Without Her Happy Hookers

Published May 27, 2015

ABOVE: SHILPA RAY. PHOTO COURTESY OF EBRU YILDIZ.

Although Shilpa Ray dropped “and Her Happy Hookers” from the bill, the Brooklyn-based rock musician and many of her same bandmates have returned with Last Year’s Savage. On the album, which was released last week via Northern Spy Records, Ray maintains the deep, powerful voice and poetic lyrics for which she is known, while softening the underlying melodies and riffs, often opting for more exploratory sounds. Songs like “Sanitary iPad” are written from the titular, inanimate object’s point of view (“I’ve got a short shelf life / Who’s gonna throw me out?”) to address a type of mortality, while others, like “Nocturnal Emissions,” playfully go straight to the point (“Don’t wake me up, bitch!”).

Ray, who first emerged in New York’s music scene in the mid-2000 and previously played with Beat The Devil, has spent the last decade recording under her own name (with and without “Her Happy Hookers” appended at the end). The New Jersey-native grew up in a household with her parents ardently banning pop music, suggesting instead that she study classical Indian music and harmonium. To this day, harmonium still has a large presence in Ray’s music, particularly with her playing it throughout Last Year’s Savage.

This summer, Ray is touring the U.S. and will play during Northside festival in Brooklyn, alongside acts like Run The Jewels, Best Coast, and Heems. A few weeks ago, Ray sat down with her long-time friend and fellow musician, Sharon Van Etten, who will play Governor’s Ball in New York next weekend. They discussed everything from touring to eating kale, drinking beer, and their now-defunct Manhattan and Williamsburg haunts.

SHARON VAN ETTEN: Thanks for coming to my home. You haven’t been to this place since I moved.

SHILPA RAY: No, but I used to work at the sex shop next door, the Pink Pussycat. It was one of my first crazy jobs when I first moved here.

VAN ETTEN: It’s fun to sit outside and watch the different people that will stop and look in the window, or the husband that gets elbowed for looking.

RAY: The clientele was really strange. You got the Upper East Side moms—or now, it’s probably the Williamsburg moms… So you’re back from tour.

VAN ETTEN: Winding down. I can count on two hands how many shows I have left. Our last show is in June and then I’m not doing anything for the rest of the year, and maybe the next year after that.

RAY: I know that feeling. I get to points where I become a crabby old lady and I don’t want to get on stage. It’s like, “Fuck this.” But I shouldn’t be like that; I should always give it my all…

VAN ETTEN: When it’s not fresh anymore, you just feel like you’re going through the motions. It gets really depressing. It’s the people around you that make it, the band. You have to have awesome people around.

RAY: My current lineup in my band, they’re all big food junkies and I totally gained 10 pounds my last tour. It’s all my beer gut. It all hangs over my pants. Seriously. It gets bad.

VAN ETTEN: It’s grossing me out.

RAY: I’ve been eating a lot of kale. I look good now. [both laugh]

VAN ETTEN: When you get back from the road, do you cleanse? Do you really do that?

RAY: No, basically I pace around my room like a crazy person. You’re so used to being in motion constantly. Then I’ve missed work so much, like “I can’t wait to go back to work!”

VAN ETTEN: Are you still at Pianos?

RAY: Yeah, but then give that two weeks, and I start hating work.

VAN ETTEN: [laughs] I’ve been meaning to ask you, where did the baboon mask come from on the cover?

RAY: I wanted to look like a savage, because it’s called Last Year’s Savage and that was the most compelling mask I found. It’s borderline funny, but it’s freaky. A lot of that record talks about phobias, anxiety, and depression. Walking around and being in public, that’s how I felt.

VAN ETTEN: Well it’s an amazing record, congrats.

RAY: Thank you.

VAN ETTEN: You last toured in March. How did those shows go? You’re still with the same lineup?

RAY: It went pretty well. The lineup changes because some of my bandmates have to work and can’t go on the road, so we move it around. I’ve been doing this for such a long time and changing people out for such a long time, I don’t know if I’m ever going to have “the band.”

VAN ETTEN: I haven’t done it that long, but I’ve already had three or four different lineups.

RAY: You used to tour by yourself. That was nuts. I couldn’t do that.

VAN ETTEN: I kind of miss that too, though.

RAY: You tend to write more when you’re alone. I tend to write more when I’m alone. Living on the road is crazy.

