MEmphis Rock and Soul: A Conversation with Melissa Etheridge

Over her 30-year career, Melissa Etheridge has been nominated for 15 Grammy Awards and has won two, has won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and has earned her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has two Platinum albums, three Multi-Platinum albums, and two Gold albums. Many of her singles have made the Billboard Hot 100 and Top 40 lists.

But don’t let her many accolades fool you into thinking the road has been easy. In the ‘90s, Melissa publicly came out and has been a staunch advocate and activist in the LGBT community. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, for which she underwent surgery and chemotherapy. One year after her diagnosis, she appeared on stage to pay tribute to Janis Joplin. Her treatment left her bald but her presence was more powerful than ever.

This is because Melissa Etheridge is a challenger. She challenges us with her music, pushing societal boundaries and calling for strength in change. Her newest album, MEmphis Rock and Soul, continues that tradition as a compilation of famous late ‘60s and early ’70s covers from the historic Stax Records catalog.

I know that I’m in the vast majority when I say that MEmphis Rock and Soul is a fantastic album. The fact that you were recording at Royal Studios in Memphis with Willie Mitchell’s son, Boo, on the studio’s original board – it doesn’t get more authentic than that.

That was the whole plan. That’s why when I really made up my mind to do this, I said I’ve got to do it as authentically as I possibly can. I had to really get in there and submerge myself into it. And when I went down and met with them beforehand – met Boo and saw Royal Studios and the musicians – I was like, “Oh, I’m so in. This is it.” And it was such a blast.

That’s definitely communicated on the record. You can hear how much fun you all are having. How involved were you with the actual recording process? What was it like getting to record with the Hi Rhythm Section backing you?

Well, totally! My plan was to record this as live as possible like they always did for those originals. So I went in there with the Hi Rhythm Section and, oh my God, everyday we’d sit there, and I swear for an hour I would just listen to them tell stories. There is such a wealth of information and beauty in those men, an experience that’s just historic.

Then we would play and play. We’d cook dinner and would eat the best food. I had such a great experience. Just thinking about it now makes me want to go back there.

But you know, it was the original board and Boo was on it. He knows everything about it. It was just beautiful. It was done so well.

Speaking of the original board, did you use a lot of other vintage gear that was used on the original recordings, or was bringing in your own gear part of you giving your own flavor to these reimagined tracks?

The only gear that I brought in was my Suhr Badger 35 amp head, my guitars, and my pedalboard. Everything else was already there at Royal Studies. We used all of their equipment. I even used No. 9 – Al Green’s big ol’ microphone.

[No. 9 is the iconic RCA 77-DX Ribbon Microphone that Al Green used on every track that he ever recorded with Willie Mitchell. After Al Green used that mic for the first time, Mitchell never used it to record anyone else.]

We didn’t go to tape, though. It was tempting to go to tape, but it takes so much more time that we just didn’t have. I know we ran tape on some things, but it ultimately all went into Pro Tools.

Which of your guitars did you bring with you? Can you take us through what’s on your board?

I brought my 1982 Gibson Les Paul Custom and my 1979 Fender Strat with the tremolo. I figured that those two would be all I would need.

Then I had my pedalboard. I was pretty much going through a Suhr Koko Boost for all of the sounds. That Koko Boost is just amazing. I also use a Strymon Reverb and a Dunlop Bonamassa Wah – you know, that’s a good one. I’ve got a Dumbloid and a Klon now that I use a lot and, of course, a Tubescreamer. And then a phase shifter and a flange and a chorus and a couple of delays, and I’m set!

Wow, I’ll bet recording with No. 9 was really neat. A lot of these old sessions were recorded using just one single vocal mic. Did you do the same thing, using No. 9 for everything?

Yes! Every single track was that mic. All of the horns were on one microphone, too, and then when we did the background vocals separately, all of the vocalists were on one microphone.

This is what Boo does so well – he really knows how to place people around the mic. He would say, “Trumpet, you move back a little bit. Okay, you – go here.” That way, he was able to create that one unified and beautiful sound.

You mentioned how important it was to capture the live feel native to the original recordings of these songs. How much of the album did you actually record live?

Everything was live except for “I’m a Lover” and “Respect Yourself.” Those two were actually done off of the masters that I was able to get from Stax [Records]. “Respect Yourself” is actually the Muscle Shoals dudes’ original recording. I was able to go in and rewrite and move the pieces around and create a new version of these two songs from the masters.

But with everything else, I walked in and recorded it – bam! – all live. With organ – Wurly or Rhodes – drums, bass, guitar and myself. I would say that 80% of the vocals are live. And then we only added the background vocals and the horns separately. Recording live is what gives it that real sound. The sound, the intimacy, the immediacy.

“Respect Yourself” is interesting because you did change those lyrics. Were you immediately aware when you listened to that song that you wanted to change the lyrics?

Yeah, I did both “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” which is a bonus track on the album. When I realized that I had access to the masters for both of them, I decided that I wasn’t just going to go in and do those songs. I wanted to rework them with today’s technology and see if I could update these songs.

Especially “I’ll Take You There,” which really doesn’t have any verses – it’s just kind of a jam. But I thought that the song has such a feeling of the ‘70s and the Civil Rights Movement, so I went in and wrote verses for it.

Then when it came to “Respect Yourself,” I listened to those verses and said that they are so powerful for their time in 1970-71. I just did not feel comfortable singing them and taking them on as a white Midwestern girl. I wanted to respect the original intention of the song about moving people together and the thought of, “Hey, the reason that you’re so hateful is because you’re not respecting yourself. Respect yourself. You go around hating on people and nobody is going to respect you because it obviously means you don’t respect yourself.”

That message is so powerful today, right now. Especially now. Everything we’re experiencing comes from a lack of respect.

You definitely married the two time periods together quite beautifully. I saw the recently released “Respect Yourself” lyric video, which just illustrates that married message further. What was your process like once you actually decided to rewrite?

I called Priscilla Renea, who is just a beautiful singer-songwriter. I asked her to come into the studio with me. I said, “Let’s you and I together – black and white, beautiful mixture, doesn’t matter because we’re talking about the same thing – create lyrics for right now, for today.”

She’s considerably younger than I am, and I just really wanted to bring in modern thought about it, yet keep the message about respecting yourself still just as poignant as it was back then.

Melissa Etheridge - "Respect Yourself" (Official Lyric Video)

Melissa Etheridge is continuing to tour through mid-January. Head to her website to check dates and buy tickets, find her album, and keep up with her news and announcements.

In June, Melissa is inviting musicians and music lovers of all ages to accompany her to Havana, Cuba for four days and nights. She will be playing music, sightseeing, meeting with leading Cuban Women’s Rights Activists and Artists, and leading an exclusive music workshop. All those interested can find more information about this trip here.

Photos by Myriam Santos.

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