Shocked takes aim at love, politics
> Texas singer-songwriter enjoys ‘opening doors for others to follow’
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.”