MELISSA ETHERIDGE: THE QUESTIONS NO ONE ELSE DARES TO ASK – by Brad Pitt
Melissa Etheridge didn’t sell 27 million albums worldwide by keeping her feelings to herself. Since her 1988 debut, straightforward rook ‘n’ roll declarations about love, truth and identity have been the Kansas native’s stock-in-trade. Etheridge was one of the first gay pop stars in the post-Reagan era to come out of the closet. Sales soared. She and her then-lover, filmmaker Julie Cypher, made headlines again when they had two children: Bailey, four, and Beckett, two. Then they nabbed a Rolling Stone cover when they announced the baby’s father: rocker David Crosby.
The latest headlines caught them unprepared, though, when last year a tabloid leaked the news that the couple was splitting. Etheridge handled the breakup by diving into the studio, just her and an engineer, and recording the 10 searingly honest songs on her new album, Skin (Island). She also immersed herself in her book of lyrics and reminiscences, The Truth Is … My Life in Love and Music (Villard), which came out in June. Far from secluding herself with demands for privacy, Etheridge tackles the breakup head-on on Skin, and in conversation. Here, revealing the kind of intimacy you can only have with an old friend, she talks to Brad Pitt–whom she’s known for 18 years and who crashed on her couch when he first moved to L.A.–and (on page 121) to music critic Evelyn McDonnell.
"My battered heart will make a new start"
BRAD PITT: You have a date tonight?
MELISSA ETHERIDGE: Yep. For some reason I offered to make dinner, but I can’t cook.
BP: What are you gonna make?
ME: I don’t know. I’ll be going, "What does she eat? What does she eat?" Oh, no! [laughs]
BP: Pasta’s easy. Can’t go wrong with pasta.
ME: Except it can be too oily; it can be too dry. Oh, my God! [laughs] I never thought I’d be back here. But, then again, it’s not really being "back." I’m a completely different person these days. I have a certain amount of success, a certain level of therapy, a better understanding of sex and my own body. I now have kids. I have just entered this world of divorcee, single mom, gay celebrity … What the hell? [laughs]
"I lay me down in this sweet perfection"
ME: Divorce is hard. Divorce with children is hard.
ME: Yes. You structure it completely differently because there are kids. I did not want to lose my everyday connection with the kids, so I was willing to move in close proximity to Julie [Cypher]. So that when the kids are at her house, if my heart is just aching I can go over there and have dinner with them, or bring them over to my place for an hour.
BP: Explain the setup for us.
ME: We have two houses. They are back-to-back. It’s completely private in that I never see her house or what’s going on there unless I drop the kids off.
BP: Except for the portal in between.
ME: [laughs] Yes, the gate, the little hole, the time portal that they pass through.
"The kids are all right"
BP: Your relationship is a case study for modern living, but the first thing the Jerry Falwells are going to say is, "See, told ya."
BP: But were they to really look in there, they’d see that your life is completely geared towards the kids–kids first, rock star second, relationships third.
ME: Exactly. Once you become a parent, there is no other way. I wouldn’t allow my own hurts or fears or disappointments to keep me from being the best mother that I can be. And the best parent I can be is one who is there. It’s not just quality time, it’s quantity time. It is, "I am right here, every day when you come home. And come the day when I must be on the road, I’m calling you every day, and you’ll know where I am and what I’m doing."
BP: Will they go with you on the road at all?
ME: They’re not so good on the road right now because they get out a few days and they’re like, "Where am I?"
BP: And where are my toys?"
ME: Exactly. Children love routine. So there are times when I’m in New York City for a week that they will come out and we’ll be in one place and it won’t be that every day travelling stuff. But otherwise, the rule is no more than 10 days apart. So I come back from the road for four days and then I go back out.
BP: And you and Julie share equally?
ME: Yeah. We are willing to help each other out. No matter what either of us does, the children’s well-being, happiness and health is most important–that they never feel like they lost either of us. Our own personal complicated issues are ours and never came from them.
"But my skin is painfully new"
BP: The structure of your new album seems to be a journey, from losing yourself to finding a new sense of self.
ME: Yes. I couldn’t necessarily define much of it at the time. Much of it sprang from the subconscious–the Melissa that saved me when I was 10, saved me when I was 14; the one inside myself that’s let me know what’s going on.
BP: Break the album down for us, would you.
