A recently posted video on YouTube features Michelle Shocked giving a riveting performance of the gospel standard ‘Yes, God Is Real.’
The clip, according to one viewer, is “as convincing an argument that God is real as you are ever likely to find on the face of the earth.”
During the video’s brief introduction, her pastor refers to Shocked as “a faithful, generous, supporting member of West Angeles Church” who gives “gift after gift.”
How did she go from songs like ‘Campus Crusade’ (“I’m gonna jump headfirst into that lake of fire… I think hell is gonna be just swell”) to outright praise music?
It’s been a long, fascinating ride, that’s for sure. It’s a story of healing and forgiveness, and — for the past 16 years — a radical faith that informs every part of her life. It’s also the story of an underappreciated artist.
Twenty years ago she was one of the most promising new faces of folk scene.
Since then, she’s consistently explored new directions, with albums of swing, bluegrass, gospel, Spanish – even a disc of Disney songs – to her credit. Scratch the surface, and an overriding theme emerges – they all fall under the banner of indigenous American music.
If it’s folk music, then it’s as Hank Williams once described it: “music for the folks.”
Her solid musicianship –- too often missed by those more interested in her political stance – and eclectic sensibility ensures that any project she’s involved in will be well worth investigating.
Such is the case with ToHeavenURide, her new, gospel-soaked live album.
In a wide-ranging, multi-part interview, I found her to be opinionated, informed — and downright passionate regarding her Christian faith.
She was born Karen Michelle Johnston in Dallas, Texas in 1962. Her parents divorced when she was three years old, and her mother married an enlisted Army Sergeant soon after. For the next few years, the family traveled from base to base throughout the U.S. and Germany.
Her step-dad was a recent convert to Mormonism. “That’s how my mom became a Mormon… He had been discharged to Vietnam, and he met a Mormon missionary. I always asked myself, ‘What was a Mormon missionary doing on a troop ship?” She laughs, and adds: “Shooting fish in a barrel, is my answer!”
The change had a significant impact on their family life. “I think they were probably on the road to being really irresponsible with drinking and smoking and card playing – they just weren’t creating a very good home atmosphere. My stepfather had been married previously. He had three children from that marriage, and they were all living in foster care. I suspect that there was a great deal of alcoholism in the dynamic.”
She doesn’t recall much in the way of theological training. “The emphasis was much more on the social than on the spiritual. Maybe it’s because I was a kid – maybe the adults were having a different experience – but my experience of it was kind of a closed community where you only interacted with other Mormons. Your entire social life was built around Mormon-ness.
“There was so much emphasis on being a model Mormon family, as opposed to being model Christians. I don’t remember much of an emphasis on Jesus Christ. It really felt kind of extracurricular if you got into that stuff.”
It was a crowded household. The couple already had five kids between them when they first met. “Then they had four kids after that. Only two of his three came to live with us, then a foster child, a pregnant unwed mother, came through Mormon Family Services… that made a total of nine kids.
“My mom came from a small family, but her mother was from a very large family, and I think she kind of idealized that. We watched The Waltons…”
Mom might have romanticized TV’s favorite depression-era family, but not Michelle; “I didn’t! [But] she did — she thought that being poor made you virtuous.”
If it had to be a blended family, she would have preferred something more upscale, like The Brady Bunch. “From my middle-class aspirations, it was very frustrating. We were always going to be dirt poor, always going to be hand-me-downs and leftovers, and I just couldn’t understand the irresponsibility of it; they couldn’t afford the kids they had, and then they brought in more.”
Biographical sketches on Shocked commonly paint a picture of an unhappy home life. That’s not exactly true.
“I think of my mother and my stepfather as being really good parents to young children. A lot of the qualities that I have now — my playfulness, my creativity, my sense of fun — I think had a lot to do with my mother and my stepfather’s own very unorthodox sense of being grownups.
