The long ride to gospel
October 10, 2007
On her new album, “ToHeavenURide,” Michelle Shocked goes gospel. Recorded live at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, “ToHeavenURide” features sacred standards like “Wade in the Water” and “We’re Blessed,” a take on Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” and originals touched with the holy, “The Quality of Mercy,” “Psalm” and others. The backing band is anchored by three members of the Dancy family, of the New Greater Circle Mission Church in South Los Angeles.There are also two tunes from the songbook of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A mid-20th-century singer, Tharpe made her mark by fusing spiritual lyrics to the sounds of contemporary pop – a boldness that made her enormously popular in the secular world and something of a scandal in traditional gospel circles. It also made her an idol for Shocked, who reveres Tharpe as “the mother of rockabilly.”For Shocked, merely wading in the waters of gospel was a daring enough move, never mind mixing traditional gospel with rock and reggae. “I am the most unqualified person to represent this record,” she said, speaking from her home in the Mid-City district of Los Angeles. “I don’t have any pedigree or tradition to stand on. It’s like Yanni wanting to make a heavy-metal record. How do you have the temerity to try to pull something like this off?”In fact, the 45-year-old Shocked has some experience with gospel. Her 2002 CD “Deep Natural” featured studio versions of several of the spiritually leaning songs that would appear five years later on “ToHeavenURide.” One song on “Deep Natural,” “That’s So Amazing,” has numerous gospel elements, including riffs on the staple of the repertoire, “Amazing Grace.” For the past two years, Shocked has been singing in the soprano section of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, a mega-church with a massive choir of some 150 voices.Shocked’s humble stance toward her latest musical venture is a different approach than she took to the early stage of her recording career. In the mid-’80s, with one album to her credit (a bootlegged recording, made around a campfire ), she was brash enough to envision herself as a folk singer, a blues belter and a bluegrass picker, all rolled into one. When she signed with Mercury Records, she sold the label on a grand proposal – to make a trilogy of albums, one folky, one blues-oriented, and one in a bluegrass mold. Shocked presented label executives with one song, “Secret to a Long Life,” they thought should go on the first album, 1988’s “Short Sharp Shocked.” Shocked demurred; that song was slated for the final installment of the trilogy.”American artists have this rich heritage,” said Shocked. “Why would we contain ourselves to just one style?”
Shocked made her trilogy. The folky “Short Sharp Shocked,” with the radio hit “Anchorage,” made her a bit of a radio star. Despite expectations that her next album would carry on in the same vein, she stuck to her plan; “Captain Swing,” from 1989, was horn-heavy blues, influenced by the swing era. For 1992’s “Arkansas Traveler,” Shocked employed the picking of such acoustic greats as Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss.In 2005, Shocked made another trilogy, this one as bold as the first. The border-themed “Mexican Standoff”; the stylistically eclectic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which in part documented her breakup with her husband; and “No Strings,” an admirably sophisticated children’s albums, were all released on the same day.
