Photo by Ebru Yildiz
The Palace Bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn sells Budweiser for $1.50 during happy hour, and based on what Shilpa Ray and I know of each other, that makes it the perfect place for us to meet. She is running late; I don’t have her number, and I have no idea how I was planning to spot her. I vaguely know what she looks like, but the image of her I know best is the cover to her latest album, Last Year’s Savage, where she’s wearing a mask that looks like a tyrannical baboon.
The doors burst open, and the next person who walks in is clearly Ray. She’s wearing an oversize punk rock T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and is practically dancing with her boyfriend. She looks at the lone other patron and me and knows instantly that I must be the guy. We don’t know whether to shake hands or hug — I end up shaking her hand, and then I shake her boyfriend’s hand. We start talking about Led Zeppelin, the music industry, and booking your own tours before I have the chance to turn my recorder on.
Picture a 2015 Nancy Sinatra coming from a Hindu family, and you have about half of what you need to process Ray’s music. The lyrics of her old band, Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers, named body parts and their intended functions like she’d passed a med school exam. She sang about death like someone who’s come within inches of it; on “Woman Sets Boyfriend on Fire”, from 2009’s A Fish Hook an Open Eye, she belted, “For all the hairs that I’ve shed/ How you swept them out the door/ Wouldn’t even know my appendix doused and bottled inside a thick glass jar.”
Last Year’s Savage is no different in its violent, visceral imagery. “If I broke your spine, would you hold my hand when I tell you it’s all over?” she sings on “Pop Song for Euthanasia”.
“The body stuff comes from the fact that my parents thought I was going to be a doctor growing up,” Ray tells me. “I was supposed to go to medical school, but I never did; I actually failed out of a lot of my science classes in high school.”
The unplanned event that put the medically untrained singer on the map was when Nick Cave took her on tour. Now, Ray counts him as both a fan and a friend.
“I worked at a shop in Soho, and my music played,” she tells me. “Someone came in and asked who it was and then asked me to perform a show at their place. I did the show, and he asked if I had recordings so he could share it with ‘Lou, Bob, and Nick.’ Turns out that’s Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and Nick Cave.”
As time wore on with the band, she felt it was time to pursue something purely on her own. The title of the new album itself is a reference to empty promises and dreams unfulfilled. “You ever have people say, ‘This year is your year’?” she asks me. “You hear that enough times, and you start to look back and cast them aside. It’s not just that there was a savage last year; it’s that last year was savage.”
Four years ago, Ray took a trip to Nepal that would end up influencing both her lyrics on Last Year’s Savage and her relationship to her Hindu faith. Songs like “Moksha” and “Burning Bride” directly attack the corruption she witnessed firsthand when she saw how the government would use religion against its own people.
“Burning Bride” reimagines the banned Hindu practice of burning a wife alive after her husband has passed away, a ritual that was supposedly rooted in scripture but actually functioned as a way for priests to take money from the dead. The word “moksha” refers to liberation from the life-rebirth cycle — there’s debate in Hindu circles about whether it’s even attainable in a given lifetime.
Ray has always been a Hindu; it’s something she can still share with her family, even though she says they see her as “a bit of a black sheep.” Despite her convictions against certain ways the religion is used, she still knows where her faith lies. “There are problems with the institution, but there are problems with all institutions,” she explains. “It’s still a major part of who I am.”
When we touch on institutions, I ask her about sexism she’s experienced and how it’s shaped her. “I’ve suffered my fair share of mansplaining, but women talk over me all the time, too,” she replies. “I have a personality where I hang back a little bit; I am an extroverted introvert. I’ll be very hospitable, but you won’t hear from me for two or three weeks, because I’m a social recluse by nature, or a binge extrovert.”
This leads to a lot of solo hanging out, to the point where her bandmates find her “really weird.” How so? “In a nice way,” she says. “They went up to me and said, ‘We notice you withdraw a lot.’ I’m the leader, so if I get too much like that, it’s bad.” She’s offered to buy me a drink twice and has imitated the singing voices of Karen Carpenter, Frank Sinatra, and Nick Cave during our interview. She comes across outgoing as hell.
What exactly did Ray witness in Nepal that inspired songs like “Burning Bride”? “The exchange of money,” she tells me after putting “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin on the jukebox. “Everyone’s really poor, and they work really hard and don’t make enough money for anything. I saw women climbing down the Himalayan mountain range with logs on their back. And the religion swindles them into taking all their money to make sure their loved ones burn properly to get into a better next-life.”
That monetary exchange, Ray says, is a fundamental perversion of Hinduism; you can’t buy a better reincarnation. “It’s supposed to happen when you’re ready, not when you pay someone,” she says. “It’s like, are you fucking kidding me? They work all their lives just to make stupid wages. Nobody’s actually looking out for them. There’s a level of poverty that’s not being rectified.”
In a way, seeing that exploitation firsthand seems to have solidified Ray’s connection to the religion she’s lived with all her life. Maybe that sounds paradoxical, but that’s Shilpa Ray. “I still have that faith. I just want to fight to make it better — for myself and for others,” she says. “I’ve never lost faith.”