Mike Rimmer meets up with the 'Short Sharp Shocked' hitmaker MICHELLE SHOCKED to talk about faith and Michelle's gospel album
Union Chapel is a grand old building in London a short pleasant walk just down the road from the Highbury & Islington tube station. The 6th September 2007 is a warm day and standing outside the chapel's magnificent frontage, I'm struggling to get inside to meet Michelle Shocked who is playing a single UK gig here. A quick phone call to the road manager and I'm directed to the rear of the building. The building reverberates to the sounds of a rehearsal for a forthcoming musical but inside the room designated for Michelle's dressing room, the singer has been sleeping off some jet lag. I am eventually ushered in.
Wearing a trendy waistcoat and a stylish black hat, the years have been kind to Shocked and she greets me with a grin and makes herself a cup of tea as we settle down to chat. In the '80s, Shocked originally emerged as a passionate folk singer with a punk attitude. Immediately getting attention with her debut album, it was her second that would be her most successful UK album. 'Short Sharp Shocked' was released in 1988 and featured her signature song "Anchorage".
After experiencing some major label success two decades ago, these days Michelle is working in a more independent fashion which seems to suit her just fine. She comments wryly, "The rocket ride to the stars and then the slow, steady, descent into oblivion? Well I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. No, I wouldn't! But it's been a very interesting journey for me and I'm not sure I would have chosen much differently. I don't know if I would have done it the other way. It was very gratifying to have that immediate validation as a young artist because it gave me a lot of the confidence to sustain myself during the years when I HAD to care or no one would. So there's all different manners of career paths that one can take but mine is marked primarily by just standing on principles when maybe there were other choices to make that would have been more, shall we say, efficacious."
In other words, in these days of singers seemingly doing any publicity grabbing action to become famous, Shocked has chosen the path of an "artist". She's been controversial through simply sticking to her principles and choosing to make political statements at a time when it's been a more popular course of action to shut up and sing songs. Even today when declaring her faith as a Christian might alienate her audience, she's unapologetic about it, simply stating it as fact but choosing not to force anything down the throats of her audience.
I'm meeting her to talk about her latest album, a live gospel recording called 'ToHeavenURide'. The album features some of her own material mixed in with some black gospel standards. It doesn't take much for us to start chatting about gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe whose song "Strange Things Happening Every Day" is one of the highlights on Shocked's album. Michelle comments, "She was the first gospel superstar but her cross to bear was that she didn't just play in the churches, she didn't just play for the church audiences so she had a mixed and interesting legacy. But she's been almost all but forgotten except for that her spirit lives in the influences that she's had in Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley. Yeah, she was quite the something. I sing in a gospel choir these days and the minister of music, the director, I have been trying for over a year to get him to have the choir do a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song and his response? 'Who's that?' She played guitar so fluidly, you know? It was so effortless. She made it look fun to be a Christian musician."
Some may be surprised (I was going to say shocked but you know. . .) that Michelle Shocked is a Christian. Her mother and step father were both Mormons but she describes her biological father as "a 'Catholic-damaged born-again atheist.'" She remembers, "The school years I would spend with my very fundamentalist, conservative, Mormon family and then the summers I would spend with my devout atheist father, so there was a bit of a ping-pong affect there - you can read between the lines! But I don't know how much the Mormon upbringing had to do with where I find myself today in my spiritual journey. As much as my own nature, I've always been an idealist. I have always been very passionate and enthusiastic. When I have a commitment I'm very deeply committed to it. So the ultimate thing I would say about myself is I'm a sincere Christian. I'm not a Christian's Christian because the way that I end up parsing things probably feels way too liberal, way too tolerant, way too indulgent, for Christians who need their greys to be black and white. But for my own spiritual journey and for what brought me into the deeper walk that I enjoy today with Jesus Christ, I couldn't have gotten there with black and whites. So what has gotten me there is my sincerity because when I am committed to something I am completely committed to it. I don't get there fast and I'm not always the smartest but I eventually get there on my enthusiasm." She laughs.
Her journey to faith started with a quote from Martin Luther King which had provoked Shocked to action. King's statement that Sunday morning at 11 o'clock is the most segregated hour in America made her think. She comments, "Those who believe in the Gospel of brotherly love separated into houses of worship based on skin colour. So I deliberately sought out an African-American congregation, not because I was in any way interested in the Gospel of Jesus Christ but because I was very much interested in addressing this modern day example of the legacy of racism and segregation and slavery in my country. So it was a political principal that took me to church."
