Singing about death and poverty, the dark, sparse sound reflected her state of mind. “I was drawing on metaphor to articulate the frustration [and] despair. All the disappointment and bitterness… was catalyzed by the circumstances that I found myself in.”
In addition to the ongoing dispute with the record company, she was dealing with the death of her paternal Grandmother. “After I’d run away from home, [she was] the only person still willing to invest, and believe in me and my potential and my future. Everyone else had kind of judged and rejected and written me off.”
They were close until the end. “She was dying of cancer, [and] got out of her hospital bed and flew to New York, because I was performing at Carnegie Hall. I loved that old girl…”
When she only had a few days left, Michelle visited her in the hospital. Unbeknownst to Shocked, her mother had been invited to offer her last respects as well. She arrived soon after Michelle, and, upon seeing her daughter, offered her a cup of cocoa. Michelle was enraged, and left without a word. She never saw her Grandmother again. She also ceased contact with her father, who had invited his ex-wife to the hospital.
After relocating to New Orleans in 1994, Shocked took up membership at a local COGIC church where the congregation members referred to her as ‘our unique sister.’
1996 saw the release of Artists Make Lousy Slaves, a collaboration with Hothouse Flowers guitarist Fiachna O’Braonain that was written, recorded, and released in the span of a week.
Later that same year – on the day the case was to finally appear in court – Mercury settled with Shocked. She retained rights to her catalogue, and was free to record whenever she chose. She immediately re-recorded Kind Hearted Women with a full band. Mercury was allowed one more album; Mercury Poise 1988-1995, an anthology of previously-released material.
Two decades after winning the battle, she’s hardly encouraged with the state of music industry. “I have…vastly underestimated the American public’s willingness to submit to propaganda. They just don’t know what time it is.” Like American Idol? “A case in point. Maybe I could find two or three good things to say about it, but the negative effects culturally and creatively far outweigh the positives.”
Even punk has gone corporate, with bands like Sum 41 -who she equates with seventies soft rocker folkie John Denver – selling a safe, sanitized version of rebellion.
Meanwhile, she’s accepted her role as an independent artist. Her entire catalogue is currently distributed at retail through Sony/Red, online via iTunes, and –- for the more personal touch — through her own website; “Call ‘em up and tell ‘em what you want. And send a note in saying you want an autograph,” she laughs, “it’s that hands on.”
Good News, another tour only limited edition, came out in 1998. The album was inspired by her time in New Orleans, which was coming to an end. The following year she returned to Los Angeles.
After a period of relative inactivity as far as recordings, in 2001 she set up her own label, Mighty Sound, and reissued her first four albums as expanded sets with bonus tracks over the next couple of years.
In 2002 she released Deep Natural, her first disc of new material in four years. This was not – as some bios claim – the gospel album she had wanted to put out a decade earlier. She describes the disc as the sound of someone “stumbling towards grace. Kind of what you get when you have one foot in the door and one foot out.” She explains; “I was still drinking at the time.”
Drinking – both hers and her husband’s – had become an issue. For years, she had been blind to the problem. “I hadn’t really even acknowledged my role – the way I saw it is; he drank, and I would drink to put up with his drinking…I didn’t untangle the knot; I give God all the credit for [that]. But once you start examining the knot [addiction], you start to see the dynamic.” She laughs; “I guess that’s what they call the recovery process: ‘Oh! That’s how I got into that…’”
Another equally troubling dynamic was a thinly-veiled hostility on her husband’s part. He regularly criticized her in public and to the press. Like the drinking, she was oblivious to the severity of the attacks. “I hear from people that he would belittle me and put me down in public.” She does concede that it could get ugly; “He was overbearing; domineering and overbearing.”
Recognizing that the relationship was mutually destructive, and unlikely to change, she stopped drinking, and filed for divorce.
“Maybe it’s the easy path, [to] say that I was a co-dependant, an enabler, the wife of an alcoholic, but since my ex-husband doesn’t really identify himself as an alcoholic, I’ve chosen a little bit more rigorous path for myself, and just said ‘I am a recovering alcoholic.’”
“When I did stop drinking – and it’s only with God’s grace – I never had another drink.” Although she identifies herself as being in recovery, she never joined a 12-step program. “I tend to do it through my organized religion approach. I think that would be looked down on; true 12-steppers would say go to church and go to 12-step. I don’t do that. The only counseling I claim really is the counseling of the Holy Spirit. I read the scriptures, I pray, and I confess my sins. And those three things seem to do an adequate job of revealing insights to me to help me understand how to not get into that again.”
Understanding came quickly. “It was a gift. The whole thing was just a gift. It was like God looking down going; ‘You knucklehead, you’re never going to figure this out. Look; this one’s a gimmie – I’m gonna give you a break.’ But, you know, it was a gift. It really was.”
Reinvigorated, Shocked returned with a vengeance in 2005, releasing three albums on the same day.
She dubbed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell her ‘secret divorce album.’ It was a major return to form. There’s a long tradition of albums inspired by divorce, with Richard and Linda Thompson, Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye all producing some of their best work while mired in real-life pain. Shock adds a few classics to the genre here, including ‘Elaborate Sabotage.’
