Lucky is Melissa Etheridge's best album in years. Slinky and upbeat where its predecessor, Skin, was angry and desperate, Lucky reflects the happiness of its creator. Melissa has always been one to pour her life into her songs, and these days everything's going great -- she's past her breakup with the mother of her two kids and basking in wedded bliss with actress Tammy Lynn Michaels.
From the pleading "Mercy" to the red-hot "Secret Agent," much of Lucky deals with pop's favorite subjects, love and lust, with liberal references to tried-and-true rock images like jeans, ghosts, the ocean and being "face down in the gutter." And the escapist anthem "Meet Me in the Dark" contains a line that would do Bruce Springsteen proud: "The tips in this jar will buy a brand-new set of wings / For my Mercury."
But the stunning 9/11-themed "Tuesday Morning" is a departure for Melissa. With poetry and passion, the song reflects on the story of Mark Bingham, one of four passengers who helped foil terrorists' plans for destruction by bringing down flight 93 in a field in southwest Pennsylvania. Bingham was a gay man, and "Tuesday Morning" confronts those who might consider him "less of a hero than the other three." "I wanted to honor the man and his family," says Melissa, "and I wanted to present it delicately and try to make a point without banging it over somebody's head." Indeed, the song is one of her best efforts to date.
iVillage caught up with the singer when she was in Philadelphia, in the middle of her recent club tour to promote Lucky. She was excited to be playing small general-admission rooms again after years of working cavernous amphitheaters and hockey arenas. "The people get right up to the stage," she says. "There's this great energy from the beginning, so the whole show is really rockin'."
We chatted along pleasantly about her career, and then right as we got to the hot-button issue of gay marriage, Melissa's hotel rudely interrupted us with her omelet, which was actually early. (When you're a big star, you don't have to wait for room service.) But she graciously finished the conversation before digging in.
iVillage: So, I have to ask. Do you feel "lucky"?
Melissa: I do. It's the way you feel when you make the right choices and you see the good stuff fall in line. It's like, I'm on the right path.
iVillage: This record is an upswing from Skin.
Melissa: Yeah, thank God! Skin was the bottom. I write from what I feel and what I'm going through, and I always have since I was very young. Having had the experience of falling in love, of filling myself, these songs just come from that.
iVillage: You seem to give a lot of yourself in your music, which makes your fans particularly adoring. Do you get to interact much with them?
Melissa: There's a certain interaction on stage: I'm opening up to them, and then I get this huge energy back from them. Aside from that, I do chats on my Website and I have a certain controlled connection with them, but otherwise I get overwhelmed. [laughs] I like my privacy.
iVillage: In a way it almost seems like you don't demand your privacy the way some celebrities do.
Melissa: The funny thing is, I put everything out there by saying, "This is me, this is what I am... now I'm gonna go back inside my house." And actually, the paparazzi and such give me privacy because I've got nothing to hide.
iVillage: Along those lines, there's a line in "Mercy" about "the locks and walls and the peace it buys." Do those things really buy peace?
Melissa: Well, no. That's what "Mercy" is about: I'm here in my little shell and I've locked myself up and I've got the walls all around me -- well, it's peaceful because it doesn't hurt, you know. But I couldn't live like that, and it was a journey of falling in love and trusting someone again and doing it from a healthy point of view and actually coming to life again.
iVillage: You've gotten so much out of writing about relationships. How do you keep challenging yourself to get fresh ideas?
Melissa: Well, unfortunately or fortunately, I haven't had to challenge myself. [laughs] My journey's been up and down and all around. Even in this happiness that I have, I can search myself and find the questions and the doubts, and all the different shades in there. And I just continue to write from that, our society being such as it is that people want to know those things.
iVillage: "Tuesday Morning," is very skillfully written and mines some different subject matter for you.
Melissa: Ahhh... [long exhale] That was the hardest song to write on the album, absolutely. I went through a lot of thought and my own personal feelings about it. I have mounds of verses. I was going to put in a verse about going to war and "don't ask, don't tell," and the irony of the whole thing. I didn't, and I was like, Oh, it could be so timely!
iVillage: Have you gotten any feedback from Mark Bingham's family?
Melissa: Yes. They're so grateful and supportive and wonderful about it, and they came to one of my shows in San Francisco. I met his mother and all his friends, and they told me stories about him and it was all great. And then I got onstage and started to sing the song, and, oh, my God, like the third line was, "He loved his mom and he loved his dad," and I completely choked up and could not get the line out whatsoever. Lost it. I was like, Oh, isn't this nice. I can sing it when it's a legend sort of thing, when I'm singing about it, but to be so close and in it, it was really impossible.
iVillage: The word catharsis comes to mind when I hear your music.
Melissa: Yeeeeaaaah, good therapy.
iVillage: In performance your music is even more intense than it is on record. How do you prepare for a show?
Melissa: There's no special preparation. The best thing I can do is stay healthy. That's what I need for that sort of energy. I try to eat right, try to get enough sleep, and that's my preparing.
iVillage: Is it hard on the road?
Melissa: It can be. I really like french fries. [laughs] And they're available every day!
iVillage: Damn french fries.
iVillage: Switching gears, what are your thoughts on the gay marriage ceremonies that have been going on across the country?
Melissa: It's amazing. I did not think we would be in this debate so soon, for whatever reasons that have kicked it into high gear now. I'm 42, and as I've seen the world, I see our society literally growing. It's like this collective learning. And I think what's happened is a veil has been lifted and part of our growth is that of sexuality.
In saying that our society is moving, gays are a mirror of that. We're all having to come to grips with this morality, the religious ties to it and how we just need to move forward. And I do believe in this country, and in the separation of church and state. This is a test of that. And I believe in our court system, that it will keep moving forward, even though people don't want change and pull it back. I think that the overall movement of society is one of equality and not of suppression and discrimination.
iVillage: Am I correct that you and your partner, Tammy, have a civil union?
Melissa: Things have been changing so quickly, it's like, Whoa! We were all signed up to do the domestic partnership that California offers, which is a civil union. We did not go up to San Francisco -- we thought about it -- to get that, because we knew that would be stopped and challenged, and would become a court case. We might go to Massachusetts when that is legal.
iVillage: Would you be willing to make such a personal thing into a much larger issue?
Melissa: That's actually a line we've walked all along. When we had our ceremony, we knew that there was celebrity involved and a sort of political statement involved too. I was willing to let there be a few doors opened about this. I let photographs be shown, and I let the InStyle "celebrity weddings" present it as it is. And if we do go and get a marriage license, I'm sure there will be cameras there, because that's part of it. But it's a very personal thing too.
iVillage: Also, I heard Tammy asked you out first. Is that true?
Melissa: Aw, can you believe it! Awesome.
iVillage: Is married life great?
Melissa: Oh, so wonderful.
iVillage: Do you play music for your children? What do they call you?
Melissa: They call me Mama. But when I'm working or I get all dressed up with the hair and makeup, my daughter goes, "Oh, it's Mel-iss-a Eth-er-idge!" They both know that I have a job, and this job consists of playing music for people and that people love it and then there's a certain thing called fame. They're very clear on it, and they have always been. Music is a big part of my life, and it's a big part of their life. They're still very young -- they're five and seven. I don't have any great prodigies, but I would not be surprised if music was a big part of their life too.