I first took notice of Shilpa Ray when Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds invited her to support them on tour, a few brief moons ago. Back then she was with her band of ‘Happy Hookers’ and immediately struck me as an artist worth gushing over. She has an iconic voice and range, not to mention lyrics which will make you shiver and crack up with laughter at the same time.
She released her latest solo record Portrait Of A Lady earlier this year, an almost concept-type album which one can safely say is her most personal, dealing with issues as it does like abusive relationships, violence against women, and of course, feelings towards the former U.S ‘Commander in Chief’, Donald Trump. Portrait Of A Lady is an interesting side step for Shilpa Ray as for the first time in her career, brings in moments of synth and electronica mixed with her usual love of crunching guitar and pop melody. It also encapsulates her own very brilliant dry, witty sense of humor.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Shilpa Ray about her new record, what brought it on, and the various influences on her as an artist.
Ms. Ray, I understand you currently/recently had COVID – just at a time when I think the world was at least starting to move on slightly. How are you feeling at this point in time, I hope it’s not hit you too badly and how has this affected your touring and live shows?
I’m fine. I’m twice vaxxed so my worst ailments were fatigue and brain fog. I did get a sore throat and slight fever but only in the beginning. I thought I had allergies since every time I got tested they would say it was allergies. This time the results came in different. A lot of touring musicians are getting it actually and it’s wreaked havoc on Spring touring for sure. You have to be out in public a lot in different environments, not in your own town or bubble, so the risk is high. The risk was always high to get sick on tour anyway and now you get this illness where you’re canceling/rescheduling constantly and it’s unpredictable.
How are you spending your time – does this kind of situation allow you to do things you might not have time for otherwise?
I’m an introvert so I spend a lot of time by myself when I can anyway. I love quarantine! I realize that’s kinda nuts to say since so many people died and the amount of death and panic in NYC in March/April 2020 was pretty scary. However, I needed the pause. People are unbelievably exhausting and Americans, in general, are overdramatic and talk too much, so when they smell the empath in you, you will get used up. I was definitely feeling used up, so retreating felt like a dream. I picked up a guitar, mixed an album, worked on some videos, did some live streams, cooked a lot, worked at a mask factory, redecorated, chain-smoked then quit smoking, read books, and watched TV. Everything was simple. I’ve been desperately trying to hold on to that simplicity. I’m at my best when no one is breathing down my neck haha – in New York, living like that is impossible.
The press notes which accompany ‘Portrait of A Lady’ mention Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” – You’ve talked about the influence that had on you and this record and how it made you want to dig deep into yourself and your own work. How do you as an artist go about channeling that kind of thing into a pop record – where do you start, and do you ever run certain risks about giving more away about yourself than you may wish to?
The process of writing this album was incredibly hard. I wanted to musically capture the impact Nan Goldin’s work had on me. I am an abuse survivor but had rarely expressed it cause it comes with a lot of embarrassment and shame. I also rank really low on the totem pole of public sympathy – A brown punk rock woman of small stature, sometimes broke/sometimes not broke is not the heroine of the #metoo movement. I grew up in an environment that informed me I had to be unbreakable in order to survive. I related to Nan Goldin in the sense that she’s an artist drawn to the artist’s world of anarchy only to find that the anarchy is patriarchal and being curious and intelligent other was gonna cause problems and by problems I mean problems that could be fatal. I found that out in my mid to late 20s during the bro culture of the aughts. This bro culture still exists now, by the way, I just learned how to spot the flags faster. The moment I saw her work I had that “aha” moment. No other artwork has impacted me that way. She’s the ultimate badass.
You’ve said her work “shook me to my core and made me reflect on my own experiences with sexual assault and abuse.” – I understand you probably won’t want to divulge your own experiences of these matters, but have you ever addressed them in your art prior?
My goal, in writing this album was to be as honest as possible and to finish it. It was important to me to be real and not fall into the traps of speaking for others or pushing generalized agendas. Every survivor deals w/ surviving in their own way. I could never express myself in an op-ed. First off, I’m not important or academic enough to write one, so I wrote a ‘traumopera’. Lydia Lunch helped me coin that term btw. She’s a gem. Talk about meeting someone and having the “aha” moment. I have boundaries for sure. My experiences also happened 15 years ago so they are not as raw as they would’ve been had I written them a few years after the fact. That would’ve been a completely different record. I wrote about my experience as a 20-something while I was in my late 30s. I had already gone through therapy, time, and establishing my lifelong friends and support system. Not bad for an introvert. I’m in my 40s now, still experiencing giant man-babies, red in the face screaming over me, when they don’t get their way and I have zero tolerance for that. The world might still think they’re precious but I don’t. I would never want to live in a head like that. I could never love that.
