Shilpa Ray is a pessimist. Make that a nihilist — that’s the title of the new two-song EP she has released to accompany the tour that brings her to Cincinnati this week.
Yet, truth be told, things are looking positive for Ray. This is the second tour she’s launched (and the second time she’s come to Cincinnati within recent months) on the heels of her last album, Door Girl.
Based on her personal experiences and her observations of others during nearly a decade working as a “door girl” at a New York club, Ray’s 2017 release on the Northern Spy label is benefiting from word-of-mouth exposure. It’s a musically ambitious, lyrically acute concept album about street-level Rock life in the Big Apple. She channels many ghosts of the city’s Rock heritage — Doo-Wop and girl groups, Garage, Punk, Hip Hop, Patti Smith- and Lou Reed-like recitation, spoken word — but also adds something more: her phenomenal voice, capable of both volcanic, primal scream-like power and tender, world-weary intimacy. Door Girl marks Ray’s fifth full album since her 2006 debut under the name Beat the Devil, and it’s helping her expand her audience.
Does she recognize the increased attention? Does she agree things are looking up?
“I don’t know, man,” she says laughing during a call from the road, where she’s traveling with her four-man band. “The record is called Nihilism, so I don’t think it’s getting any better.”
Ray’s background is unusual. Raised in an Indian-American household in New Jersey, she wasn’t allowed to play or even hear Western-influenced music, although she was a talented singer at age 6. She could play the harmonium with family approval, as it’s a droning pump organ often used in the playing of Indian Ragas. (She continues to play harmonium in her band, although not so much on Door Girl.)
“I discovered The Velvet Underground at the public library when I was young,” Ray says. “(The album) had a banana on the cover and I said, ‘Wow, what is this?’”
“I played (that) record, then I sold my soul and I never came back,” she adds, again punctuating the sentence with a laugh.
After quitting her pursuit of an engineering degree at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, she made music her life. Besides recording and touring, that life has included her work as a door girl at Pianos, a happening New York City club where she also played music.
“They’re really supportive,” she says. “I used to play there over 10 years ago, so I knew the owners and the people that worked there. They hired me because I can get really loud, and they needed somebody that could project her voice.
“I’m on the inside and I still get to decide who gets in and who has to go. We have the big, burlier bouncer outside, and on the inside its usually people like me.” (This elicits another laugh.)
The job turned out to be a perfect experience from which to mine songwriting material, as rave-up stomper “EMT Police and the Fire Department” on Door Girl testifies.
“There was an actual incident that happened where we were so packed in that bar in the dead of summer and people were acting crazy,” Ray says. “And then somebody drank too much and needed to get (their) stomach pumped, and then everyone just showed up. So that actually happened.
“I thought it funny how the (emergency services) are not used for people in dire need, but the spoiled people who drink too much get it all at once. I wonder if for someone in trouble way out where, the cops, ambulances and fire department would show up with so much concern.”
Other songs are more circumspect and reflective, mid-tempo and dreamy. The spark for “Add Value Add Time” from the same album could have been using the late-night subway after work; the title is copped from the on-screen options on MTA transit card machines in NYC. On the track, Ray sings, “Don’t remember the last time when I helped someone/Don’t remember the last time I helped myself/Riding through tunnels with my horse blinders on/I’ve been standing clear of the closing doors like everyone else.” The song also includes the haunting refrain, “Work work work/Die die die/MTA asks, ‘add value,’ ‘add time’/Either way I work til I die.”
Ray has, throughout her career, also carefully chosen surprising covers. The Nihilism EP contains a version of Alice Cooper’s crunching “Is It My Body,” for instance. She’s also done Lou Reed’s “Make Up,” Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” Dinah Washington’s lovely and hopeful “What a Difference a Day Makes” and Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
Her most remarkable cover is a mesmerizing interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” from their The Threepenny Opera. She recorded it with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for the 2013 tribute album assembled by Hal Willner, Sons of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys. Using her harmonium to create gravitas (Ellis does the same with his violin), Ray made the dark, angry song — in which a downtrodden hotel maid awaits pirates to kill those who humiliate her — a showcase for her vocal skills.
“It was a cool song; I could relate to it,” she says. “It wasn’t something unfamiliar to me, but it wasn’t something I thought I’d ever cover, either, because there were a lot of words. And I normally don’t do covers with lots and lots of lyrics. But what I get out of her revenge story is that everybody has a moment where they hate their lives and can’t wait to get out of it.”
Ray says she’s never really thought about what her parents might have thought about their talented young singer if they knew she’d someday be singing such a violent example of classic Western music.
“I’m old now, so things that happened when I was a kid a lot of years ago have passed,” she says. “I’m familiar with a lot at this point.”
Shilpa Ray plays Friday at Northside Yacht Club. Tickets/more info: northsideyachtclub.com.