VAN ETTEN: It makes everybody bipolar.

RAY: Totally. You all have these massive needs, then you mix it with a lot of booze and a lot of people in small, quarantined spaces—it’s really scary. With my current bandmates, we have so much lifestyle stuff in common that it’s like, “Okay. Everyone gets it.” But it can turn into a nightmare, for sure.

VAN ETTEN: It’s still all-male right now?

RAY: Yeah, but not on purpose. It really isn’t. I think I just hang out with a lot of boys—I always have—so it’s socialization and works out that way.

VAN ETTEN: I’m interested in that dynamic, because there’s always mixed things when I hear females talking about the music industry and feeling that it’s misogynistic. I think I was lucky in that I haven’t really experienced it…but I know people that have.

RAY: You have a really natural gauge on steering clear of assholes. You’re very nice to everybody, but you know how to move away gracefully. I don’t have that skill.

VAN ETTEN: I wouldn’t say gracefully. I’ve definitely gotten myself in a pickle. Don’t be fooled.

RAY: I’ve definitely worked with guys who [had] total alpha complexes. I had a really horrible time with my first band. I was just starting out, everything felt so exciting, but I had no experience how to run a band.

VAN ETTEN: How old were you?

RAY: I was 25 or 26 when it was really going. I was just getting pushed around. Not all men, but I’ve noticed most men make decisions real fast and don’t take time to think about what they’re doing. Whereas I always felt that women, we’re not quiet ’cause we’re stupid, we’re quiet ’cause we’re thinking—”Let me weigh this option.” It takes a while, but it doesn’t mean you’re inept. It just means you’re not an idiot. I wonder if a bunch of girls would get together and do Jack Ass. I wonder if that’s in female behavior naturally.

VAN ETTEN: No, the women are filming it. They’re documenting that movie. [both laugh] What was the venue next to Sin-é? I think that was the first time I saw you…

RAY: Oh you were wasted. That was during the time I played with Beat The Devil and you came up to me. I didn’t know who the hell you were. I was like, “Why is this really drunk girl talking to me?” Then you started playing the guitar and wailing. I was like, “Oooh okay.” The first time we actually spoke was at Michael and Leah’s [apartment, where they used to host parties with singers and songwriters].

VAN ETTEN: You were by yourself and you played this song, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” which is still my favorite.

RAY: Oh my god. Yeah. Everybody was there. Those parties were amazing.

VAN ETTEN: It’s funny to think about when we first met, eight or nine years ago, and what the music scene was like. It was mostly that Pianos-Sin-é-Cake Shop circle right there. But then in Brooklyn, that was my corner—Zebulon, Monkey Town, and Glasslands.

RAY: They had really good Ostrich burgers at Monkey Town. That was my favorite. I was drinking really heavily that year. The first time I met a lot of people I was wasted.

VAN ETTEN: Well, side note to the people reading this—we were in our early 20s.

RAY: Nah, they’re gonna like the stories when we’re drunk. They don’t want us to talk about our old lady days.

VAN ETTEN: Sipping coffee in a dimmed kitchen…But we were in our early 20s when we met.

RAY: Sharon was in her early 20s; I was in my mid 20s and I was a bigger drunk than she was, so I have nothing to hide. [both laugh]

VAN ETTEN: I don’t have anything to hide either. That was way back and those were fun times. Let’s see… What are some of the biggest challenges you continue to face in the music industry?

RAY: I mean, who are we kidding—it’s always money. How do you make money? And do you deserve to make money? Because, in the abstract sense, it’s art, and it should be art for art’s sake, but then you devote time to your shit jobs. I lucked out—as much as working as a pseudo-bouncer at Pianos can get crazy, I don’t work in an environment that prevents me from making anything. I used to work in high-end sales, and you had to completely be on the ball and you had to sell, sell, sell, and fill your quotas. I’m like, “I don’t want to take this job home.”

When you’re running a band and you have bandmates, as much as you’d like to think everybody’s utopic, people have to eat and all of a sudden you find yourself responsible for finances you never thought you would be. That’s really scary.

VAN ETTEN: You have to take care of a lot of people. Knowing that I can’t afford to give people salary when we’re off the road. Having people on retainer—I can’t do that.

