An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Sometimes an album can appear to be dark on the surface, but once you peel away the layers, you’ll find a deep emotional core that reveals truth, honesty, pain and beauty in equal measures. Such is the case with Last Year’s Savage, the 2015 album from Brooklyn-based Indian-American singer/songwriter Shilpa Ray. The album is not unlike her previous work with Beat The Devil and Her Happy Hookers, yet it is a work that is also distinctly different. The dark mood that permeates the album was inspired by a depression that sent her creativity into a new realm. Her past work could often be classified as Blues, Goth or Garage; however, Last Year’s Savage touches a deeper nerve within the listener. The album isn’t Pop in the traditional sense. It is a collection of melodic and atmospheric songs that are unique and other-worldly – but it is her most accessible full length work to date. During daylight hours, this album sounds emotionally therapeutic. But on a long, dark night, it is heavy and heart-breaking. With Shilpa’s unique voice and harmonium front and center, Last Year’s Savage has a sound that mixes Blondie’s more experimental material with the dark, brooding honk of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Ironically, Shilpa has a professional relationship with Cave, so his influence may have infiltrated her own work. Yet it is more in spirit than in sound. Shilpa’s music has its own vibe, and that is a rarity in this day and age. Like the sound of a heart breaking while floating in space, Last Year’s Savage is a beautifully haunting album that grows more powerful with each spin.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Shilpa about the album and much more…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Last Year’s Savage is about to be released. How are you feeling about this project and the reaction so far?
SHILPA RAY: It’s been a lot of fun. I enjoy the actual process of making stuff and I can’t really predict what kind of a year we’re gonna have afterwards. That’s kind of hard to say, but I’m kind of in a nice place with it.
SPAZ: The album seems to come from a place that is both haunting and beautiful at the same time. What inspired this batch of songs?
SHILPA: I went into a really bad depression. I don’t know how people perceive that word anymore. Because depression – when you still have to pay bills and go to work and stuff – is a completely different ballgame than just being depressed romantically. Like hanging out and staring at walls all day or something like that. I was just going through a really rough time in my life. I guess this was how I had to kind of get it out, and I don’t feel that way anymore.
SPAZ: Is it hard to go on stage and perform these songs if you are not in that frame of mind anymore?
SHILPA: Not at all. I think the performance part of it is like its own beast. I don’t have to be depressed in order to make music. That’s not what I’m about. Human emotions are incredibly complex and then when you’re pushed to do stuff, that’s like performing – all of it just comes out regardless of whether you’re feeling it or not. I mean, there are certain times I’m playing shows and in the back of my head all I’m thinking about is how I’m gonna get some fried chicken afterwards! (laughs). I hate to say it, but that’s the way it is.
SPAZ: Was being less “aggressive” on this record intentional?
SHILPA: No, it wasn’t. I think what happened was I had started working on this batch of songs by myself and they just ended up becoming slow. It was just how I felt at the time, and it just came out that way. I think with Happy Hookers, it was a very different sort of sentiment because I felt more detached from the material I was writing, and so it had a different spin on it. I think this was a lot more personal for me – the pacing just became different because I wasn’t feeling that great while I was doing it, so I didn’t feel that rage.
SPAZ: Do you feel that an emotional performance can often be much more powerful to the listener than an aggressive performance that is louder and faster?
SHILPA: Yeah. I think it depends on how the person is gonna listen to something. I think different music works for different settings. I really do believe in that. I notice the audience reaction when I play stuff off the new record is really different. At first, it was really unsettling because it felt like – because nobody was moshing – that nobody was listening. But it’s the opposite – they actually will stand and be real quiet and stare at you. It’s like a very different way of listening to something, or getting a different interpretation of what you’re putting out. I think there’s room for fast and slow. I think having dynamic is really important for musicians. Even The Ramones had some ballads.
SPAZ: Was there a particular song that you had written or recorded for this album that clicked with you and helped decide which direction the album was heading?
SHILPA: No. I guess “Nocturnal Emission” would probably be the one that I was like, “Oh, so this is how I feel right now.” But all of it came from a lot of bitterness. I mean, the whole record just talks about being disenfranchised, which is so different. Like when you’re disenfranchised as a teenager, you don’t really know what the word means. And then, I’m in my 30s and I still don’t feel like I fit in anywhere, and that means something more because I pay bills. I pay taxes. I’m like part of it in a way, but then not in a way. It’s just very bizarre. You get introduced to things I think as a teenager, like being depressed and feeling alienated, but I don’t think it’s the same as when you feel it as an adult. I think it’s very different.
SPAZ: I was drawn more to the emotional parts of the album as opposed to trying to classify what I was listening to. I think your music goes much deeper than any kind of classification. Do you purposely try to avoid that easy classification or is that a natural thing?
SHILPA: I can’t do it. That’s the problem (laughs). I’ll try to write a surf song and it’ll come out so dark. I can’t fit in the genre because I can’t write like that. I just can’t do it. I would probably need to work with someone to make a real pop song – I couldn’t do it on my own. It’s too hard. I’m writing this stuff and it just comes out really off-kilter like that. It’s crazy.
SPAZ: Is there a track that you feel best represents the album for those who have not heard it yet?
