Melissa Etheridge on Cancer, Songwriting, and the Magic of Marijuana

February, 13, 2005, at the Staples Center in sunny Los Angeles. There she was: 45 years old and bald as a light bulb. Chemotherapy had taken her hair but, it seemed, not much else.

The 47th Annual Grammy Awards was perhaps the defining moment of Melissa Etheridge's career. After being diagnosed with breast cancer a year earlier, she stepped onstage to perform a tribute to Janis Joplin and sang a masterful rendition of "Piece of My Heart." It was a different kind of cancer survivor than we were used to seeing. A victim? Hardly. The only person on that stage we felt sorry for was Joss Stone, who was being blown out of the water by a singer in a different echelon of talent.

Melissa Etheridge is now 11 years cancer-free, and the disease turned out to be but a speed bump in long and celebrated career.

Though, one of the few things cancer left behind in Etheridge's life is a deep belief in the medicinal properties of cannabis. "When I was first faced with chemo therapy, it was actually my good friend and biological dad to my children, David Crosby, who said, 'Melissa, all my friends say you must do medical cannabis.'" After seeing the sheer amount of pills her doctor wanted to prescribe her, Etheridge found that, for her own body, cannabis served as a much more efficient medicine.

"It's not about getting high," she says. "The cannabis has such healing properties. It gives me an appetite which is so important when you're on chemo because the biggest danger is people don't eat and then they get infections and they get weak. It keeps depression down. It has pain relief… It's criminal that it isn't allowed as a medicine."

She's since campaigned on behalf of medical marijuana (one of many social and political causes she champions). And after making some connections in California's marijuana industry, she teamed up with a Santa Cruz dispensary and invested in a cannabis-infused wine, two flavors that she describes as a "beautiful marriage."

It's easy to get sidetracked when talking about Etheridge's career. She's got her hand in a lot of different jars, but it all started with music. Good music too.

Her debut 1988 album, Melissa Etheridge, was a success, and its biggest single, "Bring Me Some Water," was nominated for a Grammy. She hit the road and remained relevant through her second album, Brave and Crazy, but it wasn't until her fourth studio album, 1993's Yes I Am, that Etheridge would become a household name. The album was released shortly after Etheridge had publicly come out as gay, and Yes I Am featured two of Etheridge's biggest singles of all time, "I'm the Only One," and "Come to My Window."

The tracks are two absolutely heart-wrenching love songs that bled passion and blues and rock ’n’ roll out of just about every car stereo in the country at the time.

She's had ten releases since then. Her latest, This Is M.E., dropped September 2014. She stills tours and is coming to the Fontainebleau the Saturday after Thanksgiving for an intimate gig. 

"In my early days, it was just all about making a hit and being what everybody wanted," Etheridge says. "And now I realize, as I look back over the 25 plus years that I've been doing this professionally, the times that I have made the music that means something to me, that speaks to me — those are the songs, the instances, that speak to people too. So I've sort of changed my focus. Instead of trying to make a pop song that everyone wants to hear right now, I want to make a song that people want to take into their lives and help them."

Etheridge hasn't abandoned activism either. She remains political — her primary triad of causes being environmentalism, medical marijuana, and LGBT rights.

She even got to perform for Barack and Michelle Obama. "That one was so nerve-wracking, because they were in the front row. I could have touched them."

But for someone who's followed closely and fought both for and against some of the most divisive issues of our time, does Melissa Etheridge ever get frustrated? Sure, there was the legalization of gay marriage in America, and the country is making strides in medical marijuana. But environmental progress is almost nonexistent, and leaps forward in progressive thought inevitably come with a blowback of backsliding — folks who want to build walls, round up Muslims, etc.

At the end of the day, is she terrified or hopeful?

"I have to be hopeful. I have to," she says. "That crazy hopefulness is the only way change is made. All of us who wake up every morning and go, 'OK, I see that this is the way the world is. This is the reality around me, yet I believe — I truly believe — in the capacity of human beings to change, to understand what fears we've had programmed into us that we can release, that we can let go and bring about huge change. We don't have to take the old paradigm of it's a dog-eat-dog world. The way species have existed throughout time has been cooperation. And that's what our society is learning."

Melissa Etheridge. 8 p.m. Saturday, November 28, at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-538-2000; fontainebleau.com. Show packages start at $109 via fontainebleau.com.

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