Re-Inventing the Deal

An Interview with Michelle Shocked

by Lisa Torem

16 July 2009

Corporate battles, homelessness, and forgiveness are routine to this "indelible" woman.
cover art

Michelle Shocked

Soul of My Soul

(Mighty Sound)
US: 26 May 2009
UK: 1 Jun 2009

Review [26.May.2009]

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Michelle Shocked, taking a week off in L.A. before heading to Canada, currently owns her entire catalog of songs (there are more than 100 currently published spanning her 23-year career), but like many serendipitous events in her life, this acquisition didn’t come easily nor was it pre-meditated.

Shocked was basically “tied-up” by the Mercury record label in the early ‘90s shortly after releasing ‘89’s “Captain Swing”—label executives wouldn’t greenlight her newly created projects, nor would they release her from her contractual agreement. So Shocked pleaded the 13th Amendment—claiming that “slavery” was unconstitutional—and the case was eventually settled in favor of Shock’s contractual release and ownership of her songs. Claiming that this case is “monumental to artists”, Shocked hopes that other musicians will demand their artistic rights as well. 

But though Shocked has had to adapt hardball tactics, her life’s trajectory has not exactly been of the “yellow brick road” variety. For example, as Shocked played her guitar and sang for onlookers at the Kerrville Folk Festival, she wasn’t aware that Pete Lawrence, who she thought was a journalist, was “field-recording” her music. To her astonishment, she received a call from a friend who mentioned that her song (released on the Cooking Vinyl label in ‘86), was a hit on the radio. The material from this collection resulted in her debut album, The Texas Campfire Tapes.

So after garnering these accolades in Great Britain, she ended up playing her first engagement at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, even prior to entertaining American audiences.

“They have a machine set up to do that,” remininsces Shock. “What you’re seeing is what England does best—whip up a frenzy over night.” Shocked, who by this point has performed hundreds of concerts, has a reciprocal relationship with her fan base. “You get the audience you deserve,” she says. “My audience is wonderful, so I must be wonderful.”

And as far as performing in the States, “Wherever there’s mountains, there’s Michelle Shocked fans,” she reasons. While some artists might find comfort in a musical pairing, say that of the Indigo Girls, Shocked enjoys the camaraderie of working with an ever-changing mix of musicians.

“When you feel that chemistry you hang on for dear life,” she says. It’s a strength. I get to play with musicians who have a wide range of styles.”

When Shocked speaks, there is no hyperbole. But what she does convey is a mix of political savvy, imagery, metaphors and what she might classify as “sophisticated hillbilly” common sense. The oldest of eight, this well-traveled army brat from rural Texas identifies with the have-nots and encourages those who haven’t fully realized their own potential.

For example, in a discussion of feminism she is quick to point out that “working-class women have a very different road to tow than middle-class women—most of the burden of sexual discrimination falls on them.” And philosophically, economics plays a more important role in acquiring power. “The point was never gender,” she asserts.

But politics and economics aside, as of late, Shocked has worked at re-establishing peaceful relationships with family members. Once estranged from her mother and a sibling, she now finds serenity.

“Forgiveness is the key,” she muses. “There’s only one person that we can never really forgive and that’s ourselves.” And along with that virtue called forgiveness, she celebrates her collaboration both artistically and emotionally with David Willardson, who designed the cover of her brand new, thirteenth release, Soul of My Soul (Mighty Sound) which she claims is merely a “teaser” for “our new mantra, ‘Indelible Women’”.

Referring to the new project Shocked sayrs, “Our collaborations and love affair have created history.” Shocked wrote the cut “Paper Boy” as a tribute to Willardson, who won the title of San Diego’s “Paper Boy of the Year.” Willardson also inspired “Love’s Song” and “Heart To Heart.” with its riveting refrain “Heart to heart / hand to hand / eye to eye / face to face”. Their romantic relationship has flourished for six and a half years, and their friendship for eight. 

In terms of music interpretation, Shocked has maintained, “Very complicated truths are conveyed through very simple melodies.” Shocked has always extracted ideas from a diverse cauldron of musical genres for both her smoldering recording projects and live concerts. But she also astutely observes similarities that transcend style.

She claims, “Only a dozen melodies come from Indian Raja music,” and when she frequents her favorite Gospel Church and hears contemporary music, she insists, “I’m hearing Broadway.” Essentially an artist who has no trouble coloring outside the lines, she has been quoted as saying, “Once you’re categorized, you can be dismissed.” And Shocked is not one to be easily categorized or dismissed.

When asked if there is any kind of song she won’t write or any artist she won’t listen to, Shocked says, “I don’t like confessional love songs.” And then, not quite apologetically, reveals, “I really don’t like Dylan.” Her bachelor’s degree, from the University of Texas, in Austin, was in the oral interpretation of literature. Looking back she says, “My plan was to be perfectly useless.” But that plan also went haywire as album after album received acclaim and shored up her visibility. 

Many of Shocked’s life experiences would have broken the artistic spirit of one less durable, like the time her mother confined her to a mental institution twice until the insurance money thankfully ran out. She’s squatted in abandoned buildings. In the West Village of New York City, when homeless, she ate “corn-bread, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, and greens”, but only once a week at the Cottonwood Café. But, through it all, Shocked has maintained her self-ascribed role as a political activist—which, while too often a fad for some artists, appears to be one of the more prominent aspects of her persona.

“There was so much ‘blame the victim.’ In New York City, they didn’t want low-income housing.” She adds, citing the example of a single mother with Section 8 status, “if you ever hear a person’s story, it’s far more compelling.”

But aside from rampant activism, Shocked remains the artist who details her many travels through her lyrics.

“I write about cities the way some people write about lovers,” she concurs. In the song “5 a.m. in Amsterdam” from The Texas Campfire Tapes, Shocked documents her days of homelessness in Europe, singing, “It’s 5 a.m. in Amsterdam and this is how I know, not by the voice on my portable radio.”

Shocked remembers living in an abandoned council flat. She “told time by the clock in the park.” And as far as being an American and homeless in this city, Shocked says, “It was a little more humane (than American cities)”

A music video of Shocked’s song “Anchorage” from Short Sharp Shocked serves as a “picture of what it’s like to live in NYC” when she was homeless in Tompkins Park. This project was created in response to a friend’s letter and request to find out how Shocked was doing. “Pompeii,” off Soul of My Soul is “a metaphor for denial—built the city under the shadow of a volcano.”

Other songs, such as “God Is a Real Estate Developer” are philosophical, designating “God as an absentee landlord”. Then there’s “Black Widow”, with the lyrics “The tale of the widow who walks her web / mourning the night, mourning the dead”. Shocked says these lines “gives a nod to Sylvia Plath” and serves as “a metaphor for insomnia”, a condition that has plagued Shocked.

Shocked’s biological father took her, as a teen, to bluegrass festivals and kept her on a steady diet of roots music. (This free-spirited relationship starkly contrasted with her mother’s strict Mormon background and stepfather’s military career.) They listened to recordings by legendary artists such as Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Randy Newman. Shocked describes her dad as an “organic guy”, and the experience as a “journey like falling in love”—though she also maintains that as a teenager she was a” late bloomer.”

But now that she’s bloomed, where is she? Is Shocked a control freak, or simply one who lassoed a mechanical bull by the horns in the hope of justifying artistic freedom for herself and others? And will others stand up to Goliath by breaking down the wall between artist and management? And if all the walls come tumbling down—will Shocked still be standing at the precipice strumming her Strat?

I hope so. This lady got soul.   

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