Working Girl

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:11

    DESPITE WHAT ITS name might imply, Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers is not a Bollywood-themed neo-burlesque troupe. Not that its members mind if you think that. “That’s awesome,” Ray herself says when questioned on the potential misconception. “I wanted [a name] that represents having a good time.” The “Happy Hookers” are, in fact, a rotating group of musicians including Andrew Hoepfner from Creaky Boards and Vincent Cacchione from Soft Black, providing musical support for Ray, the primary songwriter. Anyone seeking pasty-covered breasts will be disappointed,“but they do dress in drag sometimes,” Ray reassures.

    Questionable sex appeal aside, she enjoys the band’s “really loose” formation: “I like the enthusiasm of people playing when they want to.” Ray’s genre-straddling music borrows from old jazz standards as well as blues, punk and a touch of vaudeville, which she believes carries a certain sexuality often lacking in New York indie rock: one that’s “too male and too sterile.” Ray’s main instrument, the harmonium, adds another unique element to the mix.A New Jersey native born to Indian immigrants, Ray studied classical Indian music growing up, for the voice as well as the harmonium. She draws a connection from the accordion-like instrument to the part of the world that eventually produced shoegazer rock. The British brought the Irish instrument to India, she explains, where it was readily adopted because Indian, Irish and Scottish music are all based on full, drawn-out drones. “You hit that one Kevin Shields chord, and everything else comes on top of it,” says Ray.With its complex rhythms, Indian music also shares elements with jazz;“you have to have a tight drummer to scribble on,” she explains. Suddenly, the melding of Ray’s various influences makes sense.

    The aforementioned scribbling comes mainly from Ray’s voice, which used to anchor the dark, stripped-down sound of the now-defunct Beat the Devil.With “more lush” arrangements in her Happy Hookers material,Ray is free to let her powerful voice explore its own snags, peaks and valleys in a joyous and inquisitive way. From a Bessie Smith coo to a dirty rasp, she intones lyrics about the messy business of being alive which, taken on their own, read like poetry: We fought in streets of our neighborhood/Like drunk tornados tearing plains/ We fell/Till our skulls shattered the concrete of St. Louis/ Who’s knows who’s been keeping tabs/ Who struck the first blow/ A bitter boxing Bukowski won’t save us now Words are as important to Ray as calibrating their delivery to penetrate hearts in the most devastating way possible. She has been studying this art for some time; in her last two years at Drexel University, she “never went to class,” instead spending time educating herself about pop, rock and jazz music. “I would hang out in my apartment, do a lot of drugs and force myself to learn how to write a song…I listened to records until I understood.” She sang along to singers she found challenging: Helen Wolf, Siouxsie Sioux, Etta James,Tina Turner,Thom Yorke, Neil Young, Johnny Rotten, Janis Joplin; “If I could sing [Joplin’s] ‘Cosmic Blues’ really well, I’d know I’d gained some territory.”

    As part of New York’s musical landscape, Ray enjoys playing with colleagues like She Keeps Bees, Creaky Boards, Scary Mansion and Wild Yaks, bands that, unlike the thrashy rock groups that regularly destroy venues like Death by Audio and Market Hotel, take a slightly subtler approach to moving their listeners. Though she has played venues including the Lucky Cat, Monkeytown and infamous open-mic patchouli hole The Sidewalk Caf, she loves “makeshift loft shows” the best. At a recent Bushwick house party, Ray recounts, “people threw the chairs down and just started dancing…we were passing a blunt…it’s great to be able to do what you want without having someone go ‘don’t you dare.’” Ray and her ladies of the night are currently rehearsing for an upcoming show at the Chelsea Market Rooftop (as part of a Rooftop Films party), a supporting spot for Nanuchka and the New York Howl (location TBA) and the infamous art party Rubulad. They’ve also just wrapped up a record with producer Jay Braun, recorded “guerilla style” over the course of only three days.“It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life,” Ray says of the record,“we’ll see what happens with it.” No matter what, New York can expect a dose of classy raunch from Ray to go with its ubiquitous aggression. “Let’s talk about cock and pussy,” she grins. “New York is a very sexual city and a lot of the music that’s being made here is missing that.”

    > Shilpa Ray

    Nov. 1, Pianos, 158 Ludlow St. (at Stanton St.), 212-505-3733; 8, $10.