SHILPA: I would probably choose “Pop Song (for Euthanasia)” and “Colonel Mustard (in the Billiards Room with Sheets of Acid).” “Moksha” would be one of them, too – only because the lyrics mean a lot to me. I was in Nepal where it’s 81% Hindu, and I was born and raised Hindu, and I went to the major temple, which is like our version of Mecca, and the guy that I was with at the time was showing me the different places where people get cremated. He was telling me that when you’re poor, you get cremated further out from the temple and then the more you pay to get your cremation or your loved one’s cremation, the closer you are to God. I found that really, really despicable – I hated it so much, and it made me really angry. I guess I’d never been exposed to that before because there’s not a lot of Hindus in the states so we don’t know a lot about the corruption. You just go to temple and that’s it. So when I’m in India or Nepal, there’s constantly all this tax and all this money you have to give, and people are really poor and they’ll give their whole life savings just to get their cremation so they’re closer to God or they’ll get a better afterlife. It’s the same shit that you get in Christianity – like your burial plots and all that stuff. I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why you have to pay to die. That just seems so dumb to me, you know?
(PLEASE NOTE: My interview with Shilpa was conducted a week before the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Before running this interview, I reached out to Shilpa to comment on her response as not to make her appear to be insensitive to the recent tragedy: “I was commenting on Hindu religion and the hypocrisy of organized religions and not on the actual country or its culture. The people of Nepal are actually the most hard-working and hospitable people I’ve ever encountered. I had an incredible time there and feel grief for the tragedy that has happened.”)
SPAZ: In collaborating with Nick Cave or any other artists, are you able to see and hear things from a different perspective?
SHILPA: Yes and no. I can sit down and listen to somebody’s feedback on my stuff and it still comes out some other way. I really have no control over what I sound like. I can take the feedback and go, “Yeah, you’re probably right about this and this and this,” but it’s really tough for me to like make it exactly the way somebody else wants it. I can’t write like Nick. He writes like himself. Sometimes, the subject matter that we write about overlaps. We had a conversation about that once because I had thought it was really funny that without knowing each other, we both had mentioned Oprah in two different songs. It was bizarre and he thought that was pretty hilarious.
SPAZ: How did you meet Nick Cave?
SHILPA: We met through a mutual friend named (Larry) Ratso Sloman, who wrote a book on Bob Dylan, a book on Houdini, and most recently the Mike Tyson book. Ratso had given him a copy of my first Happy Hookers record and after that he just came to visit me at the denim shop I was working at. At first, it was really bizarre because here’s that guy that you were listening to since you were a teenager and he’s in this shop that you work at. The pen I was holding in my hand – it kind of exploded in my hand – I was so nervous. And everybody in the store was like, “Oh my God….” The girls were running back and forth. It was crazy. I didn’t know what to say. We both started staring at the floor at first because he’s really shy initially, too. He’s very human – he’s just a very down to earth person. He’s not a diva or anything like that. I just love his work ethic so much. If anything was the biggest influence on me – it was how much he worked.
SPAZ: Yeah, he’s pretty darn prolific.
SHILPA: Yeah, in the most insane way. Every month I hear he’s working on something new. So, that’s something I definitely aspire to have – that kind of a regimen and that sort of endurance. But in terms of material, The Bad Seeds – nobody could touch that. That’s just its own thing.
SPAZ: Who have been your biggest influences?
SHILPA: I’ve always loved The Velvet Underground since I was a kid. I was very young when I picked that up. From that I kind of understood about the Bad Seeds, New York Dolls, and The Cramps, and all that kind of stuff. But, I’ve never really been into music strictly for a genre. I’ve never been a stalwart member of a scene. I could never do it because I can’t fit in, so I think that has a lot to do with it. I have a lot of friends who are part of the Dark Hardcore thing, and I like hardcore music, but I was never part of that scene. I wasn’t an active member in anything like that. So, I think that’s probably a big reason why I can’t seem to emulate any of it. I work on my own so it just becomes this other thing.
SPAZ: What is next for Shilpa Ray?
SHILPA: I’ve been writing a new record and the sound is very different, and the material, the narrative, is very different too. It’s gonna be a different sound for sure – more upbeat. I don’t think I can get that down at this point. Who knows? Who knows what’ll happen in the next five years, but I guess I really needed to make this record to get it out of my system, and then move on to something else. The next record will be a lot lighter.
SPAZ: What is currently spinning on your record, CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray players?
SHILPA: I just watched Gone Girl and that was crazy. I have mixed feelings about a lot of that movie, but the sum total of the entire movie kind of freaked me out about a lot of stuff. But also, it’s strange watching movies now ‘cause some of the dialog is written so poorly and you wonder why. The plot is so great but you can tell that Hollywood thing is there – like they have to cater to the masses in some way. Music-wise, I’ve just been listening to a lot of Soul music. I’ve been really into listening to old school Doo Wop from New York City or Brooklyn. People like Little Anthony and The Imperials, but not just the hits. I listen to the deeper tracks to learn about the vocal arrangements and stuff. It’s so amazing, and that came from New York! They would hang out on the street corner in Harlem and they would come up with those types of harmonies. That’s indigenous to where I’m from, so it just really interests me. I don’t think anything from New York sounds like New York anymore, and that’s okay, but it kind of bothers me a little bit.
Thanks to Shilpa Ray