This interview is a part of DoubleBlind’s Medicine Music series, in partnership with PORTAL, a campaign to destigmatize the responsible use of psychedelics. For video interviews with musicians about their relationship to plant medicines, check out DoubleBlind’s YouTube.
Few musicians have had careers as illustrious as singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge. Since her debut album in 1988, she’s received two Grammy Awards (and been nominated for 15)—and, for decades, written hits that reached the Top 40 in the United States, going on to become American classics. She’d already been on the road for awhile, when she fell backwards into plant medicines, taking a cannabis cookie made by a friend that turned out to be a lot stronger than anticipated. “I woke up the next day and I was a different person,” she tells Shylah Ray for DoubleBlind. She began to read Terence McKenna, spiritual books…anything she could get her hands on to go more deeply into her inquiries. She took psilocybin and ayahuasca. Now, she’s a passionate advocate for the overturning of prohibition, with a nonprofit, The Etheridge Foundation, that’s helping legitimize psychedelics through research. In this interview, she opens up about her musical process, her son’s lethal overdose on opioids, and shares words of wisdom from her journeys far and wide.
DB: How are you feeling today?
ME: Fantastic. Really great.
I’m so glad. Thank you for taking a moment out of your day, I know you have a show tonight. Are you excited?
Oh yeah. I always am. I love what I do.
Let’s talk about the tour! It just started and it’s going all summer?
Yeah, we just started in LA, which is always strange because I don’t get on a plane and fly somewhere. I just go to work and not come home for a few weeks. I’ve done this for so long—I’ve been singing for 50 years in front of people and professionally for 30. I’ve just had such a great time. I get to play Stagecoach, Jazz Fest, some of my favorite venues and then I’ll be done around September.
Did you tour the last couple years or did you take a break?
Well, we went out for a little bit in 2021, which was crazy because it was when people just started to do shows again and we went back out again last year. Nothing huge.
It feels like everyone is getting back on the road and doing big tours this year. Makes me happy. It’s been a long break for some and, I’m curious, what was your experience as a musician during the pandemic?
When it was March 2020, I was getting ready to begin my tour and the gigs started canceling. I thought it would only be a few weeks so I started going live on Facebook. I went 58 days straight. And then I stopped because my son died. The pandemic was really hard on him because he was alone. He died of an opioid addiction—an overdose of fentanyl. Then, everything was so different, realizing I’m not going to be able to bring in money that I usually do to pay the bills and support my family. What do I do now? So I got out into my garage, which was soundproofed, I cleared it out and set up a streaming studio. I didn’t know what I was doing but I built a studio in 3 weeks with my wife, who ran the cameras. We figured out how to create a platform and people could subscribe and I did this 5 days a week. Each day something different; Tuesdays for cover songs, Wednesdays for chatting with me and my wife and thousands of people who were alone everyday who would all connect. A beautiful community grew around it. It gave me purpose and it brought me income. It also opened me up to my catalog. I ended up performing every single song I’d ever recorded. I got back in touch with all the songs that I kind of let go of along the way. I realized I had A LOT of songs and these people actually like them! So it got me back in touch. My wife was really wonderful and helped me through that. I’m very proud.
Wow. So you could say that your takeaway from it all was going back into your discography and seeing what you’ve created and connecting with them again. You do have a lot of songs and as I was listening last night, I found ones I never heard before that brought up some emotions and deep feelings. They are so beautifully crafted. I respect artists who never stop doing what they love, who never stop creating no matter what the challenges are. Do you have plans to write more once the tour is over? Are you constantly songwriting or do you go through phases?