She continues, "I had just completed an album called 'Arkansas Traveller' which was an exploration of the deep roots of mostly American music so it was almost like an ethnomusicologist's quest; I went to find the curious folkways practised by the contemporary black church. That part I definitely justified. I'm like, 'Well what's not to love about a gospel choir!' I'd go anywhere if they had a gospel choir to back it up! I went for the singing but I stayed for the song. I remember thinking, 'The music would be so great if they would just give all that Jesus stuff a rest.' But of course they didn't, that was the whole point. It was the preaching. A charismatic, evangelical named Charles Blake who is now my pastor, his preaching really just ramroded, it just drove a stake through the heart of any ability on my part to deny the truth. It wasn't that logical, undeniable, truth that the Apostle Paul preached; it was definitely a charismatic's approach to it. You came to believe that IF there was a man of God on the face of this earth would you not seek out his wisdom? And I believe with all my heart that Charles Blake IS a man of God; spirit-filled and wise in the wisdom that God has given us through his Word."
The journey hasn't been an easy one and there have been plenty of issues for Shocked to walk through but she's down to earth in describing how faith works in her life. "It's a fairly garden-variety, fundamentalist Christianity that I practise but the point is; I practise it now." She reflects, "I got saved in 1991 and I was at the time engaged to be married and drinking, and it's now 15 years later and I'm divorced four years and sober five. And so you see it wasn't like I had to come to this salvation with any clue as to what it was about, it was truly an act of faith and I had no idea the transformation that would take place in my life. But because of my sincerity and because of God's mercy - his willingness not to judge me for where I am at this moment but sees what his plan and purpose is for my life - I was allowed to let that unfold and continues to unfold to the point where the joy just, everyday has become strength in faith, you know? I was reading in Romans where tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope is faith. So I'm gradually getting stronger and stronger in those areas of the spiritual realm but how do you explain that to someone who only sees the very, very obvious and negative baggage of organised religion and things done in the Name of this God that I love and worship with all my heart, mind and soul?"
Mentioning what the Bible says about tribulation building character reminds me that I want to know more about how she coped with divorce. Did the hurt and pain push her closer to God? "It did," she says simply. "It was what forced me to finally give up a very large resistance on my part, which was prayer. I always had an approach to prayer like an ADD retard! I cannot stay focussed with prayer because it felt like there's nobody there listening. Even if there was, they're never gonna talk back, and my mind wanders and so what's the point? It's all hopeless! But the despair of having invested 10 years in what was essentially an alcoholic co-dependent marriage in which no one's hands were clean left me with very little recourse. But the beautiful thing is I did start to pray. It was so weak at the beginning. It was so weak. It was so useless really to anyone but God; it wasn't even useful to me. But as I prayed I would be given the inspiration, the strength, to pray the next day, and I would pray the next day and the next day. . . So now it's been over four years of daily prayer and I'm starting to see - just like maybe a diet or strength training, these things don't come overnight - I'm starting to see the results of that spiritual exercise because now for the first time I have at least the level of faith where I'm able to say in times of tribulation, 'Father, no matter what the outcome, I trust. You have always come through for me in the past and you're gonna come though for me now.' That's a huge, huge leap of faith for me because I'm very good at not accepting the unthinkable. And guess what? The unthinkable happens to saved and unsaved folks. So when the unthinkable looks like it's going to happen you surrender that fear to God."
Instead of having a further nap to restore some of the sleep lost through jet lag, Michelle opts for dinner and we walk down the street to find a restaurant where she tucks into a tuna steak and salad and demonstrates a weakness and fondness for banoffee pie! There was a knot of fans standing around outside the venue when we left for dinner and Michelle smiles, waves and says hello. When we return the venue is bathed in subdued lighting and people are sitting on the hard pews waiting in anticipation.
I wonder how her audience have coped with Michelle signing up to biblical Christianity since it is not the coolest position in the world to take. "Oh trust me," she responds, "no one is coming to a Michelle Shocked concert to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached, no!" She laughs, "If anything they're like, 'Play "Anchorage"!' And that's fine with me. For many years I was what I called a 'stealth Christian', you know? Because the best testimony is if someone sees your life and sees that you maybe used to be a very unhappy person and now there's this glow about you, what better testimony! And you know, honestly, what stronger testimony can there be? You cannot lie about that kind of serenity and peace, you know? Whereas all these logical, rational explanations for why, 'I've been saved and you too should be saved!' is not going to get the job done. And there's so much work to be done in just setting about cleaning your own house, setting your own business straight. So I was for many years justifying that as God continued to work with me and develop, and the truth is I would not, even at this point, be releasing a gospel album. But if you know the story of how this recording came about maybe you'll see the hand of Providence!" She laughs.
