Q&A: Michelle Shocked Talks About God, Texas, Slavery, Mercury Records and the Lomax Family
After signing to Mercury, her 1988 single “Anchorage” charted in America and overseas, and her major label debut album Short Sharp Shocked, which sported as cover art a newsman’s picture of her in a police choke-hold at a San Francisco protest, was one of the year’s most critically acclaimed debuts. (It was produced by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson, who is currently in the studio with Houston’s own Aaron Loesch. Read more about that here later this week.)
Captain Swing was a stylistic break from her first two records – in this case, she predated the swing revival and the title referenced not just that but the rural riots of 19th Century English farmers. Her next album, Arkansas Traveler, was an exploration of American rural music, heavy on the fiddle tunes and sporting guest shots from Taj Mahal, Uncle Tupelo and the Band. As she puts it, Americana before there was such a thing.
She had long wanted to make a gospel record, but Mercury was having none of it. They believed she had shown “stylistic inconsistency” enough, and the idea of a faith-based record made their heads explode. So Shocked sued the label to get out of her contract, claiming that Mercury was in violation of the 13th Amendment. That’s the one that bans slavery.
And she won. She not only won back her freedom but also control over her back catalog.
And just last year, after years and years of releasing albums in each and every style she wanted to record, she finally released a gospel album called ToHeavenUride backed by musicians from the predominantly African-American Church of God in Christ she now attends in south Los Angeles. Like Texas Campfire Tapes, this record was taped on the down-low, so in some ways you can see her as having come full circle.
One of the most quotable musicians alive, the native of East Texas talks here about her faith, her church, being a Texas musician and how and why the verdict she won against Mercury didn’t spell doom for the entire music industry. And also, makes peace with my family. For a while there, she says, she was engaged in what she calls an anti-Lomax pogrom.
And while she might not have the music world by the tail anymore, she does have her life back, and no one can ever say that this was a woman who sang even a single dishonest note. – John Nova Lomax
Houstoned Rocks: I see that this album was inadvertently recorded, like Texas Campfire Tapes.
Michelle Shocked: Yeah, pretty much, with a little higher production value, of course. In this case I had a performance contract with the festival and the contract stated clearly in no uncertain terms “no recording allowed,” they had commissioned a production company that year to archive the performances for a DVD. Obviously I was not on the DVD, but they had in the vault the entire audio and visual segments of the performance.
HR: Are you gonna put a DVD out too?
MS: No. They were very open-handed when I discovered this. They provided me with all that material. You know, the downside to all of this was it’s one thing to make a recording that you know you’re making, it’s another to be bootlegged. I don’t mind the warts-and-all [aspect], I just mind the intention. What would I have done had I known I was recording?
HR: But you do feel like it gibes with where you are now musically?
MS: It was sort of like a crossroads I faced a choice on. I could allow it to never see the light of day…Basically it brought me out of the born-again Christian closet. I’ve been practicing as a stealth Christian for almost 15 years and now I’m kinda having to face the music.
HR: Which sort of brings me to my next question. You refer to some songs as “secular gospel.” What do you think makes a song secular gospel?
MS: That it invokes spirituality without invoking theology.
HR: That’s my next iTunes playlist I think.
MS: (Laughs) Okay. Fair enough.
HR: I haven’t come across that term before-
MS: I made it up. The classic example I think of is “The Weight.” We know instinctively that it’s talkin’ about something spiritually heavy in that Dylanesque, Dada, surrealist sense. It turns out Robbie Robertson was inspired by and commenting on the themes of Luis Buñuel films, specifically one called Viriadana. He claims he was meditating on the themes of the impossibility of sainthood. Which I think is a funny theme for a non-believer or a secular gospel singer to be meditating on, but there it is.
HR: Just dropping that “Nazareth” in there gets you thinking…
MS: Yeah, and there’s Moses and Judgment Day and Luke. You knew there was something there but it just didn’t add up. And the idea of the impossibility of sainthood. That’s such an esoteric kinda tanget to the gospel I just wonder how they get up on these sidetracks.