That experience has changed for me over the years. Before I had children, oh, I just wrote all the time. All day, all night, whenever I would feel that inspiration to translate something that I felt, saw, thought, believed…whatever it was, into a song. Whenever that feeling hit me I would just do it. Then when I had children, I learned, when those moments struck me, how to put them on hold. I captured them, technology really helped. I would just grab an iPhone and either write down or save something. That was huge for me. I would gather these pieces that I had, and then start crafting them. Lately, the last few years, I find myself writing for a project, and I like that a lot. I wrote the song for “An Inconvenient Truth” and I’m making a documentary about women in prison. I’m doing a concert in Kansas at the Women’s penitentiary, because I grew up in Leavenworth, which had all the penitentiaries where I used to play when I was a kid. I used to sing to the audiences—they were incredible. And so I wanted to write a song, because I had gone to visit a few weeks ago. I like the assignment of how I take these people’s feelings and my own thoughts and make it something. It’s different. You know, when I sit down to think about an album then I really start to gather songs.
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I think media and film is the direction many artists are going because it’s a huge industry. It’s a way for musicians to be paid for their work and it seems to be moving in that direction for most. The music industry has changed so much and I do miss the concept of the physical album, the CD booklet with the lyrics, the vinyl. Streaming platforms have taken over and I’ve wondered how your generation of musicians is impacted by this. What’s your take on it?
Artists are left to make a choice. What do we want to do with our art? What’s our purpose here? Are you a songwriter and you just want to birth them into the world? Or are you more of a technical person who is creating sound? There’s a lot of different art now that we call “music.” It’s up to the consumer. We have so much choice now and I like that. For years, back when I was making great albums, it had to go through so many levels of acceptance from the record company to the radio. You had to have people say yes/no. They were the gatekeepers back then and you would never hear something that they wouldn’t let out of the gate. Now, people totally bypass that and they can find it. It’s like, I agree to a smaller amount of people that I can reach, but I have my own creative license over it. And I don’t have a record company now. Sometimes we’ll do an album with one company, but it’s just a one off thing and I want to own it. I’m an established artist, so I can do that. I think it has evolved exactly as it should and there’s more to come. And it’s exciting.
And I benefit from the fact that I am a live performer and people want to see me live and they come to me over and over and over. And that’s where I make my money. That’s where my reward is. So if you really want to do this and make a living at it, you do it live and let that word of mouth go because no matter what anyone else is playing they will come see that experience. You can’t get that online.
I agree 1000%. I think there’s a lot of artists who are trying to master a perfect sound but don’t know what it is to perform live. If you love it, you’ll do it. If you continue to show up, they will show up. And you still have sold out shows. What are you looking forward to most on this tour? What are you most excited about?
Well, there’s a few places where I know I’m gonna have a great time. They’re built
for the audience. They’re built for that experience. One is Green Hall in Texas. It’s this little Honky Tonk. A real one. It’s been there since the 20s or 30s. Oh, you’ve got to crawl in! There’s a window you have to crawl in. They never put in a backdoor…Was it Willie Nelson? No. Somebody crawled in there. Anyway, it’s historic. And it’s all standing room only. Everybody just comes in and we just rock like crazy, two hours. And it’s so much fun. It’s that experience. I also have a place in Cape Cod that holds many more people. It’s in the round, thousands of people but it’s called The Melody Tent. It’s been there since the turn of the century. The people that come know they’re going to have a great time consistently because I’ll go there every 2 or 3 years. We have a great time. I’m looking forward to Jazz Fest because it’s an honor to play there, and it’s a great place and people who are there love music. I just love connecting with the people that love music.
Sounds like so much fun. I hope you have an incredible tour. I was going to ask what was the best show you’ve ever played but instead I’d like to know about your greatest achievement. What is your greatest honor in life?
There was a time I chose to be 100% honest with myself and about myself, and I thrived. And that reward for being what some people call courageous. I think it’s just lining up with your true self and choosing to exist as your true being. I mean, I went from selling like a million records to 6, 7 million and now 25 million worldwide, that sort of thing. And so I just keep following that path. And I’m humbled that’s how it works. It’s not just me. That’s how it works. Period. In the whole scheme of this reality.
Mmm. Good answer. I agree with a lot of the things you say.
And now I feel called to ask you about plant medicines.
