eldest of eight, she was born Michelle Johnson, in the city where Kennedy
was shot, 21 months before the event. Her dad was a teacher, then a carpenter
and a musician; her parents divorced in three years. Her stepdad was a Mormon,
her mom converted, and this union brought with it a rather nomadic life
of army base living around the country and in Germany. When she was in her
mid-teens, her stepdad retired and they moved to Gilmer, in East Texas.
A year or two later she left home to join her real dad, who encouraged her
musically and took her to festivals. Apparently there was little or no contact
with the family after that.
Her dad quit teaching school and fixed up houses in East Dallas, she'd help out. Through his collection, she got turned on to the great TX songwriters and bluesmen like Lightnin' Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy. She started becoming more of a songwriter in her 20's in Austin, when she was getting a bachelor's degree in Communications, specifically "The Oral Interpretation of Poetry," which turned out prophetically. She mentions having spent some time in a songwriter music collective in NYC, so it was likely the Fast Folk community led by Jack Hardy. Michelle apparently became more political in the 80s, moving between San Francisco and NYC, squatting in abandoned buildings and verging on homelessness. She became involved with the squatter's movement, and hardcore bands. (That's a photo of her on her second record, Short Sharp Shocked, getting dragged out of a fair housing protest by police. She was arrested a second time at a protest about a defense contractor, and other times after that at political rallies.)
San Francisco cops picked her up around this time and put her in a psychiatric hospital, for the first time. Michelle went back to live with her dad. When she returned to her wild lifestyle, her mother got her tossed in another psychiatric hospital, where she was subjected to shock therapy. Luckily, her mother's insurance ran out after a month, and Michelle was released, and changed her name. She soon headed for NYC, where her kind were in greater numbers.
Mid-80s, disillusioned with the political climate here, she left for Amsterdam. Caught a ride to Rome, got raped (and then offered money), and wound up in a women's separatist commune in Comiso before she was tossed out of there, too.
Then she caught a break. At the Kerrville Folk Festival, in TX, Pete Lawrence of the Indie UK label Cooking Vinyl liked what she was doing, and recorded her around the campfire on his Sony Walkman. The music was released on Cooking Vinyl as The Texas Campfire Tapes, and reached number one on the English Indie Charts. (At the time the recording was made, she'd just been living as a squatter in Amsterdam.)
Michelle went to London, eventually The Texas Campfire Tapes (more likely the sales than the music) got the attention of American record companies, and Mercury/Polygram was the first to ink a contract. And the legend grew. Polygram offered her a 130k advance for the second record, she only took 50 and went for a licensing deal with them instead, so in 10 years, ownership of the masters would revert to her. The second record, Short Sharp Shocked, was also a success, though made simply on a lean budget, with Pete Anderson producing.
End of the 80s, Captain Swing comes out, foretelling a brief national craze still some years in the future. Michelle had a conversion experience in the early 90s in a South Central L.A. black Pentecostal Church. Then came Arkansas Traveler in '92, and the following year Mercury balked first on a project that she wanted to do with Soul/R&B artists Tony! Toni! Tone!, and then a proposed gospel record. She showed up to the studio, and the label had not submitted the purchase orders, so she couldn't record. Originally she was told that the reason was that the music she was proposing to do was stylistically inconsistent. Michelle says that in the business affairs office, she was told that when she negotiated for the rights of all her recordings, she cut too good a deal for herself, and that they were not going to promote her records.
A three year battle began. Michelle put out a stripped down version of Kind Hearted Woman, greatly influenced by the death of her grandmother. She filed a million dollar suit against Mercury/Polygram, and went on an Underground Test Site tour with Fiachna O'Braonain of Hothouse Flowers. They also put out a quick record for that, entitled Artists Make Lousy Slaves. The label finally settled the suit (for violating her 13th Amendment rights, the amendment outlawing slavery) out of court and released her from her contract. As part of the deal, they got to release an anthology and Michelle had to let her previous CDs go out of print for a while.
Kind Hearted Woman was re-recorded and released on Private Music. Two years later, Michelle herself released Good News, sold only at gigs and by mail order. Likewise Dub Natural was released and sold two years after that. When the recent Deep Natural came out, Dub Natural was included in the set's packaging, along with an insert announcing that all of her recordings are now available (in deluxe editions featuring previously unreleased tracks) from her own Mighty Sound label. continue to interview