“They were kind of like kids in a candy store — except for the caveat that my stepfather, being in the Army, had to go to a job each day that really dumped on him. But when they were at home with the family, while we were little, I think they poured a lot of creativity into being parents.”
When she was fourteen, her step-father took early retirement, and the family moved to East Texas. After being schooled on Army bases, it was a significant adjustment.
“When he retired from the military, we were left at the mercy of the public education system, and it was abysmal.” She decided to take matters into her own hands; “I literally went to the public library near my high school, and started in the ‘A’s.” She laughs. “I can tell you everything you want to know about the Algonquin Round Table… I started at the ‘A’s and I was working my way to the ‘Z’s.
Each summer she would visit her birth father, a former English teacher who worked as a contractor in Dallas. It was a considerable change from Mormon life. She describes him as “a flaming liberal” who started playing mandolin when he was 35 years old.
He introduced her to the music of a wide range of great American songwriters — everyone from Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins to Randy Newman and Guy Clark. He frequently took her and her younger brother to bluegrass festivals — which inspired her to pick up the guitar. She started writing songs almost immediately.
By then, things had begun to sour at home. “The real problems only came when we started to have minds of our own; our own kind of independence. They didn’t adapt very well to that.”
Difficulties weren’t confined to parenting; cracks had begun to appear in her mom and stepfather’s marriage. The couple would eventually divorce.
After repeated attempts at running away, she left for good when she was 16 years old. Finishing High School in East Texas, and after four semesters at Junior Colleges in Jacksonville and Dallas, she headed for Austin, where, with single-minded determination, she put herself through the University of Texas, receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Oral Interpretation of Literature in 1983.
After graduating, she hitched her way to the West Coast, where she wound up playing guitar and mandolin in a street band. At one point she suffered a bad trip on LSD, and ended up high for three days. Wandering around in a paranoid daze, the police attempted to stop her for questioning. She panicked and ran. After a harried chase, she was taken to a mental hospital and subdued with Thorazine. A few days later her father arrived and took her home to Dallas.
From there she headed to Austin, where an old friend let her sleep in his bookstore. The shop hosted a songwriter’s group, and Michelle began to participate. During her stay she experienced an LSD flashback, and, unaware of what was happening, confused the hallucinations with a spiritual vision in which she envisioned herself as a warrior in the midst of battle. Concerned friends called her father, but this time he wasn’t interested in helping out. After a short stay with her mother, it was decided she would be committed to the psychiatric ward of Dallas’ Baylor Hospital; the same hospital she was born in. The decision would result in a mother/daughter estrangement that would take decades to heal.
Throughout the stay she was heavily medicated, at times unable to understand where she was or why she was even there. Under the guise of occupational therapy, patients were instructed in such basic tasks as weaving yarn around Popsicle sticks and gluing beads on paper.
At a hearing to determine whether she should remain hospitalized long term, doctors diagnosed her as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. When a psychiatrist commented that she was “under the influence of literature,” she readily agreed with the assessment. “I had just recently graduated from University, where my major was Oral Interpretation of Literature.” The comment smacked of anti-intellectualism; she was reading the classics, not escapist or fantasy-based stories.
A month into the stay, her mother’s hospital insurance coverage ran out; “so I was ‘cured,’ and they released me.”
The experience gave her an acute awareness of the plight of those dealing with psychological issues, and the stigma attached. “Mental illness is something that gets branded, and stigmatized, and it’s not something to be ashamed of.” Rather than paint the entire psychiatric community with a broad brush, she’s supportive of the profession. “I certainly don’t endorse the premise that the mental health profession doesn’t have some positive things to offer people.” She laughs, “Some of my best friends are psychiatrists.”
Ironically, she was never a hard drug user. “I didn’t do a lot of what I call ‘chemical’ drugs during my drug use years, but there was a lot of psychedelics. I didn’t do peyote. Mostly, it was mushrooms, which were fairly plentiful where I went to college.”
