SHEDDING HER SKIN by Dennis Hensley
To say that Melissa Etheridge’s new CD, Skin, gets off to a provocative start with the song “Lover, Please” would be a major understatement.
A shot in the dark, she sings.
I woke up to find
You had broke all the rules
And you changed your mind
Didn’t I love you good?
Didn’t I love you right?
And where are you goin’ dressed to kill tonight?
Oh, this is going to hurt like hell.
Etheridge lowers the volume, retrieves her visitor’s jaw from the floor, then laughs the way you do when you fear you may have revealed too much. “This CD is where my personal and professional lives have truly collided,” reveals the singer, reclining on the sofa in the living room of the Brentwood, CA home she moved into in November. “All my work is autobiographical but this is right out the headlines. It’s so clear and so…ouch!”
Ouch is right, for the headlines she’s referring to, of course, are the ones from last October that announced that she and her partner, filmmaker Julie Cypher, were splitting up after twelve years. The news, coming hot on the heals of the Ellen-Anne break-up sent ripples of shock and sadness through the gay community. After all, we had just seen them on the cover of Rolling Stone, beaming like girls in love, as they told the world that the biological father of their two children, Bailey, 4, and Beckett, 2, was, in fact, their friend, rocker David Crosby. What happened?
This is the first interview Etheridge has granted since the break-up and, boy, is there a lot to cover. In addition to the changes in her personal life and living situation (Cypher resides in a house just across the back alley), there’s her ongoing gig as the host of Lifetime’s Beyond Chance and a book of lyrics and extremely personal reminiscences due this fall called The Truth Is.
But what we really want to know is, how is she Melissa Etheridge doing? Is the woman whose songs and activism have kept us fired up for over a decade going to be okay? “In the last year, I’ve learned that doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you,” the jeans and T-shirt clad rocker says with a laugh, “and that I’m stronger than I thought and that I have more power than I thought.” Etheridge cranks up the volume in time to hear herself scream ‘Oh God!” backwards on the CD’s emotionally raw fifth track, “It’s Only Me,” then smiles. “And I like myself more than I ever have.”
THE ADVOCATE: Why did you name your new CD Skin?
Because there’s like three or four references to getting out of my skin and getting back in.
So how naked are you on the cover?
(Laughs) I took some pictures that showed my shoulders and the new tattoo on the back of my neck that says “Skin” in white ink.
Did it hurt?
It hurt in that kind of good way, and at the end, the guy put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Congratulations, now you’re one of us.” It was a cool feeling because I’d been so used to “I’m gay” and that’s what I am.
And you can’t be anything else.
Right, and he and I could not be more different.
This morning I spoke with David Cole, the co-producer / engineer on Skin. He said to tell you he was up till 3:00 AM remixing your single.
(Laughs) David saved my life. You gotta believe in the universe of fate or whatever. This summer, when I felt like things were going to have to change between Julie and I, at first I was like, "No, no, no.” We were trying everything possible that you do to try to salvage a relationship in the end. Then in September, we decided to split. Well, I'd had these plans to do a one-woman show, and a book about my lyrics and I just said, "Stop everything,” and, like when I was a teenager in Leavenworth, Kansas, I went into the basement and wrote songs. So I closed all my doors and I wrote songs. I had no plans to make a record but in two weeks, I had ten songs so I called my manager and said, "I want to be in the studio Monday, find me an engineer/producer who’s a nice guy because I'm going to be very vulnerable. David was the only one I met. I looked in his eyes, and I went, “Yeah.” He helped me through that whole period. He was there the day we had to tell everyone we were breaking up because The Star somehow found out.
How do you find out that the tabloids are going to run something?
They call you and say, "This is gonna run in two days. Do you have any comment?"
What does it feel to get a call like that?
It’s horrible. They must listen to cell phone conversations because they knew about us buying two houses. So in one night, we had to call everyone we knew that didn't know we were breaking up, which was mostly everybody.
