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Biography and music info on singer/songwriter Michelle Shocked.

Anyone searching for an object lesson in the potential hazards of the modern music industry should look no further than the story of alternative folksinger Michelle Shocked.

Shocked`s rollercoaster musical career has seen a few highs (Nomination for Best Female Video for 1990`s "On the Greener Side) and far too many lows (bootleg recordings, poor record deals). Regarded as a pioneer in the `alternative music` field, Shocked has continued to follow a path less travelled, preferring an independent life of small venues and benefit concerts over the more fickle world of labels and contracts. When her last label, Private Music, merged with the established Wyndham Hill enterprise, Shocked chose to become even more independent by not resigning her contract with the new combination. Anyone who has followed Shocked`s career would not be surprised by this maneuver.

Shocked was born Michelle Karen Johnston in Dallas, Texas, in February of 1962. Her father, "Dollar" Bill Johnston, was a carpenter and handyman by profession and amateur musician on the side. By personal choice, Shocked does not identify her real mother. Their relationship has been described as very strained and difficult at times. Shocked is the fourth of eight children. One of Michelle`s earliest memories concerns her mother, who had converted to Mormonism, testifying in church to her earlier lifestyle choices. As Shocked recounts in promotional material sent out for the Arkansas Traveler album, her mother would inevitably refer to Michelle`s conception as an example of the `tragedy` of premarital sexual relationships. This was no doubt an uncomfortable and unsettling thing for a young child to hear.

By 1965, her parents were divorced, and Michelle began a new life with her mother and stepfather, a career military officer. Shocked lived the `Army Brat` lifestyle, with frequent moves from base to base, including some time in West Germany. This continued until her teen years, when her stepfather retired from the Army and settled in the town of Gilmer, Texas. Life in Gilmer soon became unbearable for the headstrong Shocked, so she decided to run away to the one person who understood her passion for freedom and music- her father "Dollar" Bill Johnston in Dallas. It was Bill Johnston who encouraged his daughter to explore her musical leanings, introducing Michelle and her second-hand guitar to the local blues and country scene. Although Michelle was conflicted with the thought of `abandoning` her other brothers and sisters in Gilmer, she does not make contact with them for many years.

During the early part of the 1980s, Michelle took up residency in the artist-friendly town of Austin, Texas. She began writing songs in earnest, developing her unique blend of folk and blues. She did enroll at the University of Texas for a short time, but did not graduate. After a few years in Austin, Shocked became restless and chose to live a squatter`s life in San Francisco and New York. Living in abandoned buildings and playing pickup musical gigs with local hardcore rock bands, Michelle Shocked came desperately close to complete homelessness. During this time, she developed an interest in politics, especially concerning fair housing laws and the squatters` movement. Although she may have been growing as an artist during this time, her mental condition gradually began to slip. Following an arrest in San Francisco for unlawful assembly, Michelle was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric examination. Three days later, she phoned her father in Dallas and moved back to Texas. She soon reverted to her homeless

ways, however, and concerned friends contacted her mother. Her mother sent Michelle to a psychiatric hospital in Dallas, where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. As part of her treatment, Michelle was given shock therapy. After her release, Michelle officially adopts the stage name "Michelle Shocked". She moved back to New York city shortly thereafter.

By 1985, Shocked became increasingly frustrated with the political atmosphere of the Reagan Era and moved to Amsterdam for a short time. Her travels in Europe ended on a tragic note. Shocked was raped while spending time in Comiso, Italy, and spent the rest of her time in an Italian commune for a women`s separatist movement. She soon returned to Austin, where she began doing volunteer work for the local music scene. Following her performance at one of these festivals, a British producer named Pete Lawrence convinced Michelle to sing into his Sony Walkman. Unbeknownst to Shocked, Lawrence issued this tape on his Cooking Vinyl label, calling it "The Texas Campfire Tapes". The bootleg tape became a surprise indie hit in England. Although the exact circumstances surrounding the royalties and song rights would become blurry through litigation, Shocked decided to move to England in order to help promote her number one independent album. Eventually, the buzz surrounding her album reached the ears of Mercu ry/Polygram executives, who offered Shocked an advance of $130,000 for her follow-up album. Staying true to her political beliefs, Shocked only accepted $50,000, insisting that Mercury could use that extra money to finance other struggling `alternative` musicians.

Her second album, Short Sharp Shocked, was released in August of 1988. The cover art featured an agitated Michelle Shocked being arrested by San Francisco`s police department in 1984 during a protest. This album was nominated for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but lost to Tracy Chapman`s debut album. In 1989, Shocked`s third album, Captain Swing, was released to some decidedly surprised fans. Captain Swing featured a bluesy, big-band era sound, far from the singer/songwriter mode of her previous efforts. This album does yield her biggest hit to date, a tongue-in-cheek love song entitled "On the Greener Side". The accompanying video was a not-so-subtle dig at the Robert Palmer videos that featured beautiful but vacuous `drones` as background decoration. In the video, Shocked is surrounded by a dozen muscular male models whose only requirements were to pose, flex and generally serve as window dressing. The video became a huge favorite among Mtv`s female viewership, culminating in a nomination for Best Female Video at the 1990 Video Music Award show.

