breast cancer

“People think it’s dangerous to say there’s more than one way of looking at cancer”

Melissa Etheridge talks about releasing her album on her own, her breast cancer survival, and the Twitter war it sparked with blogger Xeni Jardin.

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Melissa Etheridge is finally content, newly wed to Nurse Jackie co-creator Linda Wallem this past May. But you’d never guess, listening to her new studio album, This Is M.E.her 13th, since breaking out 26 years ago, and her first on her own label. In fact, you might think she was still weathering the storm she’s been experiencing over the last decade or so, with songs expressing her frustration, longing, and talk of her last divorce. But, according to Etheridge, her spirituality helps her visit all of those themes without going into a dark place: ” I live through them, and then I’m grateful for the experience, and I move on. “

Tonight, Etheridge appears, alongside such artists as Questlove and Lorde, on the PBS documentary Hitmakers, which explores the changing business of making a pop hit. She spoke with DAME about leaving her label, steering clear of Nashville, and her Twitter exchange with fellow breast-cancer survivor Xeni Jardin about her controversial opinions that stress and diet may have caused her cancer.

Your first album came out, in 1988, right at the start of the CD boom. Now you’re operating in a world where they’ve almost become obsolete. How have you been able to adjust over the years?

I went though a big change last year. Because of this, I saw the part of the music business that was humbling, and eroding away, and not working was the actual sale of records because of the digital boom. I also saw that people were still loving music and going to see music, and it was a big part of their life. So I changed management—I had the same management for 30 years. I talked to them, and we felt that getting off of Island Records would be the best thing and that my next record, this record here, would be released on my own independent label, and I would own my record. All these other records that I sold—millions of records—I did not own them. I haven’t made a dime on those records. Of course, it enabled me to have a career, and go touring, and all that other stuff, but it was not a means of making money. So now I can sell one percent of what I used to sell, yet I can make money on it, and so I’ve looked at it as, Okay, now I’m going to become my own entrepreneur with my own business here, and I felt like it was a good opportunity to make that change last year.

What story did you want to tell in “Hitmakers”?

I’d grown up in the music business. I started with the dreamy sort of, “Oh, I want to be a rock star, and I just want to live the rock star life and be rich and famous,” that sort of thing, for a few years. After a while, I realized, Wow, this is a business! This is what I hope to make my life’s work. So I better take care of it and start to really look at how to make this a long-term thing, because it can be a very short-term business for most people. There’s people that I was hanging out with in the late ’80s that I haven’t seen at all—they’re gone—and so I think that I’ve made a few choices that have helped make this a long-term career, and that’s how I look at it. This is my life. I’m going to take care of it.

Does being a parent influence that?

Oh, yeah. All of a sudden, I’m looking at college education and houses, and it doesn’t help that I have some alimony … I got some bills to pay.

Do you think you’ll follow in your friend Sheryl Crow’s footsteps and go to Nashville to record your music? I ask because country music is one genre where fans still buy CDs.

No to Nashville, for a lot of different reasons. One, I don’t think I’m a country artist. It doesn’t mean that some day I wouldn’t love to go and collaborate and do something down there, because I love country music. I grew up on it and played it. It was the first music that I ever played. Two, not the most diverse group of folks, and the business in general, the feeling, and being out—I think I might be too controversial. I hope that would change in the future. I would love to do something there, but I have a rock and roll heart, and I don’t think I can do that.

There aren’t that many openly gay people in country music.

No. No. [Laughs.]

You just got married in May. But these songs seem to reflect a rougher patch in your life, is that right?

This is one of the first times that I’ve written an album that I didn’t sit down about one thought and push that thought out in ten different songs. This was more going in, and each song having its own platform, and then putting them all together and going, “Oh, I can feel the theme of me going through.” I feel this intensity going through every single song that just happened naturally.

Each song dictated that I would. The very first song in the album was the first song I wrote. When I was with Jon Levine, who was the producer I was working with, we had a long conversation about how much we love Bruce Springsteen, and so we said, “Let’s make a song that we wish Bruce Springsteen would make,” and we started recording the music to the first song. Jon himself is a very successful producer. He’s worked with Adele, and he’s one of those guys that’s so successful that he never leaves his studio. He is in his studio 20 hours a day, and he says, “Oh, why don’t I have a girlfriend?” I said, “Well, you’re not going to meet anybody in here,” and so that inspired me. Oh, I’m going to write a song, I won’t be alone tonight. I’m going to get out. So I let each song in the moment. I didn’t go in with a pre-thought about what they were going to be. I let it come up organically.

