Shocked takes aim at love, pol­i­tics

> Texas singer-song­writer en­joys ‘open­ing doors for oth­ers to fol­low’

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Bob Mehr


Af­ter a life­time of work, Michelle Shocked knows how to write a song.

“I com­pare my­self to an archer. I’ve been prac­tic­ing hit­ting that tar­get for so long that when I take aim, I’m pretty good at get­ting my shot in,” says the 47-year-old tune­smith.

“I’ve been writ­ing songs long enough that they’re no longer a mys­tery to me; they just don’t fall out of the sky, I ac­tu­ally cre­ate them,” says Shocked. “But the con­cepts that in­spire them — well, that’s pretty slim pick­ings. It takes a long while to find a con­cept that feels solid and firm enough that you can com­mit your­self to it .”

For Shocked, love and pol­i­tics are the con­cepts at the heart of her lat­est al­bum, Soul of My Soul. Tour­ing in sup­port of the disc, Shocked will ap­pear at Mid­town’s Hi-Tone Café on Wed­nes­day, her first full Mem­phis con­cert ap­pear­ance since 2003.

Born Michelle Johnston, the Texas-bred mu­si­cian has long been the em­bod­i­ment of a so­cially con­scious folk artist and fire­brand.

As a younger woman, Shocked spent years trav­el­ing — at­tend­ing col­lege in Austin, fight­ing for squat­ter’s rights in San Fran­cisco, busk­ing in New York, per­form­ing abroad in Am­s­ter­dam — while gain­ing ex­pe­ri­ences that would in­form her songs.

In the late 1980s, Shocked dis­tin­guished her­self as a unique writ­ing voice, winning crit­i­cal hosan­nas for her in­de­pen­dent de­but The Texas Camp­fire Tapes.

On the strength of the record, Shocked even­tu­ally signed to ma­jor la­bel Mer­cury.

Though her ten­ure at the la­bel yielded three stel­lar col­lec­tions of songs — 1988’s Short Sharp Shocked, 1989’s Cap­tain Swing, and 1992’s star-stud­ded Arkansas Trav­eler — she proved an ill fit in the cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ment, of­ten clash­ing with the la­bel, which re­fused to release her fol­low-up al­bums (it was a con­flict

she com­mented on with the 1996 record Artists Make Lousy Slaves).

Af­ter tak­ing le­gal action against Mer­cury, Shocked ul­ti­mately freed her­self from the con­tract, and even­tu­ally won back the rights to her mas­ter record­ings.

In 2002 Shocked formed her own la­bel, Mighty Sound, and put out the gospel-flecked Deep Nat­u­ral , which placed her at the fore­front of the grow­ing trend to­ward artists re­leas­ing their own work.

“It was a sur­vival in­stinct ,” says Shocked of her de­ci­sion to start the com­pany. “But it’s been a com­mu­nity ef­fort. I’ve got fans that sup­port me, I’ve got peo­ple in the in­dus­try that sup­port me. The hard­est chal­lenge of it all was to have the faith and be­lief in my­self.”

In ad­di­tion to reis­su­ing her Mer­cury CDs in ex­panded form, Shocked has since re­leased a wide va­ri­ety of new stu­dio and con­cert al­bums, such as the triple-disc pack­age Three­some (a se­ries of genre al­bums cel­e­brat­ing, Latin and West­ern mu­sic) and a live gospel set ToHeav­enURide .

For the cre­atively ad­ven­tur­ous Shocked, hav­ing her own la­bel has its pluses and mi­nuses.

“In ’92 I re­leased a re­ally am­bi­tious project in Arkansas Trav­eler. It had a cast of thou­sands: Ali­son Krauss, Un­cle Tu­pelo, Taj Ma­hal, Gate­mouth Brown, Pops Sta­ples, Doc Wat­son. In 2005, I tried to pull off the same feat with a project called The Mem­phis Min­nies — it in­volved peo­ple like No­rah Jones and Bon­nie Raitt and Su­san Tedeschi and Macy Gray and Angie Stone.”

“Ba­si­cally, I was try­ing to put to­gether th­ese neo-soul di­vas with tra­di­tional funky white girls, but I no longer had the juice, or the sup­port, or the in­fra­struc­ture to pull that to­gether and get it done. So, (be­ing in­de­pen­dent) has lim­ited me to some de­gree, but on the other hand I’m free to do what­ever I’m able to do when­ever I want to do it.”

Shocked’s lat­est ef­fort, this year’s Soul of My Soul, con­tin­ues her pen­chant for provoca­tive po­lit­i­cal dis­course and mu­si­cal ex­plo­ration, but also adds a se­lec­tion of emo­tion­ally com­plex love songs to the mix, in­spired by her re­la­tion­ship with noted vis­ual artist David Wil­lard­son.

Strangely, the themes of po­lit­i­cal dis­af­fec­tion and ro­man­tic ful­fill­ment re­side com­fort­ably on the al­bum.

“It’s a cy­cle of love songs, which I don’t typ­i­cally do. I mean a lot of artists build their en­tire ca­reers on love songs,” says Shocked, who also penned a batch of tunes that took aim at the out­go­ing Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. “There’s also plenty of frus­tra­tion and spleen that I was vent­ing. And it seems like, con­cep­tu­ally, it would jump all over the place, but if you lis­ten to it in mu­si­cal terms, I think it works.”

Shocked’s plans in­clude an ex­pected two years’ worth of work on a new project called In­deli­ble Women , a high-con­cept mu­si­cal/vis­ual col­lab­o­ra­tion with Wil­lard­son.

For Shocked, chal­leng­ing her­self re­mains the big­gest goal.

“I find my sat­is­fac­tion is not go­ing down the road that’s well trav­eled,” she says, “but open­ing doors for oth­ers to fol­low and won­der­ing if th­ese things can be done. That’s where my ca­reer is headed.”

Singer-song­writer Michelle Shocked is tour­ing be­hind her lat­est release “Soul of My Soul.”

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