Michelle Shocked survives her share of jolts
By Kevin Ransom / Special to The Detroit News
Michelle Shocked has stared into the abyss, but she's also been to the mountaintop.
Although Shocked is a celebrated singer and songwriter, not many of the folk-rock cognoscenti know the trouble she's seen:
When Shocked was just 16, she ran away from her oppressive home in East Texas. She spent many years living on the edge of homelessness and squatting in abandoned buildings in New York and San Francisco. At one point, Shocked's mother wrongly committed her to a mental institution, where Shocked was forced to undergo shock therapy -- hence, her stage name.
Later, while drifting through Europe, she was raped. Back in the United States, after being rousted for living on the streets, she was again thrown into a mental hospital.
"As a result of those experiences, I was an extremely angry and resentful person, and I was milking my past hurts, and past injuries for all they were worth," says Shocked, who performs Sunday at the 7th House in Pontiac.
"I blamed God for my pain. My mother was a strict Mormon, and I found a lot of her ideology to be so reprehensible that it literally drove me away from God," says Shocked, now 33.
But in 1991, while listening to a gospel music choir at a black Pentecostal church in South Central Los Angeles, Shocked was stirred by a profound spiritual awakening.
"For the first time, I felt I'd found a place where I could resolve all the dogma my mother had inundated me with, but still be a Christian."
Her spirit buoyed by that transformation, Shocked relied heavily on her newfound faith during the crisis that followed. For three years, starting in 1993, she was locked in an emotionally draining legal battle with her record company, which was just resolved this spring when she won her freedom.
That struggle put Shocked's album, Kind Hearted Woman, in limbo for three years. It will finally be released this fall.
"At first, the label claimed that the fight was over creative control," says Shocked. "They said Kind Hearted Woman was "stylistically inconsistent." But later they admitted that they were never going to promote the record properly because I had negotiated too good a deal for myself -- I wasn't going to be a record-company slave, and they don't like that."
In the interim, Shocked spent her own money to produce CDs of her spare, guitar-and-voice homemade tape of Kind Hearted Woman, and sold them at her shows.
In September 1994, Shocked brought her joyous, gospelized, roots-rocking celebration to the Majestic in Detroit. Onstage, the songs that sounded so somber and pensive on the home tape crackled with transcendent, full-bodied vigor. The show lasted more than three hours, and Shocked has never rocked harder, or with more assurance.
Lyrically, Kind Hearted Woman is a stark, emotionally harrowing -- but ultimately cleansing --rural Americana song cycle about death and redemption. In "Stillborn," a grief-stricken mother numbly sings a lullaby to her stillborn child. In "Homestead," a 35-year-old prairie widow hunkers down with a weary resolve. "Winter's Wheat" finds a farmer agonizingly waiting for the long-overdue thrasher to arrive while his grain is "groaning on the stem."
Shocked's spiritual conversion actually can be traced to her fascination with minstrelsy, which "is the source of so much contemporary popular music," says Shocked.
"It all started when Europeans encountered the black gospel experience for the first time. That's why I was in that church in L.A. to begin with -- I was researching this great wellspring of popular music."
Jokingly she adds: "I guess I just went one Sunday too many."