CHICAGO — It all started after Melissa Etheridge began talking publicly about her battle with breast cancer. First, Safeway and Ford Motor Co. -- co-sponsors of Race for the Cure -- asked if she would write a song about the experience for their fundraiser. She produced an anthem, "I Run for Life."
For a VH1-sponsored Hurricane Katrina telethon, she wrote and performed "Four Days," a song about a woman who lost a child in the storm. Best Buy wanted a Christmas song. For that she wrote "Christmas in America," about a wife longing to see her spouse, who is serving in Iraq. Last summer, after seeing Vice President Al Gore's slide show on global warming, she signed on to write a song for the film version, "An Inconvenient Truth."
In this way, Etheridge has become the go-to person for causes in need of a song. Now she's taking these anthems of activism on the road with her.
"I know you're here to hear me sing," she told 4,000 fans gathered at one of her three recent concerts in Chicago's Auditorium Theatre. "But there's so much I want to tell you."
She joked: "Go ahead and sit down."
They didn't. Instead, they stood and cheered for three hours as Etheridge sang and spoke about love and loss and yearning; about coming out as a gay woman; about facing breast cancer; about politics and the state of the world.
This week, she took her deeply personal show -- featuring a playlist of all her greatest hits -- to Boston, Atlantic City, N.J., and Montreal. Then she heads to Washington D.C., before crossing the country to close her tour at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Aug. 31.
There was a time, Etheridge said, when she was consumed with being a rock star. She envied the "flavor of the month selling 10 million records." No more.
She spent three months in chemotherapy in 2004 and early 2005, enduring treatments so intense that she "could not talk, could not do anything."
She became lost in her own thoughts.
"It was during that time that life really came into focus for me," said Etheridge, in an interview between shows in Chicago. "I was in the middle of what I had always feared, and I was getting through it."
Once she recovered, she wanted to talk and sing about the experience -- and other things she found inspiring and meaningful. She had always been involved in social issues, but overcoming her illness pushed her into new areas of activism. It has made her a formidable force these days among Hollywood's most politically involved entertainers.
"I sort of have been chugging along in my career for 20 years," said Etheridge, 45. "I've been playing and building a solid fan base. I've had a few hits, but they come and go.... I started to realize that I have a place and I don't need to have a Top 10 song. I don't need to have all the critics thinking I'm the next best thing.
"I'm just doing what I feel I'm supposed to do."
When Etheridge agreed to pen something for "An Inconvenient Truth," Gore said, he was touched. "Melissa is a rare soul who gives a lot of time and effort to causes in which she strongly believes," he said.
Privately, Etheridge said the project was intimidating.
"I was so honored he would ask me to contribute to a project that is so powerful and so important, I felt such a huge responsibility," she said. "Then I went, 'What am I going to write? What am I going to say?' " Her partner, actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, told her: "Write what you feel, because that's what people are going to feel."
She found the words: "I need to move, I need to wake up, I need to change, I need to shake up ..." Her song, "I Need to Wake Up," closes the movie, as credits roll amid suggestions on how to combat global warming. "It's one of my favorite things that I've ever done. Really," she said.
On tour, Etheridge urges her audiences to see the film and to act. She notes that her tour buses and trucks operate on biodiesel. She tells the Chicago crowd: "If you run into trouble, it just smells like you're at a cookout."
She is funny without trying, open and affable. Her sensibilities are very Midwestern (she grew up in a small town in Kansas), yet she has adapted to celebrity L.A. She travels with a cook who has placed her on a special diet, rich in alkaline and packed with fruits and vegetables.
Dressed in a green-striped polo shirt and slacks, she has dinner backstage before her shows, dining with her band and Michaels, who is pregnant with twins, due in the fall.
On a recent Saturday evening, a few hours before her final performance in Chicago, she sipped miso in an impromptu dining room behind closed doors, down a maze of hallways.
When she finishes the tour, she said, she plans to return to Los Angeles and go back to work on her new album. She's collaborating with Green Day producer Rob Cavallo.
The songs, she said, will be infused with "activist ingredients."
"Personally, I'm in a delightfully happy marriage; there are no more 'I'm the Only One' or 'Bring Me Some Water.' It doesn't exist anymore.
"If politics is what you want to call it, it's what's inspiring me as an artist now," she said. "As I get older, I realize how important leadership and politics are, and I've seen the country become very apathetic."
Etheridge is already a frequent performer at major Democratic fundraisers. She said she planned on being even more involved in the next presidential race.
Her dream ticket? "It's Hillary Clinton and [Illinois Sen.] Barack Obama."
But it's the getting-in-the-trenches side of activism that she most believes in now. "My biggest awakening," said Etheridge, "is politics is us, and we are politics."