ME: The first song, "Lover Please," is about betrayal, not as an infidelity, but of truth, of trust. It is also about pain and abandonment. Then the album moves into "The Prison," which is the recognition of that fact, to "Walking on Water," which signals the end of the relationship and feelings of guilt. "Down to One" is about acceptance and the search for one’s own culpability. "Goodnight" has a sort of sweet pain, and "It’s Only Me" says all I have is myself; I better love myself–and then what do I want? "I Want to be in Love" is a realization of worth and of deserving more, and then comes the anticipation of new beginnings in "Please Forgive Me" to "The Different," which is pure empowerment and sex and celebration.
BP: And should be played as loud as possible.
ME: Finally, "Heal Me" is, for me, a future projection of a complete rebirth. Whew!
"Called a new friend for the second time"
BP: Your mom’s still in Kansas?
ME: No. There is no family left in Kansas now, just my past. But I went to my high school 20th reunion two years ago. Spent half the time taking pictures and signing autographs.
BP: Sounds like a premiere.
ME: But I spent the other half really seeing old, old friends.
BP: Could you connect?
BP: But you had not kept in touch?
ME: No, there was nothing to really keep in touch with.
BP: It’s two distinctly different worlds.
ME: Completely. But on that one night we remembered crabapple fights and how we used to hike down to the stream.
BP: When you do get back, do you run into any of those old attitudes?
ME: At my reunion? Well, other than Reverend Fred Phelps.
ME: You know, that guy that showed up at Matthew Shepard’s funeral with signs saying "Matt rots in hell" and "God hates gays." Horrible, horrible things. There’s only about 12 of those guys, but they show up everywhere and, of course, they showed up at my reunion. So, all my high school friends had to walk past that. But I think my experience is definitely different because I’m a celebrity. I think celebrity trumps homo. If I were to just go home and be a big gay and not be famous, my experience would be different. I even had some people who weren’t close to me in high school who had to go through the picket line to go to their reunion and they just said, "Gosh, I’m really sorry. I go to church and I’m really ashamed." I felt accepted and warm.
"All the things that held together my life"
BP: Did you guys have a Skateland you used to hang out at [when you were growing up]?
ME: Oh, yeah! I was a mean roller skater.
BP: It was all about "Magic Carpet Ride."
ME: With gold sparkled skates–
BP: –and make-out sessions.
ME: We did that behind the building, me and Mike Strange.
BP: Did you have couples skate?
ME: Uh, yeah. The girls could skate together but the boys could not.
BP: There’s some irony.
"Come with me now"
BP: You came out very publicly during Clinton’s first inauguration. I’m assuming you didn’t get a call from the Bush people to play at their party.
BP: And if you had?
ME: I think the record is pretty clear on Republican social issues.
BP: Being one of the first to step out, did you anticipate the responsibility and microscopic focus placed on your life?
ME: I didn’t know what it would be like. You knew me around then. I had no idea. All I knew was that it wasn’t right how it was. It wasn’t right during interviews. When they’d say, "Well, gosh, men have really been awful to you, [based on] these songs you’ve been writing."
BP: But what about the universality–and beauty–of your songs?
ME: Yeah, and I have continued to write in that universal matter. But when they asked me personal questions and I would do my own little non-gender-specific dance–my partner, my lover–it didn’t feel right. When it came down to it, even if I was to lose it all, that other way didn’t seem worth it.
BP: Yes. I would say not to allow yourself the freedom to be who you are is the biggest crime against the self.
ME: Absolutely. I have nothing to preach about except my own experience. All I did was say this is who I am. Very loudly.
"Drove all night just to drive all day"
BP: You’re hitting the road soon.
ME: Yeah, I have to get back onstage. And everyone’s gonna know I’ve got a broken heart. But whatever.
BP: Are you going out solo?
BP: Completely on your own?
ME: Completely. This whole trip I’m on is all me. [chuckles]
BP: Are you gonna play any Zep?
ME: That’s all you ever want me to play.
BP: Come on, man.
ME: I’ve got some ideas … some really weird things …
BP: A back-to-your-roots kind of thing?
ME: Back to a singular place. Where am I going? What do I want? What’s important? What do I love? What do I need? I guess I made a mistake of investing all of my self-image in one person’s opinion, you know, and that’s dangerous. I’ll never do it again. It was my mistake.
