Shocked and Awe

Singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked keeps the faith.

Nov 28, 2007 at 4:00 am
Michelle Shocked is no Bob Dylan, and this isn't 1979, but the parallels are clear. Fifteen years ago, the Texas-born activist, songwriter and stylistic vagabond attended the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, fell in love with the music, and then was born again. But Shocked is no cafeteria Christian. On this year's ToHeavenURide, a live recording of a performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003, she embraces the spirit and the letter of her faith, and damns the consequences.

B-Sides: Can you describe your born-again experience?

Michelle Shocked: I went to church for the singing but stayed for the song. I'd read a quote by the Reverend Martin Luther King, saying that Sunday morning 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour in America. My consciousness was fixed on racism, not on salvation. I was going where the black folk were. And what's not to love about a gospel choir? I remember thinking, you know, this music would be so good if they'd give that Jesus crap a rest.

I've had that thought myself.

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Give it a rest! Let me just enjoy the harmonies, the energy, the passion. But it turns out the two are inseparable. I just went one Sunday too often. I looked down and my feet were making that walk to the altar, and I thought, "Might as well join them."

What do you mean by the "politics of preaching"?

That was the meditation around this project — a picker poet ponders the politics of preaching. This album was for all intents and purposes a bootleg. I had no intention of recording it. But I did have the intention to bring out this style of music, and find a way to address one of the great moral crises of our time. We had just launched an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation in the Middle East and did it in the name of God and country. So the set list I chose was, on the one hand, those good-old-time-religion prophets, saying, "Hypocrite! Liars!", and on the other hand, I realized that this is an unhealthy mix, religion and politics, but something's got to give.

Have you encountered any backlash from your audience?

I've been losing them all along. What shocked me is how many I lost when I spoke out about the war in Iraq. I didn't expect that. I thought by now that I had weeded out the tourists. I've come to the conclusion that it's not that people don't want Michelle Shocked talking about religion or politics. They don't want me talking about anything. Things have become so polarized. The only thing I can compare it to is being married to an alcoholic. You can't even say, "Take out the trash" without implying resentment, bitterness, anger, hostility. It's impossible to have a dialogue at all.

Had you wanted to do a full-on gospel record for a while?

No. I hadn't come to terms with the fact that I despised Christian music. And I am nothing like a gospel singer. God just took care of it for me. There was this ram in the bush, this gospel recording, that I just discovered.

If the recording had happened under more controlled circumstances, would you have done things differently?

No. Honestly, this is much better than what I could have worked out. I would have been more clichéd about it, hired the music director at my church, who has a cast of A-list musicians, and tried to work out some arrangements with choirs and whistles and bells, and it would have been a disaster.