RAY: I can’t even do it on the road. The way the money gets divided at the level I’m at, it’s like, “I don’t know if I can pay you guys later.” I’m very much used to working and doing [music] at the same time, but it gets really, really terrifying. I wish it was driving a car into a swimming pool at the Holiday Inn—that’s what I thought rock ‘n’ roll was. Like, “Rock ‘n’ roll—yeah! I can’t wait to do some damage to some hotel room!” But now it’s ironing everything out, “Please don’t charge us more because we didn’t check out on time!” [laughs]

VAN ETTEN: Are you managing yourself now, too?

RAY: I think we’re all managing each other at this point in time. I went to school for business, which is fucking crazy. I went to Drexel. I was originally an engineering student—I did it for my parents—and I knew I was going to fail out. So I picked the major I knew I could bullshit the most—still do drugs and party—so I became a marketing communications major. [laughs] When I was younger, I was like, “I’m an artist. I don’t have to worry about business anymore,” and I made a lot of dumb decisions leaving it to other people. I should’ve taken control of it more when I younger. I was too busy drinking and partying at Monkey Town. [laughs]

VAN ETTEN: Those were the days. So what’s next?

RAY: I’m writing another record. I’ve had this idea in my head for a couple months and I need to see it through. How about you?

VAN ETTEN: I’m setting up a studio here, trying to have a decent setup so I can write more, have people over and work on stuff, and learn how to write with other people. I’m applying to school [for] psychology. I’m applying to Hunter for the spring.

RAY: You have this look on your face like you don’t think it’s gonna happen.

VAN ETTEN: I’m nervous. I don’t know if I’ll get in, because I’m technically a freshman. I only have a year and a half of school under my belt and I didn’t do that great, so I’m starting from scratch. I’m like a 33, 34-year-old freshman.

RAY: You look better than any freshman I’ve seen.

VAN ETTEN: I’m excited to go study and read and immerse myself in something.

RAY: I was thinking about that too. One of these days I wanna get the art degree I always wanted to have. You’re going to have so many texts to read—that’s going to probably inspire a lot of writing.

VAN ETTEN: It’s hard if you’re just touring constantly. It’s like, “What am I going to write about? I’m in the van, I’m playing another show…” I’m still writing about heartbreak that happened years ago. I don’t see the point of writing and putting out another record until I can do something else.

RAY: It’s crazy when you’re around people all the time. You can’t write. Writing is a very solitary, isolating thing. Probably the hardest part of writing songs is the actual words, because you don’t want to sound like an idiot. I think a lot of musicians pretend the lyrics don’t matter, but they really do. It’s still a medium within the music. It paints the picture, it tells the story in a different way. It adds to the experience of the song. If you have shit lyrics, your song is down the drain… Oh my god. You’re making me want to hide in a cave. [laughs]

VAN ETTEN: Am I scaring you for some reason? You have an awesome new record you’re going to tour!

RAY: Yeah, but now I’m craving isolation. It’s really crazy how you have to balance people in your life. Like, you and I, we don’t hang out often, but when we do, it’s good. It’ll be months on end and it’s not a huge deal, but not everyone looks at shit that way.

VAN ETTEN: But the musician lifestyle is not easy for most people to understand. This is something I’m struggling with. When you’re on tour, people think you’re just having the time of your life and it’s really romantic.

RAY: I’m always stressed out.

VAN ETTEN: There’s no real time to full heartedly catch up with people when you’re on the road. Then, when you get home after being gone for a month or two, time moves on without you. You’re scrambling to catch up with the people. Some friends and family understand, but then there are others who just think that you can’t find enough time in your life for them.

RAY: I think that’s a terrible expectation to have. After [I come home and have] a couple hours of conversation, my mom just starts shutting down. It’s really hard. It’s horrible, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have any love for anyone. I’m just being honest.

VAN ETTEN: You can’t force it. Things need to happen naturally, but sometimes I find myself, when I get home, that I’m over-scheduling. I’m like, “I need to do this, I need to do this,” and I’m only home for a week or two and cramming as much as I can in. Then I realize I didn’t give enough time to myself to replenish from that last stint out.

RAY: That’s why when you read in the tabloid magazines that “She fainted from exhaustion,” you’re like, “I believe it!” Everyone else is like, “Exhaustion—she’s got a bunch of problems she’s not talking about.”

VAN ETTEN: Shilpa and Sharon hope Lana Del Rey feels better!

