Shilpa Ray and her Happy Hookers ended a late afternoon set at Knitting Factory during CMJ with Shilpa Ray stepping away from her harmonium and pogoing wildly, stabbing the air like a child throwing a tantrum. The move was meditative after an explosive set of screams, shrieks and coos from the Brooklyn singer, all backed with just the right balance of grinding blues and straight-ahead rock from her Hookers in tow – guitarist Andrew Bailey, drummer John Adamski and bassist Nick Hundley.
The whole orchestral molotov should fit perfectly at Southpaw on November 11 when the band shares a bill with locals Outernational and Patti Smith & Lenny Kaye at a benefit show for FortnightJournal.com, sponsored by BrooklyntheBorough.com.
At one point during the CMJ showcase someone from the audience yelled “Patti Smith!” anda confused Ray responded with, “Pumpkin?” The word drew a laugh from the packed room, while the diminutive Ray did not miss a beat. “When you’re on stage everything is kind of off the cuff,” she says after the show. “I’m a horrible multi-tasker. I can’t have three thoughts at the same time, and I’m really notorious for saying the wrong thing. I was like, Patti Smith? Oh, pumpkin?”
Ray’s unremarkable response was shocking by most media accounts recently. Following a swell of positive press over the past year — Nick Cave is apparently a fan — starting at SXSW last March, the 30-year old has given interviews about blowing rails on Rick James’ grave or describingher suburban New Jersey hometown maybe not in the most racially sensitive terms. The jabs in print wouldalmost be too much if they had not come from a musician comfortable in her own skin who has made music without apology since moving to New York in 2002 and has been playing her signature harmonium since she was 9 years old.
“I say what I feel like saying, and if you like it you dig it, and if you don’t you don’t,” she says about her poetry, adding that despite her tough exterior she’s a total hopeless romantic off stage. “I’ll fall for boys in a snap and then they’ll let me down.”
In music, however, it’s about using the least amount of words to get your point across. “Being intellectual about shit is just pointless, so I’m just gonna say what I feel like saying andif you wanna take it in you can take it in, and if you don’t you don’t.”
“When you put [words] to music,” she says, “it’s all about rhythm and it’s all about how your voice feels when you’re singing to that rhythm and that’s how the words formulate. It’s weird because I have no idea about word usage and what you put down in terms of how you visualize words [in poetry] versus how you say the words… which is why lyrics and poetry are a completely different medium.”
Ray describes the time a friend asked why she used a certain word in a song. “I was like, you know what, it just sounds more crass when you say it out loud than the words you want me to use and that’s something Mark E. Smith actually perfected.”
Ray’s own vocal stylings are gripping to listen to and more so to watch. The recently released Venus Shaver 7” previews her forthcoming album Teenage and Torture,out on Knitting Factory Records January 18, 2011. Ray’s newest material is a bluesy and mature follow up to the dark 2009 debut A Fish Hook, An Open Eye. Since then, the band has come together, tightening its routine and striving to match the force that is their leader. And Ray couldn’t be happier with her Hookers of the moment.
“I love my boys!” she says. “It’s fun being the oldest member of my band at this point. We have a bond that nobody else could understand in a million years. We’re all individual. I never tell them how to dress. I don’t give a shit about what they wear on stage. I don’t give a crap about what they look like to people, I don’t give a shit. They’re just so fucking amazing.”
Ray says the lineup has been solid since January after her former group Beat the Devil imploded. “In this day and age being in a band is really hard,” she says. “People talk about it like it’s nothing, but it costs a lot of money and you gotta make a lot of investments, and you gotta know the quote un-quote right people, and you gotta make a lot of business on your own, and if you’re not part of some kind of hyped up scene or hyped up trend, you really, really need to think about why you’re doing this.”
It would perhaps be easy to compare Ray’s drive and talent to Patti Smith, New York’s punk poet laureate, and there is a lineage present, though they are their own women. “I can’t wait to see her,” Ray says, of the upcoming gig at Southpaw. “She was the first concert I went to that wasn’t a hardcore show when I was a teenager and I was totally blown away.”
“I remember seeing the Horses cover — Smith’s seminal 1975 debut — in some catalogue and I had no idea what it was and I remember thinking, who’s that girl in the suit?”
“Then it blew my mind.”
Photos by Michael Popp