Singer-guitarist Melissa Etheridge recalls that when she made her debut way back in 1988, she was often asked where she saw herself in 20 to 30 years.
"I would say that I hoped I was still making music that people were interested in because that would be the sign that I had a successful career," she says.
That response suggests she thought of herself as an artist with staying power. With her new album, This is M.E., Etheridge returns to the heartland rock sound of her debut. It's the first album that Etheridge has released on her newly formed record label, ME Records, and reflects a DIY attitude as she enters a new phase of her career.
Etheridge, who grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas, says her voice always had a raspy quality.
"I remember my choir teacher used to put me in the back row of the choir because I had such a strange voice," she says with a laugh.
Her experience in the choir notwithstanding, she originally gravitated toward country music, and when she was a teenager, she cut her musical teeth playing with local country groups.
"I was singing songs such as Tammy Wynette's 'Stand by Your Man.' That's where that belting and bigness in my voice comes from. Country and rock 'n' roll are right next to each other for me. The music I loved to listen to was rock 'n' roll so that's where I took that from."
That connection is perhaps even more pronounced now that country music has crossed over into the rock and pop worlds.
"Some people even consider me country," she admits. "I don't know why but they do. Country music has changed so much that it's like soft rock now. I think it's more not so much of a genre as it is a group of people. I don't know how to explain it. I would love to be part of that club if they'll have me."
After a short stint at Berklee College of Music, she moved to Los Angeles and hit the coffeehouse circuit. Initially, she had a hard time convincing radio stations to play her self-titled debut.
"I'm not one to ever blame people and say I didn't get something because of this," she says. "But I know that when my first record came out and we took it to the rock 'n' roll stations, they said they couldn't play another woman."
Eventually, that album would become a hit and Etheridge would deliver a slew of hits throughout the '90s. Along the way, she's come out as a lesbian and dealt with having her personal life scrutinized. In 2004, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy. Her new album serves as a triumphant statement of independence and perseverance. It's also an attempt to sound a bit more contemporary.
"I wanted to use the technologies of today," she says. "I think it's possible to do that without having it take over. I collaborated with Jon Levine, who's an amazing teacher of sounds. He's played bass with the Fugees and Lauryn Hill. I have a big soulful side of me that's just waiting to get out. I got to do that on this record."
Reading the long list of contributing musicians and producers, it seems like it was an intense recording process.
"The recording industry has changed," Etheridge explains. "Gone are the days of here are all my songs and I'm going to go into the studio for two weeks. Now, each producer has their own studio and you go there. If it works, it works and then you go on to the next phase. It's like speed dating. Since it's an independent record, you have to do it that way. It was scary to put it out myself. There's more personal investment. You don't have the money up front. I have to do the work that the record company would normally do. That's fine really. It's exciting."
Songs such as "Do It Again" and "Take My Number" deal with personal insecurities and feelings. But Etheridge says the album isn't necessarily more personal than previous efforts.
"You know, all my albums are so darn personal," she says. "This is what's personal to me now."
"Monster" is a loud, in-your-face rock tune that should sound even more impressive when Etheridge delivers it live.
"I love that song. I can't wait to play it live," she says. "The music was the first inspiration. [Producer] Jerry [Wonda] and I were working on a different song. I was going to play the slide and I was practicing. I was playing that and he made everyone stopped. He had me record it. We built the track from that riff and I was like, 'Holy crap. This is great.' I went home and wrote the lyrics. I wanted it to fit that beat. I knew it had to be some sort of anthem."
She says the chorus was inspired by a statue outside the United Nations building.
"They were having a LGBT thing on sports and human rights and all this stuff," she says. "It was the first time they were acknowledging human rights as human rights and it was a pretty big deal. I noticed outside the U.N. that there's a sculpture of St. George killing a big dragon. I thought, 'I'm a monster,' and that's where the lyric came from."
The album cover art — a pixelated composite image featuring fan photos — also signals a new connection to her fans.
"That came from my management," she says of the concept. "I didn't have a hand in who made it, but I was surprised no one has done it before."
For the current tour, Etheridge says she's going to rework her old material and play plenty of the new stuff too.
"I'm very excited. I pride myself on changing up my shows," she says. "But this show is so different when you hear 'Come to My Window' and 'I'm the Only One,' you'll hear new versions of the songs that are supercharged. This tour is the hits and a lot of the new album. It's going to be a frickin' celebration. I can't wait."
Melissa Etheridge with Alexander Cardinale
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14, State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-5000. Tickets: $27.50-$100, playhousesquare.org.
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