Did you leave messages for the people who weren’t home?
Uh-huh. Only our closest friends knew so we had to call my family, her family. It was really awful.
And you were in the studio during that time?
Yes. I remember that feeling of ‘Well, today people are opening their newspapers and reading about me…and my failure.’ That's how I felt. I remember playing the music and it was so healing, this safe place I could go to when all this crap was going down. I don't care if anyone buys this record. It’s served its purpose.
Do you ever have a lyric come into your head and think. ‘This is exactly what I'm feeling, but it's not fair to the other people involved to put it out there.’
Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I have complete artistic license. I've always believed that.
Has that ever caused problems?
Oh yeah. Julie's been like, "Don't tell people that!" But it's my job. It's my art. I'm sorry, it's part of the deal.
If Eminem can do it…
So can I! At least I'm not locking you in a trunk.
Has Julie heard the new album yet?
Yeah. She hasn't said what she thinks about it.
When you made the announcement you were breaking up, did you feel like you were letting people down who had looked to you as role models? Like, “First, Ellen and Anne, and now us?”
Yeah. I remember when we found out about Ellen and Anne, we were arguing at the time. We were yelling at each other.
That’s a perfect scene for the TV movie.
(Laughs) It was crazy. Ellen called and we stopped in the middle of our argument and talked to her about how Anne was roaming around. This was before we heard it on the news. It was just a wickedly strange moment. I don’t live my life to be a role model. I realize that being open about my relationship has put me in that position but I’m not going to not break up because I’m a role model. I did see the waves that it sent through the community and it was sad. But I believe as people see how we’re dealing with our family, that anything that they had believed about us is still there. We’re still those people. We live, grow, change. Unfortunately.
Do you have a sense of what couldn’t be solved?
Ask me in a year, and I might be able to narrow it down to a sound byte. I’m still in the middle of it. I’m still struggling with why one person can’t -- what are the things that won’t allow them to push through obstacles and keep going... I don’t know. I don’t know.
What reactions from people have surprised you?
I thought that maybe it would be that thing where you lose friends in a divorce, but our friends have done really well. Because it’s not a nasty, ugly thing with Julie and I, they’ve been able to maintain both friendships. It’s new for me because Julie always kept the social thing together so it’s been a real lesson for me. Now I actually have to pick up the phone and go, “Um, you wanna do somethin’?”
You’ve only been living here since November. Yet, I have to say, the place feels like a home.
That was very important. We wanted the kids to feel as comfortable as possible as soon as possible. So we wanted to make the move together so it wasn't one of us moving out. Julie's place is right back there. (Gestures to her back yard)
You could borrow a cup of sugar if you want.
Have done that. Have said, “I don't have a pacifier.” It's very important to us, that even though our relationship changed, the family unit stayed together. The kids actually are doing really well. I certainly would rather be with them every day, but now, it's four days and four days.
This living arrangement seems great for the kids but do you ever think, for yourself, that you might need more space to heal?
If we didn’t have children, we definitely wouldn’t be living close to each other. I’ve sacrificed a bit of that need for space in order that I can still be close to my children. It’s totally worth it.
Do you think that they pick up on tension between you?
Well, I think they know that it’s not always fun when Julie and I cross paths. They see that it’s strained but I don’t see this lasting forever. When the kids are older, they will be better equipped for more space apart.
It just seems like it would be tough to look out your window and wonder, ‘Whose car is that?’
You can’t see any cars, just the back yard and it’s a big fence, so I don’t know what’s coming.
So I guess that means hot tub orgies in the back yard are out of the question.
Probably, yeah. But you never know. (Laughs)
Suddenly, Bailey, Etheridge’s dimpled and adorable four year-old daughter charges into the room with her caretaker. The pair are on a hunt for a missing Barbie. After introductions all around and a kiss for mommy, they’re off.
As a modern woman, do you have any thoughts on the Barbie phenomenon?
