Interview: Michelle Shocked

The once-nomadic Michelle Shocked may now seem settled, but she’s still a wanderer at heart.

From a smoky Parisian caf, a bench on the Right Bank of the River Seine, musicOMH followed Michelle through the winding streets – les rues de Paris – by cab.

Here, she talks about the changes that Gospel has brought to her life and her music…
musicOMH:Deep Natural is less fiddly and more bluesy, grassy, folksy, country,rocksy. It’s more everywhere else than…
Michelle:Texas! (laughs) Although Texas also has deep roots with blues and gospel,which I think is a pretty prominent feature of the musical direction of this(album), I cannot, in good faith, tell you it came out of Texas.

But here’sthe story. I left Texas in the early ’80s, did a lot of travelling around,exposed myself to a lot of different cultures, and my first three majoralbums were very focused, yes, on defining the early influences. And alwaysI intended after that to leave the question open: Now what?

And, of course,that’s when I ran into all the legal problems with the label, the heartacheand sorrow that comes from seeing your hopes and your dreams being thwarted.So I kind of went on a detour, but the good news is that in that detour, Iwent deeper into my blues roots – of course, I had plenty of blues to singabout – and I began a new exploration of a music that is not an earlysource, and that’s the gospel.

The explorations of gospel came both in Los Angeles and then in New Orleans,which is kind of two different types of gospel, but it all brings it backhome. I feel like, because my foundation in the blues is so solid, andthat’s as Texas as it comes. Texas blues is a certain kind of thing. It’snot Delta blues. It’s a little bit of a country blues, but it’s a shuffleblues that I just think you gotta live it, you gotta feel it.

So you get that a lot in the atmosphere and the insolence – I’ve focused onthat a lot with this album but also, as you say, brought in influences thatwere not Texan originally.

“Take your passion, take youridealism. Maybe rock ‘n’ roll can’t change the world, but go for it.”
– The Gospel according to Michelle Shocked

musicOMH:You have a degree in Oral Interpretation of Literature.
Michelle:I am a very highly qualified poetry reader. I mean, what kind of hillbillycredibility is that? But that’s the nice thing about being so confidentabout where I come from. My sense of place is such that I don’t need to havea perfectly symmetrical story that fits all the expectations, preconceptionsabout what is supposed to be. I think it gives me a lot of reason to becynical about manufactured commodities that they call music, that they callartists. Artists’ job is not to get along with the machine. Artists’ job is,if anything, to throw a sabot into the music machine and create disruption,cause the machine to stop long enough to consider the implications of whatit’s doing.

musicOMH:What do you think of the machine that manufactures all the Britneys andChristinas?
Michelle:I think it causes, especially for women of my generation, a lot of despair,because you see a giant step backwards where what a woman looks like is farmore significant than what they do.

But I guess maybe part of the problem is that [women] have not been givenalternatives that clearly were compelling enough. I love Chrissie Hynde; Ilove the rebel chick that is bold and sassy. Yet apparently, it’s just notcompelling enough that women who want to find some middle ground, some sortof compromise, something that they can relate to their lives. And you knowwhat? It’s really marketing on girls. That’s the sad part, right?

musicOMH:But there are some rebel chicks working on creating an alternative.
Michelle:That’s what a lot of women musicians have: the opportunity to presentalternatives, ’cause clearly it’s not going to come through fashion.

musicOMH:You’re very outspoken on social issues. What do you think of artists likeBono going to the level of action?
Michelle:I can only imagine the cynicism, that people look at it as self-promotion,the arrogance the self-grandeur, the ineffectiveness. But I don’t feel thatway. I’m a true believer. I’m like, you go! Take your passion, take youridealism. Maybe rock ‘n’ roll can’t change the world, but go for it. And ofall the self-serving motivations that I see out there in music, I give himthe credibility of being the least self-serving.

musicOMH:“I write about cities the way some people write about lovers.” Did you havea love affair with each city you lived in?
Michelle:Since I’ve said that, I’ve noticed a couple of other artists, and in mostcases women, who have a typical tendency, if they’re not writing about theirlovers, they’re writing about the metaphors of their love and cities becomethat. But, in my case, it was the romance of the cities. I could give you apretty good description of my relationship to Paris, which is that kind oflover that you don’t have the confidence to approach, you worship from afar,you think, Oh, he would never be interested in me.

“You look for peace, peace finds you.”
– Michelle Shocked

musicOMH:Judging from the gospel influences present on your new album, you’re abeliever. Was it gospel who “led the way”?
Michelle:I am, yes, and that’s something that I’ve been taking on the challenges oftrying to talk about in a mass media, since it’s got so much luggage to it.But, fortunately, like the music, the faith came in a very organic way. Iwas pursuing an interest in gospel music, not because I’m a gospel singerand not because I was a believer, but I thought that the music itself wasone of the deepest roots music.

musicOMH:You are a self-proclaimed Army Brat. I’ve noticed that Army kids are veryemotionally charged, like yourself and Jim Morrison, for example.
Michelle:Interesting. There are a lot of them like that. You encounter a level ofauthoritarianism. The Army is only hierarchy. And my stepfather, being alow-ranking non-officer, would come home and dump on my mother, dump on us.And it was almost as if we all served in the military. For example, he hadto get up at five in the morning to polish his boots, iron his uniform,shave and he decided that we, too, had to get up at five in the morning.That’s just one small example, but it becomes this whole lifestyle and Ithink the fundamentalism was also a part of that – the rigueur of church,not for the liberation and the joy and the freedom, but for the performanceand the perfunctory, achieving the demands being made of you.That was my experience of being raised a Mormon. It’s like all week in theArmy and then on Sunday in the Army (laughs).

musicOMH:In Go in Peace, you say, “It finds you in the cold and the dark and thelonely and the filled with despair.” Is it based on personal experience?
Michelle:Yeah, and I think it’s a really good poetic description of at least myexperience. I wasn’t looking for peace. When I was going to that church, Iwas looking for gospel music, little realising that my heart was having adialogue with God, even at that point, saying, “Help me; find me; I’m lost;I’m lonely.” So, in a way, I was the last one to know…you look for peace,peace finds you.

musicOMH:What would you be doing if you weren’t singing?
Michelle:I would be a political activist. I was a squatter at the time that theCampfire Tapes found me. And [Bart] has gone back and found some of my olddiaries. Even as late as 1985, I had a good instinct about something that Ithink is going to really come to the forefront.

musicOMH:Aren’t you tempted to get into politics?
Michelle:It’s only tempting because it’s so challenging, but no. Politician, no;activist, yes.

musicOMH:Where is home for you now, New Orleans or L.A.?
Michelle:New Orleans is my home and Los Angeles is where my label is.

musicOMH:Why did you choose the name Shocked?
Michelle:It was the name I gave myself when I was arrested in the photo you see onthe cover of Short Sharp Shocked. It was a political name, a nom de guerre.

musicOMH:You were once a punk….
Michelle:Punk in spirit, punk in culture. But always the music was this very naiveroots music. Three chords, man three chords, and it tells other people toplay it. Punk is about saying, “C’mon, don’t consume this music. Make thismusic.” People would start bands, left, right, all over the place, girls,guys, everybody. It’s folk music. And now I’d say, gospel is the mostpowerful music. That’s why for ten years that’s what I wrote and celebrated.

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