every day, all day long. Yet it wasn’t to get high, but to feel normal… when I realized that, I just came out and said I have to be an advocate, this has to be a choice. 

It’s been 15 years since your cancer diagnosis; how do you feel today?

Cancer free for 15 years! I am happier – healthier than I’ve ever been.  I have a clear understanding of how important my health is. That it is my number one priority every day, because if I got that I can handle everything else. If I don’t have that, I can’t handle anything. So taking care of myself is the best thing I can do for my loved ones and of course for myself. 

“Love Will Live” is a very defiant song; you’re saying, ‘the world is moving forward whether some people want it to or not.’ What do you think of the cultural changes that have happened since you came out? 

Yeah, I’ve been very inspired by the last couple of years, the movement forward, how we treat each other. The secrets that so many women, and men also, had to bear, and the burden of shame, all the crazy stuff; it’s all coming out and it’s intense but it’s so good for us. I wanted to stay out of victimhood, that part of it. It’s a fine line between a victim and a judge, and for this song I wanted to write right in the middle. Make it just be about my own power so that someone maybe who was going through this or has this situation can find strength and not be pulled under by it and that is why it’s like, ‘things are gonna change RIGHT NOW!’ I love being able to scream that on stage, just rock it; it just feels really good. 

On a lighter note, you put out The Medicine Show on vinyl, did you pay a lot of attention to track sequencing?

Sequencing took a long time. The heavier songs, certainly the last song, ‘Last Hello’ – I just couldn’t follow it up, couldn’t put another song after it. 

Well, you’re famous for heavy last songs on your records

Thank you! You’re just gonna be sitting there going along, and then, ‘oh, man’ (laughs). I wanted to greet you with ‘The Medicine Show’ – Wake up, stand up, this is serious, I mean this, wow this is huge… I didn’t want it to be too choppy or too heavy at one point or too light, so I really worked on sequencing it. I can’t help but think that people, at least once, are going to sit down and listen to it all the way through. 

Final question; you went to Berklee College of Music early on. What are your memories?

I loved my time at Berklee. It was 1979, there wasn’t a whole lot of women there, so it was a little difficult; that certainly changed. But the best part was this girl from the Midwest coming into New England and just feeling at home. It was a great experience for a small town girl to get to know the New England way of life. I really appreciated it. 

Melissa Etheridge

When: Wednesday, August 21, 8 p.m. Where: Casino Ballroom, 169 Ocean Blvd., Hampton Beach Tickets: $29-$69 at casinoballroom.com

This story appears in the 15 August 2019 issues of Hippo Press and Seacoast Scene

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