Barbie is. And there’s nothin’ I can do about it. (Laughs)
If you were Bailey’s age, what toy in this room would appeal to you?
Those trucks. Are you kidding?
Meanwhile, I would be dressing the Barbies and feeling ashamed about it.
I remember when my grandfather gave me a blue steel truck for Christmas and I cried. Cried. And my family were like, “What’s the matter?” And I couldn’t say…
That he was on to you.
That he was on to me. It was my favorite toy but it was also like, “Uh-oh, my secret’s out.”
What’s a day from your childhood you’d like to go back and relive?
Boy I don’t wanna go back. Maybe a day I spent fishing with my Dad.
What’s your relationship with your mom like now?
It’s been fun. We communicate much more now. It’s sort of forced that.
Your parents were children of alcoholics. What is your relationship like with alcohol and drugs?
Fortunately, I’ve never been addicted to any substance.
How the hell did you get a Behind The Music special then?
I think because I was queer. It’s like, “She worked hard. Her dreams came true. Doesn’t sound that interesting.”
“Thank God she’s gay!”
When you drank for the first time, were you conflicted about it?
No. I was playing in bars and watching people get drunk so I saw what it can do. By the time I got to high school, my friends were like, “Let’s get a six pack!” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll drive. Not interested.” It didn’t hold any mystery for me at all. The first time I was ever out of my mind, it was mescaline which is just this side of acid. I’d never been high or drunk and it was a total trip. I was in a club in Boston and I was out of my mind. I didn’t not do drugs or alcohol, but it was very recreational.
Tell me about your upcoming book, "The Truth Is".
I started it last year when things were different. I found with my last album that people wanted to know more about me personally so I thought maybe I can include lyrics and answer questions about growing up and coming out. Then the break-up happened and it became something else.
Was there a part of you that was dealing with the pain by working? Like, ‘I'm going to lose myself in work?’
I think that's what happened. As I felt things starting to unravel, I just tried to make myself very, very busy. But it was also healing. I would sit down for hours with my co-writer, Laura Morton, and it was like therapy. It was a major self-realization. Huge.
I think a lot of people would do the opposite in your situation and keep everything inside.
I kind of wish I could have done that, but that's not where I am. I'm definitely into purging, getting it out.
What was your process like with Laura?
She would just take me down roads, like ‘Who was your first girlfriend?” “What are you going through right now?” We finally had to get to that.
I read in the press release for it that you talk about being sexually abused by your older sister.
Well, the press release was not a press release of mine. It was very unfortunate what happened. Laura put out an outline that we sent to seven publishers. It’s an unwritten rule that they are not for public consumption. We made a deal and the next week that outline was sent out to the media by someone at one of these publishing houses. I still don't know who. I mean, there's one small part about my sister, and being sexually abused but it's not what the book is about. Of course, the media zeroes in on that one thing. I had to call my sister and my mom, who I hadn't talked about the book with.
How did they react?
Not good. It's the truth, so I can't say it's not, but unfortunately my mom and my sister think I'm writing a tell-all book where I'm gonna slander my family, and that's not it all.
But it is in the book?
Yeah. It's interesting people's perceptions about that issue. I know that my sister thinks, ‘Oh, I was just playing doctor.’ But to me, it was definitely abuse and fear and control. In the book, you'll see the theme that was sort of set up with that in my relationships; my taking care of people.
How old were you?
I blocked a lot of it out but I believe it started when I was about seven or eight and lasted until I was about ten. My sister’s four years older than me.
When you were sitting down to work on the book, did you think, ‘Is it right to talk about this?’
I knew that I would. I knew that it would not be like me to leave something like that out. I’ve gotten this far by speaking the truth. How could I not speak the complete truth because I’m ashamed or something?
Because you don’t want to hurt them.
But that would be protecting them and that’s part of what I’m trying not to do. I’m speaking the truth and if they can’t handle it, they need to deal with their own truths. It’s my path and my lesson to stop taking care of everybody else.
