Photos and interview by Stasia de Tilly.
Shilpa Ray is an introvert expressing her inner weirdo through her theatrical performance. She is a self-proclaimed goth kid and an unintentional rebel. Trying to pin down Shilpa’s sound is a challenge, even Shilpa can’t do it. The South Asian-American, 17 year strong New Yorker, is on the brink of releasing her second full length album since her 2015 release, Last Year’s Savage.
Shilpa’s voice is the most striking aspect of her performance. Which is a tall order for a project boasting instruments like saxophone, harmonium and some old-school synths. Her singing conjures up an essence of Patti Smith heavily laden in blues. She has mastered the rough edges of her voice. She yowls and growls in her distinctive style. She draws out short phrases to show off her impressive vocal control and dynamics.
Her high stage energy flourishes into a spirited performance. Shilpa explores performative elements in her varied body of work. From the infectious upbeat tracks that inspire anarchy within the audience to her emotional body heavy harmonium ballads. She abandons her keys to chant with the audience then retreats to play the harmonium with such grace.
Her music is a force to be reckoned with—a wall of sound that strikes you unlike anything you’ve heard before. Shilpa isn’t just a ball of intensity, she’s purely funny too. When I shot Shilpa and her band I was thrown into a gang of friends in bolo ties and eccentric hats making middle school sex jokes. Her dark humor is seen in songs like “Sanitary iPad” a cynical song commenting on capitalism from the P.O.V. of an iPad. Shilpa portrays chaos, glory, and tragedy throughout her music. She says she finds music inspiration from sitting on her fire escape to stare into the void. Very relatable. On Pop Songs for Euthanasia she sings “When I drove off that cliff/ Blazing of gasoline / That I sold my arms and limbs for.” Shilpa cultivates a vivid image trough her lyrics.
I sat down with Shilpa Ray the morning after one of her Trans-Pecos to discuss poetry, native New York music, and her upcoming record.
Where does the name Shilpa Ray come from?
It’s Indian. There’s been a lot of dispute about what it means. I believe it means either the sculptor or the thing that’s being sculpted. It has something to do with being an artist, my mother was a painter.
What’s your journey?
I was going to school in Philadelphia and I was majoring in something I didn’t want to major in but I had to get some kind of degree. I graduated early and moved to New York because that’s where I wanted to be. I definitely did the whole thing you know, working the minimum wage jobs—I mean I still kind of am doing that. It’s always a hustle but I’ve lived here for 17 years, I’m not leaving anytime soon.
How would you describe your sound?
[laughs] That’s always a hard question.
I’m interested to hear what you have to say because I can’t put my finger on it just yet.
Me neither. I’ve always been that person that can’t quite conform to anything but it’s not intentional at all, you know what I mean? I’ll try to write a surf song and it comes out really weird—it just ends up having this weird twist to it. I sound like myself.
How did you and your current band get together?
I change up lineups a lot. Every record I’ve done has a different band. This one was kind of interesting because I feel like I found all the lost goth kids of yore—I am a former goth kid myself. It’s been an interesting experience, I’ve actually enjoyed this line up in particular because in the totem pole of alternative cultures the goth kids are on the bottom. It’s funny because you get made fun of a lot *laughs* so we kind of found each other and we were like “you are weird too!” You like to dress up, I like to dress up. It was funny growing up because not only am I a goth kid but I’m also brown. The irony of that was lost on me. *laughs* I grew up in Jersey, so coming up to the city I met a lot of other brown goth kids and we found each other eventually.
It’s sweet how you and your band found each other. There are definitely element of goth on this upcoming record. It’s like you’re paying homage to something past but also making room for new themes and sounds.
We definitely have a lot of discussions about Bauhaus and Sisters In The Sea. We’re also in the same age range which is nice. I was going through a time period where all my bandmates were a lot younger than me. It was cool but it was different. Your life kind of changes when you get older. I’ve definitely slowed down a lot.
I also need a cattle prod to push me to do things. I need deadlines, I need people breathing down my neck to make me finish things. I need the band or I’d never leave my house. I remember there was all this feedback that was saying “you should go solo,” I do that occasionally but I don’t have the discipline at all. I need someone to do things for, I know this about myself.
How did you get into playing the harmonium?
A lot of people really like to talk to me about instruments and music but I really hated it as a kid. My parents made me play. My parents put me in classical Indian music so I played the harmonium and piano. They pushed me in this direction even thought I wasn’t allowed to pursue it on a professional level. I didn’t like it, I wanted to be a painter like my mother. I just wanted to make visual art.
I am an introvert so the idea as a child to get up on stage and perform was very scary for me. I didn’t like being judged that way. I didn’t really enjoy playing music until I heard music I could really relate to. That was when I was in middle school and I discovered the Velvet Underground. I was like, “oh this makes a lot of sense to me.” Prior to that as much as I enjoyed listening to music I didn’t ever want to make it myself.
