Post by Misha
Shilpa Ray has been a fiery voice in the New York punk scene since before the Bush years, at a time when, in her own words, “feminism wasn’t as cool or marketable as it is now.” Nonetheless, Ray insisted on being the kind of feminist voice that would pave the way for today’s feminist wave; her work championed the gritty underbelly of “intersectionalism” before the term was trendy, focusing her lens on working people, gentrification, sex work, police brutality, and all the unsexy problems that plague the rest of us.
Her most recent album, Door Girl, is a love / hate letter to New York, where she lives – and works the door at the bar Pianos in the Lower East Side. The songs are alternatingly soft and sweet, cathartic, raging, and playful (one of my favorite moments in the album is the cheerful Beach Boys-esque call-and-response treatment in the devastatingly titled Morning Terrors Nights of Dread). Together they paint a portrait of New York life that will ring painfully true to anyone struggling to pay rent in what often feels like the rotten center of the world.
Shilpa is currently on the tail end of a grueling two month international tour, but she generously took some time to answer our questions about the collisions of politics, commercialism, New York City, business, and art – intersections deftly soundtracked by her work. Though I’ve never met Shilpa, her profound and utter aversion to bullshit comes through in the thoughtful, efficiently punctuated paragraphs she sent back to me for this interview.
One of my favorite things about this record is how it is deeply personal and political at the same time. The album addresses a lot of political issues (gentrification, the Black Lives Matter movement, consent and sexual assault, etc) in the context of day to day life. Can you talk a little about how you weave politics into your music while maintaining its immediacy?
Politics has an odd presence in New York in comparison to other cities in America, mainly because it’s the financial center. $ is the real President here. NYC leans left and yet is one of the most classist, segregated, money-driven places one could live. It’s very easy to slip through the cracks here if you don’t already come from a lot.
As far as politics goes, because the population is so dense any large news event that occurs has not only a huge impact on the city, but also a very polarizing one. Human beings by nature do not follow strict spectrums of left to right. It’s way more complex than that.
I suppose if you’re sensitive like me you tend to absorb all of it, which can be either a huge headache or a work of art. I question everything all the time, almost to the point of dysfunction. I’ve always been that way, so it’s no surprise that it would come out in my writing and in my music. I’m a little envious of people who brunch all day, live for Game of Thrones and don’t react to anything at all. There’s a simplicity to that way of living I’ve never been able to achieve.
That said, I don’t consider myself a political person at all. I’m just a person who’s heavily dissatisfied with the way things are. Politics has its own professions. We elect people into office who we would hope would know what they are doing. Currently, that is not the case at all, which is very unfortunate.
You previously released a record under the name “Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers,” in which sex work and the commodification of women was a central theme. What was the motivation to make that album and choose that band name?
You know, there wasn’t a deliberate theme at the time Teenage and Torture was recorded. Feminism wasn’t as cool or marketable in 2011 as it is now. I was writing about what I was observing so I’m glad some of that honesty came across. I do have memories at the time of people expressing some embarrassment with me when I expressed myself as a “feminist.” You’re not gonna get the big festival gigs or licensing deals if you don’t write middle of the road horseshit for car commercials. I could never fit that mold and now I find a certain satisfaction in that. Besides, if I wrote music for a car commercial I’d want that car to feel like a badass, not an overly precious family-sized SUV.
If I wrote music for a car commercial I’d want that car to feel like a badass, not an overly precious family-sized SUV.
I read in a 2015 conversation between you and Sharon Van Etten about the conflict between being an artist and the need for a steady income, how the desire to make “art for art’s sake” does not always align with the need to pay rent. How do you navigate that challenge these days?
It’s all about how things are organized. There is a passive aggressive nature with artists where one is still holding on to the purity of their beliefs and at the same time getting frustrated when they are not going where they think they should be. If you want to do things like sell your work, tour and play to bigger audiences, then you need to learn how to run a business. Anything that involves the distribution of money (Finance) or “getting the word out” (Marketing) is a business. Businesses can be various sizes and hold various visions. The Happy Healthy Cultural Appropriation Neighborhood Yoga Center is running a business. They’re selling you peace. I would love it to be less cutthroat but we live in a capitalist society that hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. It’s still supply and demand.
Also, people who state that they don’t give a shit about money either come from money, are exploiting someone else for money, or have never been screwed over. I’m a realist. You don’t have to be a raging asshole or an over bloated yuppie in an Oliver Stone movie to understand business. You just have to know what the rules are and what your threshold is.
Door Girl is kind of an observational album documenting the state of the world from the doors of a venue. I found that really compelling as a lot of my comfort this year has come from the community inside small and diy venues around LA. Was there something that made you want to make this album now, and what do you think is the role of small music spaces in the current political climate?
I’m still a Door Girl. I keep laughing at the articles that claim it was my former job and that I miraculously don’t have to do it anymore because I made this album. Not happening. I still find the view I have of people at my job to be interesting. The crowd where I work is very mixed. It’s not geared towards one type of person, so seeing this interaction of various cliques, rappers, frat jocks, yuppies, hipsters, neighborhood people, was and still is fascinating to me. A tiny New York world within a larger New York world.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
Add Value Add Time
What’s next for you?
Playing LA and San Francisco this week. Looking forward to that for sure! I dig the West Coast.