Do you hope that it will help people that have gone through similar things?
Yes. And I know that it will open debate in my life about ‘What is homosexuality?’
Like ‘Is that abuse what made her gay?’
Yeah. I’ve always had my own theory that some people are born with leanings a certain way and then circumstances in their life might help push them. I think I was definitely born gay. The experience with my sister pushed me further that way. The experience with my mother being very distant pushed me more that way. I don’t think that I’m gay because of those experiences, but I think that it definitely set me up to go down that road.
Do you think it affected the kinds of people you’ve been attracted to in relationships?
Oh yeah. Distant, unavailable people. “I need to make this work!” Yeah.
Do you feel like you’ve been able to break that?
Uh, not yet. (Laughs) We’ll see what the next relationship is like. It’s so funny being single and looking at what I’m attracted to and just laughing at myself. As far as Julie, I don’t have anything bad to say about her. I spent twelve years with her, so there’s a lot of good there. But when you get down to the bottom line, certain parts of her emotional life were unavailable to me.
Do you wanna fall in love again?
That’s my next single, “I Wanna Be in Love.” I’m built for it, man. This is the first thing people are going to hear from me.
Etheridge cranks track #6, a remarkably unjaded ditty that about the joys of new romance.
In front of total strangers, won’t you kiss me
Flowers for no reason but you miss me
Oh, I wanna be in love…
While the song plays, Etheridge picks up the phone, dials and waits. “I just asked this woman out,” she whispers, “and I have to check my messages to see whether she said yes or no.” She listens for a while then hangs up happy.
How long has dating seemed like something you’d want to even consider?
Just the last couple weeks. It’s weird. I haven’t really ever dated.
Well, guess what. It’s a nightmare.
(Laughs) I know. I just asked somebody out. I was like, “Do you wanna go to some pre-Grammy party on Tuesday?” They said, “But I’m not really ready to get my picture taken.” There’s stuff that goes with it that I don’t even think about. I have to be aware that there is nothing at all normal about me.
If you’re interested in somebody, are you good at initiating, or do you wait to have them come to you?
I tried waiting but I got kind of lonely there.
Is the woman who called famous?
No. That’s really good. I’m not going to be serious for a long time. This is just…company.
What qualities are you attracted to in a person?
I like a person who likes themselves. That’s probably the main thing.
If somebody has all your records and is a big fan, is that a plus or a minus?
I’m probably not gonna date fans.
So if you met a hot chick and she was like, “Oh yeah, I think I saw one of your videos once, but I’m not sure…”
It would so turn me on.
Then you have to win her over.
Does it turn you on if a girl can dance?
Oh yes, if they can dance, that goes a long way, yeah.
How long do you wait to call somebody back that you’re sweet on?
Oh God, please don’t ask dating tips from me. I so don’t know. I’m just doing this one step at a time.
You want any advise from our readers?
Could they give me tips on dating? We could call it, “Help Melissa.” I mean, this is the craziest time in my life, being single. It’s good for me because the energy that I used to put into another person is just hanging around me and I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got all this energy. What am I going to do with it?”
What kind of women are throwing themselves at you?
Unfortunately, it’s mostly married women.
What do they say to you?
Oh, they’re very safe. (Laughs) Women are more bisexual, I think, than anybody thinks. I think that married women just wanna try it, and it’s not really cheating. But I’m here to put in print that I’m not going to do that again, period. Learned my lesson. No. No, no, no. It’s like, “You’re pretty, but you’re married. Bye.”
Did the fact that Julie had been with men before add stress to your relationship?
No. We were definitely in love. It wasn’t a man thing. It was the breakdown of a relationship and it was falling out of love. I never felt stress from a man, or jealous or anything. At all.
There was never a part of you that thought, ‘Well, she might go back that way.’
She might. She’s just sexual. I think she’s just open to both.
