Michelle Shocked was born Karen Michelle Johnston in Dallas, Texas in 1962. Early on, she was an Army brat traveling between bases across the United States and West Germany. In her teens, she lived in her family’s Texas hometown of Gilmer and then moved to Dallas to live with her father, a musically inclined English teacher at an all-black school. He was “one of those hippie cats that was pretty progressive,” recalls Shocked. Her father eventually quit teaching school and began a business buying and fixing up old houses. Working with her father, Shocked says she often replayed her favorite records by Leadbelly, Lightin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy endlessly. “For eight, 10 hours a day,” she says, “I would listen to one side or another of these albums and I didn’t realize at the time I was getting not a broad sense of the blues but a deep one.”
In the 1980s, Shocked attended the University of Texas. While there, she also played covers of Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris and some of her own songs in a band with another woman. In the careerist ‘80s, Shocked says she was determined to choose the most impractical major she could find: Oral Interpretation of Poetry. “It slays me to this day,” she laughs, “That essentially this is what I am now professionally making my living doing.” After college, Johnston lived on the streets of New York City, sometimes squatting in abandoned buildings, then moved to Santa Cruz, Calif., where she played with punk musicians and slept in the hills at night. “[I] used to have a Mohawk and a ring in my nose and I was all kinds of gnarly,” she says. “Homeless and homely.”
In 1984, Shocked was arrested at a fair housing demonstration outside the Democratic National Convention (the cover photo of her first EP, Short Sharp Shocked). At a 1988 performance in Toronto, she described how these events led to her stage name, Michelle Shocked: “Well, you have to give them a name when you’re arrested. I’m sure you all got the joke—’Chelle Shocked, right. It was inspired by growing up as an Army brat myself and feeling like I’d seen war even though I’d never been to the front.” Later that year she air-hitched to Paris. In Europe, she joined an anti-nuclear protest in Sicily and hitchhiked to Amsterdam, where she worked at a pirate radio station and shared a squat with a British reggae band.
Michelle Shocked’s premiere recording at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1985 is the stuff of legend. Playing her songs beside the campfire at night, she was approached by a British journalist who asked to record some of her songs on his Sony Walkman. The journalist was, in fact, a producer for a British independent label, Cooking Vinyl. The tapes were played over BBC radio to wide acclaim. The record was released in England without Shocked’s knowledge and within a year, it reached number one on the British Independent recording charts.
Since her fateful introduction to music stardom in 1986, Michelle Shocked has charted a singular course, defying standard record industry policies in order to maintain control over her recordings. Her first three releases on the Mercury label are some of the most diverse recordings of any major label artist. Short Sharp Shocked mixes Shocked’s singer-songwriter proclivities with her taste for punk rock. It was an instant classic.
Captain Swing, released in 1989, is a collection of contemporary swing ballads infused with big band, blues, and rock textures. Inspired by the likes of Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, and featuring some of Shocked’s best writing, the music on this recording presaged the rebirth of swing band sounds. At the time, it was off the beaten track. Today it is a gem of new swing. Arkansas Traveler celebrates the folk and fiddle tunes Shocked played in her youth. The recording features Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Gatemouth Brown, Pop Staples and many other luminary American musicians.
In 1993, Shocked’s disagreements with Mercury came to a head. The label refused to produce Kind Hearted Woman, saying the songs were too depressing. In defiance of her contract, Shocked recorded her own disc with Hothouse Flowers guitarist Fiachna O’Braonain, and took it on the road. The recording was of poor quality, but the songs themselves, in live performance, have proven to be some of the hardest-hitting ballads in her repertoire. Since then Shocked has re-recorded a more refined edition of the disc with members of the Hothouse Flowers.
Shocked’s latest recording, Deep Natural, is a soulful, eclectic mix of dub, blues and gospel songs, which she says were inspired by attending an African-American church while living in Los Angeles. Once again, the music shines with an extraordinary depth of worldly experience, and it is nothing like any of her previous releases. As an independent artist her recordings are difficult to obtain. If you would like to hear this one for yourself, you might want to take some money to the show.
Michelle Shocked performs at the Blue Heron Tuesday, Aug. 20 at 10 PM. Cover $22.50. Call 543-2525 for more information.