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All Wrapped Up

Michelle Shocked is determined to manage her own career, even if that means shrink-wrapping thousands of CDs herself


If Michelle Shocked had any doubts about starting her own record company to release her music, they surfaced a few months ago when copies of her album, "Natural Dub," arrived at her Los Angeles home. There she sat in her living room, surrounded by 100,000 compact discs and, separately, their covers, all in need of assembly, shrink-wrapping, packing and distribution--with her husband, writer Bart Bull, shaking his head in amusement.

"Bart told me not to do it," says Shocked, who recently turned 40. "My business manager told me not to do it. But I wanted to know myself what 100,000 CDs felt like. I wanted to see it with my own eyes, do it with my own hands." And that's just what she did, with a lot of help from her 20-year-old niece, Rachel Krieger, though none from Bull.

"I said, 'You can hand-knit these CDs as much as you want, but I'm not going to do it.' " Bull says. "But it's her record company and her call. After all those years [with a major label] seeing the reports of how much was given away and how things were done, she from the get-go wanted to do everything herself."

And that, by and large, is how the Texas native is doing it, both with her Mighty Sound label--officially launched with the release of this album--and as a concert act. The operation is pretty much self-contained. Bull, his abstention from CD packing chores notwithstanding, has a full plate with management and booking duties, while Krieger has been enlisted for just about everything, including overseeing CD and T-shirt sales at concerts and even taking shifts behind the wheel of the tour bus they bought recently.

Sales of the album, mixing gospel-tinged themes with blues, folk and reggae-rooted sounds for what several key reviews have deemed the strongest collection of her career, have started slowly, but have been steadily growing (nearing 10,000 according to Nielsen SoundScan). The progress has been encouraging enough that plans are now being made for the label to reissue her earlier albums (she owns the masters) as well as albums by two other singer-songwriters, New Orleans-based Mike West and Phoenix musician Hans Olson.

It's a lot of work, but after going seven years without a real home for her recordings, it's a job she has embraced.

"There are challenges; there are going to be setbacks," she says. "But I didn't start a label until I had the confidence of the boldness of my vision. I didn't want to take this on being any less bold in business than in music, and I'm a risk-taker. I don't want to make my marriage the foundation of my business venture. But this is a solid foundation we're building on. It takes a lot of faith to declare that kind of confidence. You always want to hedge your bets. But I'm declaring it."

Shocked also made a declaration of faith in her music. There's an overt, though highly personalized and nonevangelical Christian orientation in "Deep Natural." The song "Can't Take My Joy" is explicitly Christian, a testimony to strength she has found, its message powered by her passionate singing and a loping, reggae beat. The fervor runs throughout the album, mixing with tales of surviving hardships and sorrow ("Little Billie," describing a woman challenging grief by dancing on the coffin of her murdered son) and renewing the storytelling grace and activist's sense of community that first drew attention to Shocked. The reggae motif (explored further in a companion remix disc, "Natural Dub") also threads through the album, blending with folk, blues and, of course, gospel influences.

This is not the first time she's brought her faith to the fore. It was, in fact, both her growing interest in spiritual matters and her history of taking musical turns that led to her acrimonious departure from Mercury Records in 1996 when, after a series of three albums exploring singer-songwriter styles, jump swing and rural African American/blackface minstrelsy roots and related social issues, her plans for a gospel-tinged collection were rejected by company executives.

She made the album anyway, titling it "Good Hearted Woman" and selling it at her shows, and was ultimately granted release from her contract. That started a period of career uncertainty as she looked for a situation that would suit her artistic inclinations.

It was a rough time, she says, but one that strengthened her faith, forged through involvement with urban churches in L.A. and New Orleans, where she and Bull lived for several years and maintain a second home. It also brought a time of new creative possibilities, explored with the aid of multi-instrumentalist Fianchna O'Braonain, formerly of Irish band Hothouse Flowers, who became and remains her musical right-hand man.

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