But it wasn’t something you lost sleep over.
No. But I would not be surprised if she dated a guy. I believe she’s a person that falls in love with people and is attracted to the soul, totally.
Now the Rolling Stone cover that called you “The New American Family” came out in January of last year. Looking back, do you feel strange about the timing of that?
Yeah. When I went out to promote my last CD, Breakdown, all that anybody wanted to talk about was, ‘Who’s the father?’ I started feeling very uncomfortable because it was this big, huge secret that had all this power.
It was like being in the closet again.
Right, and so much energy went into saying “No, no, no, no”. So Julie and I were doing okay at the time, and we both agreed that if it ever did come out, that it would cause something that we didn’t want our children to be subject to that any older in their life. So we were like, “Let’s just put this out there while they’re young,” which is exactly what we did. Then as the months went by, I was like, “Oh, fuck, this is coming apart, and that definitely sucks.” But it was done, and the story of who the father is was a lot bigger than I thought it would be. It was crazy. I think that I really realized the scope of the whole thing when Billy Crystal made a reference to it at the Oscars. When they showed Annette Benning, he said, “I hope it doesn’t look like David Crosby.” It was strange because it came from such a private, friend-to-friend thing.
Have you ever thought of recording with David?
We talk about it but this wasn’t the appropriate album to work with him on.
The pop music landscape has changed a lot in the last few years. Do you put a lot of thought into, ‘How can I fit in in the world of Britney?’
I’ve always tried to make radio come to me. Nowadays, you can't do that so I've agreed, to give my single a chance, to remix it for radio. My album is a different entity.
I think you should do a duet with Christina Aguilera on "What a Girl Wants" on TRL.
There you go. (Laughs) I know what a girl wants! Don't think I didn't laugh when I first heard that song.
Are there musical milestones you still look forward to?
I think I'm entering a different phase. I've been around for ten years now. I'm sitting there with Aerosmith, and we're going, "Okay, we're the old folks here." (Laughs) I always hoped that I’d have a career that has ups and downs, but that stays around, like Elton John’s. I'm starting to feel that change over now and it's very interesting.
When things were breaking wide open for you, was it fun or was it insane? Do you look back and go, “I wish I had enjoyed that more?”
I wish I knew I was in it when I was in it because I didn't know until after it was over. But I'm glad that that sort of thing doesn't sustain, because it's intense. I've met people that want that all the time and you can't have it. The world just goes on.
I’ve interviewed stars whose journeys were so about, “I’ll show you, I’m going to make it” and then once they do, they don’t know who they are anymore. Did you experience anything like that?
The thing for me was if I could be a big famous rock star, then I wouldn’t have my problems so all my energy focused towards that.
“If I could just get a number one record, then I won’t have to deal with this shit.”
Right. And you have a number one record and there’s so much shit. So then I had to grow up. You can’t run away from it anymore. It becomes about, “Okay, I’m here and now. How can I be a better person?” But I like performing, that energy, that connection, and fame is part of that. But if I had to choose between being famous or doing my music, I’d do my music.
But you don’t have to choose so serve it up.
Serve it up! And because I am a hundred percent myself, I don’t have to put energy into creating an image. It’s just me.
What I like about you is that you’re down-to-earth and a big show-off at the same time.
(Laughs) I’m a big ham. I love what do and I love that I get to meet the most amazing people.
And sing at their wedding, as in the case of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.
When the possibility of singing somewhere is first mentioned, how long do you act embarrassed and hem and haw before going, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
I don’t. When they said they were getting married, I said, “Oh, I’ll sing!”
You’re like, “’Come To My Window’ in E flat. Hit it!”
Exactly. (Laughs) Sheryl Crow said I’m just a little show business whore because I’ll sing for anybody anywhere. I’ve played bowling alleys, supermarkets, the Kawanis Club. But I have to say, there’s something scary about a room full of people in the same hats.
Were you always a ham?
