One of the most fiercely independent musicians of the 1990s and beyond, singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked was also one of the most eclectic, with a body of recorded work that included politically cha...
Dallas, Texas, USA
|Women in Song: The Best of Austin City Limits (1997-1998)||Actor||n/a||1997||1|
|The American Music Awards (1988-1989)||Actor||Award Presenter||1988||1|
|Late Night With David Letterman: 10th Anniversary (1990-1991)||Actor||n/a||1990||1|
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|Late Night With David Letterman: 10th Anniversary (1990-1991)||Music||vocals||1990||8000020|
|The Rachel Papers||Song Performer||("Graffiti Limbo")||8000035|
Born Karen Michelle Johnston on Feb. 24, 1962 in Dallas, TX, Michelle Shocked was the daughter of a Mormon fundamentalist mother and a stepfather in the military who frequently uprooted the family in order to relocate to various Army bases. In 1977, she moved in with her biological father, musician "Dollar Bill Johnston," who introduced her to classic blues and country singers as well as newer singer-songwriters like Randy Newman and Guy Clark. Shocked then attended the University of Texas, where she began writing and performing songs on the Austin folk club scene. After dropping out of school, she headed for San Francisco, CA, where she embraced the city's punk culture before returning to her mother, who had her committed to a mental institution. Shocked was released when the insurance payments ran out, and subsequently traveled throughout the United States, eventually landing in New York City where she began involved in liberal causes. She adopted her stage name, which was reportedly a play on the phrase "Miss Shell Shocked," after being arrested for protesting corporate contributions to the Democratic and Republican Party campaigns during the 1984 elections. After a brief stint in Amsterdam, Shocked returned to the U.S. where she began performing and volunteering at various folk festivals.
While appearing at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, Shocked met English producer Pete Lawrence, who recorded her impromptu performance at a campfire on his portable Walkman. The recording was released without her permission in England as The Texas Campfire Tapes (1986), which topped the U.K.'s independent charts. Shocked was subsequently signed to Mercury Records in 1988, which released Campfire Tapes in America before issuing her major label debut, Short Sharp Shocked (1988). Shocked's contract with the label signed away a large advance payment in favor of greater creative control over her music, which initially pleased both parties on her debut album. The LP, which featured an image of Shocked being forcibly restrained by police at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, reached No. 73 on the Billboard 200 on the strength of such introspective songs as "Anchorage," which peaked at No. 66 on the pop singles chart. Its success minted Shocked as a figure on the rise in both the alternative folk scene and punk circles, which responded positively to a hidden track on the album which featured Shocked and the hardcore band MDC in a cover of her song "Fog Town" from the Campfire Tapes album. Shocked was also embraced by the gay community after commenting to the media that she had been involved in both straight and gay relationships. However, she would resist either label in subsequent interviews.
In 1989, Shocked surprised many listeners by releasing Captain Swing, which adopted a variety of swing music styles, from Western to big band. Despite the tonal shift, the album found placement at the lower end of the Billboard 200 while maintaining her status as a Top 40 artist in the U.K. Three years later, she tested the limits of her artistic freedom clause with Mercury by releasing Arkansas Traveler (1992). On the surface, the album, which featured Shocked's renditions of traditional folk and country material with a host of iconic roots performers, including Alison Krauss and Union Station, Levon Helm, Doc Watson, and her own father, seemed in line with her previous releases. However, critics and listeners were surprised to read in the liner notes that the album was inspired by Shocked's interest in the minstrel tradition, which featured white performers in blackface - a guise that Shocked had initially intended to wear on the album's cover. Mercury rejected the idea, though allowed her to include a note about her original concept in the packaging. Her relationship with the label further deteriorated when it refused to release a proposed gospel album, prompting her to record and independently release a stripped-down collection of originals called Kind Hearted Woman. She subsequently began legal action against Mercury to break her contract while later issuing a new version of Woman through the short-lived Private Music label in 1996.
During this period, Shocked joined the choir at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, a high-profile Pentecostal Christian church in Los Angeles known for his celebrity members, including Stevie Wonder and Denzel Washington. She subsequently became a born-again Christian, which drew considerable media attention to comments about homosexuality and her own gay past. On several occasions, Shocked was forced to clarify her stance on the issue, which varied from alleged condemnations to support for gay issues. Her music career continued unabated during this period, though at a lower profile than her 1990's heyday. She launched her own label, Mighty Sound, in 2002, which debuted with a typically eclectic release titled Deep Natural, a collection of blues, gospel and soul-influenced original material. The imprint later reissued expanded versions of her Mercury efforts, which she regained after the end of her contract with Mercury. In 2005, she released three very different albums on the same day: a rock-oriented LP called Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a compilation of songs from the Walt Disney Pictures songbook titled Got No Strings and a curious collection of Latin music called Mexican Standoff which many critics called into question for its over-emotive "Spanglish" vocals. All three records were also made available as part of a set called Threesome.
In 2007, Shocked finally released her long-gestating gospel record, ToHeavenURide, which was drawn from her performance at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Soul of My Soul (2009) featured a more radio-friendly sound, but the singer drew greater attention for comments at performances that were perceived as homophobic. She was quoted at a 2011 festival as being the "world's greatest homophobe," while a speech made at a 2013 club date in San Francisco included statements against same-sex marriage and a homophobic slur that led to an audience walkout and cancellation of the show by club management. Subsequent live dates were cancelled, prompting Shocked to issue a statement to the media which claimed that her comments were misinterpreted and were intended to depict how other Christians viewed gay issues and not her own personal opinions.
By Paul Gaita
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