Rocker Melissa Etheridge, Who Is Both Acoustic and Electrifying

updated 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Melissa Etheridge was in London last winter when she heard herself on the radio for the first time. "We were rushing to catch a train and all of a sudden 'Similar Features' came on," she recalls. "I said, 'I know that song.' Then it hit me." Realizing it was her song, Etheridge responded with disarming nonbravado. "I sat there and cried," she says. "It was an incredible experience."

Judging by that reaction, it has probably been a teary 12 months for Etheridge, a 5'3" folk-rocker who packs a 12-string and a big voice. "Someone described me as Joni Mitchell—meets—John Cougar Mellencamp, and I can understand that," she says. Her song "Bring Me Some Water" won Etheridge a Grammy nomination, and her debut LP, Melissa Etheridge ("Nice title, eh?"), earned reviews that could have been written by a doting relative. The Los Angeles Times, for example, said her LP had "the most electrifying rock phrasing of any record this year."

Though only 27, Etheridge has been honing her phrasing for 15 years. Raised in Leavenworth, Kans., she began fronting a country band at 12 and by 17 had seen so many bar fights that she no longer had any "fear of audience." After a stint at Boston's Berklee College of Music she moved to L.A., hoping to plug into the country-rock scene. She was 10 years too late. "I got here, and it was all heavy metal and glitter," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, no, there's no room for a girl and her acoustic guitar.' "

Island Records' founder Chris Blackwell made room for Etheridge in 1987 after hearing her at a Long Beach bar. The resulting LP and tours have meant that she seldom gets back to the small L.A. home she shared, until recently, with a baby nurse shark. "While I was on tour he bellied up," she says. "He ate goldfish, and I think he got a bad one."

Success has also presented Etheridge with an opportunity denied to many rock rookies. "I feel fortunate," she says, "to be able to make a second album."

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