As a child, that was the place where I could express everything. Couldn’t do it anywhere else. It was okay to sing angry or sing sad and then started to realize people like to see that, and I thought, “Oh, that feels good.” Now I’m making a darn good living at it. Laura Morton, the woman writing the book with me was like, “Do you realize that your perfect safe place is on the stage where most people are scared to death to be?”
Have you learned to express your emotions more in real life as you’ve gotten older? Can you be the bad cop when necessary?
Yeah. I’ve been in a lot of therapy to learn how to do that. I insist on it for my children so that they will learn by example how to express one’s emotions. I have to consciously do it, or else, it’s “Everything’s okay.”
What about your work relationships and with the press, are you able to draw lines?
Yeah. I truly am the boss. But I am pretty accommodating because there’s nothing that I haven’t talked about. I know that this is part of it and I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing any part of myself.
Have you ever looked back at an interview and thought, ‘God, I was too open. I should have shut up.’
No, I’ve looked back and said, “God, I wish I was more open”. That’s one of the reasons I came out. There were a couple of interviews that I did for Never Enough that were just were ridiculous. It just seemed like I was trying to not say everything.
When you’re part of a couple, do you draw lines about the press together, like, “Okay, we won’t talk about B & C, we’ll talk about A, B & D,” or do you just play it by ear?
We played it by ear. When we had children, we agreed we were not going to do is say who the father is. But then that line becomes what everything’s about. To truly be as empowered as I can be, I can’t make my little boxes that no one can talk about because those become the only thing that anyone wants to talk about.
And you and she were on the same page about that?
Have you ever been accused of using your personal life to promote your work, like, “Let’s announce who the father is when my new album comes out.”
I’m sure some people have thought of that, but I’m not that clever. If I’d have been that clever, I’d have broken up this month. (Laughs)
Do you think you, as parents, are going to have different set of problems than heterosexuals?
You know what’s funny? I used to think the world was split between men and women. And then, gay and straight. And now I know the world is truly split between parents and non-parents. No matter what kind of parent you are--single, straight, gay, divorced, together forever--you love your children the same way. Yes, I believe there will be things that my children will have to deal with because of their mothers’ lifestyle. But if preschool is any signal as to what’s coming, the kids get it. “Oh, Bailey has two Moms.” Easy. Simple. My kids know that most kids have a Mom and a Dad. They also know that they have a Dad who doesn’t live with them. You give them those tools of knowledge and truth and love and they can answer to it at any time.
You host the Lifetime show Beyond Chance. What’s the coolest thing that’s come out of that for you?
I’ve reached a new audience. There are people that watch that show that don’t know I’m a musician. I got this letter from an elderly woman that was addressed to Melissa Eldridge and it said, “I watch your show every week. I’m sorry to hear about the break up with your best friend.” It was how she was able to say it. I’m sure in her life she could never say that “l” word, but it really meant a lot to me that she acknowledged my “best friend.”
You were attached to the Janis Joplin movie for ages. Doyou still want to make a movie some day?
Yeah but I don’t have a dream of being a movie star. I’m actually working on something with HBO right now.
“If These Vaginal Walls Could Talk III”?
(Laughs) I will say that it’s gay and HBO loves gay.
What movie stars did you have a crush on when you were a kid?
Anne Bancroft. I’m so into the strong woman thing.
I take it you didn’t have a Farrah poster.
No. It was all about Kate Jackson. Another signal I was queer.
You’ve said that before you all came out, there were many drunken nights where both you and Ellen sat around and talked about coming out. What did you talk about after?
What we’d like to do, because it opens up a lot of doors. And we talk about our experiences with people. I remember being at a thing for Ellen, and we were onstage answering questions and this fifteen year-old girl thanked Ellen in a way that just brought tears to our eyes. It comes down to that. It’s really quite powerful.
Have you talked to each other about dating?
