Photo by Ebru Yildiz, courtesy of Shilpa Ray
Brooklyn goth-rockabilly singer Shilpa Ray has all the goods: the power to rip through your chest and tear your heart to shreds, rock your socks clean off, and make you weep silly tears. The black-clad Brooklyn-via-Jerz contrarian has fired up NYC’s DIY crap-holes with piss ‘n’ vinegar-fueled salvos and witty wordplay since the mid-00s, and now she’s taken her cabaret-punk act to the rising Northern Spy label.
On the spicy Last Year’s Savage, the hard-nosed chanteuse spills harmonium stabs and a gorgeously throaty wail she once described as a “horny Frank Sinatra” over a blitz of Lydia Lunch-ian brutality, scummy 70s Bowery punk and Cramps-influenced rockabilly. We hit Shilpa up via email about the new album and the time Nick Cave made her a sandwich.
NOISEY: What's the story behind the colorful and creepy masked character on the cover of Last Year's Savage and the "Make Up" single? And who's behind that the mask?
Shilpa Ray: I love that mask! It's the Savage. Last Year's Savage, the one that's de-clawed and defeated. That's how I felt and saw myself for years. It's obviously me. I mean come on! That savage has some fine lookin' legs!
Ha! In the past, you've fronted both Happy Hookers and Beat the Devil, but 2013’s It's All Self-Fellatio, Shilpa Ray and your latest, Last Year's Savage, are under your name alone. Why is now the right time to fly solo?
Leaving it under my own name gives me more freedom in terms of who I want to work with and what kind of arrangement I want to provide for my songs. I've worked with some rad people. I've also worked with some greedy people, and having band names clouds up ownership and direction especially when there is one songwriter. I started off solo and have always written my own material. In the past I failed to understand that sharing to the male ego can be misconstrued as possessing and hijacking. It's been a really rough road.
What is it that's “all self-fellatio?”
I was singing backing vocals for Nick Cave during his Push The Sky Away tour and after the show in Philly, Nick's crazy hilarious friend Paul Bearer gave me the rundown of his own recently failed relationship. His gestures went wild expressing his heartbreak, anger and resentment, then suddenly he looked at me with this deadpan expression and said "It's all self-fellatio, Shilpa Ray". He might as well have said, "You're a good man, Charlie Brown.”
You don't mince words. You tell it like it is. Where does that hard-assed disposition come from?
I'm a Bengali woman from Jersey. We're a tough breed.
How was it growing up there? How did you wind up in New York?
My parents were part of a wave of immigrants that moved here in the 70s. People hated us. The suburbs were racist and at times terrifying. When you go back to the history of immigration in the States, you learn that all groups of immigrants had their fair share of hatred, some groups being more passable than others. (Let's not forget about religion or those brought here through slavery.) There was no common ground between us and the natives.
I was raised Hindu in a very Catholic suburb. I remember my parents putting up a fake tree for Christmas to appease our neighbors. I also remember them putting up an American flag during the Gulf War because neighborhood hoodlums vandalized our home thinking we were Iraqi. There were other incidents that happened which were pretty brutal, but that would take up its own article. Anyway, I had to eventually move to the city. I don't feel comfortable living places where they don't have enough minorities. I've lived in New York for 15 years.
Do you find that people are afraid to approach you because of your tough exterior and what you project musically and lyrically?
Nah, I'm not famous enough for that kind of fear. I was never the prom queen or Miss Popularity. My position in life hasn't changed much. I've always had just a few close friends. I hate schmoozing and chatting people up. I only do that stuff if I'm getting paid. I was a sales girl for 16 years. That said, I'm incredibly grounded, so whatever interaction a person gets from me is real whether it's good or bad.
We’ve heard a lot about your Nick Cave connection: his label putting out a record of yours, you opening up for Grinderman and singing backup, etc. What is Nick Cave like in real life? Any good recollections you can share?
He's great! He never stops working, and he's incredibly funny. I don't remember a time when I laughed so hard. I think my favorite moment was my first day on the tour bus when he made me a sandwich. "Holy Shit! Nick Cave is making me a sandwich!" I could've died then and there. It was crazy.
Do you remember the first Nick Cave record you bought or the first concert you saw? How did it affect you?