In terms of this record’s themes (Trump, abusive relationships, #MeToo, it ran the risk of being an angry album, but you managed to not make it so which is a huge credit to you.
Yeah. As I mentioned before, time molded my anger in a different way but seriously compared to all the sad girl music out there this album is incredibly pissed off. I don’t have any puritanical views of expressing anger. I was raised a Kali-worshipping Hindu. Rage can go off the rails for sure but is not expressed enough in art. It’s a very real part of human emotion. There’s hypocrisy in the Western world when expressing rage.
Before even hearing a note or lyric on this album, I was drawn to the song titles which made me smile e.g. ‘Charm School for Damaged Boys’, Male Feminist’, ‘Cry for The Cameras’. You seem to have a good sense of humor.
What other choices do we have when we’re forced into being pacifists? I have always had a dry biting sense of humor and it comes out when it needs to. It developed from being bullied at school. Some big white kid would come mess with me and my ego would be like “I’m too smart for this shit”. Then I’d use my words and they would cry. You learn a lot about survival being the first generation in an American school. It’s exhausting though, which is why I mostly keep to myself. I would like to enjoy my life.
How much do you think about the future in terms of your creative process and what your output may be like, in terms of with another band or otherwise?
I’ve actually enjoyed being a side player in other people’s projects cause you learn about music in a completely different way. It’s more technical and the pressure’s off cause all you are responsible for is listening to the bandleader and playing your part the best you can. When it’s your own project you have to wear so many hats, make no money, and be perfect all the time, while everyone else shits on you. It’s a sad existence.
I am getting older and I find that music belongs to a different generation now, so it’s time for me to try other things that fit my age. It would be different if I was in some kind of Radiohead-type band where we’re making money, therefore I can continue touring till whenever, but unfortunately for me, that’s not the case. You can only be a poor “up and coming” act for so long till you have to change how you are incorporating music into your life. That said, I never compromised and always made the albums I wanted to make, mistakes and all. I’m really proud of that, but yeah switching gears and making old people art like films and writing has crossed my mind.
I first came to love your music through hearing The Happy Hookers and specifically, touring with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. You must get asked about this a lot, I presume so I apologize for being another lazy interviewer. What was it like being a part of his tour?
It was amazing! I have very fond memories of my time with them. I learned a lot and became a stronger performer cause he was just throwing me out there alone in front of an arena full of people who were only there to see them. What a challenge! He is definitely one of the kindest most generous artists I’ve ever met. I’m lucky they took a chance on me.
What are your thoughts on musical influences?
I still love the feeling of discovering something and becoming obsessed with it. I’m very much a listener and consumer of art who needs to develop my own relationship with what I’m consuming. I think that’s why I don’t automatically listen to new music. I’m not susceptible to marketing campaigns or doing what everyone else is doing. I remember being obsessed with Gun Club in my early 20s when everyone else was listening to whatever generic brand of NYC/Brooklyn indie music that was being released at the time. It took me 6 years after Is This It came out to genuinely dig the Strokes. I was at a New Year’s Party w/o my abusive partner at the time. Someone turned on Hard To Explain and I was high and dancing and everyone there was so rad and happy. I felt so young and free. I hadn’t felt that way in a really long time. It also gave me so much joy to love something I knew “he” had hated so much. I’ll never forget that moment.
What kind of influence of being a New Yorker have on you?
A lot of problem-solving, a lot of noise, and a lot of keeping it short. New York doesn’t have time for one’s 8 min opus and I love that. Take the fillers out. I’ve always been a creative person but didn’t really try it publicly till my early 20s. I studied music as a kid, bombed many recitals, and was always thought of as an unfocused, lazy underachiever throughout my childhood. For a while, I believed it, until I found myself hauling a baby-sized coffin with my heavy ass harmonium on a hand truck over the Williamsburg Bridge just to play an open mic. I didn’t see myself as being lazy after that.
How has that changed in the years since you started?
It’s tough to keep the same momentum. There’s so much negative in the music industry, you can really lose why you do it in the first place. Every time I put out an album I ask myself “why am I still doing this?” then I forget I felt that way, get back into my zone, and start writing again.
‘Portrait Of A Lady’ is out now