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Shocked, Michelle

Shocked, Michelle

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

Michelle Shocked is the chosen name of a singer-songwriter known for her iconoclastic bent, both musically and politically. Throughout her career Shocked has used her music as much to deliver stinging social commentary as to escape her troubled life. However, she has also explored a wide range of musical interests in folk, western swing, gospel, and blues with Texas roots. That her music has never fit neatly into a genre was at the crux of a dispute with label executives who effectively suspended her career just as it was just getting started.

Born Karen Michelle Johnston in 1962 in Dallas, Texas, Shocked is the daughter of Bill Johnston, who has been variously described as a teacher, part-time carnival ride operator, and sixties-style "hippie-atheist," and a mother whose name Shocked won't reveal, but whom she has cynically described as a "Tammy Bakker-type." Her parents divorced in 1963. She lived with her converted-Mormon mother and career-Army stepfather, but spent summers with her father.

With her mother and stepfather, she moved from Maryland to Massachusetts, to West Germany, and then back to Gilmer, Texas, upon her stepfather's retirement. In 1979, at age 16, she quit school and left home to live with her father in Dallas. He encouraged her musical talent, convinced her to buy a second-hand guitar, and took her to local blues and country music festivals.

Shocked enrolled at the University of Texas for a period of time, and then began a period of restless wandering, which took her from the homes of relatives and friends to student housing co-ops, then on to San Francisco and involvement with local hardcore bands and a squatters' movement. Shocked has called this her period of homelessness, when she aligned herself with a number of causes, from save-the-whales to anti-nuclear activities. Evictions drove her back to Texas, where her mother, alarmed over Michelle's wild lifestyle, had Shocked institutionalized. "They kept me till the insurance ran out," Shocked told People magazine. "I guess you can't be crazy without insurance."

In 1984 she continued her political involvement and was arrested several times. One arrest was chronicled by a newspaper photographer, and would become the cover of her major label debut. A dramatic photo of Shocked being restrained and arrested by riot police that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner is the cover of her 1988 album Short Sharp Shocked. The album earned her a Grammy nomination.

From 1984 to 1986 she bounced from California to New York to Europe. "I was never gonna come back. If I could actually survive in a foreign country with no money, taking care of myself, I couldn't be crazy," she explained to Musician. Things didn't work out as she had planned, and Shocked eventually returned to Texas.

It was while playing in the campground at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1986 that Shocked was discovered by English producer Pete Lawrence. He reportedly told Shocked he was a journalist, without mentioning that he was a partner in a newly-formed record label as well. He taped her performance on his Sony Walkman, complete with crickets chirping in the background. The recording was released as The Texas Campfire Tapes and gained Shocked unexpected popularity in the United Kingdom. After its release, Shocked remastered and reworked the recording. Shocked told New Orleans City Life in a 2005 interview that she made no money from the recording. In retrospect, she said, "It was kind of like paying my tuition to the school of hard knocks in the music business."

The record reached the top of England's independent music chart. Ira Robbins at Trouser Press declared that The Texas Campfire Tapes made Shocked "the darling of the British folk scene." Robbins found Shocked to be "an uncertain but ambitious singer" who "comes off as a talented amateur with modestly appealing songs and the hint of substantial potential."

Shockied was courted by the major labels. Polygram's Mercury offered her a $130,000 advance on a second album, but Shocked would only accept $50,000 when she signed. "When it comes to it," she explained to Musician, "I have to confess I'm not that committed to the medium of making albums. It's a nice means, but it's not the end as far as I'm concerned. If it gets people to the live shows where I can spit my two cents worth of politics, it's done the job. ... I knew if I was going to keep the album as simple as I wanted, it was never gonna take that much money."

As she later explained the contract to Billboard, "I negotiated a deal where I turned down a [record company] advance and paid for the recordings with my publishing advance [in exchange] for the rights to the masters reverting to me after the 10-year period of release—which was unprecedented."

