Entertainment

Melissa Etheridge connects with incarcerated women in new docuseries 'I'm Not Broken'

NEW YORK — (AP) — Melissa Etheridge realized two career dreams with her new docuseries "Melissa Etheridge: I'm Not Broken": performing for incarcerated women and recording the concert for a live album.

The singer-songwriter grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas — an area home to a well-known federal penitentiary and other state and military prisons — and when she was starting out, she found a receptive audience in people incarcerated there. Inspired by Johnny Cash's famous prison concerts, the two-time Grammy winner won permission for a live show at the Topeka Correctional Facility, a Kansas women's prison, with a film crew documenting the process.

In the series, which starts streaming on Paramount+ this week, Etheridge meets and corresponds with several people in the prison, learning how they ended up there. Their stories inspired her to write her new song, "A Burning Woman." Many of the women had experienced drug addiction, and Etheridge said she connected with them after her 21-year-old son's 2020 opioid-related death.

Etheridge, 63, spoke to The Associated Press recently about her emotional 2023 performance and the new album. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: How was the experience of meeting the inmates and hearing their stories?

ETHERIDGE: When I went and heard their stories, I was blown away that they were all mothers. That just really broke my heart. And then just how relatable. This could be my sister. This could be my friends. There but for the grace of God go I.

AP: How was realizing your dream of recording a live album?

ETHERIDGE: When I grew up in the '60s and '70s, live albums were it. I mean, "Frampton Comes Alive!" That's what you do if you can get to a point as a rock 'n' roll artist. I always wanted to and by the time I got there in the '90s, they were like, "No, there's no live albums." So finally! And I love this. It's a really special concert. The setlist was curated for them. It had the few hit songs in it, but it had really deep tracks that really dealt with that longing and guilt and pain.

AP: You performed the new song at the live concert and it echoes some of the pain you heard in the inmates’ stories. How did it feel to see their supportive response?

ETHERIDGE: It was even more than I thought it would be. That they jumped right on the call-and-response, and that they’ve got footage of the women saying “I’m not broken!” means everything. Because just saying “I’m not broken,” just saying “I’m worth it,” that was the whole intention for it. I hope people love it because it’s a rockin’ song. It’s a Melissa Etheridge song. I really like that.

AP: In the series, you play the new song for your wife, TV writer-producer Linda Wallem for feedback. Do you often solicit her opinion on new music?

ETHERIDGE: I love living with a creative woman. I love being married to someone whom I really trust their taste, because she doesn’t like a lot of things. She’s in entertainment — she’s been a director, a producer. She’s really used to telling people, “Hey, you might be able to do it a little better” — very famous people. So I know she’s not pulling any punches for me. And when she likes (the work) it means a lot to me because I don’t really have a lot of people that I can trust and be so raw with. I’m blessed to have a partner like that.

AP: There were several emotional moments in the concert, including when you sang about your son Beckett, who died from an opioid addiction — how was that experience?

ETHERIDGE: Before we walked on stage, I was with the band, and we all kind of huddled together and I just was like, “You know, this is a real dream come true.” And I went (mimics crying) “Oh, no, I’m on the edge here. This is not OK!” So I gathered myself together and I was all good until I started talking about that. To see 500 women who have been through more than I’ll ever — they’ve been through their trials and are not with their children. To see them show such empathy and compassion for me, that blew me away.

AP: It’s so moving to hear you talk about Beckett. You’re so wise and calm about his death in the series — how do you separate your grief, and did surviving cancer help you get clarity in that process?

ETHERIDGE: Plant medicine, plus cancer, and kind of a new outlook on life — and that was 20 years ago — it’s really worked for me because I’m very healthy and very happy. The idea that you suffer all your life and then at the end you’re going to get some sort of (reward) — that’s OK for some people, but I just don’t believe that. And that my son is in nonphysical (world), that life doesn’t end when we end, that there’s something in all of us that is eternal — those things comfort me, and so I believe them. It is the way that I walk through this, and I hope to inspire. But also, it helps me when I can speak directly. And every time I do say to someone, “Yes, he would want me to be happy,” I believe that and I know it.

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