Popmatters Interview: Michelle Shocked

This interview originally appeared on Popmatters.

You can go ahead and try to find a moment in the 21-year career of Michelle Shocked when she bowed to conventionality or predictability, but you’re really wasting your time because those are moments don’t exist. The Dallas native singer/songwriter has never had much interest in pursuing. Ever. Her m.o. has always been to exist in a perpetual state of risk; artistically, culturally, politically—which even included taking Mercury records to court (and winning). She has always challenged herself and the listener on numerous levels with her music and far beyond.

With her new release ToHEAVENuRIDE, Shocked has captured a moment in her career where her Christian faith, artistic vision, and passion for political activism all merged into one. The album is—much like any Shocked release—a courageous leap into the unknown for both her and her fans who have followed the controversial folk/blues artist/activist since her 1986 debut album The Texas Campfire Tapes.

Faith is a topic that has dramatically changed Shocked’s view on life and how she approaches her politics. But, ironically, her press release states that “few ever ask her about her religion”. If we were ever going to get to truly knowing the how’s and why’s about the album then we have to ask her about her religion and more specifically how her faith has changed the way she approaches her activism, and how it has caused her to undergo much scorn and discontent from long-time fans.

Recorded live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003, ToHEAVENuRIDE is more that just a live gospel album, and from the very first moments of our conversation Shocked offered to take the easier and more acceptable artistic route when asked about the inspiration of the album. “I hope you understand that it’s going to be nearly impossible to talk about this album without the topic of faith coming into it,” says Shocked, “…if you’re comfortable with talking about that then that’s fine. If you’re not, I still have some remembrance of what’s it like to not have faith. I can try to borrow on that.”

I let her know that I understood that talking about her faith was completely necessary to truly understand the album and where she was in her musical career. To make the discussion of faith even more poignant, our phone conversation followed just minutes after a Saturday afternoon choir rehearsal at her church in Los Angeles so the setting and mood were prime for the conversation.

Once Shocked understood that talking about her faith was okay to do during our conversation, she regrouped her thoughts and responded to my initial question about the “vision” she mentions towards the middle of the live Telluride set. “I am very grateful to have the musical talents I have and when I think about that day at Telluride and what it means in the context of my career and my faith I ask myself, ‘Where did this vision come from; why was I given this vision when I was the exact wrong person to be manifesting this vision?’ That’s the question that just overwhelms me on a daily basis. And when every day is a walk of faith and you’re no longer doing what you’re good at or what people expect you to do, I think, I really think that I wouldn’t wish the kind of a vision I had on anybody.”

What the “vision” means to Shocked is still being fully realized as each day unfolds, and she is honest about not having had the necessary time to think about the true context of the album and what it means to have such a recording released four years later in 2007.

Shocked explains how she went about the difficult task of expressing her Christian faith and politics in a secular setting of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which she points out was made up largely of people she believed didn’t share her Christian faith. Hearing her talk about the setlist planning leading up to the festival, you get the feeling she was drawing from a life that has been full of moments where she has been faced with adversity as a political activist and a musician. Now with both her faith and music career having blended on record, it’s the bigger spiritual significance that she’s still sorting out.

Shocked explains that she remembers wanting to give the audience a little bit of the expected so she turned to the universal swell of emotions brought on by the classic gospel spirituals utilized during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras. Along with the Band’s “The Weight” she mixed in a few of her own gospel originals, too. What you hear is Shocked and her band being themselves and delivering a set that is an inspiring and emotionally moving mix of prayer, politics, and spiritual poetry that keeps Shocked’s reputation for sticking to her guns firmly in tack without alienating the audience, who to Shocked’s surprise began shouting praises right along with her and the band.

At the time of the recording she was trying to figure out the ever- tricky undertaking of weaving the secular performance with Christian musical worship with her political activism. It’s a process in which her current thoughts on how to blend the artist/activist with her Christian faith are continually developing. “Right now, I would say, I’m a picker poet pondering the politics of preaching, which means that I’m realizing more each day that politics has never really changed anyone’s mind, and I went into that set differently than I had up until that point in my career. And looking back on that live set, although it was the Sunday morning gospel hour set, there was nothing about the festival that would lead anyone to believe it was a worship service. The set was very much in the context of what they were doing the rest of the festival, which was music functioning as entertainment.

