Outsider Artist

Photo: Carly Sioux

The Indian-American front woman for blues-rockers Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers grew up in suburban New Jersey feeling like a freak. “My dad once said he felt sorry for me because when I go back to India they won’t accept me and here I’ll never be accepted as American. I feel that way sometimes, but I’ve embraced being an outsider. I’ve been one all my life.”

There were a lot of rules at home, “but I took music class and was classically trained in vocals because that’s what good girls did.” When the family moved from blue-collar Hamilton to Princeton Junction, being a good girl got harder. “There was a huge shift in class,” she says. “I was now surrounded by professors’ daughters and diplomats’ sons. When you grow up in a working-class community, they’re hateful to your face. In a place that’s more refined, it’s always behind your back.” Freshman year of high school, after her father, a bank employee, and schoolteacher mother left for work, Ray—inspired by Fairuza Balk in The Craft—would transform into a witchy goth-punk princess, complete with safety pins through her fingernails. When the school called her parents to discuss Ray’s truancy, “my mom was crying and my dad was just so pissed,” says Ray, now 30. “But in a weird way my mom started embracing it a little. One time, friends were going to New Hope, Pennsylvania, to buy cock-ring chokers, and I wasn’t allowed to go. Mom said, ‘I thought you were smarter than that. Go to an arts-and-crafts store and make your own. Just don’t tell your father that you’re like this.’ ”

Ray moved to New York in 2002, in part because “so many of the interesting artists here are chicks.” One nerve-racking a cappella performance at the Sidewalk Café turned into a regular gig, which evolved into Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, which led to her debut recording, last fall’s A Fish Hook an Open Eye. The eight-song CD—displaying Ray’s raspy vocals, morbidly humorous lyrics (sample song title: “Woman Sets Boyfriend on Fire”), and screaming guitars—earned her some impressive attention (Nick Cave’s a fan), as do her notoriously debauched shows. (She’ll play Le Poisson Rouge with Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson and Suckers on Wednesday.) “I’ve had that moment where I look around my room and think, I still sleep on a twin bed, what’s wrong with me?,” Ray admits. “I have so much debt and I don’t make a lot of money. But the thing is, I don’t care. All I need is my twin bed.”

Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers
(Le) Poisson Rouge.
March 10.

Outsider Artist