She had imposed strict rules as to what was acceptable; “I’ve never done cocaine; and I [made the decision] on a political principal. My general principal was no chemicals.
So why did I made the exception for LSD?” She ponders all these years later. “I must have bought into that mind expansion concept.”
Returning to the West Coast, she became enamored with the politically-charged San Francisco punk scene. Adorned with a Mohawk haircut, nose piercing, and skateboard, she changed her name to Michelle Shocked – a play on the term ‘shell-shocked.’
Her politics were radicalized, and she lived her convictions. During a protest at the 1984 Democrat National Convention she was restrained by riot police, and a photo of the incident appeared on the cover of the San Francisco Examiner.
She became a fierce supporter of women’s reproductive rights. Figuring detractors might accuse her of taking the stance out of guilt were she to ever have an abortion herself, she made what she described as “the ultimate sacrifice,” and underwent a tubal ligation.
The decision would have serious ramifications a few years later.
Disillusioned by the political climate at home – Ronald Reagan had been elected president for a second term – she traveled to Europe, where she worked for various political causes. At a peace camp in Italy she was raped by a fellow Green Party member, who offered her money afterwards. She ended up in a woman’s separatist commune, where she fell under intense pressure to adopt a lesbian life-style. “So I went from the frying pan into the fire.” After refusing to sleep with another woman, she was kicked out. Years later, she can laugh about the episode; “Really, the title of that story should just be ‘Innocence Abroad.’ Or; ‘An Innocent Broad.’”
After returning to America, she visited the 1986 Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, where she volunteered for the trash crew. A visiting British journalist heard her swapping songs with friends around the campfire one night, and asked if he could record her on his Sony Walkman. Happy to oblige, an impromptu performance was taped and – unbeknownst to Shocked – subsequently released in England as The Texas Campfire Tapes.
It was about as low-fi as a record could get; similar to the field recordings so treasured by musicologists, crickets chirp in the background, and Shocked’s voice is pitched unnaturally high due to the Walkman’s weak batteries. To the surprise of all concerned, the album topped the independent charts in Britain.
She certainly wasn’t looking for a career in music; she believed most performers lived lives of excess, and were out of touch with the common people. Regardless, the album had generated a groundswell of interest, and she traveled to Britain to perform at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall.
It was her first ever performance as a professional musician.
She also got an introduction to the shadier side of the music industry, when she was forced to sue for rights to the album, which she later referred to as The Texas Campfire Thefts.
Meanwhile, a bidding war ensued in the U.S., and in late ’87 she signed a deal with Mercury Records. With nothing to lose, she declined the customary industry practice of a large advance payment. Instead, she chose to license her albums to the label for ten years, after which they would revert back to her. The agreement was extremely artist friendly; “It was on my terms, or not at all. I wasn’t asking for the job.”
Her debut studio effort, Short Sharp Shocked came out in 1988 and signaled an already formidable artist.
She says the title was not – as commonly believed – a play on a phrase from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, but instead, a reference to a behavioral psychology treatment, one also alluded to in A Clockwork Orange.
The album’s cover used the photo from the San Francisco protest from four years earlier. Potential listeners could be excused for expecting a hardcore punk album.
It was an intentional paradox. “Yep; you should always judge a book by it’s cover.” She laughs, “Welcome to my world of sardonicism. It’s a commercial package. I mean, what’s not to love about rebellion, right? The fact that the package has everything to do with the person, but very little to do with the style of music, kind of gives you a warning of what’s to come. In other words, the kind of people that that music was being marketed to, if they could get past the cover, they were worth having.”
Her writing revealed a solid grasp of American roots music. She was now living in London, but songs like ‘Memories of East Texas,’ ‘(Making the Run to) Gladewater,’ and ‘V.F.D.’ all harkened back to her formative years in Texas. Even ‘Anchorage’ – which placed in the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts – mentioned the Lone Star State.
The disc garnered widespread acclaim, and secured her a Grammy nomination as ‘Best New Artist.’