The first time I heard the Bad Seeds was in high school. I got a Leonard Cohen tribute album from the public library and was bored to tears till I heard “Tower of Song.” Wow! Who the hell is this? It was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This was right around the time he did Lollapalooza in ‘97 and made the cover of Rolling Stone. The first records I bought were Your Funeral ,My Trial and Kicking Against the Pricks. I bought them at the same time at the Princeton Record Exchange. They were not a hit with the boys at college. I remember this one dude I was seeing my freshman year, storming out of my room, exasperated. "I can't stand you or your morbid pretentious music!" Insert door slam. That guy later went on to dating girls with bigger tits than me and listening to third wave ska.
You incorporate your name into the titles of a lot of your songs (like "It's All Self-Fellatio, Shilpa Ray" and "Shilpa Ray on Broadway" from Last Year’s Savage). Are you injecting yourself into the narrative?
I'm a loner. I require an insane amount of time to myself. I go through adventures alone. I feel at times I grew up alone. I'm also a narcissist. Woody Allen, Fellini, Bukowski, Chaplin… they all do the same shit. They're sly enough not to use their own names, I suppose. I think Shilpa Ray is a hilarious character, though. One that seems so foreign to most Americans. The name that's allowed to be mispronounced. Yet it's the name that I respond to, the one that feels most natural to me. I couldn't imagine being a Shannon or an Amy.
I read that you taught yourself to play to the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror," and you just covered Lou Reed’s "Make Up.” How important was Transformer to your musical path?
It was that music that made me want to make music of my own. I had liked bands before. I remember Nirvana, Hole, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins being a huge deal in middle school. I remember when Last Splash by the Breeders came out and everyone lost their shit on the school bus because it was awesome music made by women being played on the radio. The early- to mid-90s were actually a pretty amazing time for music, art and feminism. However, none of that stuff influenced me as much as Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. They were and still are part of my secret world.
All those crazy lyrics about those neurotic East Coast characters… "Seasick Sarah had a golden nose / Hobnail boots wrapped around her toes / When she turned blue, all the angels screamed / They didn't know, they couldn't make the scene." That stanza reminds me of all the beautiful girls that OD'd in high school. I was never a part of that. I would just watch it go down.
That’s heavy. Back to Last Year's Savage: "Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp" is an awesome song title and a killer tune. Seems like you really want to go to Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp, wishing your parents had sent you there. Do you have a death wish? And you seem to be a child of 70s punk. Was Johnny your favorite New York Doll?
I don't have a death wish. I was mocking the idea of having one. I wrote that song after some guy talked to me about moving to New Orleans to die. It seemed so overdramatic that I had to write that song.
It's true: I do love 70s punk, and The New York Dolls are still one of my favorite bands. I love the energy of Johnny Thunders. That wailing aggressive guitar. So dirty and emotional. Also the lyrics from punk bands of that era… punk used to be a poet’s medium, and New York, historically, is a city for poets. That's all dead now. It's a city for Whole Foods.
You don't seem to be part of any scene here in New York. Where does Shilpa Ray fit in? Or does she not?
Shilpa Ray lives in an affordable castle with her nose sticking upwards to the high heavens. She keeps to herself most of the time. She likes to work, eat, sleep and occasionally take long walks on the beach.
Last Year’s Savage is out now via Northern Spy. The record release party goes down at Rough Trade in Brooklyn on 5/23 with James Chance. Catch her here on tour:
5/23 Brooklyn @ Rough Trade w/ James Chance
5/24 D.C.@ Bunga Bunga House w/ Dave Klinger, Palm, and Banned Books
5/26 Chapel Hill @ Local 506 w/ Stray Owls, J.Kutchma
5/27 Athens @ Georgia Theatre w/ Mother the Car
5/29 Atlanta GA @ Mammal Gallery w/ Hellier Ulysses, Semicircle
5/30 Knoxville @ Pilot Light
6/01 Nashville @ The Basement w/ Stone Jack Jones
6/02 Nashville@ The Five Spot
6/03 Cincinnati @ The Comet
6/04 Athens OH @ Casa Nuevo
6/05 Cleveland @ Beachland w/ Relaxer, Blaka Watra
6/06 Philly @ Kung Fu Necktie w/ TJ Kong
Brad Cohan hopes to rock your socks off on his best days. He's not on Twitter.