Melissa Etheridge is Not Broken—”My Heart’s Not Broken Anymore, and I Haven’t Had a Broken Heart for Many Years”

The acclaimed singer-songwriter’s new live album (and docuseries) chronicles her moving performance at a Kansas women’s prison

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“Music goes straight into the soul first, and so I knew that as a vehicle, it can be very healing,” says acclaimed singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge.

She proves this with her latest album, I’m Not Broken (Live from Topeka Correctional Facility), which is set for release on July 9 via Sun Records. The album (and the accompanying two-part docuseries, Melissa Etheridge: I’m Not Broken, available via Paramount+) chronicles her performance for the 2,500 female residents at the Kansas prison and their enthusiastic reactions to her hits, deeper tracks, and heartfelt between-song stories show just how deeply Etheridge was able to connect with them.

[RELATED: Watch—Melissa Etheridge Joins Kelsea Ballerini for “Come to My Window” at the 2024 CMT Music Awards]

Etheridge admits that she wasn’t sure what to expect before this concert, though. “I didn’t know what they would be like—I didn’t know whether they would be skeptical or grumpy,” she tells American Songwriter, “but once I started the first note, I was like, ‘This is going to be great.’ They were eager. Eager. They were empty. They wanted to be filled with words and thoughts and inspiration. They wanted to be inspired. And they were ready for it. And so they were so reactive, and they were so sensitive to what I was telling them.”

Melissa Etheridge (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda)

She says she almost broke down in tears as she was introducing the song “The Shadow of a Black Crow” when she told the inmates about her son, Beckett, who passed away in 2020 from an opioid overdose. In a moving display of sympathy, the women responded by making the “heart” symbol with their hands.

“There they are, behind bars, not being able to see their children or anything, and they were expressing empathy for my situation,” Etheridge says. “That just makes me believe in humanity, that we all really have that capability.”

[RELATED: The Meaning Behind Melissa Etheridge’s Pleading Ballad “Come To My Window”]

She hopes that listeners will also have this kind of realization after listening to I’m Not Broken. “Not only do I hope that they’re entertained and enjoy the songs, and enjoy the journey through this adventure that I was on, I [also] hope they come away with maybe a new understanding of how we treat women in prison, and how our justice system is overloaded with drug abuse issues. Everything stems from drug abuse, which is mental health, and maybe we should start rethinking some of that. Maybe we can think about how to rehabilitate or help these people that have drug issues that are based in deep-seated trauma.”

Etheridge, who grew up in Kansas (about sixty miles away from where she recorded I’m Not Broken in Topeka), says she began writing songs “when I was about ten or twelve.” Despite her young age, she quickly realized that introspective, candid lyrics would be her way to connect with audiences. “I found out really early on that the more vulnerable I am, the more people relate to it,” she says. “People are like, ‘I’m with you there; I know what you mean.’ And I do believe that vulnerability is an act of courage.”

She rose to fame in the 1990s with major international hits such as “I’m the Only One,” “Come to My Window,” and “I Want to Come Over.” Six of her albums have achieved platinum or gold sales status, and she has had more than two dozen songs chart in countries around the world. She has won two Grammy awards for “Best Rock Vocal Performance” by a female artist. In 1996, she won the ASCAP “Pop Songwriter of the Year” award. 

Etheridge’s ultra-honest lyrics, blended with her distinctive bluesy folk rock, have shown that she is a master at conveying lovelorn passion. But, she says, she feels like she has evolved far beyond that with her craft by now.

“I could write ‘broken heart’ songs all day long—but my heart’s not broken anymore, and I haven’t had a broken heart for many years. So I’m past that part of my adulthood, which I’m so grateful for, because it was very painful,” she says. “So I’m writing more about life, my children. There’s still a lot of pain and questions and enough contrast to create from, even though I live a very joyful life.”

[RELATED: Top 10 Songs by Melissa Etheridge]

Ultimately, she says, her music “has to come from my heart. That’s my deep belief of what songwriting is. I understand people write songs about things that have nothing to do with them all the time, and that’s great. That’s not wrong. It’s just, for me, this is the way I would prefer to do it. It has to ring true for me.”

And that, she adds, is the advice she would give to any aspiring singer-songwriter: “Write what you love, because heaven forbid you write a hit song and you don’t love it—you’re going to have to do it for the rest of your life, and it’s going to make you miserable. So do what you love. And do it for yourself. If you love it, others will love it.”

Photos by Elizabeth Miranda

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