HR: It seems a very Spanish idea.
MS: (Laughs) Yes! Yes.
HR: You grew up sort of half-Mormon, half-atheist, right?
MS: I would say it like this. My youth up until I was 12 was completely unchallenged. My stepfather and mother were Mormon and we lived on army bases. Then when I was 12 we were stationed back in the U.S. and I spent summers with my father, and I think he had a pretty active agenda to proselytize my brother and I into his religion, which was atheism.
So from the time I was 12 until I ran away from home at 16, he would plant those seeds of doubt and questioning. I think eventually it took a stronger hold than the Mormon roots, at least for a while, you know? I could not reconcile a lot of the contradictions of my Mormon upbringing.
HR: What is the difference of the feeling of going to a Mormon service and and C.O.G.I.C. in South Central?
MS: Well, night and day. (Laughs)
HR: I’ve seen C.O.G.I.C. services on TV and I sometimes wish I had the nerve to go them.
MS: It was a long time comin’ for me, I’m tellin’ you. Mormon services – they don’t have pastors. It’s very… modern, frankly. What they do at Mormon services is they call on various members of the congregation, so on any given Sunday, you’ll see someone else up in the pulpit giving a talk. I think a lot of my speaking skills were nurtured as a young girl because I gave talks. I don’t quite know why that’s how it developed, but that’s how they do their services. You know, I’m just not quite sure what kind of spiritual wisdom a 12-year-old girl might be able to convey. But there I was.
In Church of God in Christ, you’ve got really seasoned, seasoned skilled evangelists, missionaries, pastors, leaders. In one of the YouTube clips, Jesse Jackson was the guest speaker, and how many hours of speaking publicly has he racked up? Not to mention that the emphasis in C.O.G.I.C. services is on praise and worship. And I think the emphasis in Mormon services is on community, in a non-intimidating way.
HR: It seems to me that you should sweat in church.
MS: Yeah! Yeah. Another thing we say is “If you can’t feel god, how do you know you’ve got him?” The presence of the Holy Spirit is another feature of C.O.G.I.C. worship that I don’t know if I ever felt in the Mormon church. Matter of fact, in Mormon theology, I always felt that Jesus was kind of extracurricular. For a Christian church I find that remarkable. If you got around to worshipping or meditating on Jesus, good for you, but so far, let’s stick with the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
HR: I was brought up Catholic by my grandparents and kinda just hippy by my parents, but my personal belief today is that I have plenty of doubts about the existence of God and the divinity of Christ, but I have no doubts about the existence of the Holy Spirit.
MS: That’s fantastic. As far as I am concerned, that gets you in the door. You know, in my theology, the three are one, the Holy Spirit is Christ is God. If you have hang-ups with Christ or God but you’re down with the Holy Spirit, he’ll get you there.
HR: That’s the music that gets me the most, the music that gets me high, and I believe that the high comes from the Holy Spirit.
MS: Amen, brother!
HR: I saw a double bill at a festival here in Houston last summer of an ad hoc brass band that was ad hoc because at least one of the members had gone on a bender, and that was followed by [sacred steel act] the Lee Boys.
MS: I’m going to be doing some work with them this summer.
HR: Really? It was odd for me to see those bands back to back, because you would probably guess that the Lee Boys could be said to “live the Book” a little more to the letter than the brass band guys, but both bands played some of the very same hymns. It was the most different same thing ever.
MS: Yeah, but even on crack binges, I’ve seen some New Orleans musicians play at jazz funerals and take you to that very holy place.
HR: I got thinking about the Martin Luther King quote, the segregation of Sunday morning, and that seems to be less true in some ways than it has in recent years. Here in Houston we have Lakewood, and it is so big it moved into the Summit, which used to be where the Rockets played. And they are totally integrated, and yet it seems so bland.
MS: I don’t know that congregation but we have a similar one here – Faithful Central moved into the Forum. The church I attened is no small storefront – it’s West Angeles and its I’d say 5000 people on a bad Sunday. It’s all inspired by the Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller’s operation down in Orange County. We’ve gone down and shared joint ministry with the Crystal Cathedral. I know I would make the drive to West Angeles [instead of going there], but there’s something about these corporate churches that makes sense in a corporate economy.
