Born Karen Michelle Johnson in 1963 in Dallas, TX; married Bart Bull (a writer), 1992 (divorced, 2004). Education: Attended University of Texas. Addresses: Record company--Mighty Sound/Phyllis Stein, 5042 Wilshire Blvd, Ste. 155, Los Angeles CA 90036. Publicity--Conqueroo, 13351-D Riverside Dr., #655, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423-2540. Website--Michelle Shocked Official Website: http://www.michelleshocked.com/.
Michelle Shocked is the chosen name of a singer-songwriter known for her iconoclastic bent, both musically and politically. Throughout her career Shocked has used her music as much to deliver stinging social commentary as to escape her troubled life. However, she has also explored a wide range of musical interests in folk, western swing, gospel, and blues with Texas roots. That her music has never fit neatly into a genre was at the crux of a dispute with label executives who effectively suspended her career just as it was just getting started.
Born Karen Michelle Johnston in 1962 in Dallas, Texas, Shocked is the daughter of Bill Johnston, who has been variously described as a teacher, part-time carnival ride operator, and sixties-style "hippie-atheist," and a mother whose name Shocked won't reveal, but whom she has cynically described as a "Tammy Bakker-type." Her parents divorced in 1963. She lived with her converted-Mormon mother and career-Army stepfather, but spent summers with her father.
With her mother and stepfather, she moved from Maryland to Massachusetts, to West Germany, and then back to Gilmer, Texas, upon her stepfather's retirement. In 1979, at age 16, she quit school and left home to live with her father in Dallas. He 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 for a period of time, and then began a period of restless wandering, 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 has called 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 institutionalized. "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 several times. One arrest was chronicled by a newspaper photographer, and would become the cover of her major label debut. A dramatic photo of Shocked being restrained and arrested by riot police that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner is the cover of her 1988 album Short Sharp Shocked. The album earned her a Grammy nomination.
From 1984 to 1986 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 had planned, and Shocked eventually returned to Texas.
It was while playing in the campground at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1986 that Shocked was discovered by English producer Pete Lawrence. He reportedly told Shocked he was a journalist, without mentioning that he was a partner in a newly-formed record label as well. He taped her performance on his Sony Walkman, complete with crickets chirping in the background. The recording was released as The Texas Campfire Tapes and gained Shocked unexpected popularity in the United Kingdom. After its release, Shocked remastered and reworked the recording. Shocked told New Orleans City Life in a 2005 interview that she made no money from the recording. In retrospect, she said, "It was kind of like paying my tuition to the school of hard knocks in the music business."
The record reached the top of England's independent music chart. Ira Robbins at Trouser Press declared that The Texas Campfire Tapes made Shocked "the darling of the British folk scene." Robbins found Shocked to be "an uncertain but ambitious singer" who "comes off as a talented amateur with modestly appealing songs and the hint of substantial potential."
Shockied was courted by the major labels. Polygram's Mercury offered her a $130,000 advance on a second album, but Shocked would only accept $50,000 when she signed. "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."
As she later explained the contract to Billboard, "I negotiated a deal where I turned down a [record company] advance and paid for the recordings with my publishing advance [in exchange] for the rights to the masters reverting to me after the 10-year period of release---which was unprecedented."
Her second release, Captain Swing, appeared in November of 1989. Of the project, Robbins wrote that "Shocked isn't yet equipped to pull off an entire album in this style," but he added that "such fearless ambition is to be admired, and the album serves notice that Shocked isn't sitting still for anybody's expectations of her."
The label did not promote any albums after Short Sharp Shocked. As she told Billboard in 2002, "There was a big debut splash. ... and then it was, 'What happened to Michelle Shocked?.'" But Shocked continued to record, following up with Arkansas Traveler. Paul Verna described a live performance in a 1992 Billboard review, saying that Shocked "has always had a gift for mesmerizing audiences with her endearing stage manner and her profound folk-oriented music." That same year, Shocked married Bart Bull, a writer.
Mercury shelved Kind Hearted Woman, which would have been her fourth major-label recording, and refused to release her from her contract. Mercury claimed the refusal to release the material was attributable to "stylistic inconsistency," but Shocked, in an interview with Texas Monthly, said she originally thought it had more to do with her conversion to the Church of God and Christ. She recalled to Billboard that Mercury executives had "told me I cut too good a deal for myself."
The label refused to authorize any recording sessions for a gospel album Shocked planned as her next release. "When it came time to exercise those rights, I was buried. I was put on ice for about seven years," she said in a 2005 interview with San Francisco Chronicle. Her career was essentially suspended from 1992 to 1996. A defiant Shocked sold Kind Hearted Woman at her live shows and continued to tour. Artists Make Lousy Slaves and Good News were also released in this same manner.
Shocked continued to hone her songwriting during this period. Michael Molenda of Guitar Player called her "a fearless spirit who trusts the counsel of her heart. She's certainly not afraid to mess with convention. ... and she's a ferocious blues shouter who can also unleash a voice so tender that it feels like a lover brushing a hand across your face."