The album is a gospel set that Shocked performed at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It was never intended for release. As the singer explains, "The festival contract said: 'No recording allowed', and I thought nothing of it until earlier this year; I was listening to a board tape, and that's not unusual that you would get a recording just from the monitor board on the stage, but I had put it on my iPod and it was on shuffle and this song came on it. I was in the other part of the house and I was listening to someone singing "God Bless The Child", and then I thought, 'Wow! That's pretty good! I wonder who that is. I wish I could sing like her!' She laughs because she found out it was her own voice! She continues, "And trust me, that's the first miracle right there! Maybe tantamount to the loaves and fishes because I hate the recordings that I've heard of myself live, because it never sounds as good as my imagination. So I sent a copy of the song to my manager and he said, 'I wonder if there's a recording of this.' And I said, 'No! Of course not! The contract said 'no recording' so of course there's not a recording!' He contacted them and only that year they had done a DVD project of the festival and so they had recorded the entire festival, not only my set but everybody. And they had done it not with just the typical recording, they had brought in a state-of-the-art truck with Pro Tool digital multi-tracks, AND, on top of that there were cameras recording for DVD; that's what it was being done for. So when my manager called they said, 'Yeah, we've got the recording of the set in the vault.' So they put it on hard drive, shipped it out to LA, I took it into the studio, brought it up on the multi-track and started mixing it. I was like, 'Wow, we've got a really amazing thing here!' And this was just in March or April of 2007. So I sent it to my manager, I sent it to a friend who's, well, the producer basically, and she said, 'This is your next record.'"
The events mirror very closely how Shocked launched her career back in the '80s because that was an accident too. She laughs, "Oh brother, tell me about it! Yeah. I've lived with the legacy of the inadvertent recording. The sad thing about it is that most people hear it as a Cinderella story; a 'rags to riches' type of tale; that I was field recorded at a festival in Texas on a Sony Walkman and without my knowledge it was released over here in England and rocketed into the independent charts. They got around to calling me; they said, 'You have an album on the charts.' Well, they didn't call me because I was living in a squat! But they called a friend who knew where I was. I said, 'What album? I don't have an album.' And it was the Texas Campfire tapes. But the truth is, I tell you Mike, that was not MY direction; I was not on a path designed to have a career in music, or to have a career at all! My interest was my passion and commitment to social justice as a political activist and organiser and I was already engaged in the work that I had determined for my life. But I will say this; when the opportunity came - it just landed in my lap - I did take it. So the worst you could say was that I was an opportunist but the truth was I was not a very talented political organiser. I might have a talent or two when it comes to songwriting and performing!"
That talent is certainly evident in Union Chapel where armed with a guitar and her incomparable voice, Shocked subdues her audience with a mix of humour, music and decades of stage craft experience. She decides to play her set in alphabetical order from Z-A choosing song titles that will undoubtedly end with "Anchorage". She chats easily to the audience and is matter of fact about her faith when she plays songs from her gospel album. She tells stories about her life and weaves a set of songs together that keeps us spellbound.
Many in the UK still think of Christians in America as being a community who predominantly vote Republican. With her political background, Shocked has adopted a more leftwing position in terms of fighting for justice and causes as a Christian. She shares, "When people see fundamentalist Christianity practised in America and condemn Christianity in general for it, it reminds me of nothing more or less than a young man whose father takes him to a whore house for his first initiation rights and forms all of his opinions and views about women on that experience. Frankly it just makes the job harder for the rest of us women who don't believe that sex is a weapon, any more than religion should be used as a weapon, but it is, it has been. George Bush and his ilk are not the first ones in the annals of history to do so. I'm not an apologist for the bigotry, the prejudices, the intolerance of contemporary Christianity - the outright hypocrisies that are practised, but early on I had to make a choice; either I was going to accept the contradictions and take what I could use, take what was useful, what was going to help ME attain salvation, or I was going to remain pure and probably damned, damned to hell. Faced with those two choices I was desperate enough that I took the good and didn't throw the baby out with the bath water."
Over the 20 years have passed since "Anchorage" was a hit and Shocked has lost none of her passion and fire and sincerity. And her model of "stealth" Christianity married to seeking justice and pursuing causes to right wrongs in the wider society look like a pretty fine way of living out her growing maturing faith. Doubtless it isn't a comfortable mix but since when did Michelle Shocked the music artist make comfortable choices. She wouldn't be doing her job if she wasn't challenging our preconceptions and maybe releasing a gospel album is actually the most bold and militant move she could make.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.