NEW YORK -- At 51, Melissa Etheridge isn't coasting on her accomplishments. Take her guitar work.
The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, whose 12th studio album has been released this week, challenged herself to play all the guitar parts this time around for the first time.
"I kind of thought when I was 30 that you're as good as your going to get. And that's not true," she says. "I have gotten so much better and I'm celebrating it on this album."
The album, "4th Street Feeling," has a dozen songs that mostly look backward – to her parents, childhood and breakups. It's named after a street in Etheridge's hometown of Leavenworth, Kan.
"I'm exploring being 51. I'm exploring the maturity, the wisdom that just comes from having gone around the sun 50 times," she says. "My experience is, `Oh, I'm never really going to get it right. I'm never going to get it done. But that's not the point here.' The point is the journey."
Listeners will get some nostalgia – Etheridge sings about 8-tracks and the Oldsmobile Delta 88 – as well as new stuff. She tries out a banjitar – an instrument with a banjo body and a guitar neck – on the first single, "Falling Up."
"The whole album is new compositions with those old shoes," she says.
Etheridge, best known for her songs "Come to My Window" and "I'm the Only One," has also included a few not-so-veiled references to Tammy Lynn Michaels, with whom she's endured a messy split.
"Say goodbye to the enemy," Etheridge sings in "A Disaster." On another, "Be Real," she asks, "You sold your soul for fame, fame, fame." And her tune "Sympathy" begins with the powerful line, "There's a liar in your bed."
"I am a songwriter. I do get to put my personal experiences in song," Etheridge says with a little laugh. "Is that my ultimate revenge? I don't know. I'm not going to tell more than that because that's my prerogative as a songwriter and that's what we do."
Etheridge has since found someone else – she's dating "Nurse Jackie" co-creator Linda Wallem – and the album ends on a positive note: "I think I'm ready to try my hand at love again," she sings on "Rock and Roll Me," the last song.
"The subjects, the themes really range from darkness – from a bit of heartbreak and darkness and solitude – to opening up and finding new love and opening up about myself," says the singer.
Etheridge and Wallem are even working on a stage musical centered on New York piano bars. Etheridge says she's been smitten by Broadway all her life and even stepped into the Green Day musical "American Idiot" for eight shows in early 2011.
"I have always loved Broadway," she says laughing. "I AM gay."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Etheridge talked about the new album, being a political icon, watching her kids grow and writing her own musical.
AP: What are you pulling from on this album?
Etheridge: The influences on this album range from pop to rock to country to folk to R&B to soul. That's what I grew up with. I grew up with one radio station – one AM station that would play Tammy Wynette and then play Marvin Gay and then play Led Zeppelin. It was the top 40 station. That's what we had back then. So I never thought of there being a difference between these genres. So my music has always kind of had bits and pieces of everything.
AP: What's it like raising four kids – twin toddlers and two teenagers – at the same time?
Etheridge: They're kind of basically the same thing, the 5-year-olds and the teenagers. The world is all about them and they're just learning all along the way. You kind of have sometimes to holler at them to get their attention. But, God, I love my children and I couldn't be more proud of them and all four of them. I'm blessed with four really unique, powerful individuals.
AP: Have you found yourself becoming more or less political lately?
Etheridge: I have found that I'm just political just by being who I am. Being a gay person, being a person who chooses to partake in cannabis, being a breast cancer survivor – these are all very political situations that I didn't choose, that are naturally who I am. So just by answering the questions, I become political. I'm considered an activist, but I do not spend any more time doing those things than anyone else. It's just that I choose to stand and be truthful about it. I think it's interesting that I live in a country where being truthful about who you are is courageous and political. What does that say about us?
AP: Broadway is a special place for you, isn't it?
Etheridge: I've always felt it's a sacred place. If you can create something that can come alive on the stage and entertain in that medium, that is the ultimate – you cannot fake it on Broadway – it's where the real talent goes, as far as I'm concerned.
AP: If you do write a musical for Broadway, you'd join a list of singer-songwriters gravitating to the theater, like Sheryl Crow, Cyndi Lauper and Dave Stewart.
Etheridge: Twenty years ago I wanted to write something for Broadway. By the time I finally get around to it, of course, everyone's doing it. There's been so many different types of musicals and it's a funny genre because there's a fine line between clever and stupid. It really takes a genius to know how to do it.
AP: What does the future hold?
Etheridge: At this point, I feel like I've hit my stride. I'm finally in a place of comfort and joy in what I do that I want to make another album – right now. I had such a great time making my last one. I want to write musicals for Broadway. I want to write music for movies. I want to do something on television. I want to create. I am infatuated with creating. It thrills me.