Her second release, Captain Swing, appeared in November of 1989. Of the project, Robbins wrote that "Shocked isn't yet equipped to pull off an entire album in this style," but he added that "such fearless ambition is to be admired, and the album serves notice that Shocked isn't sitting still for anybody's expectations of her."

The label did not promote any albums after Short Sharp Shocked. As she told Billboard in 2002, "There was a big debut splash. ... and then it was, 'What happened to Michelle Shocked?.'" But Shocked continued to record, following up with Arkansas Traveler. Paul Verna described a live performance in a 1992 Billboard review, saying that Shocked "has always had a gift for mesmerizing audiences with her endearing stage manner and her profound folk-oriented music." That same year, Shocked married Bart Bull, a writer.

Mercury shelved Kind Hearted Woman, which would have been her fourth major-label recording, and refused to release her from her contract. Mercury claimed the refusal to release the material was attributable to "stylistic inconsistency," but Shocked, in an interview with Texas Monthly, said she originally thought it had more to do with her conversion to the Church of God and Christ. She recalled to Billboard that Mercury executives had "told me I cut too good a deal for myself."

For the Record . . .

Born Karen Michelle Johnson in 1962 in Dallas, TX; married Bart Bull (a writer), 1992 (divorced, 2004). Education: Attended University of Texas.

Became interested in music at age 16; played with San Francisco hardcore bands while a squatter and activist in San Francisco; recorded while playing after-hours at the Kerrville Folk Festival, 1986, and recording became TheTexas Campfire Tapes; signed to Mercury, 1988; ShortSharp Shocked released, 1988; Captain Swing re leased, 1989; Arkansas Traveler released, 1992; KindHearted Woman recorded, shelved by the label, and subsequent album not funded, beginning prolonged legal battle, 1992; career suspended, 1992-96; despite this, sold self-produced recordings at shows, including KindHearted Woman, Artists Make Lousy Slaves, and Good News; Mercury Poise released, 2003; re-recorded Kind Hearted Woman, 1996; founded Mighty Sound label, released Deep Natural and Dub Natural, 2002; released Don't Ask Don't Tell, Got No Strings, and Mexican Standoff, 2005; announced plans for another three-CD series consisting of blues, gospel and electronica, 2005.

Addresses: Record company—Mighty Sound/Phyllis Stein, 5042 Wilshire Blvd, Ste. 155, Los Angeles CA 90036. Publicity—Conqueroo, 13351-D Riverside Dr., ...655, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423-2540. Website— Michelle Shocked Official Website: http://www.michelleshocked.com/.

The label refused to authorize any recording sessions for a gospel album Shocked planned as her next release. "When it came time to exercise those rights, I was buried. I was put on ice for about seven years," she said in a 2005 interview with San Francisco Chronicle. Her career was essentially suspended from 1992 to 1996. A defiant Shocked sold Kind Hearted Woman at her live shows and continued to tour. Artists Make Lousy Slaves and Good News were also released in this same manner.

Shocked continued to hone her songwriting during this period. Michael Molenda of Guitar Player called her "a fearless spirit who trusts the counsel of her heart. She's certainly not afraid to mess with convention. ... and she's a ferocious blues shouter who can also unleash a voice so tender that it feels like a lover brushing a hand across your face."

Shocked re-recorded Kind Hearted Woman and released it in 1996 on Private Music/BMG. Because she had an option on the recording, she was able to save it when the label was consolidated. She had recorded Artists Make Lousy Slaves with Fiachna O'Braonain of Ireland's Hothouse Flowers, and the collaboration continued on Deep Natural, the first release on Shocked's own Mighty Sound in 2002. It was accompanied by an alternate version CD called Dub Natural, both of which were co-produced by Bull.

In 1994 Shocked and her husband moved to New Orleans, where she learned a variety of traditional styles of music indigenous to and hybridized in the city. It was while living in New Orleans that her marriage unraveled, and Bull and Shocked separated in 2003. She would later characterize the root of the problem as alcoholic co-dependency. Shocked moved back to Los Angeles and worked on her own sobriety, and also continued her activism, performing in a burka made from an American flag at a CodePink rally for women's rights in 2003.

