Artist Spotlight courtesy of Makomore
My first artist spotlight! Go easy on me.
The night I found Shilpa Ray, I was the best kind of sad. Well, at the time, obviously, I wouldn’t have called it that. At the time I wasn’t the best kind of anything. I was just sad, and by myself, and feeling like there was no way that was going to change anytime soon. It was high school, I liked a girl, and that day I had realized that I had missed whatever chance I had with her. So I did what one does, and sat by myself in the basement listening to The Ship Song while stealing just enough of whatever was open in my parents’ liquor cabinet to make things a little more fun. And this not quite drunk, sad in an easy-to-romanticize sort of way, and overall pretty vulnerable state of being proved to be exactly the right state to be in when I spotted something that piqued my interest in YouTube’s sidebar.
I won’t lie by telling you that I was immediately blown away. I mean, as great a cover as I think this is, I was pretty prepared to move on to the next thing without a second thought. But then I saw some guy in the comments saying something about Shilpa Ray sounding beautiful “even when she is screaming, but especially when she’s not,” and I felt curious again, mostly because I was thinking, am I, as a renowned fake music geek, supposed to already know who this person is? Is she in a hardcore band? Oh god, I’d better check. So I searched her name, and at some point, I found this.
As I said, “Pirate Jenny” hadn’t exactly grabbed me by the heart, but in my not quite drunk, not quite heartbroken state… God, this one hit me. And it still does. When I say that I was the best kind of sad, I guess what I mean is that sometimes nostalgia is a wonderful thing. Every time I think back on this night, it’s an unquestionably happy memory of being unhappy. Shilpa’s voice made me feel less alone in a way that most of my favorite music hadn’t done in a long time.
And that’s as personal as I know how to get, so let’s just talk about Shilpa for a while. The quick bio is this: She grew up in New Jersey with conservative Indian immigrant parents. They banned pop and rock music within the house, and required Shilpa to study classical Indian music and learn to play the harmonium. Now, to sidetrack a bit, the harmonium really isn’t a classical Indian instrument. It’s European in origin with an Indian variant (Hey! Here’s a fascinating history of the harmonium!) , and I only mention this because I think it’s a neat precursor to how she pretty inevitably ended up embracing punk rock as a teenager (damn the western world, corrupting the youth).
By all accounts, Shilpa at some point in the mid-2000s formed a group called Beat the Devil and even put out an album, but it isn’t easy to find online and I still haven’t heard any of it (if any of you know where I can listen, please let me know). So, moving right along, Beat the Devil disbanded and was closely followed by Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers. The band released two albums: A Fish Hook, An Open Eye in 2009 and Teenage and Torture in 2010.
In all honesty, I haven’t spent much time listening to A Fish Hook, An Open Eye. It used to be difficult to find, and only recently got a more accessible release on Bandcamp. Still, though, it’s not hard to identify it as pretty damn enjoyable. It’s a great record that introduces Shilpa Ray’s trademark harmonium-driven blues punk sound and often vulgar, anatomically inspired lyrics with killer hooks. But since it’s hard for me to talk about in much detail as I’m still getting to know it for myself, I’ll move on to the album that first stole my heart: Teenage and Torture.
You’ve got your cherry lips to help you smile
And I wish that my burnt brown fingers had the
So they could defecate ‘cross your clean slate
Now darlin’ would you
Care to look like me, Blond Venus?
As I change myself to look like you?
It’s almost hard to say what caused me, as a white guy, to absolutely lose myself emotionally singing along to “Venus Shaver” in the car every morning for a month and a half on the way to school, but it was a good time in my life. And every time I hear it again, I realize it’s not actually a hard question at all. It’s just her voice, every time.
On a long (ugh, painfully long, why did I do that?) walk earlier today, I found myself thinking about this common idea that listening to music is a relationship, where the feeling you get when you hear a song only comes half from the music itself, with the other half springing up from wherever the hell you are in your life at that point in time. Meanings change as you get older, and sometimes you grow out of things that once seemed to mean the entire world to you. But when I listen to something like “Genie’s Drugs,” I always end up feeling like Shilpa oversteps the boundaries of this relationship. I don’t listen and relate and hear my own struggles reflected back at me. I just hear her, and she makes me believe it all. It might not stay that way, I mean, I’ve got time to grow and all. But God help me if I ever make the mistake of growing out of this.
Alright, it’s 2 a.m., I’m getting caught up in the moment. Let’s keep it moving. After their second album, the Happy Hookers split up. In 2011, Shilpa toured with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as a backup singer and supporting act, and as previously mentioned, eventually recorded a cover of “Pirate Jenny” with the group. In 2013, Cave’s Label, Bad Seed LTD, put out Shilpa’s first solo project, the EP It’s All Self Fellatio, Shilpa Ray, which in turn spawned her first (self-produced) music video. The video’s a hilarious reversal of reproductive rights issues, and the song is one of her absolute best.
Two years later, Shilpa released her first solo full length, Last Year’s Savage on Northern Spy Records. Unlike her work with her Happy Hookers, Savage features the sound of the harmonium at the forefront of nearly every song. The arrangements are simpler, but the music sounds fuller than ever, and after a few listens every track is a standout.
And… well, I’ve never been great with conclusions, but I’ll try and wrap it up here. There’s a lot more Shilpa to check out, including some great covers she’s put out in the last couple years. Her future is up in the air at the moment, with a Facebook post after some particularly bad treatment at a gig in September indicating that she was on her way out of the industry.
“I have one last record to give you, throw it in the garbage if you like cause when it is done, I’m out. I cannot wait to feel like a human being again.”
She softened her statement up a bit the next day, but didn’t take it back entirely. I can hardly give an opinion on this, as to do so would be insinuating that I know what the hell’s going on. But I hope things get better. I hope she knows how much her music means. And I hope she sticks around.