RAY: Yeah, we do, I genuinely do. I bet it’s hard being Lana Del Rey—and I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way.

VAN ETTEN: It’s hard being anyone. [pauses] Did you go home for mother’s day?

RAY: No, but I did call my mother. My mom’s awesome. I’m a terrible daughter, though. She knows my lifestyle. She’s my band girlfriend. She always wants to chat with me because she misses me and it never happens. But I hung out with her in April. She was cooking up a storm.

VAN ETTEN: She’s in Jersey still?

RAY: No, my parents live in California now. Missus Ray. She’s really funny. I was on the phone, I had to take care of some band stuff, and she walks in like, “Get off the phone! It’s time to eat!” It was like nothing had changed, like I was six all over again.

VAN ETTEN: It’s kind of comforting when you go home, you’re really going home. My mom is coming in a couple weeks and my partner’s family is coming in too, so we’re having a kind of touristy weekend, doing a sunset cruise on the water, then having a dinner and going to Marie’s Crisis [Café]. Have you been there before?

RAY: No… what is this?

VAN ETTEN: It’s just off Seventh Ave. It’s a piano bar, but for Broadway fans.

RAY: [laughs]

VAN ETTEN: I almost had you! But then I said Broadway… there’s a piano and a bar and people sit up on the bar singing show tunes all night.

RAY: Your mom is into show tunes? That’s funny.

VAN ETTEN: Oh yeah—I grew up going to musicals with my mom here in New York, going to Broadway. I used to be in musicals in high school.

RAY: Were you? I didn’t know that about you.

VAN ETTEN: My big role was Anybodys in West Side Story.

RAY: That was the hottest character, besides whoever Rita Moreno played, the feisty one, [Anita]. Maria was boring. I loved the dance sequence in the original movie. I was a dancer for years. Just watching that, when the toes scrape across the floor, it’s so elegant.

VAN ETTEN: I did jazz dance for a few years.

RAY: I want to get back into it. I did tap, ballet, and classical Indian dance. I started when I was really, really young. I’ve been talking about [it] a lot. I think I need to do it again, but I don’t think I could do ballet. I’m too traumatized from the ballet thing. It’s really tough culture.

I remember being eight years old±and I had my signature gut, it’s just part of me, I’ve just got a belly—and I was looking at my leotards that I didn’t want to be in because I was so ashamed of not having a lot of clothes on. I hated that aspect. I remember my instructor coming up to me and pushing my stomach in and being like, “What the hell is this?” She was so upset I had that. It really triggers something in your mind. All ballerinas have eating disorders. I don’t know anyone who escaped that. It was really tough, constantly being conscious of every piece of fat that’s on your body. It’s a very hard culture to be a part of. I want to take tap again. It was more fun.

VAN ETTEN: Do you still remember your time steps?

RAY: Yeah, but I’m not very good at it. I’ll do it in public sometimes and everyone will be like, “Ehhh…” But I like dance with a lot of footwork and legs. I think ballet is more arms, stretching, alignment, and things like that.

VAN ETTEN: What other things can I ask you… Oh, how is your voice holding up on the road?

RAY: It’s fine. It gets kind of shitty by the last two days, but I haven’t really lost my voice—knock on wood—in a really long time. But also, the stuff I’m doing now isn’t as physically taxing as when I was in Happy Hookers or Beat the Devil, where the songs were louder. With Happy Hookers I was competing with this dude’s orange amp stack. It became this battle, getting so loud to a point that it didn’t make sense to my songs anymore—I just didn’t give a shit about it: “I don’t care how fancy your fucking gear is. I just want my songs to sound like me.” I remember somebody saying, when I was doing the Happy Hookers, something to the extent of, “People pay money just to watch you scream.” And I’m like, “No. I’m a singer. I don’t just scream. I want to sing everything.” Anytime someone says something like that, I’m like, “Fuck that. I’ll do the opposite.” [laughs]

VAN ETTEN: So what do you have planned for the rest of the day?

RAY: I have to do laundry. I’m totally stressing about laundry right now. This is the luxurious life of rock ‘n’ rollers.

VAN ETTEN: Thinking about laundry.

RAY: And kale salad.

 LAST YEAR’S SAVAGE IS OUT NOW VIA NORTHERN SPY RECORDS. FOR MORE ON THE MUSICIAN, VISIT HER WEBSITE.