Michelle Shocked sounds like a woman with no shortage of self-assurance and a surplus of grounds to support it. Her new CD, Deep Natural (Mighty Sound), is her first widely accessible release in several years and represents her latest musical arc, one, she explains, "that basically features how we go about finding our own true voice."
On the phone from her houseboat in Los Angeles, Shocked sounds excited to begin promoting the double CD, which was released last week. Finding your voice, she declares, "is the job of every realized human being; at the end of the journey, we should be able to realize what we were trying to do -- we should shine a light onto a dark path." Though the dearth of readily available material might make some assume that she is emerging from an artistic limbo, she's actually been working -- writing and touring -- steadily for the past four-plus years.
"Anyone who knows the nature of being an artist knows that growing and changing and developing does not always produce a forthcoming album every year," Shocked explains. Her work since 1991 was initially impeded by a contract dispute with Mercury, and a trio of discs was sold exclusively at her live shows in limited editions.
The trajectory of Shocked's recording career is all too familiar: Musician makes breakthrough record, attracts major-label interest, signs contract, gets fucked over. But here Shocked was determined to change the story's narrative. On signing with Mercury, she declined a sizable advance in favor of maintaining ownership of her songs. Three albums later, Mercury insisted that she renegotiate, telling her she had "cut too good a deal" for herself. Until she agreed to their terms, the label refused to finance studio time for her new project or to release Shocked from her contract. After a prolonged legal battle, which included invoking the 13th Amendment's prohibition of involuntary servitude, Shocked won.
As a young artist, Shocked believed that her principles would allow her to work within the system. She soon learned better: "When that day came that I realized I had to either sacrifice my principles to be successful or acknowledge that I was no longer effective inside the system, I had to have the integrity to leave that system and work outside of it again, where, hopefully, I can be effective. The point isn't, in the long run, really whether you work inside or outside the system; the point is to be effective."
Though confident -- she predicts that her label will be "wildly successful" -- Shocked isn't naïve. "I know that what I'm up against is not just the limitations of my own artistic expression," she says, "but a commercial economy that has done its best to narrow-cast and reduce things down to the slightest demographic niche as possible. So swimming up against that stream is clearly going to be a challenge."
Because Shocked maintained control of her entire catalog, the label will be re-releasing these CDs, some with "value-added packaging" -- alternate takes and limited editions such as the critically acclaimed but difficult-to-find Good News (1998). Folk fans especially will be excited to learn that Mighty Sound will be releasing a remastered The Album Formerly Known as the Texas Campfire Tapes. Recorded on a Sony Walkman at the Kerrville Folk Festival, the latter-day field recording was originally released with inaccurate titles and, more significantly, at the wrong speed (the Walkman's batteries were dying). Anyone who launches such a huge endeavor must know the gamble involved, and, as Shocked shrewdly notes, "Risks are going to involve failure. But how well you handle failure -- or, for that matter, how well you handle success -- tells an awful lot about a person."
After the trio of discs available only at her live shows, Shocked is distributing Deep Natural through more conventional channels, working with, if not within, the system to attract a broader audience. After more than nine months in the studio with co-producers Bart Bull and longtime collaborator Fiachna O'Braonain, the result sounds like the work of a woman who is at ease in her transformation. Describing the double CD as "new dub blues gospel birdsong" (illustrating her prediction that marketing herself will, "like the rest of my career, probably involve a few clumsy attempts at cleverness and then a general achievement of grace"), Shocked combines her Texas/Louisiana past and more recent collaborations with a South Central LA choir.
The first disc, Deep Natural, contains 15 songs that showcase Shocked's confident voice and playful lyrics. Its introduction is a 20-second track titled "Joy": "Jealousy and anger, greed and hypocrisy, the seasons of human nature cannot take my joy from me." This condensed tune works as a theme statement woven throughout the album. The second disc, Dub Natural, strips away the vocals to emphasize the rich musicality underlying her work, exploiting what she terms "space-age technology innovated by Jamaica's reggae-rocket scientists huddled over the most battered of soundboards." Both discs have clear moments of what Shocked describes as "an ephemeral kind of lightness and heaviness, of open-hearted optimism while talking about the heavy things." In packaging that emulates the gatefolds of Shocked's youth, artist David Willardson riffs on a billboard spotted by Shocked's husband outside Pisa, Italy. Depicting a green landscape that replicates the landscape it is interrupting, a 10-page insert then remixes the cover, creating multiple variations on the image of nature within nature, not unlike Shocked's ambient dub work on the second disc.
Her experimentation with dub, toasting and remixes demonstrates a willingness to improvise, to play with materials and, in so doing, to allow the unexpected to emerge. Shocked likens her music to the experience of play: "All kinds of social events take place on a playground. You can take those memories as you move into adulthood and value playfulness as a means to approach life. The spirit of playfulness is at the heart of being an artist. Even a serious artist, someone who is determined that their world can transform the world somehow, whether it's through social change or through that transcendent beauty, the spirit of playfulness has to underlie your sense of wonder in the thing itself."
Shocked fits this description of the "serious artist," most recently playing alongside Molly Ivins, Granny D., Michael Moore and Jesse Jackson Jr. on Jim Hightower's Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour, a midway fair/Chautauqua hybrid dedicated to building a new community filled with "hope and real change." Although Shocked's politics are never far from her productions (Mighty Sound's catalog closes with a 10-point "Contract With the Planet"), she confesses that the marriage between music and message can be difficult. "Putting politics in your music is a delicate balancing act," she says. "One side or the other gets out of balance, and you're no longer a musician or an artist, you're a demagogue or spokesman or shill or flack. And using politics to market your artistic career is as cynical as anything else I've seen. You're a promoter, a market manipulator, a demographic demagogue. You've just got to be true to yourself, and it just so happens that I take an active and curious interest in the world around me."
It's time the world returned her active and curious interest, and we're fortunate to have the opportunity to do so Sunday night, when Shocked plays with her band the Perverse All-Stars.