But the 90s would prove to be a difficult decade for many of the female singer/songwriters of Shocked`s generation, including such artists as Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant and Aimee Mann. A new musical revolution was taking shape in Seattle, Washington, leaving many established musicians scrambling for an audience. Ironically, the same alternative spirit that Michelle Shocked helped pioneer in the 80s formed the so-called `grunge movement` that would put her own career in jeopardy. The notoriously fickle buying public now wanted groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, which tapped into a much darker recess of angst and repressed emotions in their audience. Many music labels were looking to sign the next alternative rock idols, leaving artists like Shocked without as much support as they had previously enjoyed. Looming over every artist`s head, however, was the seemingly iron-clad agreements to produce more and more material, even if the albums were no longer commercially proven .

Despite her professional challenges, Shocked`s personal life did take a turn for the settled when she married rock journalist Bart Bull in 1992. Together, they moved into a beach home near Los Angeles. While visiting a black charismatic church in the troubled South Central district, Shocked was overcome by the tremendous spiritual and emotional outpouring of the parishioners. She decided to pursue a gospel sound in her upcoming work. Meanwhile, her fourth album, Arkansas Traveler, was released to a lukewarm reception in 1992. Mercury/Polygram rejected her proposed gospel album project the next year, causing Shocked to consider litigation in order to get out of her contract.

In 1993, Shocked began the litigation process against Mercury/Polygram, which in part claimed that the label held her in a state of virtual slavery, unable to pursue her own projects while obligated to continue producing material for the company`s exclusive use. Eventually the contract between Shocked and Mercury/Polygram would be dissolved, but as part of the settlement all of Shocked`s music was pulled from distribution and taken out of print. She was free to explore her own musical projects, but clearly without the financial and logistical support of a major music label.

In 1994, Michelle`s paternal grandmother died of cancer. Her father invited Michelle`s estranged mother to the hospital, which caused a rift to develop in the relationship between Shocked and her family in Texas. Following her grandmother`s death, Shocked began her first tour as an independent artist, supported by the release of her album Kind Hearted Woman. Much of the music on the album was inspired by her late grandmother. Meanwhile, she and her husband moved to New Orleans.

Following the out of court settlement that effectively ended her obligations to Mercury, Shocked joined Hothouse Flowers singer Fianchna O`Braonain on a 1996 tour called the First Annual Underground Test Site Tour. An independent album, Artists Make Lousy Slaves, was offered for sale at the venues themselves or through direct mail order. Meanwhile, Shocked discovered a small record label, Private Music, that was willing to work with her on a very casual, non-committal basis. She re-recorded her album Kind Hearted Woman in 1996, which was released on the Private Music label. When Private Music decided to merge with the more mainstream Wyndham Hill company in 1997, Shocked chose not to continued working with Private Music. Since then, Shocked has released a jazz and gospel-flavored album called Good News, with a band known as the Anointed Earls. In 1999, Shocked moved back to Los Angeles, where she continues to perform at benefit concerts and other venues.

Written by Michael Pollick -

Opportunities to perform in non-school choir

If you have ever wanted to join a choir, here are some ways and places you can do it.

A lot of young and hobbyist musicians want opportunities to sing in their communities, but may not know where to look. However, there are usually several opportunities to sing in or around your area.

The most obvious place to look for a choir is at your church, if you attend. Most churches, even small ones, have an adult choir that accepts anyone in high school or older. Even if you re not the greatest musician in the world, many of these choirs accept you even if you can t read music. This is a great way to get involved with your community and sing without much pressure. They are also usually flexible, scheduling-wise. If you have a family and aren t sure you can make all the practices or all the church sessions, the director will usually be understanding. This is the perfect opportunity for someone who doesn t have a lot of time, or is just getting back into music after a long time off.

Another way to get involved is through a community choir. Most larger communities have one. If you re not sure if your community does, visit your local music store and ask if there is a local choir. If there is, you should be directed on how to join it. Most of these local choirs are also non-auditioned, although they may require you to read music and demonstrate at least a basic proficiency. It depends on the individual director, so ask the person at the music shop, or call the director to find out. These choirs will likely be seasonal, as well that is, they will probably meet only during the school year, and not during the summer. Many of the directors of these groups are music teachers who like having their summers off. There may also be choirs that meet only in the summer. Check your local music store, and make sure to check with the director for any specifications about when the choirs rehearse, perform, and more.

For talented youth singers, there are usually special choirs in the area. Many universities will have youth choirs for singers 12 and over, or 14 and over. These choirs are audition-only, and singers are usually allowed to participate until they are 18 or 20, depending on the group. These choirs typically perform major classical repertoire, and put on 3 to 4 concerts per year.

Another place to look for youth choirs is through a nearby professional choir. Usually, if there is a professional orchestra, there will also be a professional choir that occasionally sings with the orchestra and may perform in its own right. For example, in Cleveland, there is a Cleveland Symphony Choir, and there is also a Cleveland Symphony Youth Choir. These are also audition-only groups, and are usually fairly prestigious.

When you re thinking of singing in a choir like these, you should prepare an art song for audition, and make sure you have an accompanist. An art song is something that was written by a classical composer, like Beethoven or Brahms. You can find this music at your local music store. Make sure you check audition requirements before choosing music, because some directors might have specific songs they want you to sing.

There are many opportunities to sing in choirs. If you are ever not sure what s in your area, either visit your local music shop or talk to your local school music directors. They will point you in the right direction.

Written by Catherine Hillard -

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