Independence exacts a toll. When Michelle Shocked releases her first CD on her own label, Mood Swing, this spring, nearly six years will have passed since the eclectic singer rallied the Thirteenth Amendment (the one that outlawed slavery) to win her freedom and the rights to all her music from Mercury Records (since subsumed by the ominously named Universal Music Group). That six-year period of CD silence follows a protracted battle with the major label that kept Shocked off the record-store racks for four years before that -- adding up to a ten-year retreat from the mainstream success the folk-and-more singer enjoyed in the late Eighties and early Nineties. "It's not a bed of roses to be doing this venture on our own," Shocked admits. "It's taken me a good five years to decide I was up for this challenge."
Shocked knows from challenges. Her much publicized biography begins in her mother's strict Mormon household in east Texas; veers through the blue notes of her daddy's Dallas highlife; hitches from the San Fran punk scene to militant squats in New York City to activism in Europe, stopping off at every honky-tonk on the way. Currently she alternates the jazz-soaked streets of New Orleans and the black churches of South Central L.A., where she found spiritual rebirth.
Shocked applied the Third World theory she'd learned as an activist to the record industry. Because she believed nations like Brazil (and more recently Argentina) sold away national resources and traded sovereignty for debt, Shocked refused Mercury's offer of a hefty advance (which essentially is a loan against the artist's future earnings) and glittery "perks" that would eventually be charged to the artist's own bill as "promotion." Instead she insisted on retaining the rights to her own music. "I'm willing to take ownership and control of my resources, which is my creativity," she told them. After releasing a stylistically diverse trilogy of folk, swing, and Americana, Mercury nixed her proposed funk followup. Shocked maintains Mercury balked over money, not style, telling her: "You cut too good of a deal for yourself." Shocked believes the bitter struggle was worthwhile: "I find ten years later that I'm sitting so much more realistically safe and sound than anyone else I know."
She lets it be known, however, that she would rather talk about her music. "Deep Natural is a mouthful of the things that have been on my mind for the last five years," she explains. "We're calling it new dub blues and gospel birdsong." The gospel-inflected "That's So Amazing" speaks to the ecclesiastical pleasure in the sun's rising and setting Shocked has discovered since being born again. The blues number "Little Billie" finds the divine in a New Orleans jazz funeral when a mother dances on the coffin of her trombone-playing son. "That song burns to the core of the direction I've taken in this work," Shocked points out. "I don't want to paint the idea that the songs are fragile, but they're going into the territory of the emotions in spirituality that are two dimensional when we talk about them. I've put a melody to that spirituality, which for a songwriter is getting the closest to how you really feel. The hurts, longings, and fears become inspiring and uplifting rather than overwhelming."
The most surprising development in Shocked's latest work is a companion CD to Deep Natural called Dub Natural. "My exploration of dub has been very liberating, because I come from a very traditional place," she explains of experimenting with the Jamaican-devised technique. "Dub considers recorded music not to be this etched-in-stone tablet, strict gospel, but this elastic medium where you could drop things out or you could highlight other things, add elements that were silly or scary, augmenting and diminishing what had been recorded previously. Just like swing, dub is not a style; it's an attitude."
Shocked will preview her latest work as a headliner at South Florida's first ever Calliope Fest. "The idea behind [the festival]," says founder Jeff Freeman, "is to promote women in music. I knew a number of musicians locally and in the region who are so talented but they don't get the attention they deserve." Among those local talents is Diane Ward, who, like Shocked, will soon release a two-CD set that is entirely DIY. "It's the way of the industry at this point," observes the South Florida veteran. "There's a heck of a lot more artists out there than potential to be played on the radio. You just find ways to make it happen for yourself. The industry has changed so much; there's opportunity everywhere. Going out to seek it is what keeps it fresh and new." Ward's optimism is tinged with realism, as the title of the project she is recording at Boca Raton's Elysian Fields suggests. "The Great Impossible," she laughs. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy." Still, Ward concurs with Freeman on the importance of Calliope. "If it's something that is successful and can be done on a yearly basis," she dreams, "think of all the good that will do."
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