The clues that alt-folk singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked was serious about both religion and gospel music have been there all along, apparently hidden in plain sight.
Still, many of Shocked’s fans were jolted by the Sept. 4 release of a live gospel recording called “ToHeavenURide” from the onetime self-described punk feminist who rose to fame with albums such as 1988’s “Short Sharp Shocked,” 1989’s “Captain Swing” and 1991’s “Arkansas Traveller.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” says the Texas-born Shocked from her home in Los Angeles, the day before she is to catch a red-eye flight to Annapolis, Md., to begin a tour in support of “ToHeavenURide.”
“There was a rumor way back that the break with Mercury Records (a three-year battle she waged in the early 1990s) was over my wanting to make a gospel album,” notes Shocked, 44. “That’s less untrue than true.”
In a 1996 interview with the Detroit News, Shocked (nee Karen Michelle Johnston) confessed she had a spiritual awakening five years earlier while listening to a gospel music choir at a black Pentecostal church in South Central Los Angeles. That transformation was reflected in her “Kind Hearted Woman” album, which was came out in 1996 after a three-year delay.
In 2002, Shocked released “Deep Natural,” a soulful set she describes as “gospel-inspired, but not gospel.” While touring behind the disc, she teamed with Hot Rize guitarist Nick Forster and members of the West Angeles Cathedral Church of God mass choir for a performance at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Although her contract specifically prohibited recording, producers of a festival DVD unintentionally taped the whole show. “I only found out it existed in February or March,” says Shocked. “It was sent to me in a hard drive. I listened to the rough tracks and realized we had a pretty darn good live recording.
“I usually don’t like live recordings of mine,” adds Shocked. “They never sound as good in playback as the they do in live settings.”
(Another reason Shocked is wary of concert recordings: Her first album, 1986’s “Texas Campfire Tapes,” was originally recorded directly onto a Sony Walkman at the Kerrville Folk Festival by Pete Lawrence, who claimed to be a writer for the British publication Folk Roots. He released the recording as a bootleg on his Cooking Vinyl label.)
“ToHeavenURide” has moments of real power, including the Shocked originals “Psalm,” “Good News” and “Can’t Take My Joy” from “Deep Natural” and “Quality of Mercy” from the “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack, as well as heartfelt takes on The Band’s “The Weight,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day” and the Staples Sisters’ “Wade in the Water.”
So, does Shocked, as a born-again Christian, draw a distinction between religion and spirituality?
“No,” says Shocked, who at 15 ran away from home in Texas to escape her fundamentalist Mormon mother. “I try to be as direct and up front as I can. But like a good artist, you work your way to the truth. ... I like it (delivered) in pithy one-liners. Metaphor and simile and other devices poets use are worthwhile in getting to the point. But if you have a truth to tell - in my case it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ - there’s no way of pussyfooting around it.”
Still, Shocked is not one to swallow any belief system whole. “There are four or five different issues (where) my opinions are different from what you would say is my church’s doctrine,” she says. “Some of them I’ve already tried to address.”
She recalls being upset when a visiting pastor railed against homosexuality, saying God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, or Madam and Eve.
“That’s the hate doctrine that the right wing uses, and I was surprised to hear it coming from a pulpit of the church I attend,” says Shocked. “I spoke to my pastor about it afterward, and he didn’t say much. He could only parse it.
“When I made my decision, I decided that the good outweighed the differences that drove me away from God for so many years, so I’m just going to keep the good. I’m very idealistic, and maybe unrealistic.”
On this 20-date tour Shocked is doing a show that is half new and half vintage material. She is accompanied by keyboard player Sean Dancy, her church’s musical director, who is featured on “ToHeavenURide.”
“On some dates we may be joined by a bass player,” says Shocked, “or people who bring along instruments. If I see them in the audience and they say they can play, I will get them to come up on stage and contribute. If they read this, they’ll have the opportunity to practice.”
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