You are a fantastic performer…
[laughs] It’s so weird. I don’t even know how it happens—it happens and it’s there. But no, I’m actually very shy.
It’s cool how you use your Facebook fan page to share your voice. I really appreciate how it’s become a way to interact with your fans beyond just releasing tour dates and press info.
It gets me in so much trouble though. I mean you know, trolling in general gets you in trouble. That is another mark of an introvert—I don’t want to leave the house and talk to you in person so I’m just gonna sit in front of the computer and say it.
This is what I love about millennials (I’m not a Millennial exactly) but they’re bringing out things that we didn’t talk about when I was 20. Nobody was taking about gender, race or the environment in such a big way. There’s a different way of doing things and being entrepreneurial.
I love it, I love that it’s happening but there’s a lot being said at the same time. Sometimes I do feel that certain things need to get cleared up. You have all these terms, POC, WOC, I didn’t have that growing up at all. Some of it is beneficial but some of it is a little marginalizing—as someone who is classified as both I felt the need to say it’s a lot more complicated than what people expect from you or the progressive mentality that they expect from you.
Have you always been outspoken?
I’ve always been this way, my dad’s a really political guy, so is my mom actually. So, growing up we always had those types of discussions at the dinner table. The last election I was talking to my mother about what was going on a lot—I think that if people see my mother on the page, a woman who had an arranged marriage when she was young, isn’t a careerist, was a stay at home mom for a large part of her life—she is still very much a feminist. She never put stipulations on me or my sister and encouraged us to think for ourselves and be very strong.
What has your experience been like as a south Asian woman in the music industry?
I was really shocked at how much of a following I could get playing the harmonium from an American audience. It’s pretty crazy and I’m so grateful for that. Sure there are moments where you have a really rough time but for the most part it’s been really rad. Everyone’s been talking about the Rust Belt post-election—I do really well in the Rust Belt, people are really nice out there. There is a lot of poverty and loss of industry, I don’t want to get into the politics but I definitely don’t enjoy them being painted as these people that are backwards. That’s not what I’m seeing when I’m out on the road. You’re always gonna get people that are ignorant and hateful and say things because they’re scared and they don’t know what to do when they see something that make them feel uncomfortable. Most people aren’t like that, most people want to enjoy themselves and have a good time.
What’s up with the monkey mask?
[laughs] When I was writing Last Year’s Savage, that record took a pain staking long time to do. It came on at a very difficult time because I’d just fired the last band I was working with because they weren’t listening to me at all about how I wanted to make the sounds. The truth of the matter is that at the time the label that I was under didn’t recognize that most of the creativity was coming from me—neither did a lot of the people of the industry that I was working with at the time. They all abandoned ship, I was left to my own devices which was both a positive and negative experience. The positive part of it was I could do whatever I want. All of a sudden I have all this freedom. No one telling me how to represent myself, or who I am, or what’s my positioning business-wise.
The negative part of it was I was working as a sales girl and at a bar at the time. With that kind of income, making a record and financing it is really difficult. Last Year’s Savage was commenting on being worn out and having massive responsibilities. Sort of slowing down on the booze and the drugs and all that stuff you do when you’re younger. It’s kind of like now I’m happy if I can just buy some groceries and hang out at my house and get something finished for once.
Do you have any specific inspirations for your music?
I’m a night time person so a lot of it is me zoning out and peering into the dark. I have a fire escape outside my window. I like to climb out and stare out into nothing for a while.
You know how fashion designers have that big board and they cut out pictures and stuff. I have a musical version of that. I have playlists for every record. I’ll listen to stuff and be like “I like that idea, I like this idea.” What I did for this record that we just completed in late summer/early fall was inspired by an argument I was having with a couple dudes about indigenous music out of New York.
They were telling me that there is an established regional tone and I had expressed that I didn’t feel like a lot of the bands that are coming out of here honor that. I wanted to make a record that I felt was “native New York music.” I pulled from a lot of old Harlem doo-wop, a lot of hip-hop from the Bronx, a lot of Punk, Noise—these are genres that I think are very New York and very angular and have a certain speed and consistency about them. I wanted to make a record that had those…[laughs] then again it’s me so… I’ll try to make a doo-wop song but it’ll just sound weird.
I saw you did a call out for your last video. I want to be immortalized in a Shilpa Ray video.
Yeah totally! They’re always so much fun. When we did the “Nocturnal Emissions” video it was like going to summer camp for 2 days. It was some of the greatest people that came out to be on crew or extras or perform on the front lines. It was a great experience, I had a wonderful time doing that. Hopefully there will be more of that for this upcoming record.
Door Girl is out on September 22nd. Shilpa Ray is playing Pianos September 20th (alongside Bodega and Kyle Avallone, tickets and details here) and the 21st (alongside Hellbirds and Wolff & Tuba, tickets and details here).