“I choose two great sources of inspiration for music in that type of setting. I used Sister Rosetta Thorpe and the Staple Sisters because both, especially Tharpe, were scorned by the church for taking the gospel music into the nightclubs and the theaters. I chose their songs in hopes that the audience would get an idea of where I was going but so I could also have the opportunity to have a real epiphany moment if they wanted to. It so happened that I had an unexpected swell of ground support from the audience. I was so surprised to get that kind of response.”

But like the initial clandestine recording of her debut The Texas Campfire Tapes there is still some hard feelings about how the bootlegged recording of ToHEAVENuRIDE came to be.
“I’ve been growing more and more bitter about that whole thing. Because I feel like I’m getting hit from both sides. I feel like I’m caught in this eternal cycle where my work is not my own. My work goes into the world and the world somehow thinks that it is their property. That being said and going back to the vision discussion, this whole thing just confirms that I am a part of something that is bigger than myself. It is clearly not in my hands because the festival contract clearly stated that no recording was allowed but it didn’t seem to stop anybody.”

During Shocked’s career there has never been a sense of conformity. She has always embraced controversy and hardship like a close friend, and in the process has blazed a career trail that few would dare to follow. In June 2005, all on the same day, she released three full length albums Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Got No Strings, and Mexican Standoff—all different styles, all about personal accounts of where she was at that time in her life, including dealing with the aftermath of a recent divorce.

Feminism, politics, and her Christian faith might all appear to be irreconcilable, but Shocked sees each of them as serving a necessary and interdependent purpose through the lens of her faith.

“Politics was my platform in the past to speak out about an issue of race and hypocrisy. And what I’ve come to realize is that politics have never really changed anyone’s mind, heart, or life. Politics serve to confirm that which you already thought or believed. When you look at the politics of preaching, it is a bit of a contradiction, but it’s a contradiction that has the power to change someone’s mind. Preaching holds forth the promise—only that alone has the power to change. Even the preacher has no real power; it’s the Spirit that has the real power to change a person’s mind. The fact that I’m pondering the politics of preaching either means I’m very slow to get up and do some actual preaching or that I’m not a rock ‘n’ roll messiah but one who’s in the wilderness or who’s at least a voice in the wilderness [trying to] make straight the path.”

So how does Shocked reconcile her Christian faith with being an advocate for feminism? She laughs and says, “You know, I’ve sort of exempted myself from that contradiction of gender and faith. Only because the first anomaly is not that I’m a woman but that I chose to practice my Christianity as a white person in an African-American setting. I objectively put myself in the minority and it’s through the eyes of a white woman that I do and say what I do in an African-American tradition. And I’ve taken advantage of this and deferred the issue of male dominance in the Christian tradition and taken the patriarchy and rejoiced in the opportunity to turn the paradigm on its head and to be a minority in such a rich spiritual heritage.”

You can’t get to the heart of ToHEAVENuRIDE with out going through the heart of gospel pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And there’s a reason why Shocked opens the set with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s spiritual song “Strange Things Happy Every Day”.

“I’ve been reflecting lately on how [Tharpe] is almost entirely forgotten. Besides being the first gospel superstar, she was so famous that she was married at National Stadium in D.C., in 1951, and people paid to come and see her married. People actually paid money to see this lady—a gospel singer!—married in a stadium, that’s how important she was! Now, less than fifty years later if you ask someone one who she is and most people don’t know. How does something like that happen!?”

Shocked says, “I want to take her example and apply it to my own life. I know that there have been moments in my career where I have been much more notorious, recognized and celebrated. But I know that I am at a point in my career where I have been a through a type of degradation not unlike what may have happen to Tharpe, but for me the scorn comes from the secular.”

In an interesting response to having been abandoned by many fans because of the potent mix of faith and politics, Shocked sees the rejection as a necessary and expected moment in her career. She’s taking the inspiration of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and solace in the fact that many before her—in rock ‘n’ roll and religious history—have been rejected. Fans and followers who once praised their favorite artists have quickly turned to condemn. The iconic Bob Dylan received double doses from the folk community when he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival and then when he came to faith later in his career. Shocked doesn’t have to look too far, because the center of her own faith is Jesus Christ who, as the gospels note, was rejected even in his hometown, where he never performed a miracle.

“So what I choose to see it as is, ‘What fun is it to degrade someone if you have not first exalted them or glorified them falsely?’ I am personally experiencing that cycle of degradation much like Rosetta Thorpe experienced. And please don’t think that I don’t appreciate using a vehicle like PopMatters to highlight some of those points because I do believe that certain elements of truth will survive the ages. I’m not going to be that word of truth; I’m only going to be a witness to it.”

