By Nicole Kobie
Michelle Shocked is not an easy individual to control. She is unrestrained in her music, her career and even in talking to me. Rarely do artists attempt to take control of a conversation so blatantly as Shocked does.
I call the Texas-born singer/songwriter at her home in L.A., where she lives between tour dates. Otherwise, she’s based out of New Orleans, where she inhabits a party pad in the French Quarter.
"Is that like shameless Rock Star behaviour?" she asks with a laugh.
Two homes in party towns may very well be Rock Star behaviour, but Shocked isn’t your typical star. Like many others, she’s opted out of the machinery of mega record companies and started her own label. However, Shocked didn’t take the easy way out.
No, Shocked used the 13th amendment to take her label, Mercury Records, to court. For the uninformed, that would be the constitutional change outlawing slavery .
"Probably a more accurate understanding is indentured servitude, but they didn’t make an amendment to the U.S. constitution for that," she explains.
Essentially, Shocked made three albums for Mercury Records, and when she went to make a fourth, they wouldn’t pay for her studio time. So, she started shopping around at other labels, but Mercury promptly served her with a cease and desist order, claiming she was still signed to them. They wouldn’t let her record, she says, but fully intended to keep her under contract.
"They had a contract that gave them options on me, but I didn’t have options on them," she says. "I don’t know how long they would have let that go on, if I hadn’t sued them."
Naturally, Shocked first did the civilized thing, meeting with her label. According to her, the company’s reps said the label would never promote her until she renegotiated her contract–apparently, her contract was too good for her and not good enough for them.
So, she sued.
"It’s basically an abuse of power. I don’t want to paint it the way Bush is, with this thing in Afghanistan, as something between good and evil," she says. "It’s not like it’s an evil record company and a good artist. It’s just the power is so unbalanced that they can abuse this power."
In true David and Goliath form, she effectively accused Mercury Records of slavery, though she does note the irony of suing someone for slavery because they won’t let you work.
"What would you call it? Maybe kidnapping?" she giggles at my inquiries to her troubles really being as serious as slavery. She’s a rock star after all, it’s not like she had it that rough, right?
"Maybe you have a problem with slavery because it’s such a loaded word," she continues, though I try to change the subject. "There are people, Michelle, whose grandfathers were forced to work on a plantation in Texas where you grew up, so it’s not the same thing." She mockingly puts the words in my mouth as if I referred to her upbringing in that way and adds an apology if her words diminish the seriousness of slavery.
The toughest thing for her was leaving behind the perks of a label. No more free dinners, expense accounts or tour support–she was going to have to go it on her own. But would her fans stick by her?
"It took me a lot of courage, believe it or not," she says. "But, I have the benefit of having a great talent. And the result of that talent is that I have a great audience. I’m glad to say that’s been confirmed by the success of my career. I’m still here."
With that talent, she creates her different brand of folk-styled music. She describes it as "populist-roots based contemporary" songs. So, in other words, the best way to find out what her music’s like is just to listen to it.
While much of her recorded work is introspective, her live shows are much louder. Thanks to her Texas upbringing, her shows feature music you can "shake your booty" to, often including horns and saxophones.
"I’m not a manufactured artist," she claims. "Shortly after I came on the scene, they [major labels] took what I did and made it into a formula. I’m thinking of people like Sheryl Crow, Joan Osbourne, or Alanis Morrisette."
Modest she’s not. Although maybe she’s a little more Rock Star than she’d like to admit.
"But what they do, that’s not what I do. That’s why careers rise and fall, but I’m still here. I’m unfortunately going to be around when you’re eighty years old–if I live that long."