The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter has taken her music to the heartland on her new album, "Your Little Secret," which employs the Boss' imagery and, on four songs, John Mellencamp's drummer , Kenny Aronoff , to evoke the grand sound and spirit of classic Midwest rock.
Fair enough. Etheridge, 34, comes from Kansas, where she grew up in middle-class Leavenworth. After moving to L.A. she was signed by Island Records and released her first album in 1988. Her breakthrough was 1993's 5-million-selling "Yes I Am," whose title was a playful postscript to her public affirmation that she's gay.
Etheridge has thrived at that level, starring in segments of both MTV's "Unplugged" (where she was joined by Springsteen) and VH1's "Duets." The singer, whose current tour will move on to Europe before hitting the United States next summer, spoke this week by phone from Brisbane , Australia, where she was performing with the Eagles.
Question: What were your goals when you went to record a new album following the huge success of "Yes I Am"?
Answer: Well, I knew I had reached a lot of people that had never heard me before. I got a lot of attention that I hadn't had before, and I wanted to prove that it wasn't a fluke, that it wasn't just one of those things that come and go. I wanted to solidify myself as a rock 'n' roll performer.
Q: What moved you in the heartland rock direction? Was it getting back to your roots?
A: That's absolutely where it came from. I grew up in the Midwest, where they only played Bob Seger and Springsteen and Mellencamp, that was it. That was how I related to my world. When I'd feel like I wanted to get out of the town, I'd play "Born to Run." So when I started to sing it myself and say I want to get out of here, that was the music that I made. . . .
A lot of the [new] songs are bridging my past and now. I think I went back and wrote some songs I should have written when I was 19 or 20. . . . I felt like that was a part of me I hadn't let go.
Q: Another side of your music is that Joplinesque emotionalism. What attracts you about that kind of passion and turbulence?
A: I think what happened is when I was very young, when I was 10, 11, 12, 13 years old, and I started writing, I would write a very sad song, and friends and family would listen to it and go, "Oh, that's just wonderful," and I'd get praised for it. But if I came to them and said, "I'm very sad," there was no response.
I grew up in that Midwest nonemotional place, so I could not express it except in the music. As I grew and as I experienced more, I just did what I learned when I was very young and put it in the music. So at this point my music is just drenched in it. It is just the way that it comes out. I've always thought, I'd like to just take myself and step aside and write something and have it be a sort of narrative, or removed somehow, and I haven't been able to do that yet. I realized I would like to do that in the future, but I didn't do it on this album either.
Q: Is your real life that stormy?
A: There's imagination to the songs. I'm not gonna say my life is great either. There's always emotional ups and downs. No matter where you are in life, that's part of it, and I welcome those and write from them. I also go back in the past and remember and write from that.
Q: Was it difficult growing up in an unemotional environment? Was your childhood happy?
A: I would say it was happy enough. . . . I ended up being introverted. I had a lot of friends, but I was very solemn and I had my own secret world in my head. It was a place I went because my parents were very nonemotional. They had grown up in the Depression, in a very tough world. . . . They didn't want to deal with anything. Looking back I can understand, but as a child you want something--you know there's emotions going on, and they weren't dealing with them. So that was tough. It was kind of emotionally starved.
Q: How have things changed for you since you came out as a lesbian?
A: Coming out was a real revelation for me in conquering your fears and finding enormous amounts of strength. There's nothing like owning who you are, saying this is what I am. Just making you feel like there's nothing that can hurt you in that way now. No one has anything over you.
Q: Do you regret not doing it sooner?
A: I know it had to wait till the right time, but what I do regret is all the fear that I let control me up until then. You look back and you think, "Jeez, why did I go through that? I didn't have to."
Q: Was there more or less backlash on your career than you expected?
A: Much less. Almost nonexistent. . . . I think the way our society's set up now with media that always reports the negative, we think that there's this huge monstrosity of conservative people out there who are judging us. I think it's just a small group that's making a lot of noise.
Q: What kind of new challenges has the success created?
A: I did this album real fast because I could feel myself coming to a space in my life where I'm gonna retreat. . . . It's hard to explain. You reach kind of pinnacles and you go into valleys. . . . I mean it was great to be riding that wave of "Wow, 5 million records, this is great." But you know that wave has to stop, and you go back down and you go up again--that's the challenge, to survive all that.