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Shilpa Ray's struggle for independence

The outspoken songstress breaks out on 'Last Year's Savage'

The struggle for ownership has hung over Shilpa Ray's career as it has for countless female musicians. Raised in suburban New Jersey by Indian parents, the goth-inspired songwriter released Last Year's Savage (Northern Spy), her first album to appear under her own name, after breaking away from her blues-punk outfit Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers.

Ray's songwriting burns with the intensity of a woman coming face-to-face with a gauntlet of sexism and stereotypes in the music industry, only to emerge stronger.

On Last Year's Savage, Ray brims with much of the same brutally visceral imagery honed by acts such as the Cramps, Lydia Lunch, and longtime fan and collaborator Nick Cave. Brides set ablaze, broken spines, and scathing condemnations of first-world opulence are common fodder, making it difficult to believe there was a time when Ray played the role of the good girl. "As a child, I didn't have this epiphany that I liked playing music," Ray says. "It's like when your parents put you on the soccer team and all of a sudden you're playing soccer."

She first started playing music on the piano and harmonium, a portable pipe organ capable of producing a brooding drone commonly used to accompany vocals in Indian classical music. Western rock and pop music were rarely allowed in her house, so Ray would sneak in Nick Cave and the Doors records to the ire of her parents. "My dad's biggest nightmare was the day I asked for a guitar," she says.

In high school, Ray didn't meet the expectations of an Indian woman in her social circle by finding her voice in the music of the Velvet Underground instead of the hip-hop and R&B favored by her peers.

Being the outcast provided her with the time to solidify her own identity and develop a sense of self-awareness that defines her lyrical perspective. "I was very self-aware when I was a kid, but I sound so arrogant when I say it," Ray says. "I always kind of knew what I was going to veer toward."

She recalls a time in the seventh grade when she read the Langston Hughes poem "Too Blue," a bleak meditation on suicide where Hughes muses on shooting himself but feels too depressed to buy the gun. "I knew exactly what that meant," she says.

In college, Ray started playing her harmonium again, performing open mics in New York City until she founded Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers. The songs from that era embody the trademarks of her songwriting. In songs such as "Heaven in Stereo," her sulking voice smolders over a steady thunder of wailing guitars as she couples the physical to the otherworldly with lines such as "Oh Mother I've sewn my flesh to the sound waves/Buried my bones to drone of the stereo."

Even though she's long past her parents' moratorium on rock, the Indian classical music of her childhood underpins her songwriting. The menacing, slow-burning ballads she favors often dwell in minor keys, reminiscent of Indian nighttime ragas. "The costume of goth music didn't really intrigue me, it was how they used minor chords," she says.

After releasing two records, Ray sought to shift her lineup, sound, and start recording under her own name, which put her at odds with her former label Knitting Factory Records. "I had expressed interest in changing the sound I was doing from Happy Hookers to now and they were not very supportive," she says. "If I was a guy and I had made the same decisions I would've gotten more support."

She stresses that she doesn't speak for every man or woman in the music industry but after witnessing people claim credit for her material Ray decided to record under her own name. That battle for ownership and identity informed her headspace going into Last Year's Savage, where she uses sarcastic wit to take aim at patriarchal structures, hollow promises of salvation, and economic injustice.

Ray's fearless takedowns of society's narratives could come off as heavy-handed were it not for her master of wit and the personal experiences injected into her lyrics. She opens the song "Johnny Thunder's Fantasy Space Camp" by lampooning fatalist male rockstar dreams: "So you think you're gonna die in New Orleans/Face down in a sleazy motel/Well, you can own it, I could vomit/Where's the Dramamine?"

Last Year's Savage feels so powerful because Ray positions herself as more than just a woman fronting a band. Her voice is full-bodied and robust, built on a foundation of conflicting identities, societal struggles, and a lyrical bravado that's entirely her own.