Well, the very nature of plant medicine is completely outside the regular sort of run of the mill idea we have of medicine. Because modern society grew up with “you live and sometimes there’s something wrong with you” or “something gets broken and the doctor will fix it.” We grew up with this paradigm of “somebody else knew better” and it was based on allopathic medicine, which is: you have a symptom and I have created a chemical that will stop that symptom. And, of course, things get worse and they die. And when you start the journey of “my body, my health is connected with my emotional life,” you realize that your body is just a…I call it a ‘meatsuit’ for your soul. And when those two things aren’t connected, that’s when things manifest in you somehow. And each of us have different ways that that manifests. So fixing symptoms isn’t going to get to the deep core. And how do you tell somebody who’s never heard of anything like it? You can’t, you know. They’re just gonna think you’re crazy…once you experience a plant medicine, anywhere from cannabis all the way to ayahuasca, if you are receptive to it, but it doesn’t happen to everyone. Like, “if you take the psilocybin, you will be healed,” but that’s not how it works. There’s a possibility that the psilocybin might quiet the neural pathways that have made such a groove in your mind that it shows up everyday and you don’t even know it. The psilocybin can quiet that to where you can align and go, wait a minute: “I’m giving a lot of energy to my fears. I’m giving a lot of energy to what other people think of me, and that’s making me weak.” And if you can just start there, if that works for you, because it might not, it might be too scary to even think that there’s a part of you that you need to connect with. It might be scary to some people so it’s not a fix-all for everyone, but it is a path if you want to take it.
Oh, I do want to take it. I’m here for it. What’s your personal experience and opinion about the politics, clinical or personal use of plant medicines and psychedelics for mental health, substance dependence, and overall well-being?
Well, I have the Etheridge Foundation. About 20 years ago, I had an accidental heroic dose of cannabis through edibles. I was with my girlfriend and we were going to eat a couple of pot cookies. (She makes really good cookies and she put more in than I knew). I had too many. Before that, I had always been more of a social smoker and sometimes it would get to the point of not liking it, anything that altered consciousness. I wasn’t a drinker. I was working on my career and had been through a horrible divorce and so I take the heroic dose. I go through the “I’m dying, I’m completely dying,” the whole thing. And I went into this place of “well, if this is death, it’s not so bad.” And I opened up. I stopped being fearful and I went “ok, well let me walk through this and let me see what this is.” I had a transformational experience of enlightenment, whatever you want to call it. I woke up the next day and I was a different person. I completely changed. I sought out plant medicine and started reading Terence McKenna, The Biology of the Spirit, Quantum Psychics, everything and I mean everything. I thought, I need a shaman and I need to go down there. I just went nuts for a couple of years in the early 2000s. I finally journeyed on ayahuasca. I had that experience and came out of all of it going, “wow, I understand now that it’s all just a balance of love and fear and it’s all up to me, a choice. I create my own reality and I completely get it.” It’s funny because I thought that, “If I’m enlightened, then I’ll run up to a mountaintop in a robe and you’ll never see me again.” That isn’t it. Our purpose is to now take what used to be esoteric information and put it in our life—now. What are we going to do with it now? In this reality, not check out of this reality but to vibrate. So we can all get together and that’s how everything changes. I saw my son go from being a snowboarder who was going to be on the Aspen team to breaking his ankle and all of his dreams going away. They gave him opioids for his ankle, and then he goes to the black market for it. After a couple years, he’s doing heroin. I saw it just unroll right in front of me. Having my experience, understanding that the best thing I can do for anyone else is to be the best I can be. It was a real challenge—how much do I sacrifice for my son? Can I save my son? Am I supposed to give him what he needs or whatever takes it away or, do I throw him into rehab? What do I do?