Shocked’s early broad vision is traced to her roots in East Texas, a place she celebrates as one of musical diversity. When she was 12, her hippie-ish father, Bill Johnston, began to teach himself mandolin out of a Mel Bay songbook; it was Shocked’s first close-up view of music-making. Determined to keep Michelle and her brother away from junk culture, Johnston turned them on to such acoustic acts as Hot Rize and New Grass Revival. For an extra dose of cultural variegation, Shocked’s mother was a fundamentalist Mormon.Upon graduation from the University of Texas, Shocked hit the road – but with more of a focus on political activism than music. A photo of her being choked by a police officer while she was protesting at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco landed on the cover of a newspaper. The incident gave Shocked her stage name; born Karen Michelle Johnston, her adopted name is a play on “shellshocked.” It also gave her an album cover; the photo would reappear as the cover art for “Short Sharp Shocked.” Finally, it gave her a temporary residence. Shocked’s mother reacted by committing her rebellious daughter to a mental-health institution.After travels in New York City and across Europe, Shocked landed back in Texas for the 1986 Kerrville Folk Festival. At a nightly campground session, a man asked if he could record Shocked playing her songs. She obliged, and those tunes, recorded onto a Walkman, became a hit on BBC Radio as “The Texas Campfire Tapes.” It was an appropriately odd, indie start to her career; looking back, the “Campfire Tapes” is more in line with her history than the years when Shocked was aligned with a music corporation.Shocked’s break with her label came when she proposed a gospel album for her first post-trilogy project. She had been inspired by her move to Los Angeles, where she attended an African-American church, and by her experience of being, in the Christian sense, saved. But Mercury execs drew the line at Shocked trying yet another style, especially if it was a white woman singing black gospel.”It does, to the outside casual observer, look very peripatetic that I was wandering from style to style,” said Shocked, who appears in an Aspen Writers’ Foundation Lyrically Speaking event Thursday, Oct. 18, at Belly Up. “But I knew where I came from, my musical sources. I went to great lengths to examine the roots, the music of where I had come from. You commit yourself to the past, and it will lead you somewhere.”That first fling with gospel didn’t make it as far as the recording stage. Though she had experienced a religious transformation, she hadn’t yet internalized the music of her faith. “I was approaching it as a musicologist,” she said. With the gospel album nixed, she made instead an emotionally bleak, sonically spiky album – titled, ironically, “Kind Hearted Woman.” For 2002’s “Deep Natural,” she began edging toward spiritual themes, but tentatively.”‘Deep Natural’ was a foray, like having one foot in the water,” she said. (Accompanying the album was a separate CD, “Dub Natural,” featuring instrumental dub versions of songs.) “It was gospel-influenced, gospel-inspired. But that’s hedging your bets, not jumping in.”
“ToHeavenURide” was, in ways, even more out of Shocked’s hands than “The Texas Campfire Tapes.” The recording was not made by Shocked’s people, but by a crew making a DVD of the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It became a CD only when Shocked’s manager thought to inquire about the possible existence of a recording of her performance.To Shocked, there is the hand of God behind this – just as there was a reason that her first attempt to make a gospel album didn’t come to fruition. “When I ran into such insurmountable obstacles in making that record, it led me to understand where my real source of strength and power lied,” she said. “Up until then I had had such a run of remarkable fortune. But it was a means to an end. He was saying, ‘How am I going to draw her closer to me when she’s having all this worldly success?'”So why now?” she continued, regarding the unanticipated release of a gospel album. “Because God told me I could.”Even the fact that “ToHeavenURide” turned out to be a live recording seems guided by a divine force. “It’s one thing to make a record,” said Shocked. “Going out and representing that record is another thing. Because you never know how it’s going to go. I can be quite bold in how I present it, or quite reticent in changing things. That, for me, is the presence of the Holy Spirit expressing its wisdom.”Having made her gospel record, Shocked is off to what promises to be something new. For her next project, she is collaborating with her mate of the past five years. He is not a musician, but an artist who mixes pop art and action painting in a style he calls “pep art.” Shocked is looking for a way to co-mingle their styles; she figures it will be centered around their shared love for doo-wop.”I am determined to make my contribution, do a feminist deconstruction of this music,” she said. “It’s the most romantic music ever made, full of youthful yearning and innocence. I’d like to go back and explore what happened to romantic music.”Shocked, who was born in 1962 and thus missed the doo-wop era, has probably already realized that she is as unqualified to delve into doo-wop as she was gospel. But she is accustomed to making music with question marks over her. Even back when she was planning her trilogy of folk/blues/bluegrass albums, she was asking herself what she was up to. She seems to have been provided a satisfactory answer.”I remember thinking back then, ‘How am I going to add something? What do I have to say?'” she said. “I remember people telling me, just be yourself. And over the years I did become myself. Michelle Shocked makes Michelle Shocked music.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org