Of her "on ice" period, she told the San Francisco Chronicle, "All I could do was write songs with no outlet for them. The onus was on me to remain creative while not being productive." The result was three albums, each of which had a specific theme. They were released individually—Don't Ask Don't Tell, Got No Strings, and Mexican Standoff—as well as in a set called "Threesome."

On her website Shocked referred to Don't Ask Don't Tell as "a breakup epic in the grand tradition of Richard and Linda Thompson's 'Shoot Out the Lights,' Bob Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks' and Marvin Gaye's 'Here, My Dear.' Got No Strings is a collection of Disney music placed into a western swing context. Nick Forster, best known for his work with Hot Rize, produced the effort and contributed guitar. The third CD in the song cycle was Mexican Standoff, a mix of Texas blues and Tex-Mex.

During promotions for the 2005 albums, Shocked said she was indulging her affinity for gospel and electronica, and recording in these genres. Another trilogy may be on the horizon, consisting of New Orleans music, a tribute to blueswoman Memphis Minnie, and a gospel-electronica fusion project. "I don't ask my audience to listen to one style or genre," she told Country Standard Times ' Dan MacIntosh. "So why would they ask me to play just one style of music? ... I really do hope I achieve a ... goal of basically creating a genre of music called Michelle Shocked music."

Selected discography

The Texas Campfire Tapes, Cooking Vinyl, 1987; reissued, Mercury, 1988.

Short Sharp Shocked, Mercury, 1988.

Captain Swing, Mercury, 1989.

Arkansas Traveler, Mercury, 1992.

Kind Hearted Woman, Mood Swing, 1994; Private Music, 1996.

(With Fiachna O'Braonain) Artists Make Lousy Slaves, Mood Swing, 1996.

Mercury Poise: 1988-1995, Mercury, 1996.

(As Michelle Shocked and the Anointed Earls) Good News, Mood Swing, 1998.

Dub Natural, Mood Swing, 2001.

Deep Natural, Mighty Sound, 2002.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Mighty Sound, 2005.

Got No Strings, Mighty Sound, 2005.

Mexican Standoff, Mighty Sound, 2005.

Sources

Periodicals

Billboard, December 12, 1992 April 8, 1995; May 4, 2002; September 27, 2003.

Guitar Player, August 2002.

Musician, June 1988.

Newsweek, October 3, 1988.

New York Times, September 4, 1988.

People, November 7, 1988.

Rolling Stone, November 3, 1988; October 6, 1988.

Sojourners Magazine, May 2002; July 2003.

Stereo Review, March 1989.

Texas Monthly, November 1996.

Online

"From divorce to Disney: A relaxed, upbeat Michelle Shocked releases three new CDs," New Orleans Times Picayune,http://www.nola.com/music/t-p/index.ssf?/base/entertainment-0/1117778312202030.xml (June 3, 2005).

"Michelle Shocked manages to stay busy," Country Standard Time,http://www.countrystandardtime.com/michelleshockedFEATURE.html (June 3, 2005).

Michelle Shocked Official Website, http://www.michelleshocked.com/ (June 9, 2005).

"Michelle Shocked," Trouser Press,http://www.trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=michelle_shocked (June 9, 2005).

"Saved – Remember Michelle Shocked? ... ," New York Magazine,http://www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/arts/music/pop/12111/ (June 30, 2005).

"Welcome Back To Shockville...," San Francisco Chronicle,http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/derk/ (May 26, 2005).

—Sharon Rose andLinda Dailey Paulson

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Shocked, Michelle

Michelle Shocked

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

One of the new breed of angry young women to burst onto the music scene is Michelle Shocked (nee Johnston). She chose her stagy surname to reflect outrage over a troubled past and uses her music to deliver stinging social commentary and recount dreamy Texas memories. Her songs seem headed for the top of the charts, but Shocked isnt sure she wants to follow suit.