You’ve said in interviews that you’re a very spiritual person. How did it help you get through your breast cancer?

Well that’s where my spiritual side came from. That’s where I really got to know it, because it’s a very frightening thing to get cancer, and I just stopped and went, “Woah, woah, woah, woah, woah, woah. What’s going on that my body would need to go through this? What do I need to learn?” I had the fame. I had the success. I had all those things, and what’s wrong? What’s not going on? And it was a love of myself that I didn’t have, and that’s the spiritual side, is learning to love myself and everything that is myself.

When you spoke to AARP, in an interview you did together with Sheryl Crow, you talked about how spirituality and diet helped you survive cancer.

After going through the conveyor belt of Western medicine—and this is purely my belief and my thought, I get so much grief from people about this, because cancer and sickness and health is a very personal thing, and I am merely telling my opinion—I felt like the whole cancer industry was built on percentages and numbers, and if you do this, maybe you have this percentage of it happening, and it seemed kind of hit-and-miss to me. So I realized that every single one of my doctors was saying, “Cancer starts when cells go bad,” and then they would come there and tell me all the numbers and all this stuff, and I kept saying, “Well what makes cells go bad? Why?” And that’s what I focused on, is that I want to understand why my cells are bad. The answers I got from there—because there are many different answers—but the answers that ring true to me were that cells go bad when their environment is acidic. So I went to see why was my environment acidic, and the answers I got were emotional: Stress causes acidic environment and so does the food that I eat, and I studied about how food can be medicine, and I just stuck with that. I didn’t follow any sort of spiritual regime other than life is an incredible journey, and to love myself, and lift myself up everyday as much as I can through love and choosing only love, and everything is a choice between fear and love, and it’s just a whole different attitude/life change that is the life experience.

And I’m guessing your relationships were part of that as well?

Yes. Yes. Absolutely, and how I participated in those relationships, and what I thought and felt, and the relationships with my children, and mostly with the relationship with myself.

That was perceived as a bit of victim-blaming from fellow cancer survivor and blogger Xeni Jardin, the editor of Boing-Boing, who called you out on this on Twitter. You two got into a bit of a war of words. She was particularly focused on a sidebar in the AARP feature, where you and Sheryl are giving your views side by side.

Well, I understand that my view is different and can be very hurtful to some people, some people who have lost loved ones, some people who have suffered greatly through they lives. I understand that nobody wants to think that it’s their fault, and I’m not blaming anyone, and it doesn’t matter to me about anybody else. They asked me the questions, and I answered, and it’s up to them however they want to do that. I’m just always going to say, “Listen, for me, this is what worked, and ten years later, I’m still cancer free, and I’m happy and healthy, and love to everyone. However you want to look at it is fine. This is just what I believe, and each of us have our own beliefs.”

Do you understand where Xeni’s coming from?

Oh, sure. Yeah. People think it’s dangerous for me to say, “Hey, maybe there’s more than just this one way of looking at cancer,” and they think that’s dangerous because they believe in science, and I understand that totally, and 11 years ago, I was with them. I understood that. In my discoveries, I think that maybe if someone is confronted with this, that maybe this other thought might be helpful for them. For some people, but not all always [Laughs.].

But you had some exchanges with her. Why did you engage?

The reason I did that was it seemed like, all of a sudden, in that one day, I got just a barrage of really awful, awful stuff. Like people standing up on a wall going, “Na-na-na-na-na-na. You’re awful,” and I was like, what? Why do they want to pick a fight with me? I don’t understand, and so I was reading everybody, and some are just want to be mean. Some people do, yet Xeni is a cancer survivor herself. I have always wanted to present myself as, “This is just my experience,” and I felt I was being misunderstood, and I love real conversation, not just okay, I answered this person’s questions. This company put it in a magazine, and then they’re making their comments on it, but no, talk to me. What’s your question? What don’t you understand? This is how I feel, and you’re going to believe what you believe. Just why put so much bitterness and ugliness out toward me? I don’t understand that. Help me understand that, and we can have a conversation about it.


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