in the cutthroat world that is the music industry, Michelle Shocked stands as somewhat of an anomaly -- someone so real, so totally herself, that she is just as comfortable singing gospel in a black church in South Central L.A. as she is talking to David Letterman. She is so sure of where she's from that she seems to be at home everywhere, a feeling that translates into her music as well -- she has experimented with influences from all over the musical map, from folk to jazz to bluegrass, without ever betraying her own musical roots. After a bitter three-year battle to get out of her recording contract with Mercury, Shocked is now preparing for her upcoming tour to promote the release of "Kind-Hearted Woman" on Private Music, an album previously available only at shows, paid for and promoted by Shocked herself when Mercury refused to produce it. I recently caught up with Shocked in an Oakland, California studio, where she was working on new material with Tony Toni Tone keyboardist Carl Wheeler.
You've tried for more than three years to get out of your contract with Mercury. What was the battle over?
The whole challenge of getting into that fight with Mercury
was taking a stand on artistic principles but not getting so snow-blinded by the
business stuff that it destroys your creativity. I knew I was in trouble
when I started thinking of the albums like giving birth, because then it
makes you so incredibly emotionally attached. I started interpreting all of the
attacks and assaults and pressures as a threat to the baby.
I have not had a baby, but my friend was telling me that there is
this overwhelming protectiveness that comes out of you, and you're holding
this fragile, little thing, and you had no idea that you could be so
protective. I was like, "Do not fuck with my baby!"
That seems like a natural thing; it's your creation. You don't think
it's a healthy way to think of it?
It worries me because I really am disturbed by the type of a glass
ceiling that female artists have to deal with. For one thing, they get
compared to other female artists, simply because of gender. I don't think that
men would naturally be inclined to think of their albums as babies. I can't
really see that. Maybe they do.
So it was a little problematic, especially when I came up with songs as
metaphors, like "Stillborn" or "A Child
Like Grace," where the parent is mourning the loss of a four-year-old
child. It seemed like I was teetering on the edge; if the album represents
a child, and the child in my songs keeps dying, I was really facing that
kind of a threat to my creativity.
That was the big challenge of the fight with Mercury, to keep
both the left and right brain, the creative and the business brain. Because the
business can protect the creative, it doesn't have to destroy it.
Do you think your music has suffered?
It is like when you put something in the fire, and the dross falls
away. It's a distillation; the music is tempered by the process. It was
strong enough to stand up to frustration and despair and still
ultimately tell a beautiful story.
You've been moving across the American tapestry of music, but all your music seems to share the same folk roots.
I guess why I am uncomfortable with the
term "folk" is that it is in fact a lot more of a genre than we think.
We think folk equals "American," but in Britain, for example, it is
associated with Cecil Sharpe, the Childe ballads, and Morris dancing. And as
much as they've tried to have a folk-roots revolution or revival there,
it's still very tweed.
In the '20s and '30s, when music first started being recorded, you
could take the same song performed by white musicians, and it was called
hillbilly or jug-band music, and the same songs performed by black
musicians were sold as race records, or blues. It was an artificial
segregation of the genre.
As an American musician, you're selling yourself short if you're allowing
yourself to be put into one single genre. Let the Europeans do that. They
don't have this rich a heritage. But for American musicians to allow
that to happen to them is a shame. It is allowing the Eurocentric aspects
of our culture to dominate, and what really keeps our culture alive are the
Afrocentric traditions that combine music and dance and singing and art,
Mercury said that the songs from "Kind-Hearted Woman" were "stylistically inconsistent." What did they want? Do you think that they were just using that as a legal loophole to keep from having to
promote your songs? Or do you think they really did have something different in mind?
I can only speculate. I can't imagine that they would have taken on an
artist like me without realizing that it's a no-win proposition for them.
Let me do what I do, and do the best to sell it. I can't imagine that they
thought they were going to shape and channel -- ever since I was a kid, my mom
tried to dress me and I barely had enough money to buy my own clothes, but
I can tell you to this day, she never dressed me.
Then of course there's the revolving door of the music business, too.