Staying true to her inherent punk credo without losing any of her creative firepower or political concern, Shocked is keeping it simple and working just on changing herself, leaving the changing of others to the ones she feels can bring real change.

“What I’ve experienced is that I was changed because a preacher changed my mind and then the Spirit of God changed my heart and now leads me to change my life. That process alone [is] amazing to experience, and being able to still be who I am and play music that changes people’s minds is awesome.”

Before her career began Shocked struggled through long bouts of homelessness that often involved living on city streets as a squatter. At 22, her mother had her admitted into a mental institution and 30 days later she was released and changed her last name from Johnston to Shocked. From there she began to travel the world and develop her musical career. When Shocked reflects on her life, she says her faith is something that is both a part of her present and past as well as her future and she has no regrets about time when she didn’t have faith in her life.

“I wasn’t walking in faith during the time I was in the mental institution but I now look back at those times through the lens of my faith and it certainly affects how I filter those experiences. I have a testimony about the power [of] a radical transformation, and when you really let that take you and make you into a completely different person and take you to places you never thought you could go, really amazing places. Living in the grace and truth of God, I don’t have to be ashamed of the person I was.”

In addition to the personal context of the album’ recording, cultural context is just as crucial. At the time of the 2003 performance, the US was a few months into the invasion of Iraq and Shocked was thinking about the best way to meld her faith with her still fiery political views. She choose songs like “The Weight” and “God Bless the Child” to start out the set and then planned to move into more obvious songs like “Study War No More”. She recalls an astounding amount of fan hypocrisy as she tells what the previous months leading to the Telluride set were like for her on tour in 2003.

“I had already done a tour before the US went into Iraq … and was doused with a very cold bath of reality that no one wanted to hear my message of non-imperialism or anti-war; even in the hallowed and sacred halls of rock ‘n’ roll. Playing even in front of my crowd that was following me my whole career, I was rejected, scorned, and met with contempt. The bloodcurdling cry for war was so loud. It’s one thing to go through what I did in 2003, and I knew that I wasn’t about to just allow myself to be swept into the dust bins of history.”
So when the angry mob of fan and music industry hypocrisy came at her, Shocked responded in true Shocked fashion: she changed gears and rethought her approach.
“During that time in 2003, I started to really experience the limitations of secular political protest and turned to the old spiritual songs of the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, like ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Study War No More’. And for the Telluride performance, I knew the crowd would have an idea of where I was going with it, and after playing ‘Good News’, which talked about the merging of politics and prayer, I knew I had an open door.”

She also saw what she experienced as a lesson learned on the shortcomings of her earlier involvement in bigger picture of political activism, saying, “And whatever heights of popularity I experienced, I now realize that we—Fat Happy Privileged American—were set up. Through the Reagan administration and at the end of the first Bush administration and heading in to the heady Clinton administration, we as Americans were all set up. The type of political activism we did was like taking an easy walk around the block and calling it military boot camp. We were so soft, man, we were so spoiled, blessed by abundance while the rest of the world was having a completely opposite experience.”

Even for Shocked, merging her political and spiritual beliefs with a public performance is something she’s constantly figuring out. When she reflects on how an artist who has faith could go about merging the secular performance with politics and faith, Shocked mentions how she’s learned from experiencing U2 live and sees Bono as a contemporary example of someone who’s also attempting to blend the secular with the sacred during a live concert performance while he simultaneously travels the world as a political ambassador.

“I went to see U2 once, but it never compared to the glory of a church worship service. They’re good at creating a scale of grandeur. Like the old European cathedrals did. But sitting backstage with Bono after the concert I saw that he has the same insecurities as all of us. His kid came up to him and said, ‘That [show] wasn’t very good, Dad.’ And then Bono cringes. He’s looking for his son’s approval like any normal dad would and Bono does show himself to be human all too often. But he also shows his ability to rise above his failures. As artists, I believe we’re either doing our work in the Light or in the Dark and I’d like to believe that Bono is doing his work in the Light. What it comes down to, I believe, is that the Spirit of God is being glorified at a worship service, and at a secular concert, it’s the artist that is being glorified. Finding that balance is part of the journey I’m on right now … and at the Telluride show I know I took a big chance going to that spiritual and political level, and my band was gracious to follow me in that type of environment.”

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