Ellen and I have completely different personal relationships. We couldn’t be more different, except we like gals. (Laughs)
Is there any truth to the rumor that you and Ellen and kd lang are going to do a lesbian First Wive’s Club?
(Laughs) That would be funny! You know Ellen, kd, and I, we all just went through break-ups. There’s an opportunity here that someone’s not taking advantage of! C’mon!
Should I get Scott Rudin on the phone?
C’mon, get him on the phone.
Do the three of you hang out?
Ellen and I do. kd has a tendency to hide out, but Ellen said she just talked to her last week, so I think I might see her soon.
You’ve said that coming out was only a positive thing for you professionally. Ellen seemed to have a different experience, a lot of positive reaction and then a backlash. What was it like for you to watch that happen?
I went ‘ouch’ to some things every now and then, but also could kind of see the set-up. I think if you talk to Ellen in the next year or two, she’ll have a different insight on what that whole thing was, and the experience of it.
Now what about this one-woman show you were going to do?
I pushed that back. We’re basically going to adapt it from the book so it’ll be like 2002.
Do you plan to tour with the CD?
I just ache to be performing. It’s such a safe, healing place. But also I don’t want to be away from my kids. I refuse to be away from them for more than ten days.
Vegas is just a plane ride away. You could be the new Wayne Newton!
(Laughs) Bruce Springsteen and I were talking about how jealous we were that these country artists can have a Branson or Vegas where people come to them. Why can’t we have our own little rock n’ roll place?
Is it going to be different touring as a single woman?
Oh yeah. Before it’s been, “Yeah, this is very sexual, but I’m going home to that.” Now it’s like, “This is real sexual, and -- possible.” It’s really gonna be different. Talk to me in a year.
It kills me that I missed Equality Rocks. What was it like?
It was such a perfect moment in time. Normally, I’m all about inclusion in my music. This was the first time that I really felt like I was walking out in front of a gay audience. This was a big gay thang. And that was a different feeling. I felt I didn’t have anything to prove so I just jumped on it and flew more than I ever ever have. I didn’t have to win. I’d already won. It was the victory lap.
What was it like to sing “Scarecrow,” your song about Matthew Sheperd?
I’ve never sung the song before and I was a wreck. I lost it. I basically spoke the song, the parts that I could. I was completely raw.
Writing that song, did it just pour out?
Yeah. I was supposed to be writing a song for the women’s soccer World Cup but I kept going back to “Scarecrow” and it just happened.
What’s something you’ve seen recently that made you think, ‘The world’s changing for the better?’
Any time a young person comes up and asks me for my autograph, I’m surprised. The big thing about the Grammy’s this year was this big, out, homosexual guy singing with a guy that has homophobic lyrics. That’s it, Elton. Wear a big pink, polka-dot thang, and heal it, man!
Where were you the first time your heard one of your songs on the radio?
It was in '88. I was late for a train, riding in this car with a record company guy in London, and I heard the beginning of "Similar Features.” I said, "God, that sounds familiar...wait, that’s me!" The feeling was so strange because the radio had always been that other land.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever autographed?
I’ve been asked to autograph undergarments, but I don’t.
Much has been made about the bras that fans throw onstage. Where do they end up?
I never see them. My crew takes it, and they have to permission to do with it what they want.
That would be a cross-dresser’s dream job.
(Laughs) Right. I want the people that throw things to know that I do not receive it. That some sweaty guy gets it for his collection.
In the past, you’ve talked about a volatile relationship you had when you were a teenager. Is that going to be in the book?
Yes. My first girlfriend was from seventeen to about nineteen. It was dark in some ways. I think it raised some red flags like,“Oh, I’m attracted to this. Uh-oh.” I was never involved with anyone abusive after that.
Was it physically abusive?
Maybe twice physically, but psychologically, really.
Did you end it?
Was it hard to do it?
Yes, because what did I know? I was nineteen.
Do you have any idea where she is?
We e-mail each other now.
I think E-mail is great for people you don’t really want to hear from.
