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“I guess I’m hiding behind a cartoon character, just in case this sucks. But, as it turns out, it doesn’t suck. So now I’ve come out as Joe Shields.”
That’s one way longtime Michigan resident Joe Shields explained his mutation from animator to songwriter, proving that despite maturing artistically, the former gross-out comedian has not lost his tongue-in-cheek attitude.
Shields, 57, is one of the Internet’s earliest purveyors of viral content. Anybody who had an Internet connection by 2000 will remember the videos he produced under the moniker Joe Cartoon. “Frog in a Blender,” “Gerbil in a Microwave” and several other of Shields’ crude, Adobe Flash creations were downloaded tens of millions of times from www.joecartoon.com, hoisting Shields as one of the Internet’s premier entrepreneurs of peddling bad taste.
“I liken it to being on a surfboard: I’m out there just floating around and that wave came up underneath me,” Shields said. “I rode it to shore for a year and a half, and it was an absolute blast. It was ridiculously fun.”
But that wave crashed a long time ago, thanks in part to a declining interest in Flash animations, an oversaturation of imitators and Shield’s own medical problems. At the height of Joe Cartoon’s success, Shields was sidelined after an arduous surgery saw one of his adrenal glands removed.
But as the Internet’s viral culture shifted, Shields’ concerns were decidedly pointed elsewhere.
“I lost a bunch of years anyway. I don’t remember the day where I said, ‘Fuck YouTube! Where did you come from?’” Shields said. “I had my own problems.”
He has since completed a major career overhaul. Swapping animation for a microphone and an acoustic six-string in 2014, Shields has shelved Joe Cartoon for Cousin Joe Twoshacks. Now an artist who dabbles with blues soaked folk, his search for the best way to make a cartoon animal’s head explode is effectively over.
“I’d been hanging out with singer-songwriters when I was a cartoonist-animator.
As an art form I found it much more impressive than what I was doing,” Shields said. “Cartoons and animations are funny, but the power of song lets you take somebody’s heart, smash it up and hand it back to them.”
Shields will performing the music he wrote under the Twoshacks name in Lansing Saturday. He’ll make two appearances, in the afternoon at the Broad Art Museum and in the evening at Pump House Concerts, with special guest Steve Trosin.
While the lyrical themes often take a comedic bent, they skirt around the borderline depravity of his Joe Cartoon creations. But for Shields, swapping mediums was seamless.
“It was not difficult at all. Even though there’s outrageous behavior in my cartoons, there’s a flow, it’s all storytelling,” Shields said. “The only difference is the tools and skills you have to bring along to do either one.”
Shields completed his first studio album, “Rocks & Toads,” in 2014 and was put in good company when he won the 2016 Kerrville New Folk Award, an established tastemaker of American independent folk music since 1976.
Shields keep his music simple. There’s no blazing blues licks, just tasteful chord progressions and deep country-fried singing.
“I’m not gonna win any guitar awards or anything. I like to think of myself as mediocre at a whole bunch of things,” Shields said. “So if you put together all the things I’m mediocre at, you’ll get one piece of pure genius.”
Cousin Joe Twoshacks still keeps a piece of his not-so distant relative Joe Cartoon close to home. “Rocks & Toads” features a unique animated music video for each of its 12 songs. Though this time, Shields called on others to handle the cartooning — recruiting a stable of friends to bring the songs to life.
“How do you try to bring your old fans with you? I’ve sort of combined what I was doing then with what I am doing now,” Shields said, recalling a conversation he had during a studio session. “I wanted the name Cousin Joe Twoshacks, because should it all fail miserably, I can at least blame it on a cartoon character.”
Shields is sitting on two completed, but untitled albums. He recorded one of them with prodigal Austin singer-music producer Gurf Morlix. Morlix has carved out his own folk legend, having worked with Blaze Foley, Lucinda Williams and Warren Zevon, just to name a few.
As Shields puts it, “he’s the real deal.”
While Shields said he is aiming to release his Morlix-produced album by September to coincide with Americana Fest in Nashville, he isn’t exactly sure what to do in the meantime.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff to this music thing that I’ve never really done before, it’s never been taken this seriously,” Shields said. “This time, I’m gonna roll out this album with Gurf Morlix by Americana Fest. My goal is to do showcases all over that place.”
Acoustic Lunch with Joe Shields
March 17 12:30 p.m. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU 547 E. Circle Dr., East Lansing Free https://broadmuseum.msu.edu
Joe Shields at Pump House Concerts March 17
7 p.m. 368 Orchard St. East Lansing, MI $15 suggested donation, all money to the artists www.facebook.com/ PumpHouseConcerts