A billion stars out in an endless sky, and I won’t be alone, won’t be alone, won’t be alone tonight….
That resolute yearning, that longing for connection, for contact, for touch… These are the core forces powering Melissa Etheridge’s cherished songs throughout her singular career. But as the rousing chorus of “I Won’t Be Alone Tonight,” the opening song of her album This is M.E., it holds some new meaning, new context.
With this album, her 12th collection of new material, she is not alone as a songwriter. For the vibrant collection she teamed with some of the most creative, inventive figures on the music scene: Jerrod Bettis (Adele, One Republic, Eric Hutchinson, Gavin DeGraw), Jon Levine (Nelly Furtado, K’Naan, Selena Gomez), Jerry Wonda (Grammy Award-winning producer of the Fugees, Mary J. Blige, Akon) and Roccstar (Usher, Chris Brown) at the forefront. It was a very new way of doing things for the artist, who counts two Grammy Awards and 17 nominations, an Academy Award (for “I Need to Wake Up” from the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth) and a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame among her many accolades.
Recording the new album proved an inspiring, electrifying experience for her, the best kind of challenge. And the resultant energy is clear in the songs.
“I haven’t been this excited about making music and creating in ages,” Etheridge says. “Song after song was a great experience.”
Make no mistake, the album’s declarative title is fully fitting — not despite the collaborations, but because of them. The powerful lyrics and incomparable voice, the indelible melodies, the blazing guitars could be from no one else. And same for the soulful joy and unbridled passion powering every note, from the big sing-along pop hooks of “A Little Hard Hearted” and “Do It Again” to the greasy, swampy sounds of “Ain’t That Bad” and “Stranger Road.”
These are songs right from her heart, the frisky flirtation of “Take My Number” and mystery-trip “Stranger Road” among those drawing on scenes and settings of her Kansas upbringing. And “Who Are You Waiting For” closes the album on the most intimate, emotional, personal, lump-in-the-throat note of her entire career. It’s the song she wrote for and debuted at her wedding earlier this year to Linda Wallem.
“I opened a door to my inner little heart and wrote a song,” she says. “I sat down at the piano, started writing and the chorus came out, about how we were friends for years and years, and as we got closer it was ‘Who are you waiting for? I’m right here!’”
She made a voice memo of what she’d written and sent it to Levine. “He went crazy over it, said, ‘You gotta warn me before playing something like that!’”
Levine put together the arrangement, including the organ that comes in toward the end. “That gets you,” she says. “The first time I heard that I burst into tears. I wasn’t there when he did it. It floored me.”
And that was only the preview of the song’s profound debut.
“I sang it at the wedding,” Etheridge says. “I was able to keep her from hearing it before. It was my vows.”
As the album title says, this is all Melissa Etheridge — ME.
“It’s still me — I’m just riding around in different cars,” she says. “Music is a collaborative art anyway. I gave it everything I could and pushed my creativity more than I ever have, by collaboration. Collaboration is not compromise. It’s a plus, bringing in people who make what I do better.”
Ideas flowed freely and quickly. “A Little Bit of Me” was written in the course of a plane ride to New York, Etheridge working from a beat and a melody Bettis had come up with. Similarly, the words for the swampy “Monster,” with its slinky slide guitar, came as she was on her way to the United Nations to speak as the global body was declaring LGBT rights as human rights, the song’s theme of being the “other,” the feared outsider, coming directly from her personal experience growing up gay.
This is M.E. also marks the debut of her independent label, ME Records. Distributed by Caroline Records and overseen in coordination with Primary Wave, a full-service music management and marketing strategy firm, the venture gives Etheridge new freedoms to explore creative avenues.
The whole process, she says, has been invigorating.
“It’s a liberating responsibility,” she says, noting that it’s not a contradiction in terms. “I was liberated to make my own choices, to be in charge of where every dime went, who exactly I wanted to record with. And it was a responsibility to say, ‘How can I get the best out of me and get the end result I’m looking for.’”
It was Primary Wave that first suggested she work with Jerrod Bettis and Jon Levine. Bettis tapped his origins as a drummer to create rhythm tracks as foundations on which Etheridge could build.
“I would take them and go home and write,” Etheridge says. “‘Take My Number’ — there it is!”
Levine, an accomplished keyboard player as well as producer, bonded quickly with Etheridge over their mutual love for Bruce Springsteen.
“We said, ‘Let’s make the songs we would want to hear,’” she says. “‘Won’t Be Alone’ was one of those. And ‘Stranger Road’ is a perfect example. We created musical beds together and then I wrote the lyrics and melodies.”
Jerry Wonda, the Grammy Award-winning producer of the Fugees, Mary J. Blige and many others, came on board as Etheridge explored her lifelong love for soul and urban music — “this side of me I’d never let out.” She went to his studio in Manhattan and found another new approach.
“With Jon Levine IT was his him and me and a few machines and then I’d go away and write,” she says. “With Jerry it was him and me, a drummer and two keyboard players all in the studio control room, and other people rounding it out. I’d say, ‘Play me something.’ And we’d start creating and right away he’d bring in other musicians and we would create the track. It was amazing!”
Young hip-hop rising force Roccstar brought in other elements, and Etheridge returned the favor for him.
“He had this march beat — boom-boom-BOOM. But he’d never worked with live guitars, so I put on my Les Paul and started playing and he’s screaming and we’re having so much fun, and we created ‘Ain’t That Bad’ right there.”
The chance to experiment led to some unexpected touches, such as bringing in cellist Neyla Pakarek from the folkie band the Lumineers to contribute to a couple of songs. Etheridge had been turned onto the band by her daughter and became a fan. When Levine suggested
bringing in a string player, Etheridge suggested Pakarek, who not only added cello to “Stranger Road” and an entire string section, playing all the parts, on “Who Are You Waiting For,” but showcased her singing on “A Little Hard Hearted.”
This is M.E. comes in a very active stretch for Etheridge, even by her seemingly tireless standards. In addition to her steady touring, both with her band and as a solo act, she did a week stint in the role of St. Jimmy in American Idiot on Broadway in 2011, continued her noted activism speaking to the United Nations on LGBT rights as human rights, sang her own “Uprising of Love” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” as part of this year’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square and performed at the opening ceremonies of the WorldPride week in Toronto.
But the making of the album was inspired and inspiring, energized and energizing. It’s there in every note. The bottom line, she says, simply: “I’ve made an album I love.”