Michelle Shocked Biography
Working on those reissues, in particular her three Mercury studio albums Short Sharp Shocked, Captain Swing and Arkansas Traveler, reminded Shocked of what she calls "this reoccurring pattern in my work, which is this triptych or trilogy concept." Inspired, Shocked decided to take the material from several recent projects and release another trilogy -- but this time, all at once. She describes Don't Ask, Don't Tell as "Short Sharp Shocked all grown up" -- it's vintage Shocked, a mix of folk, rock, blues and Bayou boogie, and it may also be the most lighthearted divorce album ever recorded. Got No Strings, meanwhile, is a Western swing album made up entirely of songs from classic Disney films, while Mexican Standoff is a rich Texas stew of blues and Latin sounds.
ARTISTdirect's Andy Hermann caught up with Michelle Shocked by phone shortly before the release of her brand-new trilogy and asked her about the inspiration behind each album.
Did you decide before you went into the studio that you were going to record three albums?
The chicken did come before the egg. I was actually going to go for five albums. I was going to get it all out in one fell swoop. Just get it out of my system to clear the slate and see if there was anything left to say. It didn't work out that way. The electronica producer needed more time. And the Latin producer and the blues producer -- the process sort of unraveled, so I combined those two. That's now left me with two additional projects that I've gotta wrap up. One is a New Orleans project and one is a Memphis Minnie tribute. That left me with these three projects now and three later.
Which actually works out well for you because you like working in threes anyway, right?
The original projects released on Mercury were very much intended, from the beginning, as a trilogy. I see this reoccurring pattern in my work, which is this triptych or trilogy concept. Those three albums were intended to say, "here's my influences." Those three albums were to outline where I come from. I can't tell you where I'm going but I can tell you where I come from.
So we can expect another trilogy of albums...when?
After I've died from killing myself on this one, then I'll come back to life. This has been the work of three. I've been doing three jobs -- artist, publisher, promoter. It's too much.
Mighty Sound is your label too, is it not?
So it sounds like more than three jobs.
And save my sweet little niece over here working with me right now, I'm doing it all. You know, it's a very contemporary thing now. I've got all these out-of-house resources -- a publicist, a radio promotion team, a tour manager, a distributor that's really been supportive. But if you're looking at the office staff for Mighty Sound, you're talking to her.
You're it, huh?
I'm it. I don't have a manager, Andy. This is too much.
Wow. Do you ever get into arguments with yourself, like artist-manager debates?
If I was a band, I would have broken up a long time ago.
Let's talk about the three albums a little bit, starting with the happiest one first, Got No Strings. What gave you the idea to reinterpret Disney songs as Western swing numbers?
It came the other way around. The western swing direction I loved, and there was a producer I've wanted to work with for a long time named Nick Forester. And as we got together to brainstorm -- "Let's do a project together!" "Okay, great!" -- it was like, okay, what material we should use?...And one of the ideas that came up early was due to the fact that my sweetheart is, for all intents and purposes, a Disney artist. He was Southern California raised and did his time at Disneyland. And then also he was an illustrator for a lot of the Disney reissues of their animations. Then in the last three years he's launched a fine arts career doing Disney characters in what he calls a "pep art," or action painting style.
So it was his Disney connection that inspired you to approach the Disney songs?
That's right. Love will do strange things.
You're known for you anti-corporate politics, so how do you think people are going to react to your whole Disney angle?
Bring it on, man. In Japan, they have a very curious relationship to Disney that is so childlike. And I found out that the biggest and most famous ninja in Japan has the largest Mickey Mouse collection in the world. So you gotta figure if the Ninja Master of Japan knows something about Mickey -- I just figure that finally Mickey is too big for one ideology. And the ideology that I'm most inclined towards is one that thinks of it like Mauschwitz. It's a gulag of creative corporate control. It's like the Death Star of American culture. So I'm well aware of the arguments, but because of my introduction to the Disney canon through my sweetheart's work, I'm just not very inclined, in these days of polarized, partisan quarrels and fights.... Everything is so polarized. So I'm just deciding that I'm opting out. I'm going to contradict myself.
I kind of see Disney as the evil empire and yet the reality is that every time I go to Disneyland I turn into a six-year-old kid again.
That's the spirit that my sweetheart has really conveyed. That spirit of Walt Disney is exactly that. And I don't think it excuses their enormous excesses in the pursuit of global domination. But the characters themselves have a meaning beyond even that.
And they're great songs, right?
Let's move on to Mexican Standoff, which you've said is inspired by your Texas and Spanish roots. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
My Texas roots are beyond dispute but people are going, "Come on Michelle, what Spanish roots do you have?" I just say it's a part of the American mongrel heritage and that we never know for sure. The story told among my mother's people was that my great grandfather was a stowaway on a ship from Barcelona. My mom was born and raised in New Mexico. I just listened to this story and was quite dubious about it, knowing that the inherent racism in this country with relation to Mexican Americans. To me it sounded a little shaggy. I decided that they gave themselves some blue blood that actually wasn't there.
