Rock legend Melissa Etheridge talks about the importance of legalizing marijuana and starting her own label

Melissa Etheridge has been a very public face to many groups who needed a voice. She showed young girls that a woman can rock as hard, if not harder, than the good ol’ boys of the music industry. She proved that being openly gay was not an instant death sentence to a career in music. She exclaimed, “I am more than a disease!” (she was so inspiring that India.Arie penned her hit song “I Am Not My Hair” about Etheridge after seeing her perform at the 2005 Grammy Awards bald from chemotherapy) after a cancer diagnosis, and her following treatment that brought her back stronger and healthier than ever.

Now, after nearly 25 years in the public eye, Etheridge has taken up another cause: legalizing cannabis.

Etheridge became a public supporter of legalizing cannabis after using marijuana to help with the effects of cancer and chemotherapy. She appeared as the keynote speaker at the Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo in Los Angeles in September. Etheridge is also part owner of the Greenway Collective, a cannabis dispensary in Santa Cruz, and has helped to create a cannabis-infused wine.

Etheridge spoke with Watermark before making her way to Ruth Eckerd Hall Feb. 18 and just hours after learning rock legend David Bowie passed away.

Watermark: I hate to start this conversation off on such a somber note but of course you know we lost a music legend last night.
Melissa Etheridge: I know, I just saw his new single. I watched the video for his first single [“Lazarus”] and it was a little disturbing, and when I looked at him, I thought, he’s not well, and then boom.

It was such a shock. I had no idea he was sick.
No one did. I have one David Bowie story. We were at a benefit, and I was sat at the same table as him and Iman. This was 15 or 20 years ago, and he was laughing because he had just been to his son’s graduation at some big ivy league school, and he was meeting people there, and he got a kick out of it when someone began chatting with him, and they said, “well what do you do for a living?” He said, “Well, I’m a rockstar.” He just thought that was so funny that they had no idea who he was. That was David; he was just always smiling and very lighthearted and took himself lightly. It is just really sad; he really made such a unique mark on music.

His mark on gender and what it was to be sexually fluid were revolutionary at the time; he and Freddie Mercury opened a lot of doors in that aspect. Was he an influence on how you presented yourself when you first got into music?
I was in junior high and high school and really young – like 13, 14, 15 – when he got started doing “Life On Mars” and “Space Oddity” and I was interested. I was really drawn to his Station to Station album. That was the one I was like, “oh wow, wait a minute.” That’s when I started really liking him. Before that, I would see him on the late-night shows. It wasn’t until after that that I started to really love his voice and his writing. As I got older, I really started to see the gender fluidity that he placed in front of us and then made us question what is gender, and he brought all of that to the surface and it was amazing.

My experience with your music is similar to that of yours with Bowie’s. I first heard of you with your smash hit album Yes I Am but I didn’t fully get it until I heard your album Breakdown and listened to the song “Mama I’m Strange.” It felt like such a personal album, more so then any other.
Oh yeah, Breakdown was such a personal album. After making two really big public albums, I came to making Breakdown because everything personally was just breaking down in my life. I wanted to address more of the LGBT person; I wanted to not just kind of beat around it or just hint at it. I mean, things like Matthew Shepard had just happened, so I wrote “Scarecrow.” I was having children and starting to see all of the inequality, marriage inequality, and at the same time my marriage was falling apart, so I was just in a crazy place. “Mama I’m Strange,” that song really meant so much to me, and you’re really one of the first people to bring it up to me and talk to me about that song. I wanted young people to know that this is a feeling that many, many people have had: That I’m strange, that the thoughts and the wants are making me different and I need your help, Mama. It just spoke to that crazy place that we all are in at some point.

Fame gives you a lot of opportunities, and you have used yours to speak up on several issues and help raise money and awareness for things like LGBT rights, the environment, women’s health. With so many concerns out there, how do you decide which causes you want to put your time and energy into?
I’ll tell you what; I didn’t start out doing this thinking “I’m going to stand up for causes.” I was never that type of person. I was from the Midwest, where we don’t cause any problems, we just do what we’re supposed to do, and it really wasn’t until life really brought it to me. I mean, coming out was my own personal decision of “I have to do this. I don’t want to lie and live a double life.” That’s not who I am, so LGBT causes were brought to me, and the more I stood up, the more young people would come up to me and say, “Thank you; you helped me to come out” and “That album meant so much to me.” That was what made it worth everything, that connection right there with so many people. So I just started to walk that path, and people would ask my thoughts on this and that, and those words would go out into the world. Then, of course, cancer came knocking on my door. I wasn’t a cancer advocate before I had cancer. I just make my choices and then I walk that walk.