(Laughs) Because it’s not like I’m talking to them. They just come on your screen and you’re like, “Well, all right.” I don’t remember who wrote the first one. I think someone asked if it was okay if they gave my address to her.
In spite of these early experiences, you’ve always seemed to have a healthy attitude about sex, like you were never uptight about it.
No, no. It was a way out. I definitely took it the other way. I did not want to close it up. It was power. It was part of me that was very alive and very, um, awesome.
I think that’s part of why gay guys dig you. We wish we could be sexual in the way that you are on stage.
I’m serious. Do you notice a lot of gay guys at your shows?
In the last couple of albums, yes. At first, I didn’t.
Because they’d rather blow their CD money on The Best of White Party Volume 8. What can you do?
(Laughs) The ones that I do get in my audience, are into it all the way. The biggest compliments are when I see myself done by a drag queen, which is really difficult because I’m so not drag-queeny.
For starters, there’s no heels.
They put on a leather jacket and sing “Bring Me Some Water” It’s barely being in drag.
Did you ever go backstage afterwards and say hello?
I did once in Chicago. He didn’t know I was there.
Did he shit in his leather pants?
Completely. (Laughs) He’s like, “Oh, my God!”
Do you high-profile gals ever feel like the male half of our movement isn’t pulling our weight? You can tell me.
No, we don’t. People either ask me that question or they ask, “What about the other celebrities you know that aren’t out?
Doesn’t that make you angry?”
No. It’s such a personal experience. There are people, straight and gay, that don’t even want to talk about their personal life, period. When you come out, half of your interview is gonna be about your personal life so if you don’t like talking about your personal life, then coming out terrifies the hell out of you.
Speaking of famous friends, I understand there’s an interesting story about your background singers.
(Laughs) Well, when we got to the song, “Heal Me,” David was like, "You need backgrounds in the end. Why don't you just call your friends?"
Which friends are these?
Laura Dern and Meg Ryan.
Who I would guess can relate to the theme of ‘Heal Me” in their own special ways.
(Laughs) We feel like we're part of a club now or something. We've all gone through this huge public change so we could all get together and help each other. It was just a fun, good, cleansing experience.
Melissa hits play and “Heal Me” begins.
Ain’t it crazy?
For a moment there, this felt just like dying
But now I see that something inside is coming alive…
Meg and Laura sound great. Did they work for scale?
(Laughs) It was so funny. I was like, "Are you okay with me telling people that it's you?" They were like, "Are you kidding? This is one thing we want credit on."
Did they show up in rocker outfits?
Oh no, but it was funny. I said to David before, “I've not really ever worked with background vocalists.” He goes, "Background vocalists always show up a half hour late and when they come in, they'll immediately start talking about their clothes or their shoes." It was a joke between us. And then when Laura and Meg got there, they were half an hour late and immediately they start to say, "Oh, look at your coat." "Oh, look at your coat."
Your straight women celeb friends must feel pressure to be young, and thin and hot in Hollywood. Do you, as a lesbian, feel that kind of stress?
I’ve never thought about it that way. I just think I have less of a talent at looking good than they do. Hanging around with the people I do hang around with, I have to find my own confidence. Some of them can put something together and look just head to toe ‘Pow!’ and I’m fashion impaired. But they’re not the type of women who struggle with their age or that they have to look beautiful. They struggle with how beautiful they are and sort of accept it. I see the energy that I get from people is completely different when I hang around with someone like Meg. It’s just a whole sort of straight male energy she picks up on. It’s a big burden.
You seem to have a very positive outlook on life. Do you have a dark side?
We all do. I struggle with my own self-image, and really feeling comfortable in my skin. I was always attached to somebody else so it was, “Well, the two of us together make a good thing”, and not being comfortable in me.
The last line of that is, “Let everyone know that I’m comin’ home again.” Is that the message that you wanted to leave with?
Yep. That’s the way I leave it.