Michelle Shocked was born Karen Michelle Johnson in Dallas, Texas.
She came to prominence in the 1980s as a rootsy, folk-influenced singer/songwriter who collaborated prolifically with musicians as varied as Taj Mahal, Fats Domino and the Irish band Hothouse Flowers.
Her recording career began with a Lana Turner-like discovery in 1986 at the Kerrville Folk Festival, in Texas. But whereas Turner sat on a stool at Schwab’s Drugstore, Shocked was perched on a fence post – spinning her drawling tales of life as she knew it – when producer Pete Lawrence recorded her performance on a Sony Walkman.
That recording – complete with crickets and the rumbling of trucks – found its way into record stores as The Texas Campfire Tapes.
The album, on the small Cooking Vinyl label, reached #1 on the British independent charts. Polygram then came courting, offering Shocked the chance to go big time.
Although she signed with the label, Shocked refused part of a six-figure advance, asking, “What would I do with all that money?” and suggested the label sign an additional artist with it.
Shocked’s music is shaped by a strict Mormon upbringing, her life on the streets, anti-American attitudes she acquired while living overseas and a rape that she says “for the first time allowed me to subtly appreciate the implications of living in a racist society, which is an issue I don’t have a lot of self-interest in. Looking at it from that point of view takes all the personal pain away from it.”
The rape galvanized a political stance that began when Shocked joined San Francisco’s squatting scene, living first with hardcore bands in an abandoned brewery and later with “skateboard punks” in a warehouse on Folsom Street. It was there that Shocked became indoctrinated into the lifestyle of America’s homeless.
She also spent time in an Austin mental hospital her mother committed her to, making Shocked bent on staying away from Texas.
From San Francisco, she drifted to New York City and then to Amsterdam, because, she says, “Reagan had just been re-elected, and I was trying to get the hell out of Dodge.” Her life in Amsterdam wasn’t much better than it had been anywhere else, so Shocked came back to America and attended the Kerrville Folk Festival, where she and her father used to listen to the bluegrass pickers every summer.
Enter Pete Lawrence and his Walkman. “I’d never played a professional gig,” says Shocked. “Music was just a way of contributing to what’s important to me: the scene, the community . . . I was literally one of those dropouts from society, thriving on creating chaos.”
For Short Sharp Shocked, she baulked at the notion of working with a real producer, even someone as roots-conscious as Pete Anderson, who has recorded Dwight Yoakam.
“I wouldn’t talk to him at first,” she says. She made her manager read Anderson a statement over the phone that said she was doing the project under protest.
Anderson understood Shocked’s leeriness about the formal recording process and tried to keep everything as “live” as possible.
Whether recording Shocked and her guitar with one other instrument or with the San Francisco-based hardcore band M.D.C., the emphasis was, as Anderson says, on making Michelle “feel comfortable with the process and helping her understand what was going on.”
At one point, Anderson brought in a Fairlight synthesizer for a part on Anchorage – a move Shocked at first opposed. Although initially afraid of losing control of the project, Shocked eventually decided to try Anderson’s suggestion and was pleased with the results.
Indeed, those results are superb. On Short Sharp Shocked, the singer’s rich, intoxicating alto alternates between coquettish Southern belle reminiscences of humorous incidents, like beating the clock to the nearest wet county, in (Making the Run to) Gladewater, and starting fires and stamping them out until one gets out of hand, in V.F.D., and the thoughtful, almost dreamy delivery of reflective songs about friendship, like Anchorage.