Surname originally Johnston; name changed, 1984; born c. 1963; raised in Maryland, Massachusetts, West Germany, and Texas; daughter of Bill Johnston (described variously as an English teacher and/or part-time carnival ride operator) and a mother Shocked refuses to identify; stepfather was in the military. Education: Attended University of Texas, briefly. Addresses: Home --London, England. Record company --c/o Mercury/Polygram Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
One of the new breed of angry young women to burst onto the music scene is Michelle Shocked (nee Johnston). She chose her stagy surname to reflect outrage over a troubled past and uses her music to deliver stinging social commentary and recount dreamy Texas memories. Her songs seem headed for the top of the charts, but Shocked isn't sure she wants to follow suit.
Thin and pale with close-cropped hair often hidden under a British sailor's cap, Shocked is defiantly reluctant to answer personal questions. A sassy Texan who's achieved more professional success in Europe than her homeland, she's a difficult talent to categorize. Her music has been described as country, punk, protest, folk, blues, rock and pop.
She's the daughter of Bill Johnston, who has been described as a former teacher, part-time carnival ride operator, and sixties-style hippie, and a mother whose name Shocked won't reveal but cynically describes as a "Tammy Bakker-type." When her parents divorced in 1963, Michelle lived with her converted-Mormon mother and career-Army stepfather, who moved them from Maryland to Massachusetts, to West Germany, and then Texas. In 1979, at age 16, she quit school and left home to live with her father in Dallas. Johnston encouraged her musical talent, convinced her to buy a second-hand guitar, and took her to local blues and country music festivals.
Shocked enrolled at the University of Texas but didn't stick with classes for long. She began a period of restless wanderings, which took her from the homes of relatives and friends to student housing co-ops, then on to San Francisco and involvement with local hardcore bands and a squatters' movement. Shocked calls this her period of homelessness, when she aligned herself with a number of causes, from save-the-whales to anti-nuclear activities. Evictions drove her back to Texas where her mother, alarmed over Michelle's wild lifestyle, had Shocked hospitalized in mental institutions. "They kept me till the insurance ran out," Shocked told People magazine. "I guess you can't be crazy without insurance."
In 1984 she continued her political involvement and was arrested twice during public protests--once at the Republican Convention, then again in a protest against a defense contractor. For the next two years, she bounced from California to New York to Europe. "I was never gonna come back. If I could actually survive in a foreign country with no money, taking care of myself, I couldn't be crazy," she explained to Musician. Things didn't work out as she planned. She was raped while wandering through Italy and retreated back to Texas.
It was there, while performing at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1986 that Shocked was accidentally discovered by English producer Pete Lawrence. He taped her performance on his Sony Walkman, complete with background crickets chirping, then released the crude recording as The Texas Campfire Tapes and watched it soar to the top of British independent charts. A surprised Shocked moved to London and was received with open arms.
Polygram offered her a $130,000 advance on a second album, but Shocked would only accept $50,000. "When it comes to it," she explained to Musician, "I have to confess I'm not that committed to the medium of making albums. It's a nice means, but it's not the end as far as I'm concerned. If it gets people to the live shows where I can spit my two cents worth of politics, it's done the job.... I knew if I was going to keep the album as simple as I wanted, it was never gonna take that much money."
A dramatic photo of a raging Shocked being restrained and arrested by riot police that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner serves as the cover of her second album, Short Sharp Shocked. Her third release, Captain Swing, appeared in November 1989. Some record industry observers believe Shocked is on the verge of becoming as big a star in the United States as she is in Europe. Meanwhile, Shocked is content to return to the houseboat on the Thames she now calls home.
by Sharon Rose
Michelle Shocked's Career
Became interested in music at age 16 when she went to live with her father in Texas, and he introduced her to blues and country music; after periods of being committed to two mental institutions by her mother, went on the road in the United States and Europe, singing and participating in peace protests; signed a recording contract, 1986; has toured throughout the United States.
- Selective Works
- The Texas Campfire Tapes Cooking Vinyl, 1987.
- Short Sharp Shocked Polygram, 1988.
- Captain Swing Mercury, 1989.
February 24, 2004: Shocked's album, Captain Swing, was re-released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/index.jsp, February 26, 2004.
- Musician, June 1988.
- Newsweek, October 3, 1988.
- New York Times, September 4, 1988.
- People, November 7, 1988.
- Rolling Stone, November 3, 1988; October 6, 1988.
- Stereo Review, March 1989.