Michelle Shocked is telling me about how she got saved. “It’s just a real garden-variety, born-again, Evangelical Christianity,” she says cheer-fully. “But it does have the twist of my being a radical skateboard punk-rock anarchist.”
After 43 years of globe-hopping—and an equally peripatetic musical career that’s careened from bluegrass to hardcore to country—Shocked has found a home in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles. She worships at a nearby black church, where she sings in the 200-person gospel choir. “We go in Tuesday and learn the parts. We go in Saturday morning and learn the parts again. And then on Sunday we’re supposed to kick out the jams.”
Earlier, Shocked spent a few years living in New Orleans, where the congregation called her “our unique sister.” They vaguely knew she was a singer but weren’t sure what type. Then one day, Shocked appeared as a question on Jeopardy!—Alex Trebek identified her as having sued her record company by citing the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. The church’s phone started ringing off the hook: “Pastor, pastor, Sister Shocked on Jeopardy!”
After that lawsuit a decade ago, Shocked largely disappeared from public view. Now she’s returning with three new albums, once again demonstrating that she’s fluent in just about every American musical idiom. Got No Strings is a collection of Disney songs done in the Western-swing style. Mexican Standoff is half-blues, half-Latin music, with funny lyrics based on Shocked’s rudimentary Spanish: “Welcomes gringos / Yo hablo español poco, un poco / but I speak English mucho bueno.” And Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is her “secret divorce album,” an eclectic suite of songs inspired by the end of her eleven-year marriage to writer Bart Bull. On June 29, she’s doing three concerts at Joe’s Pub in one day, devoting one show to each disc.
“I do play favorites with them,” she confesses. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is the one I’d send to private school. Got No Strings, I’d let it be the baby, read it Dr. Seuss, and not pressure it to walk. And then Mexican Standoff would be the ugly middle child, the overachiever trying to get attention.”
Shocked, born Karen Michelle Johnston in 1962, grew up an Army brat; when she was 14, her stepfather retired to the small town of Gilmer, Texas. She describes her upbringing as white trash, although she knows her family isn’t overfond of that label. “Well, I wasn’t the one that let the cow come in the house,” she says drily. “We also had a pet goose that shat all over everything.” During summers, she went to Dallas to visit her father, who inspired her to pick up the bluegrass guitar.
Shocked’s mother was a fundamentalist Mormon, but Shocked found the religion too bureaucratic. She ran away from home, was committed to a mental hospital by her mother until the insurance ran out, and after that, kept running. “I didn’t want to stay in any one place,” she reflects. “I didn’t want to be any one thing—not even to myself.”
“I’ve been in some amazing squats that had a real communal sense. But Jerry the Peddler’s was just a drug den.”
She became a political activist and hopscotched from San Francisco to Amsterdam to an Italian women’s commune, living with squatters all the while. From 1984 to 1986, she was often in New York City, living at “Jerry the Peddler’s squat” on 10th Street between Avenues C and D. She says, “I’ve been in some amazing squats that had a real communal sense—but Jerry the Peddler’s was just a drug den. There was plastic sheeting stapled to the roof, which meant the water would collect in puddles. I’d lay in bed and rats would be running across the tarps, looking down at you. It was a pretty degraded situation.”
On a visit to the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, Shocked was playing her guitar for friends by a campfire. An English producer recorded her on a Walkman—and, without her knowledge, released the result as an album. The Texas Campfire Tapes, with crickets audible in the background, hit No. 1 on the British indie charts in 1986. Shocked says she never would have tried to record an album herself: “I already had a direction with my life. The music was just a chronicle of the activism. And I didn’t have much respect for the role of the artist in society. I thought it was fairly elite and privileged.”
Nevertheless, inundated with six-figure offers, she signed a deal with PolyGram that gave her creative control and ultimate ownership of her music. Short Sharp Shocked, in 1988, had “Anchorage,” a conversational song about long-distance friendship that came close to the top 40. It also had a cover photo of a San Francisco riot cop with a choke hold around Shocked’s neck. After two more albums, the relationship with PolyGram soured. Shocked says an exec told her the label would never properly promote her records because she “had cut too good a deal for herself.”
Shocked spent two years embroiled in lawsuits, but in 1996, she ended up free of her contract and in possession of her catalogue. She put out a few homemade records, including Artists Make Lousy Slaves—but basically, she vanished. “I was just being a knucklehead,” she says, a little sadly. “That’s a full-time job, man. If I had kids, people would have accounted it to that; they would have said, ‘Her priorities changed.’ ”
Did she consider having children?
Shocked takes a deep breath. “That was the premise for the marriage, to start a family. But as a young firebrand, I made a very radical decision.” At age 22, she got her tubes tied—largely for political reasons. “I knew there was going to come a time in my life where I would want to speak vehemently about a woman’s right to choose without having it turned back on me, saying you’re acting out of guilt and shame because you had an abortion. I made the ultimate sacrifice.”
She later tried to get the surgery reversed, without success. After countless rounds of unsuccessful in vitro fertilization, she deeply regrets her choice—although she finds solace through the church. She says quietly, “I have to put my faith on it, because otherwise I really screwed up.”
Shocked describes her marriage to Bull as a pairing of co-dependent alcoholics. “He drank Coors Light, and that’s how he managed to convince me and himself that he wasn’t an alcoholic. But when I drank, I liked to know that I was drunk, so I’d hit the hard stuff—bourbon and scotch.” She got sober three years ago; the divorce was finalized last year.
While struggling with life over the past eight years, Shocked was stockpiling songs. She’s already halfway done with another set of three albums: a New Orleans record, a tribute to blueswoman Memphis Minnie, and a gospel-electronica record. She says that the vocals for the last are particularly vulnerable; she recorded them thinking they might never be released. “I didn’t have a label, I didn’t have a band, I was in a dead-end marriage. It was about as bleak as you could imagine.”
When I speak with Shocked, she’s on a US Airways flight from Pittsburgh, taxiing to her gate at LAX. We talk for an hour and a half; she cracks jokes and offers gentle wisdom while she collects her baggage and rides home. She ends up in her Craftsman bungalow, decorated in a style she calls “hillbilly minimalism,” which means austere design but sparkly colors.
She painted her bedroom to look like a jewel box: One wall is sapphire, one emerald, one amethyst, and one garnet. Lying on her gold satin bedspread, she confides, “I find that I have attention-deficit disorder in my prayers. I start praying to God, and the next thing I know, I’m worrying about all kinds of mundane things. I finally came up with a vision for what it’s really like to pray. I’m in my bedroom, but one wall is missing, and that wall is just clouds. The room is just a little particle in the big consciousness that is God. So when I’m praying, I face the clouds and I take a running leap.”