HR: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. It seems to me that kinda church chases the Holy Ghost out. All that prosperity gospel stuff…
MS: A lot of times it’s real easy to attack prosperity gospel but it seems to me that it’s based on the vantage point that you’re standing on. The song on ToHeavenURide that captured it for me says “We’re blessed in the city, blessed in the fields, blessed when we come and when we go, we cast down every stronghold, sickness and poverty must cease because the devil is defeated.” And let’s speak against weak Christianity that has all the power and doesn’t exercise it because they don’t really believe they have it. And prosperity gospel says you’ve got it, speak it and exercise it, and I think like a lot of thing it kinda gets misunderstood as it filters its way into the secular society.
HR: Maybe also it gets lost amid the congregation of 12,000.
MS: And in the practice I’ve seen visiting evangelists come through dispensing Lexuses by the power of the Holy Ghost. Maybe it’s for the collection plate or maybe its no different than a singer-songwriter coming through singing “Joy joy joy hallelujah.” You offer hope to folks.
HR: Well, I guess on that level…
MS: I know it looks stinky. I know it does. There’s something behind it.
HR: Getting back to the sacred steel, it sure sounds like Nick Forster was influenced by that style on the album.
MS: Absolutely, I think he was trying to invoke that because I literally shanghaied him backstage. His complaint was that he didn’t even have time to tune the pedal steel, and it was a borrowed one. So I’m sure that in the clinch he’s just that great a musician to where he was just drawing on his repertoire of what would suit the occasion. We didn’t practice or rehearse, none of that. He’s just that great.
HR: Another thing I like about the music on the record is that it’s not overly or intentionally retro-gospel. It sounds a lot like the stuff you still hear on AM radio here.
MS: A good mix, I think true to the Texas tradition. That’s how we do it in Texas. Mix it all up. Past and future, old-young-rich-poor, country-city. I don’t know why, but in all my years of travel and doing what I do, if people understand me as a Texas musician, I feel understood. If they understand me in any other category, I feel like they have limited the options.
HR: That drives me nuts here because I sometimes get criticized by readers who don’t like that I try to take that approach in my coverage in the music section.
MS: Just do it and eventually they will catch up with you. Eventually they will, I’m tellin’ you. The description of Americana didn’t exist when I made Arkansas Traveler. When I made the trilogy, the singer-songwriter/blues/bluegrass pursuit of my early trilogy, it got me into such trouble with the label that they dropped me for stylistic inconsistency. Time is on my side and they come around and understand that’s how music works. Keep on keepin’ on, John.
HR: Oh yeah, I’ve been here seven years and sometimes I feel like there’s a cloud of gnats around my head. Just the other day someone was criticizing me on a blog that I was playing into the homogenizing of America because I didn’t cover the local indie rock scene enough.
MS: Oh my God.
HR: To me, there’s an indie rock scene everywhere in America. To cover that to the exclusion of the other music in Houston would be playing into the hands of the homogenizing of America.
MS: Exactly, and they really do manipulate that one, because a lot of major labels kinda create a false-front with indie/alternative stuff when in fact they are the puppetmasters behind it. How would you be able to follow the money and know what’s really hype and what’s really legit? So I’d say you need to get one of those hats like they have in the Australian outback with the little corks hanging down. That’ll keep the gnats away from you.
HR: I guess this is sort of the live version of the secular gospel concept, where you talk about Rosetta Tharpe and how she would perform anywhere where she thought the word needed to be heard. And this is sort of a new phenomenon it seems to me, where the sacred steel artists are doing club tours. Here at the Continental Club, I saw the Jones Family Singers. Have you heard of them?
MS: No, but I can sort of imagine their direction.
HR: They are a Pentecostal family from Bay City, not Baytown, the one out by Victoria. Anyway, [Austin American-Statesman music critic] Michael Corcoran brought them here. He’s a huge fan of theirs.