You mention your battle with cancer, and you dealt with it very publicly when you found out. How are you feeling these days?
I am 11 years cancer free, and I am happier and healthier then I have ever been. It’s really been an amazing journey. I’m one of those people who feel like my trip with cancer was a gift. It certainly made me realize what a gift health is, and how important it is.

Is that the time you started to become supportive of marijuana legalization?
Going through cancer and then realizing the incredible medicinal benefits of cannabis during treatments, I thought, “This is crazy, this medicine is so old, and we’ve been using it for thousands of years up to about 70 years ago, then it was completely eradicated.” People were told this is an evil weed, and I thought,“What happened, and why isn’t this available to us?” People need to come out of the closet as cannabis users. There is such a stigma that if you use it, you’re a lazy bum and a hippie and then they will move on to other drugs, and it is just such lies. This is such an incredible medicine that can help so many people with so many things, and I just see so much misinformation, and it makes me so sad. So I decided 10 years ago, when I went through cancer and it helped me so much, that I would also walk my truth about that, and I have been.

The support behind the medicinal marijuana movement has been growing quite a bit over the last few years.
Yes, I have watched it state-by-state start to change. It’s a bit like watching the fight for same-sex marriage, but we need more education to take the stigma out. It’s ridiculous, the fear around cannabis. People are like, “Oh my god, the children,” but you think about all the things that are children are legally allowed to consume that can kill them, and every year you can check to see how many people are dying from cannabis: zero. And to think of the things that are legal, so we have to start to change this fear and the only way to do that is through education and coming out. The understanding, outside of medicine, is that grown adults in America can and should have a choice of what they want to use to wind down on the weekend. There is a lot of misinformation that we have got to educate people about.

In the ‘90s, you were very vocal about your support for Bill Clinton as president. Will you be supporting another Clinton for the White House this go around?
Yeah, Hillary’s gonna get my support. I just think that is the best thing. Politics in general have just given me a headache. It’s hard to, in this crazy day, not to hear about it with social media, and it has just become a circus. It has always been a circus, but oh God, is it a horrible circus now. I just think Hillary can get the job done, and running this country is a job. I think our country needs more of a thoughtful person than a reactionary, punishing person. To help our country lead with all the changes we’re going through in the world, we need a leader who is flexible and intuitive, and I think a woman who has been around this business for a long time is the best bet. I think she is going to be a good president.

After all your success and fame, you did something interesting a few years ago. You left your label to make your last album, This is M.E., independently. What inspired you to do that?
One thing was the crazy state of the music industry right now. It’s funny beause the good news is everybody loves music, everybody wants music and everybody wants music as a part of their life in the car, walking down the street; music really defines all of us. The bad news is everybody wants their music for free. It’s not so bad because, as an artist, you still have to pay for a ticket to come see me, so I’m fine with that. The music industry though, the middle guy who makes the money off of making a record, that has totally changed the game for them. The money they have to promote an album has plummeted, so when I changed my management, they helped me see that I could do it myself and own my album and actually make money off of my album and probably sell more than if I was still with a major label. So I said yeah let’s try that and they were right, I am on my way to selling more than I ever have.

Did you have to approach making that album differently or was it the same process as all the other ones?
Yes, because now I was in the situation where I didn’t have all the big money up front that a record company gives you; they give you the budget up front, so you can go get the producers and write the songs and make the album. Now you give different producers back end, so you work with them in creating the song, and you give them a piece of the song and those collaborations were amazing. The songs that were created, I just love this album. Just the other day my daughter wanted to listen to some tracks, and I was like,“This is a good album, I like this.”

And you’re touring with the album now, and will be here in Tampa Bay and then down to Miami. Are you looking forward to the Sunshine State?
It is my favorite, especially at this time of year. I’m going to New Zealand and then Florida, so I am living it up. The last two years I was following winter everywhere, so now it is time to get warm. I have been touring a lot, but I am also making new music in the process.

What can you tell us about the new album?
They won’t let me say exactly yet what I am doing, but it is a really special project, and we are going to make a big announcement about it soon. It is just one of the most interesting music projects I have ever done, and I’m really looking forward to getting some new music out. Look for it late summer/early fall, probably around August or September.

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