Mexican Standoff mixed original Latin-tinged numbers with Texas blues, sung in her best ‘bastardized Spanish,’ She’s part Spanish, so the disc was nowhere near the stretch it might appear.
The final piece of the trilogy was Got No Strings; a collection of songs from Disney films performed western swing style. Shocked had struck up a friendship with former Disney illustrator David Willardson when he did the artwork for Deep Natural, and – inspired by his work – took on the Disney songbook.
The friendship continued to grow, and they’ve been romantically involved for the last five years. On occasion the two perform together, with David painting while Michelle sings.
Longtime fans were not surprised when the three discs appeared together. The number has always appealed to her, but for strictly aesthetic reasons; “Some people are outright numerologists…that’s never had a fascination for me. But as a poetic device; yes. I started writing in trilogies, I started recording in trilogies. And it just so happens that my God,” she laughs, “manifests himself in three ways.”
Her latest album, ToHeavenURide was recorded at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003 – the title is a play on the festival’s Colorado location.
Outside of an appearance at the Gospel Tent at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 2001, this was the first time she had performed a completely gospel-derived set. Along with her regular backing band and Nick Forster of Hot Rize – who produced Got No Strings – sitting in on pedal steel, she brought along a five-piece choir led by Sean Dancy, from New Greater Circle Mission Church in south L.A. to liven things up.
Offering a full hour of sanctified singing and preaching, it’s clear that Shocked is no stranger to rousing worship services, and the disc makes a powerful case for music, politics and faith working together.
In addition to four of her own songs, there are tributes to the Staple Singers and Sister Rosetta Tharpe – Shocked was a highlight on Shout, Sister Shout, a Tharpe tribute disc that came out a few years back. A relatively recent addition to the gospel cannon, Fred Hammond’s ‘We’re Blessed’ fits well, as does Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless the Child;’ a song not usually associated with gospel. She laughs, “Well, it technically is scripture based;’ she recites the key lyric: ‘them that’s got shall get/them that’s not shall lose.’ “It’s taken bit out of context, but it is.”
The disc almost never happened. Shocked’s contract had stipulated no recordings be made, and she adhered to the agreement. By all accounts the set was inspired, but appeared destined to remain nothing more than a memory for those who were there. Fortunately – unbeknownst to the band – festival organizers had commissioned a documentary DVD of the weekend, and the entire set was recorded although – initially – unavailable for release.
Shocked’s career trajectory has taken a variety of twists and turns, and her fan base has changed as much as her music. “I’ve probably lost and gained countless thousands. But the bottom line…is, if you don’t satisfy your soul, who else is gonna be satisfied?”
If she’d stuck to one genre, she’d undoubtedly enjoy a higher profile today. But that was never the point. “I’ll say it like this; you get the audience you deserve. And so, the audience I now have, I cherish and treasure them, for all the changes I’ve gone through. It seems to be the common thread, that they expect the unexpected.”
She’s never been afraid to hold unpopular positions or argue with her detractors. With such a strong-willed personality, it’s no surprise that she can elicit equally passionate responses from her audience and co-workers.
In a recent online poll listing best and worst concerts voters had attended, Shocked placed high on both categories; some were taken with her absolute lack of pretense and traditional show-biz ethos, while others faulted her for talking as much as singing.
After performing on Arkansas Traveler, the Band’s Levon Helm wrote a song called ‘The Burden of the Greatness in You.’ In an interview he later commented “… we wrote that tune ’bout ol’ Michelle Shocked… Man, weren’t she a piece ‘a work?”
The reputation as a headstrong entertainer is not one she relishes. “That’s not by me. If you look at it, it’s like it’s been foisted on me. People needed that, needed me to fill that role whether I was volunteering for the job or not.”
Her confrontational stance comes, she now believes, as the result of “a lifetime of self-justification.” She explains; “I’m drawn to the purist, the idealist, the clean hands school of thinking. As all Philosopher Kings are. All Philosopher Queens are. But it’s a faulty road. I just spent my whole life trying to be perfect so that I could judge other people for not being as good as me.” She laughs at the irony; “Only to find out I was the biggest knucklehead of the bunch.”
Shortly after her divorce, she reconciled with both of her parents.
At a Mother’s Day show this year, she brought her mother onstage to play autoharp. The reunion was a long time coming. “It definitely, definitely was. I can very clearly say that was not my vision. I watched the hand of God unfold in my life bringing grace and peace for both myself and my mother. But it was his vision for our lives, not mine,” she remarks.
They first spoke three years ago. “I called her up and said ‘Mom, we need to talk.’” It was a tough call to make. “I had forgiven her in my heart a long time ago. I had just never gotten around to telling her. It was just the lack of courage; I didn’t have the courage.” It was a surreal experience; “When I made the call…I felt like I was just watching myself from above, like being a good daughter. And,” she reminds us, “I’m nothing like a good daughter.”
Her mother unhesitatingly accepted the offer of reconciliation; “That was a beautiful part; she was as gracious as you could have asked for. She said ‘Yeah, it couldn’t be soon enough.’