Shocked re-recorded Kind Hearted Woman and released it in 1996 on Private Music/BMG. Because she had an option on the recording, she was able to save it when the label was consolidated. She had recorded Artists Make Lousy Slaves with Fiachna O'Braonain of Ireland's Hothouse Flowers, and the collaboration continued on Deep Natural, the first release on Shocked's own Mighty Sound in 2002. It was accompanied by an alternate version CD called Dub Natural, both of which were co-produced by Bull.
In 1994 Shocked and her husband moved to New Orleans, where she learned a variety of traditional styles of music indigenous to and hybridized in the city. It was while living in New Orleans that her marriage unraveled, and Bull and Shocked separated in 2003. She would later characterize the root of the problem as alcoholic co-dependency. Shocked moved back to Los Angeles and worked on her own sobriety, and also continued her activism, performing in a burka made from an American flag at a CodePink rally for women's rights in 2003.
Of her "on ice" period, she told the San Francisco Chronicle, "All I could do was write songs with no outlet for them. The onus was on me to remain creative while not being productive." The result was three albums, each of which had a specific theme. They were released individually---Don't Ask Don't Tell, Got No Strings, and Mexican Standoff---as well as in a set called "Threesome."
On her website Shocked referred to Don't Ask Don't Tell as "a breakup epic in the grand tradition of Richard and Linda Thompson's 'Shoot Out the Lights,' Bob Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks' and Marvin Gaye's 'Here, My Dear.' Got No Strings is a collection of Disney music placed into a western swing context. Nick Forster, best known for his work with Hot Rize, produced the effort and contributed guitar. The third CD in the song cycle was Mexican Standoff, a mix of Texas blues and Tex-Mex.
During promotions for the 2005 albums, Shocked said she was indulging her affinity for gospel and electronica, and recording in these genres. Another trilogy may be on the horizon, consisting of New Orleans music, a tribute to blueswoman Memphis Minnie, and a gospel-electronica fusion project. "I don't ask my audience to listen to one style or genre," she told Country Standard Times' Dan MacIntosh. "So why would they ask me to play just one style of music? ... I really do hope I achieve a ... goal of basically creating a genre of music called Michelle Shocked music."
by Sharon Rose and Linda Dailey Paulson
Michelle Shocked's Career
Became interested in music at age 16; played with San Francisco hardcore bands while a squatter and activist in San Francisco; recorded while playing after-hours at the Kerrville Folk Festival, 1986, and recording became The Texas Campfire Tapes; signed to Mercury, 1988; Short Sharp Shocked released, 1988; Captain Swing released, 1989; Arkansas Traveler released, 1992; Kind Hearted Woman recorded, shelved by the label, and subsequent album not funded, beginning prolonged legal battle, 1992; career suspended, 1992-96; despite this, sold self-produced recordings at shows, including Kind Hearted Woman, Artists Make Lousy Slaves, and Good News; Mercury Poise released, 2003; re-recorded Kind Hearted Woman, 1996; founded Mighty Sound label, released Deep Natural and Dub Natural, 2002; released Don't Ask Don't Tell, Got No Strings, and Mexican Standoff, 2005; announced plans for another three-CD series consisting of blues, gospel and electronica, 2005.
- Selected discography
- The Texas Campfire Tapes Cooking Vinyl, 1987; reissued, Mercury, 1988.
- Short Sharp Shocked Mercury, 1988.
- Captain Swing Mercury, 1989.
- Arkansas Traveler Mercury, 1992.
- Kind Hearted Woman Mood Swing, 1994; Private Music, 1996.
- (With Fiachna O'Braonain) Artists Make Lousy Slaves Mood Swing, 1996.
- Mercury Poise: 1988-1995 Mercury, 1996.
- (As Michelle Shocked and the Anointed Earls) Good News Mood Swing, 1998.
- Dub Natural Mood Swing, 2001.
- Deep Natural Mighty Sound, 2002.
- Don't Ask, Don't Tell Mighty Sound, 2005.
- Got No Strings Mighty Sound, 2005.
- Mexican Standoff Mighty Sound, 2005.
- Billboard, December 12, 1992 April 8, 1995; May 4, 2002; September 27, 2003.
- Guitar Player, August 2002.
- 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.
- Sojourners Magazine, May 2002; July 2003.
- Stereo Review, March 1989.
- Texas Monthly, November 1996.
- "From divorce to Disney: A relaxed, upbeat Michelle Shocked releases three new CDs," New Orleans Times Picayune, http://www.nola.com/music/t-p/index.ssf?/base/entertainment-0/1117778312202030.xml (June 3, 2005).
- "Michelle Shocked manages to stay busy," Country Standard Time, http://www.countrystandardtime.com/michelleshockedFEATURE.html (June 3, 2005).
- Michelle Shocked Official Website, http://www.michelleshocked.com/ (June 9, 2005).
- "Michelle Shocked," Trouser Press, http://www.trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=michelle_shocked (June 9, 2005).
- "Saved -- Remember Michelle Shocked? ... ," New York Magazine, http://www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/arts/music/pop/12111/ (June 30, 2005).
- "Welcome Back To Shockville...," San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/derk/ (May 26, 2005).