You may remember Michelle Shocked from the late ’80s, when her singles “Anchorage,” “If Love Was a Train” (both from the album Short Sharp Shocked), and “On the Greener Side” (from Captain Swing) inched up the pop charts. Or maybe you know her from her more recent appearances at Los Angeles anti-war events, or from the less commercially successful but no less virtuosic independent albums she’s produced since Captain Swing. Or maybe you’ve never heard of her at all. And that would truly be too bad for you, because this Texas native can kick some artistic ass.
Shocked is known for her adventurous and unflinching approach to folk music and to politics, making her a kind of Western version of New York folkie Ani DiFranco. But even with a career built on following her artistic whims at all costs, Shocked has never been in as fine a form as she is now. The 43-year-old singer has just released Got No Strings, an album of Western swing covers of Disney favorites; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a collection of songs about her recent divorce from her husband of 13 years; and Mexican Standoff, an album that’s half Latin-inspired and half traditional blues. Yes, she released them all at the same time (under the title Threesome). Yes, she recorded them all at the same time. And no, she isn’t crazy.
Michelle Shocked is simply unleashed.
First, there’s the new do-it-yourself climate in music that makes anything a singer/songwriter imagines a possibility. (Also like Righteous Babe DiFranco, Shocked established her own music label, Mighty Sound, in 2002.) Then there’s the emotional and creative release that came from finally ending a 13-year marriage that just wasn’t working. And finally, there’s her relationship with fine art painter David Willardson.
“Oh, girl, it’s a mad, mad love affair,” she said. The combination has been lighter fluid on Michelle Shocked’s already raging creative fires. She wrote Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell all about her divorce. Got No Strings was born when Shocked wanted to make music she could play while Willardson — a former Disney illustrator who now makes Disney-inspired pop art — creates his live paintings. And she did this all while working on Mexican Standoff, an idea which came to her when she realized how much Latin culture she was picking up by osmosis, simply by living in Los Angeles. “I realized I know more Spanish than I think I do,” said Shocked, who has a genuine appreciation for Latin culture. But she doesn’t pretend to completely understand it, so a serious Latin record wouldn’t have made sense. Instead, it’s “a tribute, but not a reverent tribute,” says the admittedly goofy singer, hence the blues numbers that arrive halfway through the album. The process has been hugely fulfilling for Shocked, though she’s not sure she’ll produce another musical trifecta anytime soon. “It was like having triplets. Okay, it’s nice, now you’ve got the three little babies,” she explained. “But you wouldn’t want to go through it again.”
You can see (or hear) Shocked’s newborns at Borders on February 18, where she’ll perform songs from Threesome and her back catalog while Willardson creates one of his pop art pieces. “It’s not real pretentious, but it’s a lot of fun,” she says of the collaboration.