November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

>Melissa Etheridge

Never known as a mother of convention, openly gay hard-rocker Melissa Etheridge has had to yield to at least one maternal commonplace. With an 11-month-old son, Beckett, and a 2-year-old daughter, Bailey Jean, to care for, Etheridge has clipped her trademark long blonde locks. “My son,” she says, “is a real hair-grabber.”

But fans needn’t fret that the 38-year-old guitar slinger has gone cuddly. Breakdown (Island Def Jam), her first album since 1995’s platinum-selling Your Little Secret, is anything but. “I’m not writing songs about kids and rainbows,” she says. “I had to show the darker side of life.”

Darkest of all is “Scarecrow,” about hate-crime murder victim Matthew Shepard. “The insanity of [the 1998 killing] just ripped me apart,” she says. “My son was days away from being born, and I’m thinking, ‘What kind of world is this?’ ”

But Etheridge finds solace at home in Los Angeles with partner Julie Cypher, 35, who carried both children to term. “I can’t imagine my life without kids,” she says. “What’s hard to remember is what I did with all that spare time I used to have.”

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