Melissa Etheridge returns to Madison Friday for the fourth time in six years. She sold out the Civic Center in 1990, ’92 and ’94. The latter show occurred while her fourth album, “Yes I Am,” began its commercial breakthrough. It eventually sold more than 5 million copies.
Now, nearly a year after releasing “Your Little Secret,” she is touring the United States, where her itinerary is filled with stadiums — virtually all bigger than the Dane County Coliseum, site of Friday’s performance.
Speaking before a show at the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, Etheridge, 35, spoke about her career and her life as rock music’s most famous lesbian.
Only one topic was off limits: How her partner – Julie Cypher, 31, the ex-wife of Lou Diamond Phillips – got pregnant.
Impending parenthood and her tour were equally on her mind.
WSJ: Has it been easy touring stadiums as opposed to theaters?
ETHERIDGE: I never wanted to be the little dot at the end of the arena. I want to bring people closer and I do that.
WSJ: With video screens?
ETHERIDGE: There are video screens. But halfway through the show we actually go to the other side of the arena and do some songs from a little platform there.
WSJ: Your music would seem to translate well to an arena setting.
ETHERIDGE: Yeah, (laughs) the criticism I used to get when I was playing smaller places was that I was yelling too much and the music was too big.
Now, (critics) say almost begrudgingly, “Well, now she’s in the arenas, where her voice should be.” The music I was raised on is ’70s and ’80s rock anthem-type songs and musicians. I always write a big chorus, I can’t help it.
WSJ: “Yes I Am” sold so well, there’s a perception that selling 1 million copies of “Your Little Secret” is a failure. You now can sell a million albums and it’s considered a disappointment.
ETHERIDGE: (laughs) Yeah, really.
WSJ: But did the apparent lack of sales and radio airplay for “Your Little Secret” surprise you?
ETHERIDGE: It did what I thought it would do. The record company wanted to put it out in 1995. I thought we should take a break because “Yes I Am” was still selling. We came to a compromise and put the album out last October. I toured Europe instead of the United States. Now we’re hoping to give the album a second wind.
WSJ: You’re going to become a parent in January. What’s the due date?
ETHERIDGE: The 25th.
WSJ: You must be excited.
ETHERIDGE: Very excited. It’s a whole new world.
WSJ: Did you consider carrying the baby?
ETHERIDGE: We talked about that. But physically, with touring, I would have had to wait longer. Julie was ready right now. It was a good time for her, so she went first.
WSJ: Your child will have the highest profile of anyone growing up with lesbian parents. Does that worry you?
ETHERIDGE: It’s a concern. It’s one we talk about a lot. Julie and I have always been strong and upfront and proud about ourselves. We have always been very easygoing with photographers. That’s going to change.
I feel very protective of this child. The child isn’t a celebrity, and I’m going to work very hard to keep it like that.
WSJ: But can you ever imagine a day when you’d bring your child on stage?
ETHERIDGE: (laughs) Not unless it asks me: `Can I come with tonight?’ Then maybe.
WSJ: You’re outspoken (about gay rights issues) in print stories, but you never use the stage as a soapbox.
ETHERIDGE: I have always felt that my job is to entertain. I’m not a preacher. On stage, that show is for entertainment purposes. I have always felt that, even when I was singing in (lesbian) bars.
WSJ: Has that attitude helped you maintain a mixed audience?
ETHERIDGE: My songs are about passion, emotions and desires. It’s not about a certain type of passion.
WSJ: In the mid-’80s, you played lesbian bars almost exclusively. Did that make record company execs reluctant to see you?
ETHERIDGE: Let me tell you, it was interesting. I was playing five nights a week to an audience that was full of lesbians. I didn’t want a record company that wouldn’t accept that part of me.
One time the guys from A&M Records came and they were this whole table of burly guys. (laughs) I choose to think they didn’t sign me because they didn’t hear a hit song, not because of sexual preference.
WSJ: How do you describe your audience now?
ETHERIDGE: It’s largely female, but it’s not largely gay. There are lots of straight women who bring their boyfriends or husbands. If anything, it’s 65 percent female.
WSJ: Your shows are always very active. Is it tough to get that energy night after night?
ETHERIDGE: At this point in my career, the audience is so fired up that they take me halfway when I walk on stage. It’s like, `This is cool.’