An Interview With Michelle Shocked

About two years ago, many music fans will remember Michelle Shocked going on tour to play shows supporting a CD she had recorded with her own money called Kind Hearted WomanShocked had been forced into financing her CD and tour herself because she was locked in a bitter contract dispute with Mercury Records, the label that had released her three previous studio records -- Short, Sharp, Shocked, Captain Swing and Arkansas Traveler.The label had refused to fund studio time for two proposed albums -- one with a working title of Prayers, and a version of Kind Hearted Woman -- saying both records were stylistically inconsistent. What Shocked says she later discovered that Mercury's decision was based less on artistic merit than on a desire to rework her record deal.In what is a rarity for the music business, Shocked had negotiated ownership of her master tapes, and at the conclusion of her contract would control the release rights and royalties for her records. Mercury wanted to regain ownership of Shocked's records. Shocked refused to surrender. When Mercury refused to let her record for another label, the two parties went to war."I at first internalized a lot of rejection," Shocked said, explaining her initial reaction to Mercury's decisions. "At first I thought there was something wrong with me. And then as it went on down the road, I felt like they were behaving with an imperiousness, a high-handedness."It brought out the anger that comes from, if you know a little bit about my background as a runaway, the abused child syndrome," said Shocked, who at a age 16 ran away from home, and soon after was briefly committed to a mental institution by her mother. "Once you've internalized it, you then have the choice to make about whether you get angry at yourself and do self-destructive things, which I've often done, or whether you get angry at the source of your frustration. And at least I made the choice to focus my anger on them. And that helped then take it out of internalizing it, and once I started doing that I realized, you know what, they weren't rejecting me. It wasn't about the creative stuff at all. It was really thin-blooded accountants looking at the investment that they were not prepared to make, although contractually committed to."So Shocked decided to circumvent Mercury altogether, recording a version of Kind Hearted Woman solo on electric guitar, using the garage studio of a friend, Tony Berg. Armed with her CD, she then recruited two members of the Irish band Hothouse Flowers, guitarist Fiachna O'Braonain and bassist Peter O'Toole, and on some shows, drummer Cedric Anderson, and went on tour, selling her homemade version of Kind Hearted Woman at her shows.The tour and CD sales raised enough money to keep Shocked on the road for two years and enabled her to return to the studio to re-record Kind Hearted Woman with O'Braonain, O'Toole and Anderson fleshing out songs with additional instrumentation.In the meantime, she settled her dispute with Mercury and gained her freedom from the label. As part of the settlement, Mercury will release a Shocked anthology CD, Mercury Poise, this fall. The new version of Kind Hearted Woman, meanwhile, has just been released on Private Music Records.The Kind Hearted Woman CD stands as a significant departure for the eclectic singer-songwriter. Her first three records, which Shocked views as a trilogy, showed three distinct sides to her music. Short, Sharp, Shocked was a singer-songwriter record filled with bluesy, folk-rock tunes. Captain Swing, was a swinging horn-filled record. Arkansas Traveler explored Shocked's musical roots, with a collection of folk and blues songs she had learned while growing up as well as some original material.By contrast, Kind Hearted Woman is Shocked's most stark and emotionally charged record. It presents a series of stories about struggle, despair and ultimately redemption, told by characters battling personal and professional setbacks while living in rural America.For instance, the song "A Child Like Grace" finds a parent struggling to come to terms with the death of a child, questioning God's wisdom ("What does he care?"). "Homestead" finds a young widow coping with a difficult life on the prairie. "Cold Comfort" captures the loss and bitterness felt by a family after the murder of their father. Though some have found the CD bleak, Shocked feels a closer look reveals another emotion at work throughout the CD."What I've been experiencing is that on a superficial listen, the material does end up being perceived as very, what someone used the word bare-bones," Shocked said. "If you listen to it all of a piece, it does take you down into the depths, but before the journey's over, it's lifted you into, I don't know, this mood of acceptance or tolerance -- I define it as redemption myself."Looking back on her battle with Mercury and the fact that she is now back recording -- with plans to make an album inspired by the brass band music of her new home town of New Orleans and another record more with a more conventional singer-songwriter approach -- Shocked hopes she has been able to help trigger some improvements within how the record industry treats its artists."Well I'm looking at it from a generational point of view. It's now the baby boomers who are running the labels," Shocked said. "But when they were coming up, they really received a lot of indulgence and nurturing from the record men, the guys who understood they were in the business of culture. And that in the '80s corporate environment, as that generation came into power running the labels, they started giving the power to the bottom liners, the accountants, the lawyers, and as a result, even the good record men that remained were driven out. It became seen as a negative to indulge the creative, the talent. And they really went back to a futile system like in the '50s, of one-hit wonders and producers writing the songs and double dipping by producing the albums and getting the publishing and all that."So from my generation, I just cannot go down without a fight," she said. " You do not have to, if you're in the system, take a bunch of drugs and numb out, just be a loser or a slacker. You can be positive. You can have your wits about you, that you can actually improve things...I would like to see much more of a united front on artists who are exploited primarily because they allow themselves to be divided and conquered. So if I can represent a generational shift and paradigm from we work inside the system, and therefore we're already defeated to we work inside the system and we're making it better for everybody, I'll make the sacrifice of four years of standing up to a label like Mercury."

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