Thin and pale with close-cropped hair often hidden under a British sailors cap, Shocked is defiantly reluctant to answer personal questions. A sassy Texan whos achieved more professional success in Europe than her homeland, shes a difficult talent to categorize. Her music has been described as country, punk, protest, folk, blues, rock and pop.

Shes the daughter of Bill Johnston, who has been described as a former teacher, part-time carnival ride operator, and sixties-style hippie, and a mother whose name Shocked wont reveal but cynically describes as a Tammy Bakker-type. When her parents divorced in 1963, Michelle lived with her converted-Mormon mother and career-Army stepfather, who moved them from Maryland to Massachusetts, to West Germany, and then Texas. In 1979, at age 16, she quit school and left home to live with her father in Dallas. Johnston encouraged her musical talent, convinced her to buy a second-hand guitar, and took her to local blues and country music festivals.

Shocked enrolled at the University of Texas but didnt stick with classes for long. She began a period of restless wanderings, which took her from the homes of relatives and friends to student housing co-ops, then on to San Francisco and involvement with local hardcore bands and a squatters movement. Shocked calls this her period of homelessness, when she aligned herself with a number of causes, from save-the-whales to antinuclear activities. Evictions drove her back to Texas where her mother, alarmed over Michelles wild lifestyle, had Shocked hospitalized in mental institutions. They kept me till the insurance ran out, Shocked told People magazine. I guess you cant be crazy without insurance.

In 1984 she continued her political involvement and was arrested twice during public protestsonce at the Republican Convention, then again in a protest against a defense contractor. For the next two years, she bounced from California to New York to Europe. I was never gonna come back. If I could actually survive in a foreign country with no money, taking care of myself, I couldnt be crazy, she explained to Musician. Things didnt work out as she planned. She was raped while wandering through Italy and retreated back to Texas.

For the Record

Surname originally Johnston; name changed, 1984; born c. 1963; raised in Maryland, Massachusetts, West Germany, and Texas; daughter of Bill Johnston (described variously as an English teacher and/or part-time carnival ride operator) and a mother Shocked refuses to identify; stepfather was in the military. Education: Attended University of Texas, briefly.

Became interested in music at age 16 when she went to live with her father in Texas, and he introduced her to blues and country music; after periods of being committed to two mental institutions by her mother, went on the road in the United States and Europe, singing and participating in peace protests; signed a recording contract, 1986; has toured throughout the United States.

Addresses: Home London, England. Record company c/o Mercury/Polygram Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.

It was there, while performing at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1986 that Shocked was accidentally discovered by English producer Pete Lawrence. He taped her performance on his Sony Walkman, complete with background crickets chirping, then released the crude recording as The Texas Campfire Tapes and watched it soar to the top of British independent charts. A surprised Shocked moved to London and was received with open arms.

Polygram offered her a $130,000 advance on a second album, but Shocked would only accept $50,000. When it comes to it, she explained to Musician, I have to confess Im not that committed to the medium of making albums. Its a nice means, but its not the end as far as Im concerned. If it gets people to the live shows where I can spit my two cents worth of politics, its done the job. I knew if I was going to keep the album as simple as I wanted, it was never gonna take that much money.

A dramatic photo of a raging Shocked being restrained and arrested by riot police that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner serves as the cover of her second album, Short Sharp Shocked. Her third release, Captain Swing, appeared in November 1989. Some record industry observers believe Shocked is on the verge of becoming as big a star in the United States as she is in Europe. Meanwhile, Shocked is content to return to the houseboat on the Thames she now calls home.

Selected discography

The Texas Campfire Tapes, Cooking Vinyl, 1987.

Short Sharp Shocked, Polygram, 1988.

Captain Swing, Mercury, 1989.

Sources

Musician, June 1988.

Newsweek, October 3, 1988.

New York Times, September 4, 1988.

People, November 7, 1988.

Rolling Stone, November 3, 1988; October 6, 1988.

Stereo Review, March 1989.

Sharon Rose

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Shocked, Michelle." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Shocked, Michelle." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/shocked-michelle

"Shocked, Michelle." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/shocked-michelle