Headed back to town for a special "Merry Christmas, Baby" performance of hits and seasonal takes Sunday at Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, I spoke with Melissa Etheridge about responding to the world in song, change from within and much more. Sunday's concert benefits Toys For Tots and fans are encouraged to bring an unwrapped gift or donation to the venue...
"If you disrespect anybody
That you run in to,
How in the world do you think
Anybody's s'posed to respect you?"
Those are the words sung by Pops Staples to open one of the most recognizable Staple Singers hits, "Respect Yourself." In 1971, the song crossed over, acting as a self-empowering anthem for both African Americans and women during the post-Civil Rights era.
Sadly, 46 years later, the song remains about as relevant in America as it's ever been.
In 2015, Melissa Etheridge began combing through the archives of famed Memphis soul label Stax Records in preparation for her Memphis Rock and Soul album, a collection of cover songs which bridge the gap between R&B, soul and rock and roll. Collaborating with singer Priscilla Renea, Etheridge put her own updated spin on the classic Staples cut.
The album was released in October of 2016, only a month before the Presidential election, and, as she hit the road in support of it, "Respect Yourself" began to take on new meaning.
"As I toured all year long, that song became more and more relevant every night when I would do it," Etheridge said. "I just wanted to take it a step further with Priscilla saying, 'That’s what we really all need to do is respect ourselves.' And teach that it starts with standing up and saying, 'Wow. I respect myself and will walk this world with that respect.' Then it shows people how you change things from within. That’s where it starts."
Sunday night in St. Charles, Etheridge will mix hits from across from her career with seasonally appropriate holiday songs in a performance she dubs "Merry Christmas, Baby." It's a set that offers hope despite divisive times. "I go into Christmas and I love it," Etheridge said. "I’m not religious at all. I don’t teach the religious story to my family.... [But] it’s a special time when we look back, we reflect back, we look forward with hope and we actually think about peace... Peace begins with each of us."
I spoke with Melissa Etheridge about crafting original Christmas cuts on her 2008 album A New Thought For Christmas, the role music plays in society as an advocate for the acceptance of both different people and different sounds and much more. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. During these special "Merry Christmas, Baby" shows, you’ll be doing some songs from your 2008 Christmas album A New Thought For Christmas. On that album, you mix some traditional holiday songs with originals. I feel like sometimes new, original Christmas songs can veer quickly into the hokey. But you avoided that. What’s the mindset when you sit down to work on a Christmas album?
Melissa Etheridge: Back in 2008, it was really important to me. I had just gone through my health crisis of breast cancer. I’m 13 years cancer free, thank you. And it really kind of refocused me and my thoughts and just how I look at life, my whole life outlook.
I started it really feeling deeply about the time we call Christmas, the holiday time. I thought, “Man, I love it.” I go into Christmas and I love it. I’m not religious at all. I don’t teach the religious story to my family. Yet it’s a spirit that I understand and that has been around forever.
I’ve spent a lot of time actually studying religions and stuff and everyone sort of holds this as a very sacred time. And I wanted to sort of acknowledge that and inspire that. It’s a special time when we look back, we reflect back, we look forward with hope and we actually think about peace – and it’s not hokey.
So I wanted to grab that and create a piece of work that would be inspiring, that I could, at this time of year, sort of travel around and sing, “Come on, let’s light a light. There’s more.” Peace begins with each of us.
Q. Do you have a favorite Christmas song over the years or is there an artist you think has taken on that seasonal genre particularly well?
ME: I’ll listen to Frank Sinatra and Elvis sing Christmas songs all night long!
Q. I saw on your website that you’re getting fans involved in this tour, having them volunteer at these shows, right? I saw that Toys for Tots was mentioned - are fans encouraged to bring a gift to the Arcada on Sunday?
ME: Yes! Come to the show and bring an unwrapped gift. We’ve got volunteers at the show. We’re giving tickets away to those who wish to volunteer and help out. You can go to my website, melissaetheridge.com, and you can see all that.
The Marines have been doing this for decades and it is so well run. And it is an organization that works locally. And that’s what I really love: people can know that their donation, their generosity, is going to help those right in their neighborhood, right in their town. So I really appreciate that part of it.
Q. We’re lucky in Chicago to have Mavis Staples out there speaking and singing on our behalf. Last year, you kind of reworked The Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” with Priscilla Renea on the Memphis Rock and Soul album. And obviously that’s a pretty political track. You kind of started that process of combing the Stax archives in 2015 and the album itself was released last October, a month before the election. But I would say that song is about as relevant now as it’s ever been. What does doing that song now feel like with everything that’s happened in the past year?