The people who signed me, and who were running the company when I signed,
were no longer there. In the '60s and '70s, it used to be the president of the record company who was
this mensch. He had a one-on-one relationship with the artists. He knew when to indulge
and when to stand firm. And then the business guys would
just kind of shrug their shoulders and give in, and know that it was a bad
deal, but maybe the president had the sense that it was best for the long
Through the '80s, it became more like the rigged pinball machine.
They could set up bands like Poison, Cinderella, Bon Jovi, they knew
exactly how hard to pull and release and let the pinball go through the
motions and it comes out at the end with millions of records sold. And artists like
myself got kind of pushed to the back; we were not as easy to manipulate or
rig and it was less of a risk to do it the other way. At that point, I think
that the business shifted. The presidents started answering to the stockholders and looking at the
bottom line of "x-amount invested in this artist yields y-amount in returns
for the stockholders." The presidents became more disempowered, to the
point where they were almost like party boys. They'd come into power,
they'd redecorate the office. The publicist would work for them, and get
them press, because one wrong move and they were out; they'd need all the
trade press for their career.
The compilation that's being released on Mercury is
called "Mercury Poise" -- a play on Graham Parker's album titled "Mercury Poisoning," and a title Mercury's new president has agreed to even though it's obviously a poke at your whole experience with
them. That seems like a pretty big concession for him to make.
Naming that album "Mercury Poise" is no different than Prince changing his name. It is like saying
"Do not treat me like a brand or a product to be bought and sold."
The prudent thing to do is to let the new president seem like a hero.
But he's a hero by default. He's a hero because he did not say no. He didn't say yes,
he just didn't say no.
You've said you would have preferred to put out your own retrospective in a few years -- do you have mixed feelings about the sales of this one?
When the vice president of business affairs says to me, point blank, "We're never
going to promote your records because you cut too good a deal for
yourself," I can't invest that much concern in how well it does.
I can still love the songs. But this compilation is
a product, and a very cynical one. It is simply a way of squeezing the last drop
of blood out of a corpse.
You have such a strong connection with your audiences and a strong loyalty among your fans. It is an interesting thing in terms of ownership of the music -- how do you balance this organic sense of the music with having to be a tough business person for yourself?
I used a political understanding to get into this position. People
think that the fight with Mercury was over me getting the rights. It was
not. I had those rights to begin with. When I
was offered a record deal, I didn't grab for the money -- that carrot at the end of the stick. I took a very small advance. I compared myself to a Third World country like Brazil which has
vast natural resources. But because they (the record company) went into
massive debt, they had to sell those resources. I didn't get into the business to make money. I
got into it to change the system from the inside.
It's a very unique situation to be in as
an artist, where I own the songs. Because every time I sing the song, I am
promoting the catalogue. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the artists out there have nothing
at stake when they go into a studio and spend thousands of dollars to
create 10, 20 tracks. They'll choose the 10 best and then the album
goes out. It's as if they are surrogate mothers; they'll carry the
fetus, but at the end they are not supposed to be attached to what happens
to it. By owning the masters, it made me extremely attached to the outcome.
While this battle with Mercury was going on, mainstream audiences thought you disappeared.
But you had this loyal following...
I toured the whole four years without stopping.
Was there ever a sense that the touring and performing was enough? That
you had found your niche?
No. To me that would be like working outside the system to try to
change the system. If it was going to come down to that, I wouldn't do it
through culture and music, because ultimately you're just still selling
plastic discs. And I don't need the money and I don't have a particular
love for records. I want to be in the system changing it, somehow. They
used to say politics is the highest spiritual understanding. I've gone to
the other side of it: spirituality is the highest political consciousness.
That is really where I want to be. I want to be saving my soul and really
looking at what is worthwhile.
I understand you're now involved with a church in South Central L.A.
Can you tell me about that?
