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Is Michelle Shocked Just Being 'Difficult'? : At Issue: Artistic Integrity, She Says


When Michelle Shocked emerged on the pop-music scene more than six years ago, the West Texas singer-songwriter came off like a young Donna Quixote--a political crusader and musical purist bent on tilting at what she saw as a profit-driven, creativity-stifling record industry.

Now Shocked, 31, says that she feels like another noted knight errant.

"It's like that knight in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' with his arms and legs chopped off," she says. "I'm bloodied, but not bowed."

Her adversary: Mercury Records, the company that has released all four of her albums in the United States. Shocked, who will be appearing at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Saturday, claims that Mercury is in breach of contract after not approving a recording budget for a gospel-oriented album she wanted to record in December.

The project, she says, was to be a continuation of a diverse set of albums that had already explored Texas singer-songwriter styles, blues-swing and old-timey string band music.

"Mercury decided the (gospel) album wasn't 'representative' of me," she says.

In a brief bio sent out to press and concert promoters recently, Shocked and her husband-manager Bart Bull launched a public war of words with the company, quoting an unnamed Mercury executive who disparaged her music, and the couple announced that she has begun talks with other record companies about a new contract.

After learning that Shocked had contacted other companies, Mercury officials sent a cease and desist notice to other labels, though Shocked says that the company has now agreed to release her from her contract.

Mercury says otherwise.

"It is unfortunate that an artist of her stature has taken such an unrealistic position," says the label's vice president of media and artist relations Howard Parr. "She is still a Mercury artist and a valued part of the roster. We believe she is very talented, but do not feel that the print media is the appropriate forum to discuss any differences of opinion we have as to how that talent may best be expressed." Parr would not comment on the matter of the aborted gospel record, but a source close to the matter said that Shocked was given approval by Mercury to record the album, but with certain provisos that she did not accept.

Nonetheless, Shocked says, "They know there will be no more Michelle Shocked recordings released by Mercury. . . . At this point there's no further productive merits to the relationship.

"Mercury encouraged me to come a long way, but the real tragedy is they're going to paint me as being difficult. The untold story is that they weren't willing to work with an artist who might be difficult, but has integrity. We're called difficult, but I promise you that by the end of it they'll say, 'You know, that woman has integrity.' "

Shocked's career has been marked by a reputation for sticking to her creative and personal integrity, but also for being difficult to deal with, and industry sources say that Bull's involvement has intensified that.

At the very least, Shocked has been difficult to categorize and, therefore, to market. Her career began when English producer Pete Lawrence recorded her informally on a Walkman at the 1986 Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. That tape was released--without Shocked's knowledge--in England as an album titled "The Texas Campfire Tapes" later that year; its unexpected success on the independent charts led to her contract with Mercury.

(Shocked, who now lives in Los Angeles, is also involved in a legal battle in London with former manager Martin Goldschmidt, in part over ownership of those tapes.)

Though her first "real" album, 1988's "Short Sharp Shocked," was a more elaborate affair recorded with Dwight Yoakam's producer Pete Anderson, it still stuck largely to the singer-songwriter format, with personal songs often drawn from her rural Texas upbringing. But emboldened by the success of the single "Anchorage," Shocked soon moved on to other styles, though without achieving another hit.

Still, exploring and growing artistically remains her goal. The gospel project was "stillborn," she says, so she's moved to a new style, assembling a dance-funk-oriented band she calls the Casualties of Wah.

"With (1990's) 'Captain Swing' album it was tough convincing people to get up and dance," she says. "But this time I'm definitely encouraging people to get in touch with their backbone."

At the same time, though, she's facing the prospect that a bitter contract dispute with Mercury could sidetrack her recording career for some time. She says she's not fazed by that possibility.

"I've got a lot of options," she says. "I could get into producing, I could tour the rest of my life or I could just quit music. I've already been trying to get into this White House fellowship where you spend one year around political figures learning how the system works. . . . I'm just trying to do the spiritual things that keep my creativity intact."

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