ME: As I toured all year long, that song became more and more relevant every night when I would do it. I just, I would see that. I think it was just as relevant back then – when Mavis and Pops and the Staple Singers presented the idea of respect yourself. I just wanted to take it a step further with Priscilla saying, “That’s what we really all need to do is respect ourselves.” And teach that it starts with standing up and saying, “Wow. I respect myself and will walk this world with that respect.” Then it shows people how you change things from within. That’s where it starts.
Q. You just mentioned that idea of changing things from within and, when you talked about Christmas, you hit on the idea of hope. And I feel like it’s hard for people to stay positive right now. But I read an interview that you gave where you said, “It’s a very good time to take a breath and know that this too shall pass and it’s making us all better.” What do you say to people who are having a hard time maintaining that positivity right now, especially at this time of the year?
ME: That I get it. I know that it’s very scary for one.
But know that that fear is causing all of us to think about and ask for peace in so many ways – peace between our neighbors, peace between the races, peace between the religions. Just think… These distances that we’re all so afraid of, that’s what we’re confronting. So if you can find your own peace with it, if you can think about your neighbors – think globally and act locally, act right there in your home, right there with your family – if you can project that? That’s where the comfort comes and the change begins.
Everyone is going through this on some level. Even if it looks like it’s “the other side.” They’re also going through it.
There will be a beautiful historic time when we will say to our grandchildren and all the way down, “Yeah, we were there. And we lived through it. And we made the change.”
Q. I’m 38 and there are a lot of areas in the world where, during my lifetime, I don’t feel like I’ve seen the world change. But one area where I really feel like I’ve seen positive change is in the way that people respond to and accept LGBTQ. You came out in 1993 and have experienced it firsthand. I think people feel like, as a society, we’re kind of stuck right now – but I feel like there’s a lot of good that can be taken from that. Would you agree?
ME: If you could see through my eyes… I have seen so much change in my 50 years – so much – that I am so hopeful now. So hopeful.
Because I’ve seen the world say, “Yes. Love is love.” I’ve seen us start to understand that this LGBT movement is a movement for all of us to understand our own emotional, sexual beings that we are. And to work through a whole lot of old – hundreds and hundreds of years of programming – to rise up and say, “No. This is real. Emotions are real. And it’s not black and white. It’s not man or woman. There’s so much in there. And it’s not up to us to judge it. Just leave it alone. Everyone’s having their own experience.” And that’s huge, for the majority of us to really come into that - and then to recognize this is bigotry, to go against it, this is fear.
And then you look at other changes. Like in the cannabis world, that’s a huge change for my life. And then this whole balancing out of the female in the world is just huge. And it’s painful… And yet, it’s very exciting.
Q. I think, obviously, in the 60s, folk music and protest songs were one of the number one forces for social change. Because music really drove the culture. But I feel like we see that less now. But I think one thing that is important right now about music is the way that it helps people kind of learn to accept people and things that are different and unique and diverse. How important is music right now?
ME: Music is extremely important.
I have loved to see the changes that have come about in the way that we get our music. And that the younger generation, that one of their biggest inventions is that they figured out how to carry thousands of songs with them on a very small device. To surround yourself with music and then to make your list of music that represents you – that you can find those [people] singing your songs, singing your feelings, your words, and express yourself - music is huge for that. And I am honored to be one of those artists that present a certain type of music for people.
Q. Well, everything we’ve talked about kind of leads to this: you’ve been working on a new album and I’ve heard you say it will respond in some way to everything that’s going on in the world. But it doesn’t take much to turn something highly divisive at this point. How difficult does that whole idea of almost immediate divisiveness make it for you, as an artist, to respond to the world now in song?
ME: It sort of compartmentalizes… yet word of mouth still rules. Word of mouth is still golden. You get someone to say, “Hey, I really like this song,” and share it? That’s it.
So I still come from the same place of creating music that I love, and want to share, and hopefully it goes on out there.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Sunday's Melissa Etheridge show at Arcada Theatre below)
Melissa Etheridge: Merry Christmas, Baby
***Sunday's concert benefits Toys For Tots and concertgoers are encouraged to bring an unwrapped gift to the venue***
Sunday, December 10, 2017
105 E. Main St.
St. Charles, IL 60174
Tickets: $69 - $125
Click HERE to purchase tickets