My best memories of my Latin heritage was my mom making fiesta dresses for us when we were kids, actually thinking we were gonna wear them to school. It was like, "Mom, rick-rack hasn't been in fashion ever." Sopapillas, for example, were a delicacy around our house. It wasn't until I got to New Orleans and tried their version called beignets and I go, "you know, fried dough balls just aren't where it's at." I take somewhat of a non-reverent, but warmly embracing, retrospective view of my heritage.
So did you have to learn some Spanish when you were working on the album?
It happened the other way around. I realized at some point that I knew more Spanish than I thought I did and I wondered how that happened. And so as I started looking around in my environment, I realized that Los Angeles, particularly, is so bilingual. It's such a mixed culture. It's not a monoculture at all. Through that I realized that is how we participate in heritage and ethnicity. It's just all around us. Once I got onto that concept I found myself writing a song and then another one and then another like a bulldog on a bone until I had gotten to a place where I was satisfied.
That was kind of the inspiration behind the first song on the album, right?
"Lonely Planet" was a little bit more deliberate, because by then I had maybe four or five of these Spanglish songs under my belt and so I was pushing the envelope slightly. I was involved in a project where I was writing an entirely new show for a millennium concert we did in New York on Decemeber 31, 1999. I didn't want to play any old material and I had to write a whole bunch of new songs in a very short time. "Lonely Planet" was one of those songs where I was like, "what am I going to write about today?" And I had already been worrying this idea about knowing more Spanish than I thought I did, and I picked up this Spanish phrase book and right there it was laid out in the chapter titled, "relationships." And if you knew what I was saying in Spanish it couldn't be funnier. It's just the most superficial relationship. It was just kind of like, "I want you, I love you, kiss me, do you have a condom, that was fantastic, I hope we can still be friends." And then I went to the section on pharmacy and learned how to say, "Please sir, do you have the morning after pill?" I thought that was a perfect antidote to the very serioso approach of, say, the Buena Vista Social Club, where I felt like I had no legitimacy taking that approach. It created something of a conflict with me and the original producer, Steve Berlin, who has the benefit of a lot of "authentico" in his Latin cultural experience, where I had to take this very hillbilly, playful, and downright corny approach to it all. Maybe he felt like that wasn't necessary and that the material was strong enough that I could have played my hand serious, but it just isn't in me, really.
Right. So that half of the album wound up being more of kind of a playful experience?
Yep. For me. Some journalists, who have already given some early feedback, are kind of misunderstanding it. They're treating it as overly theatrical or dramatico. I'm saying "well, yeah." This is some gringa chick thinking she can put on the accent.
That brings us to the third album, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which I guess you can say is the most serious of the three, although it doesn't come across that way.
It doesn't, because we're saying this is my breakup, this is my divorce album, so you're like "prepare yourself for serious" and then that first track comes on and you're like "what does that have to do with divorce?"
Right. Or the track that stands out to me is the "Don't Tell" track.
There is a hidden agenda there, and I do get to talk about some of those failures in the relationship related to alcohol, but more importantly, the employment of metaphor really helps to diffuse anything like a painful, bitter divorce album. Because I'm a chick I do tend to get thrown into the same category with all these confessional singer/songwriters. But it's just not my bag, baby.
Are you going on the road now in support of the three albums? What's next for you?
That's the plan. Although, to my credit I've seemingly learned my lessons even about that, that a life on the road is no life worth living. I could have been out for the next month and half, two months, but I've really curtailed it. I've got a two-week US tour plan and this is a mighty big country to try to do in two weeks. But I'm going to go for it.
And I take it you like your new hometown of LA? Well, not new, you've been based here awhile....
You know what, more and more and more, I'm kind of the last one to know, but this is a very, very natural place [for me] to be. I'm definitely still a hillbilly East Texas girl at heart, but not so much that I could have made much of a go at living in a place like that, or for that matter even New Orleans was still quite provincial. This is a place where new ideas are welcomed and not feared, and I'm just too unorthodox. I'm just too strange of a bird to really be able to survive or thrive anywhere short of that.
LA is a town that supports its eccentrics pretty well, I guess you can say.
Yeah, we're eccentrics, which is a valued thing, not weirdos.
Now what about the next trilogy? You mentioned something about gospel and electronica. What else have you got up your sleeve?
I mentioned the New Orleans project and there's definitely a Memphis Minnie tribute.
So the many styles of Michelle Shocked are continuing to pour forth.
Well, for the most part they all have their roots in something in akin to blues. I think that's the common denominator.
All of Michelle Shocked's albums, including the complete Threesome set of new albums, are available now in the ARTISTdirect Store.