It's not often that someone sketches out his or her life path as a 13-year-old and sees the results materialize in adulthood, but Shilpa Ray is an exception.
At that age, the New Jersey-bred, Brooklyn-based musician heard The Velvet Underground for the first time, an event that had a massive impact on her.
“I just knew I wasn't going to lead a very conventional lifestyle and eventually do something creative and not just something practical,” the 31-year-old says, calling from outside a noisy club in Houston before she and Her Happy Hookers take the stage. “At that age, I didn't really think I was going to end up playing music this seriously or anything like that. I wanted to do a lot of different things — visual art, be a filmmaker for a little while. I stuck with (this) because I was more comfortable playing music than any other medium of art.”
But giving Lou Reed and company all the credit for sending Ray down the road of loud, impassioned Rock & Roll is a bit deceitful. Ray was originally turned toward music by her parents — Indian immigrants who wanted her to play and sing traditional Indian songs as a way of appreciating her cultural background. At 6, she was given her first harmonium, a keyboard instrument that produces an accordion-like sound and is common in Indian music.
“I liked listening to that kind of music, but I hated the practicing and the discipline of it,” she says.
Even with the instrument imposed on her, Ray consistently played the harmonium until she was 17. Looking back, she regards her early musical training as “completely beneficial.”
Still, English and American music was banned in Ray's household by her parents when she was around 8, an act that probably added extra fire to her first experience hearing the Velvets.
When she could listen to Western music, it was whatever was available at the library or the old music played on the radio. As she grew up, she especially became smitten with Blues, old Rock & Roll and artists like The Rolling Stones and The Kinks.
“To me, there's something about older music that has a little more of a human quality to it,” she says. “Now, it's a little more synthetic. I haven't lived during the ’60s or ’70s or anything like that, but I still hear that kind of music and appreciate it.”
In 2004, Ray began to come into her own as a musician, first playing solo shows and then joining what she calls her “first real band,” the rambunctious Beat the Devil. When Beat the Devil disbanded in 2008, she was back to solo gigs, until Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers came together in 2009. Joined by her three Hookers, Ray is a pretty powerful presence as a frontwoman, and she's come to regard concerts as being extremely important to her well-being. She has been quoted as saying, “If I don't play live, I feel like an insane person.”
“When you play live, you can throw as many tantrums as you want because it's your time to be crazy and you should do that,” she says of her love for performing.
In January, the quartet released Teenage and Torture, its debut full-length. The album is steeped in Blues/Rock grit, lending credibility to all those invocations of past decades. Ray's presence is at the forefront, vocalizing with the earthy presence of a '40s Jazz siren or one of Indie Rock's more commanding women (like, say, Ida Maria or PJ Harvey). She's deft at stretching out notes, contorting her voice to wring feeling without getting bombastic. The music alternates between a sprightly, nimble feel — song structures are often hard to discern, so many of the beats and riffs stir up energy — and resembling a dirty paean to skid row. When it's beautiful, it's never too manicured.
The imprecise sense of mystery to the Happy Hookers' music is enhanced by Ray's weapon of choice. In a satisfying turn, it's the harmonium.
“I love playing it now. I find new things about it all the time. It's a very organic instrument,” she says, noting the importance of its portability and power to provide textures.
Even with her background, employing an atypical device like the harmonium does open the band up to being seen as a novelty. But Ray, ever a free spirit, is far from bothered by it.
“Oh, people already think we're a novelty act,” she says. “We get that all the time. I think it's funny. At least the novelty hasn't worn off (for) me.”
SHILPA RAY AND HER HAPPY HOOKERS play a free show at Over-the-Rhine’s MOTR Pub Wednesday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.