BP: But isn’t that also a plus of the partnership, bouncing things off the other person, who’s a good barometer for–
ME: –yeah, yeah, that should be one of the requirements. I believe that. But also one should have a strong sense of self. And I need to find that again–that’s why I’m doing all of this very solo.
BP: OK, so how do you stay a team, yet remain an individual?
ME: You have reached The Question.
"What the dark: and the wild and the different know"
ME: Let me tell you, it’s really something to come out of a relationship in which sex had been lacking, and then have someone touch you. It is the biggest high. You know what? I say bring it on!
BP: And let me say, judging from the images you create musically, you must be great in the sack.
ME: [laughs] I am.
"As my mind and my body collide"
BP: On "It’s Only Me" there’s a moment where the instruments drop out and this guttural scream erupts. What the hell is going on there?
ME: Let me tell you what happened. This whole breakup thing was becoming public, we were in-between homes and all the while I’m in the studio–which was wonderful; thank God I had that to go to. During recording, David Cole [the album’s producer and engineer], who has grown to be a really great ally, kept hearing me say this purging "Oh, God" whenever there was a really painful moment or when I’d sing something or play something [painful], to the point where it became this kind of joke between us. So when we got to this point in the song which I knew would be the absolute bottom of the album, I said, "David, I just want to scream here." So he hit Record and I screamed and. he said, "Again," and I screamed again.
BP: Like looping for a slasher film.
ME: Exactly. And at the last one, at the top of my lungs, I scream "Oh, God" just as large and big as I could have it. And he took this one, turned it around, and laid it in backwards.
BP: That’s what that is-backwards.
ME: Yeah, backwards.
BP: Or is it really "Oh Satan"?
ME: [laughs] Yeah. Fred Phelps was right.
"No use running from a revolution"
EP: You’re a Bingsteen–I mean, a big Springsteen fan.
ME: [laughs] I’m a Bingsteen fan, yeah.
BP: What’s the draw?
ME: His ability to still enjoy the ride, to understand the ups and downs, to follow his heart yet understand the business–how he holds himself in it. He inspires me on so many levels.
BP: And his shows. He gets out there and plays and plays and plays.
ME: Mmm-hmm. And he loves it completely.
BP: How many times have you played with Springsteen?
ME: Counting in his living room?
BP: No way!
"It’s time to try"
ME: Let me tell you how it is… they won’t let queers get married, but let’s say my split with Julie had been ugly and we didn’t have kids, that this hadn’t been amicable between us. She would have the right to sue me for half of everything. You know, the Lee Marvin palimony thing, which states that if I ever intimated "What’s mine is yours" she has the right to take me to court for half of everything. And so I told the lawyers to treat this as if we had gotten married because I certainly went around saying I wanted to get married. But when I tried to split everything up, I found I would have to pay taxes on it, then she would have to pay taxes on it again. Whereas if you divorce from a legal marriage, it’s all tax-free.
BP: While you’re getting double-dipped.
ME: Exactly, so it’s impossible to just give her half and go away. We have to work all these financial issues out.
BP: Do you think that if you were allotted a word other than "marriage," the zealots wouldn’t be so hung up about it?
ME: Yeah. So if the word marriage freaks people out, let’s use another one.
HP: So what’s another word?
ME: "Civil union," thank you very much. I want my civil union. I want the laws of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to apply to me as they do everyone else. I am being penalized for loving somebody. [laughs] I’m so much more for gay marriage now because I’m for gay divorce.
"And time’s a friend to me
EP: For the record, you don’t have to be in pain to make great art.
ME: For the record, you do not. To make great art, one must have an understanding of self and experience. Once you find this awareness, you can draw from, learn from and create without having to revisit the pain.
BP: So, are you saying great art comes from truth?
ME: I’m saying, for me, art does not exist without truth. People will ask, what music do you enjoy? I can’t categorize it that way. I like any music that has truth in it–country, rap, R&B, pop. If it moves me and touches me, that’s it, period. I don’t even have to relate to that truth.
BP: Sooo, let me ask ya–do you ever miss cock?
ME: [laughs] How can I miss something that was never there?
ME: Never ever.
BP: Ever ever?
ME: No. [laughs] The technical answer is no, never did that. I always say, OK, there was this one graphic artist when I was 21, but that was just a phase."
All subtitles in Brad Pitt’s interview have been taken from lyrics by Melissa Etheridge.