I had the Mormon religion thrust down my throat from the time I was
eight years old. I never ever strayed, I was so sincere and loyal to the
letter of the law. But inside of me was tremendous rebellion, because
basically the doctrine that I was taught was a racist one. I was taught
that black skin was a curse sent by God for failing to choose in the battle
of the Hosts of Heaven, over good and evil, that some people just sat on
the sidelines and didn't make a choice. But even at eight years old, I had
an instinct. When I finally did run away from home, I was 16 and I
rebelled. I mean I was a slut, when I did drugs, I went at them in a big
way, I really went for it. During that whole time, I basically blamed God
for being a racist. A footnote to this conversion experience was, I
deliberately sought out a black church, because if I was going to encounter
racism, I would much rather encounter it from that side. I wasn't going for
the spiritual message. I was going for the culture, the Afrocentric
tradition. I went for the music.
Sunday after Sunday, I was going to hear the choir and it gave me deep
insights into contemporary R&B. All I was hearing on the radio was a
watered-down, secular version of the power and I knew from my own
shows that when you put spirit with music, it is a formula that can't be beat. I guess I just went one Sunday too often, and the message got in, and he's making the altar call and I'm
walking up there and saying yes, I accept Jesus Christ. I thank God that I
had the courage to make that change in my life without thinking, "Oh, how's
this going to affect my public image, my persona, my sales." No, this is
what makes life worth living. Growing and changing.
It did come at a critical
time in the fight with Mercury; I was taking a leap of faith into the void.
But it sustained me throughout the fight, for sure. About a year ago I
realized that you just can't look to the things of this world for the
measure of validation and success. You have to find it in your heart. From
there, it is all gravy. Success comes, great; success goes, great. It's all
about seeking the important things.
Are you feeling welcomed by the artists you are collaborating with?
How I see myself is just a funky white girl who brings a lot to the
party. I have a lot to offer. I'm never going to be "Soul Sister Tanya"
but, in many ways, the circle has come all the way around. When Mercury was
telling me I could not go into the studio -- they would not issue the
purchase orders -- what I was hoping to do was the kind of music that I am
now doing with Carl (Wheeler, of Toni/Tony/Tone). The president at that time was the
first black president of a white-owned label, and his response was inherently
racist -- he had no basis to understand where I might be coming from. He saw
the color of my skin, and he saw the color of their skin.
In many ways, R&B
is a black enclave, it's an entry level for so many black people to be
involved in the music industry. They are as fiercely protective of that as
anything you would see on Geffen, which doesn't employ a single black
executive, or Capitol, which just divested itself of its entire black
operation. I understood from that point that
the music industry is the only one where you can walk in and say," Where's
the floor where the black people work?" Can you imagine that at IBM? And
they justify it because they justify it on a cultural basis, that black
people don't want to hear white music and white people don't want to hear
black music. But I know, from growing up in the '70s, that it wasn't always
thus, that prior to "Disco Sucks," there were great inroads being made in
funk, in disco, in R&B. I mean Stevie
Wonder's been written out of rock history, but there used to be a time when
you'd go to a party and they'd play Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin, and then
the girls would put on Stevie Wonder so that you could dance.
Where does "Kind Hearted Woman" fit in with the rest of your work?
Well, I heard Bruce Springsteen say recently that he would use shows as
confessionals because he didn't realize that there were therapists that you
could pay good money to, and that's what this album is. I've been playing
these songs live for over three years now. They still bring up unpleasant,
painful connections to my psyche. I have been missing my grandmother
desperately. And even my saying that, probably means I'll go home and miss
my grandmother. Trying to get distance from that pain is difficult with
these songs. They are such a brilliant presentation of the pain in the
moment of experiencing it, that I end up going into that place more
times than I care to. But the album is not about pain, it's about
redemption. It's the very real pain that brings us to that weak moment when
we surrender our weakness, and in doing so, find our strength.
You can talk about redemption in theory, but to portray it... One of the
great things about music is the onomatopoeia of melody and sound, that you
can go very heavy and intense and dark with just a guitar and a lot of
reverb, and by the end, the strum of an acoustic guitar, and a pulsing
bass, and just a light, side ride on the snare will make you feel lighter.
So you can describe redemption, sonically, with music, in a way that a
preacher doesn't even get a chance to.