MS: That’s fascinating. For the record, I’m not a big fan of Michael Corcoran. (Laughs) But go ahead on.
HR: He is a gospel fanatic. That’s what really moves him these days.
MS: That’s very interesting.
HR: He produced a compilation CD that never came out called Gospel Pearls, his favorite gospel tracks of the last forty or fifty years.
MS: The Lord works in mysterious ways. Praise God. Praise God for Michael Corcoran.
HR: The kinder, gentler Michael Corcoran maybe…
MS: You know, that’s a possibility. I do not underestimate the power of transformation. By the Power of the Holy Spirit!
HR: It seems like there’s a movement among young people for neo-traditional music that seems stronger than any other time in our lifetime.
MS: It feels to me, call on the hand of God, but it feels like it’s in its own time and place. It could have happened at any time but it’s happening now because there’s a purpose, there’s a mood of God that it serves. ‘Cause I was positioned, my intention was just to let my faith inform me to have this thing see the light of day in 2007. It was in the vaults for four years. I know that as I move my life closer and closer toward seeking God’s direction and acknowledging God’s move, my creativity is more open. Even when I write songs now, that angst, that “Oh my God I have to write a song” is gone. Now I am sure that when God needs me to have a song he’s perfectly capable of blessing me with the creativity. I put that to the test recently. I was out on the road for five weeks and I came home with a whole new album. That’s almost unthinkable, you know? At least for me for my own ways and means. But you live by faith and there’s a vast reward for that.
HR: I can’t figure out how the precedent you set in getting out of your Mercury contract hasn’t destroyed the entire music industry.
MS: It did but the same minions that helped you destroy it are the same minions that are propping it up. I’m talking lawyers, basically. They have been building a case against these seven-year personal service contracts, of which my case challenged one aspect – indentured servitude. But I feel confident that they could have taken it all the way to the Supreme Court, long, long ago were it not that their bread was being buttered on both sides. So yeah, it could have destroyed the music business, but what they told me, what they told Courtney Love, what they told Prince, what they told George Michael, they told everyone that was coming down the pike that they were waiting for the perfect case. And I’m thinking their perfect test case will come along when they are dead and their children’s inheritance is well-secured.
HR: You know I’ve got to ask the question – I’ve heard that some of the things my family has done have not set well with you.
MS: You know what, I took the hit for it, but it was actually my ex-husband [Journalist / author Bart Bull]. I was willing to be the face for it, but we’ve been divorced for about five years now. And looking back on a lot of the stuff that I was the frontman for, I’m not comfortable or happy about a lot of it. I really wanted to believe in the power of a journalist to go in there and turn the rock over and examine the non-public relations side of things. So I think I was complicit in encouraging that side of his – I don’t know, it almost seemed at times like a pogrom against the Lomaxes. But now, I just don’t know. I just don’t know what is truth and what is fiction.
HR: To be honest, I don’t either.
MS: What was the Iron Head stuff? That’s kinda ugly.
HR: Yeah, and the Leadbelly newsreel. I don’t think my great-grandfather produced that clip, but he definitely co-starred in it.
MS: And I would just for a good journalist, the principle is that you follow the money. And to whatever degree my ex-husband did of pointing out the contradictions of that Smithsonian self-righteousness, of observing culture and we’re gonna claim the copyrights while we’re at it, that’s probably as much as I’m gonna say at this date.
HR: Well, they did claim more but they could have claimed many more.
MS: I’m not sure. (Laughs) I’m just gonna leave that alone.
HR: I can understand why today’s generation can and does have a huge problem with John Lomax the first. (That’s him in the newsreel.) Especially his racial attitudes, but –
MS: He was just a Texas boy! For his time.
HR: Alan on the other hand could be his own worst PR, because he could be so arrogant and blunt.
MS: The good news is for the people that love them, they really love them. They protect them, protect their reputation, they shelter them, they recognize their contribution, and it’s just a small little minority of gnats, like my ex-husband journalist who want to prick holes in the thing and maybe succeed to some degree.