Listen in as Melissa Etheridge makes history performing at Pittsburgh Pride
by Nicole Barley | Photographs by James Minchin III + Lester Cohen
When Melissa Etheridge calls me at work from California one spring afternoon to talk about her history-making appearance at Pride in the Streets on June 9 in Pittsburgh, it’s really a high to hear that legendary scratchy and passionate voice say, “Hi, Nicole!” And yes, her speaking tone is just as dually bright and husky as in the soaring chorus of her Grammy-winning song, “Come to My Window.”
When the unmistakable sound of Etheridge’s crooning fills Liberty Avenue this month, it will be a significant event because it’s the activist and artist’s first-ever Gay Pride gig. Chris Bryan, Director of Marketing and Development for the Delta Foundation, which is organizing this month’s 10-day Pride event, notes the enormity of Etheridge’s appearance. “Obviously, it’s a huge win for us. She’s clearly the biggest entertainer we’ve ever had. She’s a Grammy Award winner. She’s an Academy Award winner, and a very out and proud lesbian who just happens to be a rock and roll superstar.”
Etheridge’s headlining appearance, with full band in tow, signals a coup for Pittsburgh Pride’s organizers. But more importantly, it means that support — financial and otherwise — has grown. “I don’t think Pittsburgh tends to top people’s lists as a diverse and accepting city. I think people just think of L.A., New York City, and San Francisco,” Bryan says. “What this does is puts us on the map as a city where the LGBT community is strong and proud and supported.”
Etheridge explains that playing a gig at Pride celebration has become a profitable endeavor for performers. “Since I’ve become a recording artist, I have never played a Pride parade or festival. And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to; they just didn’t pay as much money,” says Etheridge with a laugh. “I mean, this is the honest truth.”
But now, Pride celebrations in general are “definitely profitable,” she says. “Every June is just a huge gay month because of the Pride festivals in all these cities, and it generates income. This is big stuff. It’s a business like anything else, and we love throwing a party. Pittsburgh is such an amazing city and an amazing gay pride city. I’m just thrilled. I’m tickled that I’m going to go play this in June.”
In addition to the also-thrilled spectators, Bryan says that the support of local companies, such as UPMC, PNC Bank, Highmark, and FedEx Ground, has allowed the event as a whole to grow. Their support also helps the Delta Foundation offer affordable tickets to Etheridge’s show. “Many companies have stepped up and recognized that this is an important event for them to be involved with, and it’s an important event for the city. One of the things we always talk about is that in order for a city to grow and thrive and be a place where people want to live and work, it has to be inclusive and diverse. And that’s what Pittsburgh Pride is — a diverse celebration that brings everyone together. And not just from the LGBT community, but their allies as well. Pittsburgh Pride changes hearts and minds, and in the end, helps to make Pittsburgh a better place for everyone.”
The 15 minutes shared on the phone are filled with plenty of laughs and sincere words from the soft-spoken, friendly, and thoughtful Melissa Etheridge. Here’s the story in her own words.
Editor’s Note 1:
Etheridge, who appeared for a short run in American Idiot on Broadway, is currently working on a musical. She shares a glimpse of the writing process.
“Well, I am gay so I do like musical theatre. But, I’ve had a huge love of that all my life. I actually made a choice: I wanted to be a recording artist and really stepped away from the stage, but I’ve always had such an admiration for that so when the request came to do that, I jumped at it. It’s a lot of work; they do eight shows in one week. It was just… phew! Exhausting, but delightful. So, yes I am writing one, not for me to be in, but because I enjoy musical theatre so much that I want to be part of that. I really think it’s a great art form.”
When I got the offer, I thought, “My goodness, I’ve never played a Pride before. This is going to be thrilling. This is going to be so exciting.” I conduct myself pretty much assuming that my audience is half gay, half straight. I speak truthfully and make innuendos, but to go to a place and play a show that is just, gay or go home, it’s kind of thrilling. It’s going to take me back into my bar days. I could get a little raunchy [laughing].
I have 90 minutes to play, which is a lot, and I’ll probably just pick the high-octane set and keep it going. My intention is just to keep everyone just movin’ as much as I can.
I love watching the trends in music. In the last decade, we went through a real dance trend, experimenting with technology and really going out there, only to find that on the other end of it, the music that’s really moving us is Mumford and Sons and Adele and Of Monsters and Men — artists that are singing and you stomp your feet and clap your hands to. I see that coming back full force right now — incredible artists that are making music with guitars and stringed instruments and drums and hitting things and singing all together. It’s so old fashioned, it’s new again.
Editor’s Note 2:
Etheridge’s most recent album is titled Fearless Love. I ask her to comment on the idea of overcoming fear and turning it into love in relation to the current state of affairs in our country.
“Yeah, [that topic has] become very clear to me as an artist and as a creative mind, trying to interpret our world and our social communications. I’ve been on the side that people are afraid of, thinking homosexuality is this horrible thing…growing up with that and going, ‘Wait a minute, they’re giving a lot of power to something that does not exist.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, maybe that’s what we do whenever we fear anything – we give something all this power.’ For us to fear them is just as bad as them fearing us. So, I have to love fearlessly. I have to love in my own relations, myself, and when I see something I fear, [I have] to find a perspective where I can look at it and love it, and that takes all the power out of it.”
I love where all the rivers meet. Pittsburgh’s a beautiful city. I like what you’ve done with the place.
On making a great album:
The No. 1 most important thing is that I love it. I have to make an album that excites me, that thrills me at every word and note and rhythm, one that I feel like I’m existing in and thriving from. If I do that, then I can stand beside it. Having been in this career for 25 years, I realize, “Oh boy, the music that I make doesn’t go away.” I keep having to play it, so I had better love it. And the more that I make the music I love, the more that people want that from me. They trust my taste in music.
On being a successful songwriter, activist, or artist:
Make sure you do what you love. And that you are loving it because if you are not loving it, it’s going to be really hard to get anybody else to love it. Whatever it is, throw your love into it, your desire into it, and then it will become whatever you desire. That’s truly how it can be, but it starts with yourself.
The quote that continues to stick with me after our chat is Etheridge’s answer to the question, “What do you believe is the key to your success?” Her response is simple, and rings true for anyone who’s trying to make a difference, whether it’s with their work or their words. “By making the music that’s true in my heart, I can be a writer that connects things that are emotionally relevant to me, that are relevant universally.” Here’s to singing our hearts out, stamping our feet, and clapping our hands come June 9 — and throughout all of Pittsburgh Pride.
This article is featured in the June 2012 issue of WHIRL Magazine.
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