When Shilpa Ray and her new label, Northern Spy, came up with a mock newspaper titled Savage Times as a promotion for her new record, Last Year’s Savage, they created a realistic-looking webzine and printed up a broadsheet to distribute around coffee shops and record stores. Unwittingly, their wheeze created the perfectly titled publication for these savage times, when lust for power and money results in global devastation.
Ray, the onetime Beat the Devil member and Happy Hookers leader, and a longtime New York City denizen who currently lives in Brooklyn, can’t escape power and money’s reach, though. Money — the lack of it, of course — is the main reason Last Year’s Savage took so long to make.
“I was paying for it out of pocket,” she states. “It took about four years. I’d never worked like that before. Normally, I just go in the studio and bust it out in a week. It drove me nuts. I went insane a bunch of times.” She pauses for a hearty laugh. “That’s what you have to go through, I guess.”
Turning to Kickstarter wasn’t an option. She tried it once to finance a video and found it created a whole new set of problems. “As cool as it was to have all that support, you have to sit there like a fuckin’ snake-oil salesman the whole time,” she says. “I felt really uncomfortable with that. I understand a lot of people are better at doing it than I am, but it just wasn’t for me. When somebody invests in your stuff, all of a sudden there’s a different kind of expectation for it. It is a strange pressure. Then everybody is the judge and the jury as to what mistakes you’re making, so there’s the added bonus to it.”
When Northern Spy Records came into her life, she finally found the moral and business support she needed. “It took years to find a label to step up and help with distribution, and say, ‘Yes, this is what we want to put out.’ You can be on a trend and everyone wants to know who the fuck you are. Or you can be on the outside of it, and no one gives a shit: ‘You’re not going to make any money for me in the next five minutes, so fuck off.’ ”
“The philosophy is wonderful, but some asshole’s always going to ruin it for everybody”
It isn’t like Ray writes inaccessible songs, either. On Savage, manning her trusty harmonium, she’s a torch singer run through a punk-rock filter. Though it’s not a dour record, Ray admits Savage‘s creative roots do lie in disenfranchisement and depression. “I don’t know how to describe it without it sounding overly serious,” she says. “I think it’s part of human nature to get depressed and wonder where your life is going. For me, still feeling disenfranchised in my thirties, [I] was like, ‘When is this gonna stop?’ ”
Then, in crept another D-word: disillusionment. Ray grew up in New Jersey, raised in a Hindu family. She explores that ancient money-spinner, religion, and the co-opting of spirituality as a for-profit business in the song “Moksha.”
“I don’t know anyone who isn’t disillusioned with religion at certain times,” she says. “I still consider myself Hindu. I don’t think [Hinduism is] perfect and I have a lot of criticism, because it just seems like you have to pay a lot of money in order to guarantee some place at the end [when you die]. All the burial expenses to achieve some kind of peace, I witnessed it in Nepal, where people are so poor and they’re paying their life savings. It agitated me.” It’s no different from Western religious funeral services, she surmises: “Organized religion is organized religion. It’s called politics and ‘Give me your money.’ The philosophy is wonderful, but some asshole’s always going to ruin it for everybody: ‘Now I have them believing me, I have to squeeze out every dime from their pocket.’ ”
If there’s another thing that agitates Ray, it’s the popularity power play. “I never wanted to make music to get rated for it,” she says, stemming off the thread that began with the Kickstarter conversation. “I wanted to make music to make art, ’cause I didn’t like going to school and I didn’t want a career, and I didn’t want to do any of that shit.” She laughs. “Now people seem to just want money and accolades. I like doing it because it’s fun and I like the exchange of ideas.”
Profit and popularity, Ray thinks, shouldn’t determine whether an artist stays the course. “When you find yourself doing things better than you did ten years ago, and you end up becoming better at your craft, it’s like, wow. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about? I’m just going to keep thinking that and hope I fall on my feet. I have no massive expectations. As long as I have a roof over my head and food on my table, I think I’m OK.”
Shilpa Ray plays Rough Trade NYC on May 23. For ticket information, click here.
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