Shilpa Ray’s forearms bulge with blood when she plays her harmonium. “I have strange musical injuries,” she explains, referring to the blisters on her fingers. But none of that stops her from pounding on the accordion-like instrument, which reached the height of its popularity in 19th-century churches. “I always feel like I’m still my 14-year-old self,” she says, explaining her determination to play despite the trauma her music can cause. “I never developed beyond that in my attitude.”
Ray’s teenage tendencies are alive and well on Teenage and Torture, her second full-length with Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, which will be released in early 2011 on Knitting Factory Records. A collection of 10 savage and sultry blues-influenced songs, the album finds Ray eviscerating her subjects (and often spilling her own guts) with the kind of sharp-tongued, smart-assed angst that keeps juvenile detention centers in business. Songs like “Hookers” and “Genie’s Drugs” aren’t dealing with kid-sized issues, but no matter the situation, Ray says, “I always have that gut reaction the way that teenagers do.”
Growing up in central New Jersey, at 6 years old Ray picked up both the harmonium and piano at the insistence of parents who wanted her to learn classical Indian music. “I really wanted to play guitar and my parents said no,” Ray says. “But I had the harmonium, so I would learn chords to songs that I liked and start to play.” At 16 she taught herself how to play The Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” but it wasn’t until a few years later that she worked up the nerve to perform in front of other people.
Settling in New York City with no idea how to form a band, Ray frequented open mic nights at the East Village’s legendary Sidewalk Cafe, where she performed solo. “I started going to Sidewalk because I didn’t fit into any scene and it seemed like there you can be anybody and still get a shot,” she says. “So I went and I sang a song a capella and they asked if I played an instrument and I told them about the harmonium, so they said if you bring this harmonium down, we’ll give you a show.” Ray would soon form her first band, Beat The Devil. While the group was met with early success and local acclaim, winning great praise from many observers including Brooklyn Vegan and the New York Times, they disbanded shortly before the release of their first and only album.
Initially Ray decided to continue on as a solo act, but she soon began enlisting the help of musicians she had met while playing out. Eventually the line up began to solidify and Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers was formed. In 2009, the group released the self-financed album A Fish Hook, An Open Eye and the excitement for Ray and her unique artistry picked up where it had left off. “Following the demise of her previous band,” wrote the New Yorker,” Ray has struck out on her own, further showcasing her seemingly indestructible vocal chords. She screams, growls, and snarls her way through the screeching muck of oil-stained garage rock and backwoods blues, cresting just above the waves of a sonic tumult that threatens to consume her minuscule frame. This tenuous command of a raucous sound makes for a volatile breed of rock and roll.”
Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hooker’s latest album, Teenage and Torture, both refines and expands upon the arresting qualities of their first release. The result, “isn’t as thrown together as the first one,” says Ray. “The first record was like a series of thoughts, this is one big thought. You’ll slip into a different world when you hear this.” Recorded with Black Dirt Studios’ Jason Meagher at Seizure’s Palace in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the songs on Teenage and Torture are dark, sardonic looks inside Ray’s own world and obsessions, augmented by the musical styling of her Happy Hookers — Nick Hundley on bass, Andrew Bailey on guitar and John Adamski on drums and percussion, and featuring Greg Lewis on organ, Jonathan Lam on pedal steel and Andrew Hoepfner on vocals and keys.
“Most of the time when I write songs, they’re semi-autobiographical,” says Ray, “but they’re also taking situations and trying to understand things that I have a hard time understanding,” she says. “ When I wrote ‘Genie’s Drugs,’ it was about this dude I used to date who was dating every other chick on my block. One day I said, ‘I don’t want you to see this Genie girl, why do you see her?’ and he told me, ‘Well, she’s got the good drugs.’ And I thought it would be great to write a love song about I’m so poor that I can’t afford the drugs to keep him around.” On another standout track, “Liquidation Sale,” Ray mocks herself for feeling down. “I could not take myself seriously writing a blues song,” she says, “so a lot of those lyrics are me making fun of myself and how fake I am being by even writing it. At the same time, I’m like everybody else, I want that window to complain.”
Blood and blisters be damned, on Teenage and Torture, Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers have some things to say, and you’ve got no choice but to pay attention.
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