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OUT IN THE OPEN : With the ongoing success of her album 'Yes I Am,' Melissa Etheridge answers questions of musical direction and is further established as rock's first female heartland star.

May 11, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

In calling her vastly popular current album "Yes I Am," Melissa Etheridge made a strong affirmation but left it open to interpretation just what she was affirming.

Some of her fans, and many casual onlookers who knew of Etheridge only through her magazine interviews, probably figured "a lesbian" was the obvious completion to the title's unfinished thought. After all, Etheridge had publicly declared her sexual orientation eight months before the album was released in September, 1993.

But as she recorded "Yes I Am," Etheridge wasn't just concerned with a new way of presenting her personal life to the public. She also was intent on answering questions of musical identity she had broached with her somewhat experimental 1992 release, "Never Enough."

Etheridge stocked "Yes I Am" with 10 songs sung in an all-out, ardently husky voice, carried along by brawny, big-beat guitar rock in the tradition of her early influences, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger.

The songs, and the title above them, stood as an affirmation of the musical stance she had embraced after her previous record's stylistic vacillations: "Yes I Am . . . a heartland rocker."

" 'Yes I Am' is as close to me as you can get," she said recently over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. But Etheridge, who headlines Sunday at Irvine Meadows, sees the offbeat departures taken on "Never Enough" as part of an important process of trial and error and sifting out that enabled her to convince herself of her proper musical home.

On "Never Enough," her third album, Etheridge de-emphasized the heartland anthems of her previous releases, "Melissa Etheridge" and "Brave and Crazy." Each of those late-'80s albums had sold a million copies, establishing the Kansas-raised singer as an heiress to the Springsteen-Seger legacy and also inviting comparisons to another of her heroes, Janis Joplin.

With "Never Enough," Etheridge eased off on her characteristic full-on rasp long enough to sing several delicate ballads, and set aside the big chords and high-kicking beats of heartland rock to try out hip-hop rhythms and synthesizer-driven dance music.

One uncharacteristically restrained and elegant vocal turn, the somber ballad "Dance Without Sleeping," was recorded, she says, "in response to critics who were saying all I can do is yell and holler, and I have no subtlety."

Album sales fell off a bit, although the record's one heartland anthem, the Seger sound-alike, "Ain't It Heavy," won a Grammy for best female rock performance.

Etheridge said she remains glad that she took those musical detours, even though they may temporarily have slowed her commercial rise.

"I don't ever regret doing it, because it kind of let me know where my road is and what I'm best at," she said. "It gave me confidence, actually, in my own talents and decisions. Before then I had this idea, 'If I add this and this, then everybody will like it.' I learned that, no, everyone likes truth in music, and they can hear it when it comes from the soul."

"Dance Without Sleeping," one of her favorites, remains in her concert set list, a softer interlude in a 2 1/2-hour program built largely of assertive material. She still plays songs that were rhythmic experiments on "Never Enough," but has retooled them as straight-ahead rockers.

In gaining what she calls a firmer musical "sense of myself," Etheridge lost a couple of longtime collaborators. Bassist Kevin McCormick and drummer Mauricio Fritz Lewak had gotten accustomed to a more collegial form of decision-making on previous albums, she said, and departed after the "Yes I Am" sessions.

"I felt, 'I've got to take things in my own hands,' and it left some people feeling they didn't want to do it with me anymore."

As she auditioned replacement players, Etheridge said she was rooting for a multicultural outcome.

"I wanted a woman (and) somebody of color, and it didn't work out that way."

Instead, she ended up with "all white males. The most important thing is the feel of the music."

One of the new players, guitarist John Shanks, had worked with Etheridge in her first touring lineup in 1987; she says that his style has been important in giving some fresh twists to a new album she has been recording over the past few months, aiming for a November release. Producer Hugh Padgham remains on board from "Yes I Am," and Etheridge foresees no radical departures from the heartland-rock grounding of that 4-million seller.

Etheridge said she may or may not introduce some of her new songs on the two-month spring concert tour that brings her to Irvine Meadows. Like her hero, Springsteen (who turned up to duet with her on his chestnut, "Thunder Road," during Etheridge's otherwise solo performance on a recent edition of "MTV Unplugged"), Etheridge doesn't like the idea of fans getting hold of rough, bootlegged versions of unreleased songs that she considers still evolving toward their final, recorded form.

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