“A Simple Squatter from NYC…”

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Peter Thomson interviewing Michelle Shocked

IN 1987 MICHELLE SHOCKED’s “Texas Campfire Tapes” went to the top of the independent-label charts in Britain and brought the previously unknown and unrecorded singer-guitarist widespread critical acclaim. “But this is no Horatio Alger story,” she says. “Don’t let them fool you-there is no room at the top.”

“The Texas Campfire Tapes” was released last spring in the United States on Polygram Records, to coincide with a U.S. tour that included dates with British singer Billy Bragg. She is also featured on “Sergeant Pepper Knew My Father,” a benefit compilation album for Childline, a British hotline for battered and abused children, on the British NME label.

Peter Thomson: Tell me in a nutshell the “Michelle Shocked story.” I mean you’ve sort of come out of nowhere …

Michelle Shocked: Oh no. No lazy interviews here. What do you want to know?

PT: Well, I want to know where you’re from, who you are, what you play. It is a story, because you really did come out of nowhere to have this record that was the number one independent in Britain, and that’s no mean feat for “a folk singer” in the 1980s.

MS: Well if we’re going to take it from that approach I’ll maintain that I am a simple squatter from New York City. A bootleg was released of my songs that were recorded earlier that year on a Sony Walkman at a festival in Texas, and as soon as all this is over I’ll get back to important things — like squatting.

PT: And like what else?

MS: I guess trying to nurture a notion of community, and I’m not particular at this point if I do that in the U.S. or wherever I travel. Because of my background – I come from a pretty fundamentalist background, my stepfather was in the military – I have had a sense of community in the past, although my political views have gone somewhat farther left than what I was raised with. Well I won’t really say I had any political views when I was growing up — they were just kind of naive and latent. But running away from home when I was sixteen, moving to Austin and then leaving Texas completely, being exposed to a different way of life — all that has given me lots of opportunities to grow and develop and explore things about myself.

But I have missed that feeling of community from time to time, even in the more left-wing side of politics. And I think within that context, except for the Gay community and the squatting community, it’s pretty rare to come across what might have been called a “scene” at another time.

PT: It’s interesting that you say that you’re looking fora community of one sort or another, because you seem to travel a lot, not just in the United States but in Europe as well.

MS: Well, one other one that I could have mentioned is the women’s community. Almost around the world, at this point, in every peace camp at military installations, women have organized and gathered themselves into a community in the face of a lot of adversity and resistance. It’s that notion, that a nomad can find her way through as long as there’s a community to support her, that I’d love to contribute to in some way. I think the kind of music that I play is conducive to creating a community around music.

PT: You write a lot about the places you’ve been, from your own home in East Texas to Amsterdam to London.

MS: And to San Francisco. I’ve said before that I write about cities the way some people write about lovers. And I’ve noticed a common thread in a lot of the cities that I’ve chosen to fall in love with; they’re generally port cities. That of course couldn’t have started in Texas at least not the part I came from, East Texas.

But now I live in London; I’ve got a house boat. That’s another community, a boat community around the world, and I’m living as part of that now. I highly recommend it to people. It’s one way to deal with one of the major philosophical problems of our time, an alienation that we can’t really understand because it’s just part of the environment.

PT: You started to talk about your political views, your political development. You have toured a bit here with Billy Bragg, who puts his lyrics on his sleeve, right out front on his records and in his shows. On your record your politics are not so present; if they are, they’re very subtle. They’re a little bit more present when you’re performing, and I wanted to explore a bit how you see the relationship between your music and your political views.

MS: Oh that’s a good one! When I was hanging out in San Francisco I got deeply involved in the squatting community, and the Hardcore community, which was a part of it. And I think that’s where I drew a lot of my inspiration for putting my politics into the introduction rather than in the song.

Take, for example, the Circle Jerks. I remember being so impressed with them, because I wasn’t familiar with their music, and seeing them perform, I could understand only what they would say between songs. I found their sarcasm so cutting, so biting and so effective, that it d1dn t matter at all that at the time I couldn’t understand their lyrics. But it made me really want to go out of my way then to listen to the lyrics, to pay attention, and I realized that there were some things being said.

But I don’t believe the songs themselves need to be overtly political. Mind you, a lot of the songs are inspired by incidents that would certainly be described as political, but they end up being so convoluted into metaphor and stuff in the song, and it’s so subtle, that I don’t know if I could even claim that they are political songs. So I’m saying one thing — that the inspiration is often political, but they’re my songs. And I happen to have very strong commitments and views toward politics — in a very apolitical society, I might add. So that kind of explains that.

PT: So how about your music? You say in your performances that you’re inspired by blues singers such as Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, as opposed to guys like Robert Johnson. There are also elements of people like Rikkie Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega in your songs, but something completely different as well.

MS: I draw a lot of inspiration from Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, and I stand m contradiction to people like Robert Johnson. You’ll get people like the Rolling Stones saying that Robert Johnson was a great in­fluence on them. But I call of lot of that “Baby Baby Mama Mama” music, and there is simply no way that as a woman you can relate to 95 percent of it. Blind Lemon Jefferson always insisted on a bottle of gin and a whore before he’d go on stage.

But Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy were singing protest blues; they were singing about the conditions of protest blues, they were singing about the conditions of life for a Black person in the South during that time in a very racist society. I’m working on a Leadbelly song now, one I never sang before, called “The Titanic.” It’s the story of this boxer, Jack Johnson, who tried to get on board the Titanic, but the captain told him, “We are not hauling no coal.” And Leadbelly later in the song says, “You should’ve seen the man dance the Eagle Rock when they told him that the ship went down and he wasn’t on it!”

So it’s blues like that I think are good — country blues, protest blues — but definitely not things like Chicago blues, which no self-respecting woman would ever find much empathy with because it’s misogynist to the core.

PT: We were talking earlier about your desire to be “doing something” with your music that justifies the whole process of working within the recording industry.

MS: I have a great need to justify a lot of my actions. Because the music itself is so simple and direct, I find myself in contradiction to the industry, now that I’m working within it. My main motivation is a subversive one, and unless I can accomplish this both by the means with which I work and the ends to which I work, I really cannot justify taking the music out of the community where it belongs.

That was a real problem I had when I was living in New York and there was a lot of fuss and hype happening over Suzanne Vega. Suddenly there arose a standard whereby she was better than us because she had a record contract. And meanwhile there were a lot of us living in the East Village — I was squatting at the time – trying to get a scene, a community around what we were doing, and providing entertainment for ourselves. And there were these rumblings of inferiority. Remembering that feeling makes me really hesitant to take advantage of some of the opportunities that have come because of the success of that bootleg record in England.

Another dilemma that I face is a contradiction — and okay, I can certainly deal with contradictions, because life’s full of them — that there is an environmental factor in producing records that never existed when it was just the music itself. At least you can recycle cassette tapes, but now I find myself in an industry that is blatant consumerism. I don’t really dig it, you know? I say the best music is the music you make yourself.

Okay, I’ll give you an example of myself — I listened to maybe four or five albums in my life. So I didn’t have a lot of influences, but the ones that I listened to I listened to a lot. I’m talking about people like Leadbelly, again, and Guy Clark, Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits, and another fellow from the South called Norman Blake.

PT: So how do you see yourself maintaining that? It seems like you’re trying to tread a thin line between keeping the music in the community from which it emanates while trying to bring that music to a large number of people outside — bringing yourself to them. And yet in some way you lose that connection.

MS: I guess one way I’ll respond to that is by screaming at the top of my lungs how much I resent the fact that as the music business works today, it is the most extreme case of the tail wagging the dog that I have ever seen. When I was working with music and building a community around it, I always thought that you got the community, and then the big boys with their cigars hanging out of fat ugly lips would come through and say, “Hey, we can make some money off this. Hey kids, sign on the dotted line.”

But that’s not the case. Now you have people — and I’m sorry to use Suzanne as an example but she’s a perfect example — who play shows to get reviews to take with a manager to a record company to get a record contract. It establishes this whole hierarchy that demolishes the system of cooperation, the collective spirit that could exist in more ideal circumstances. I know it’s an ideal, but I kick myself for having been so naive.

PT: So how do you think you might proceed from here? When we were talking earlier you were saying that what the record company does with its money is its business, but what you do with your money is your business, and you want to put your money back into the community, into political work. And yet there’s a certain contradiction here, in that the better your relationship with the record company, the better they market your stuff, the more money you’re going to have to put back into those things you want to work on.

MS: And that’s always used as the justification. I’m right now dealing with a crisis — I’m supposed to be doing an interview with McNews, USA Today. And I’m saying to myself, how could I possibly do this? I can think of no better apparatus for conducting a fascist state than a news service like USA Today. And then I realize, umm, Michelle, people don’t usually use this as a principle for whether they do an interview or not. Except for someone like Billy, who does wear his politics on his sleeve, I can’t think of that many people who would be that bothered. They would say, “Oh USA Today? Great, Across the Nation!” I’m going, “McNews ….” You know?

It is a politics where you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is; that’s the bottom line. I realized that when I signed with Polygram. What they do with their money is their business, but you know what their bottom line is. They’re not into supporting the arts or anything like that. We’ll say this music doesn’t need that patronage in the first place. So often the justification keeps echoing in my head:” … So that you can be heard by more people.” That’s what I always hear. And I just don’t know how far I should carry that argument.

PT: Do you have any plans to make another record?

MS: Well, yes, I got plenty more where that came from, you know. My biggest fear is not that I won’t get a chance to speak to the people but that I won’t know when to shut up when I’ve run out of things to say.

PT: What are your other plans, about playing and writing and living?

MS: My brother’s graduating from school this year and I might see about bringing him on the road with me. The album’s already been recorded, and it’s going to be re­ leased in the late summer. And after I finish this tour I’m going back to my houseboat, where I might sit and think — and I might just sit.

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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