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Happy hooker 

New York City post-punk heroine Shilpa Ray manages to find new cures for the shopgirl blues

First there are the similarities: The New Jersey upbringing, the escape to New York, the artistic sensibility that's both poetic and streetwise, the keening voice that can shift from hymnal to howl in 12 bars or less.

The connections between punk poet laureate Patti Smith and next-generation cultural heir Shilpa Ray are hard to overlook.

But then come the differences.

Smith messed with punk-rock conventions by periodically wielding a clarinet, whereas Ray's weapon of choice is the harmonium she learned to play growing up in an Indian household.

And while the elder punk's teen years were spent immersed in the surrealist poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet, Ray is more indebted to bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. It's there in her more explicit lyrics — the "backdoor man" references that clarify exactly what it is the little girls understand — and less conspicuously in the band name, Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers.

So even though the first non-hardcore show Ray ever attended was a Patti Smith concert, the younger artist arguably has as much in common with post-punk blues acts like Morphine and Nick Cave, whose band Grinderman she recently toured with.

At Austin's SXSW music festival earlier this month, Ray & Her Happy Hookers gave a passionate performance that was met with fervent applause and cries of, "We love you, Shilpa." Which wasn't all that surprising, given how the band's Teenage and Torture album, released in January on Knitting Factory Records, stands out as an early contender for 2011 Album of the Year lists.

We caught up with Ray last week to talk about New York City punk, the harmonium as surrogate guitar, and the art of selling bras to middle-aged women.

Indy: You don't hear much harmonium in rock music, unless you count the Velvet Underground or Mumford & Sons. How did you end up deciding it would work in a rock context?

Shilpa Ray: Well, I wasn't allowed to play the guitar when I was growing up, because my parents [who were both born in Kolkata] are super-strict. So I had to play the harmonium, because I was trained in North Indian classical music, and that's what you've gotta play when you sing. But I really wanted to make the harmonium sound like a guitar! [Laughs.]

Indy: So why didn't you just switch to guitar once you left home?

SR: You know, I kinda suck at playing strings. I can understand where the chords are and stuff, but my feel is a little off. I think my feel on keys is way better. But I play guitar in my house when no one is watching.

Indy: Your song "Stick It to the Woman" references shopgirls, and you've got a pretty hilarious post on your blog about your first trip to Trader Joe's. Is retail a big part of your consciousness?

SR: Oh, absolutely! I've been working retail since I was 16. [Ray is now 31.] And yeah, it's a huge part of how I look at people, how I interpret people, how I talk to people. It just gives you a different approach on everything.

Indy: So that's virtually half your life.

SR: Yeah, I've spent half my life in stores.

Indy: Which isn't that different than the rest of us. What do you sell?

SR: I've always done clothing or accessories. I started off working at Lord & Taylor, where I sold bras to middle-aged ladies. Since I was the youngest and the most patient, they would let me measure them for their bra sizes. So, yeah, the future's pretty bleak. [Laughs.]

Indy: You guys played a lot of shows at SXSW this year. Did you get a chance to see many other bands while you were there?

SR: We didn't, actually, we were working most of the time. We tried really hard to go out and see people play, and it wasn't working out because the schedules are so busy and so draining. But I did get the chance to sing backing vocals for !!!, and that was a trip, man. That band is so tight, it's out of control. They're so much fun.

I was totally blown away by that experience, because I had never sung stuff in sort of a dance-music or hip-hop style before. And he was kind of coaching me backstage to shorten my phrases more. Because, you know, when you sing blues and stuff, everything's longer. It was just such a blast to learn how to do something differently, and also work with a band that's just phenomenal.

Indy: When I saw you play down there, you were wearing a John Lee Hooker T-shirt. And you also interpolate "Backdoor Man" into your song, "Liquidation Sale." How long have you been into the blues?

SR: I think when I was a teenager I spent a lot of time being a punk, and then when I entered my 20s I spent a lot of time listening to the blues. I love it, it's so real and so the truth, and so honest and fun. I love the songs where they're like, "Yeah, my life's a piece of shit, but I'm still gonna get some tail tonight."

Did you ever hear John Lee Hooker's version of "Whiskey and Women" with Canned Heat? That's like, one of my favorite songs of all time. Oh my God, it's intense, that record is so intense.

Indy: You mention being into punk when you were a teenager, and songs like "Dames a Dime a Dozen" have that kind of droney poetic sound that Patti Smith had around the time of her Easter album. And she was a Jersey transplant as well. Do you have an affinity for that era or that style of music?

SR: Oh, absolutely! It's like the New York sound, you know? Where I grew up in Jersey, about an hour outside, you got so much exposure to that kind of history. It's like doo-wop and Broadway music and hip-hop, which is indigenous New York music. I really believe that music is very regional.

Indy: You've performed by yourself on harmonium as well as with bands. When your old band Beat the Devil broke up, did you consider just going solo and not doing the whole band-lifestyle thing anymore?

SR: Well, I started off as a solo artist, and then I acquired Beat the Devil. And then Beat the Devil broke up. I still play solo, because it's fun, but I love playing with other people.

There's a certain other dimension that comes into play, and a certain other part of your mind that starts to work. Because you have to make all these instruments fit and arrange the stuff, and I love doing things like that. The other members bring their own perspective, their own angle, and it becomes more universal. When I'm playing by myself, it tends to get a little too one-sided for my taste. I can only listen to so much of my voice before I'm just like, "Oh shut up," you know?

bill@csindy.com

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