Michelle Shocked’s righteous birdsong
Michelle Shocked’s righteous birdsong

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 22, 2001) -- Deserved or not, Michelle Shocked has a reputation for feisty independence. In part it comes from having battled for the better part of a decade with her former record label, Mercury, over control of her recordings. Going back even further, it comes from the photo of the singer being brutalized by police that adorned the cover of her album “Short Sharp Shocked.”

But when Michelle Shocked looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see a rebel for the cause of independence.

“I never really signed on to the cause,” said Shocked -- who performs at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Tuesday night, August 28, at 8 in a concert presented by Club Helsinki -- in a recent phone interview. “It certainly influenced and informed my aesthetics, but I never understood it as a cause.

“My cause is slightly different. It was an extension of my political beliefs and values. I spent several years working outside the system as a political activist on race, homelessness, the environment, feminism, and I felt pretty ineffectual. I felt the most success we could ever gather outside the system was a photo and newspaper article about the protest we’d been a part of and that dwelled on the sensationalist aspects of the protest and not on the issues.”

Shocked the politician gave way to Shocked the musician in the late-‘80s, when she first gained fame for the easygoing, intimate folk ballad “Anchorage” and a style and attitude that prefigured such independent-minded female performers as Sinead O’Connor and Ani DiFranco.

Shocked said that trading her place on the front lines of political activism for music was a no-brainer. “When the opportunity came for me to work within the system, I felt like I had an obligation to the cause to make a difference,” she said. “I recognized going into it that there were a lot more benefits inside than outside. I hoped when I was no longer effective inside that I’d still have the integrity that I could leave all those benefits behind.

“I personally feel I could be far more effective inside the system, but my sense is that because my artistic integrity is enough of a threat to the system -- you put a bunch of big gems against a true stone the others don’t look so sparkly. I don’t know if that’s sour grapes or the facts as I see them.

“My cause isn’t to sell a bunch of records. My success inside the system opened a door of the independent aesthetic, and if they’re getting the message across more effectively than being marginalized, then I’ve contributed. I’ve helped make a difference.”

Shocked has proved herself worthy of her former record label’s name with a mercurial musical compass that ranged from the big-band sounds of “Captain Swing” to the old-time folk-roots of “Arkansas Traveler” to the occasional hardcore punk-rock tune. Along the way she took such unlikely turns as performing with funk-jazz band Tower of Power in a memorable concert tour that stopped at the former Berkshire Performing Arts Center, and scolded the audience at the Newport Folk Festival for its ungodly tendencies.

Shocked admits to having gone through “a pretty intense period of introspection and spiritual searching” – hinted at in the title of her last album, “Good News” -- in which she “tried to synthesize a lot of my experiences in life by adding a spiritual perspective to them.”

It’s not a message that is particularly welcome in the contemporary musical marketplace. “The world in general is not so corrupt that it doesn’t recognize the ring of truth when it hears it,” said Shocked. “But it has a really well-founded cynicism about the package that truth comes in, and so it can be very guarded.

“That ends up being my challenge as an artist -- to strip away as much of the packaging and deliver as much of the truth as I can. When I really hit the nail on the head people start crying or laughing.”

Stripping away unnecessary layers has also become part of Shocked’s musical aesthetic as heard on her new, “Dub Natural,” a self-distributed recording intended to pique fans’ interest in her next full album of songs, “Deep Natural,” due out early next year.

On “Dub Natural,” an album she describes as “new dub blues and gospel birdsong,” Shocked is a ghostly presence. There are traces of Shocked the singer, but mostly it’s an instrumental album in which instruments appear and then disappear from the mix, in a variety of grooves, mostly drawn from African-American-derived styles including blues, funk, reggae and jazz.

“I can’t say I’ve been as innovative as some of my generation in creating new musical forms, but I have pushed the envelope. There’s blues and there’s blues, and I like to think I’ve shoved in the direction of a new type of blues. By adding the dub element as well I’ve also built bridges from other styles that have a lot in common with the blues.

“As far as the ‘gospel birdsong’ goes, I’m probably better off quoting from the Bible: ‘His eye is on the sparrow who neither works nor toils but sings in the field.’

“I don’t feel like I have to save or change the world, but I will sing my song and maybe have more of a profound effect than I can ever imagine.”

For tickets to Michelle Shocked at the Mahaiwe Theatre call Club Helsinki at 413-528-3394.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 25, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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