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Music remains No. 1 priority for Melissa Etheridge

Michael Deeds
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

BOISE, Idaho — Contrary to popular belief, Melissa Etheridge does not jump out of bed each morning, throw open her tour-bus door and dash outside waving her arms in support of one of her many social causes.

“I’m marching down the street for gay rights!” she imagines, laughing.

Music comes first.

“Oh, absolutely for me,” insists Etheridge, 51, who is continuing her “Fearless Love World Tour” this summer. That means treating concert fans to new songs plus hits from the ’80s and ’90s such as “Bring Me Some Water,” “Come To My Window” and “You’re the Only One.”

“What has happened to me along the last 25 years,” Etheridge explains, “is I’ve found that each time I’ve sort of stood up and said, ‘This is my truth, this is what I’m going through, this is what I am,’ it becomes activism work just by me being who I am.

“It might seem like I’m out there all the time doing stuff, but I’m really not. I’m just living my life and agreeing to answer the questions that people ask me.”

The full-court media press hasn’t lightened up much lately. Etheridge’s split from her former domestic partner, actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, and the custody battle over their children have been tabloid fodder for two years. Recently, it was revealed that part of the settlement includes Etheridge sharing 50 percent of the royalties from her 2007 album, “The Awakening,” with Michaels.

So ... is it cool if we don’t talk about any custody battles or settlements during this interview? “Let’s see, huh, I guess that would be all right,” Etheridge quips.

That said, now that you’ve had five years to consider it, would you say that “The Awakening” is probably your worst album and nobody should buy it? Etheridge roars with laughter.

“You’re fuuun!” she says and pretends to back out of this phone call: “Let’s see, I made a mistake! Stop! Change it! Change it!”

Humor is the instantly striking aspect of Etheridge’s charismatic personality. But her strength of character is equally impossible to miss. This is, after all, the woman who showed up at the Grammys in 2005, bald from chemotherapy, to sing Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” So, even though the tabloid attention has been unpleasant, it wasn’t overwhelming.

Still, Etheridge admits, it’s nice to move forward.

“It’s hard enough going through this stuff, hard enough working out personal relations stuff and definitely separating stuff — that’s awful,” she says. “But then to do it in the public (eye), where no one can possibly know all of what’s going on or what it is, is just ridiculous.

“So I’ve kind of got to just turn away from that. I’ve been working on a new album. I’m with my kids out here, and I’m happy and healthy and fine. So I just kind of move on through it, and it eventually fades away.”

It’s like she says: All about the music.

“It is very important for me to stay focused on the music, and this last album that I just completed this last week is about me being completely focused on the music,” Etheridge says. “Not drawn off by cancer, by gay, by anything. Just loving the music.”

Etheridge sounds genuinely excited about her 12th album, “4th Street Feeling.” (A release date has not been set.) It’s the first record she’s done where she handled all the guitars. After 35 years of playing guitar, Etheridge says, she recently allowed herself to believe that she could get better.

“In these last two years, I have improved as a performer, as a guitar player, and I am thrilled about it,” Etheridge says.

Best of all, to appreciate Etheridge the musician, nobody has to agree with her about the environment, gay marriage or even give a hoot about her personal life.

On stage, it’s just that smoky voice and a guitar.

“Music is the place where everyone can meet and agree on and participate in with their own experience,” she says. “So I’m grateful to be able to stand there and play the music and entertain, and then my own personal stuff is that, behind it. The music is that perfect place where we all meet.”

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