It’s happening right now all over the world. And it’s a real hidden shame in families. When their loved one dies, they don’t even say it was opioid addiction. It’s very misunderstood. When he died, I really worked on my connection with myself. Of course, it was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had. But I still went to plant medicine. I went to psilocybin, which takes away the thought of a loss. The greater part of all of us is connected in this non-physical [realm]. So he’s still there. He’s just not focused here, where I am. And I miss him…but to live my life in shame and despair because of it, that’s a waste. He doesn’t want that. Nobody wants that. So, after my son died I called my management and I said I wanted to form a foundation, a 501-C and I wanted to fund research for plant medicine as an alternative to opioids. And it took us a couple of years. It’s taken a while because we had to go outside of the country, because legally no one can do this, but we are the first foundation to fund ayahuasca research. No one else has done it. It’s funded so that you have data, so we can present this to the legal world and the scientific world because without the data, nobody’s going to legalize anything. We are the only foundation that is purely about researching whether plant medicine can help with the opioid epidemic. In Spain, we are funding research of Iboga (Ibogaine). That’s with the government of Spain, because they have many people on methadone. They give them government-supported methadone but they’ve been on that for 15 years. They’re giving them Iboga and I know it’s at least 60 percent, maybe 80 percent of the people that have tried it. It’s really hard to find. It’s really difficult to run these things.
Wow. All of that. Have you tried it?
No, I have not tried that. That’s like a big intense thing. Maybe if I find myself in a position that I might, yeah. But not only did they quit methadone, they quit drinking and smoking and it completely changed their lives. And that’s the change that changes the world. It’s not just symptoms, it’s the life change. It’s that big enlightenment that can change a person.
You’re right. It’s a powerful thing. I had no idea about your foundation or your passion for plants. Would you say then that cannabis is your preferred plant medicine?
Yeah. And I do enjoy psilocybin. But I don’t do that when I perform. That’s more of a personal thing.
Have you tried microdosing?
Yes, a little bit. I’m a generally happy person now. I’m super charged anyway but I’ll do it in a special setting.
Do you have a spiritual practice?
Everyday, every moment is my spiritual practice. That’s what it’s all about. Every moment, just being present. But my temple is the stage and that’s where I really feel it.
Any rituals before or after shows?
Well, I’ll smoke when I can. I love performing under the influence of a little cannabis. And definitely afterward when I go to sleep.
Did you ever smoke cigarettes? You do have a naturally raspy tone to your voice.
No. I tried. I was going to the Joplin project and I started like one a day. It was so insidious. I did it for a week and one morning I woke up and I thought I would feel better if I had a cigarette and I was like “oh, that’s it, I can’t do this.” I think I got so much second hand smoke from people playing anyway.
What do you do to take care of your voice? And your health?
My voice is connected to my health. I’m over 60 so it’s all about my diet, exercise, and keeping my body in a decent condition. Sleep is massively important. If I don’t sleep enough, the voice suffers. I treat it like I’m an athlete. To get up and exercise this muscle that is singing when I’m on the road, on stage. I can’t practice that. It takes a while to get it back in shape. And I’ll never burn the calories like I do on stage.
That’s true. Singing is so natural. It is an exercise and I think it’s one of the best things for mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health.
Yep. If we would just get out of our mind about what other people think about us and put that aside, then you can really soar and heal and get 100% benefit from it.
Speaking of healing, these plant medicines such as ayahuasca and peyote, they are catalysts for music. So many beautiful songs have been brought to life, moving through Indigenous tribes and their traditions for prayer. They are genuine channels for these songs to come through and that connection to the Spirit World through singing is something else.
Absolutely. And you realize how ancient singing is and what singing is—it’s a bridge to understanding that we live in a vibrational universe. That everything is vibration. I mean, if you look at it from the quantum physics aspect, if you break down matter, it’s all quirks and little vibrations. And so when you journey with aya and she presents herself, you hear the songs and the chakapa, all of that is sound vibration which breaks up all patterns that we have locked in. It’s an opportunity to break those open. You realize these Icaros come from ancient times. It’s that other side of music that is so sacred.
Yes it is. I call it a prayerformance.
Oh yeah, there you go. It’s all about intention. I started doing that a long time ago. I’m just a channel. Let me move whoever needs to be moved. My best friend of 35 years and tour manager will sometimes tell me before I go on: “There’s one person here that really needs to hear you.” That’s right. It puts that purpose in. Let me be a channel to help change someone.
Sigh. Yes. It’s true. You’re great.
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