Shilpa Ray is nothing if not honest. Her new album, Door Girl, captures New York nightlife in all its sordid, sweaty chaos and supplies caustic commentary on life in the unfeeling city.
Ray was born in New Jersey and a longtime resident of New York. She's drawn on her 17 years in the city, and the wealth of experiences she's had working the door at the Lower East Side bar and venue Pianos, to chronicle gentrification ("You're F****** No One"), alcohol-enabled rape culture ("Manhattanoid Creepazoids") and the traumas city dwellers bury in vice and silence ("Revelations of a Stamp Monkey").
Door Girl can be heavy — and sometimes so clear-eyed it's cynical — but it's not self-pitying, and for those weary of a New Yorkers' navel-gazing, not self-obsessed either. All sounds are in service of the storytelling, whether it's the hip-hop cadences of "Revelations Of A Stamp Monkey" or the '50s-'60s pop sensibilities of "Shilpa Ray's Got a Heart Full of Dirt," where Ray cribbed a few lines from "Tears on My Pillow" by Little Anthony & the Imperials.
Ray just celebrated the release of Door Girl with two nights at — where else — Pianos, and will tour Europe all October and the U.S. in November. In the meantime, we asked her to walk us through Door Girl and the stories behind the record, track by track.
"New York Minute Prayer"
"'New York Minute Prayer' was actually the last thing I wrote. We had the order [of songs] for the record already and as I was listening back to the demos, I felt like it needed something to tie it together. I wanted to do something that was under two minutes that would be a little motif to go into the album, so it could have an introduction and the record would flow after that.
"The phrase 'New York Minute' is after the local news channel. It's just a call to the New York gods up above, as to why I'm still living here after 17 years... I could justify it maybe a little better if I lived in a penthouse or something like that, but it's really not easy to live here and pay exorbitant rent for very little in return. But I'm still here, so I don't know how I did it. But I did it somehow."
"Morning Terrors Nights Of Dread"
"I wrote that in conjunction to my job, because I still get nervous going into work everyday. I don't know exactly how people are going to speak to me or respond to me, because my job is pretty confrontational. I work as a door girl at Pianos, which is a bar on the Lower East Side. [The song] is about city living and the fact that you have very little control over what's going to happen to you during the day. Most people I know that live here have lived many different lives within the day itself, 'cause everybody's hustling and working various jobs... You have that push to work with lots of people at different times, and you just never know what kind of curveball is going to get thrown at you.
"I thought it would be really funny and different if [this song had] male backing singers, instead of female, because that's the norm, and also the juxtaposition of me being the lead, the female, and having male singers... I love the call and response, because I needed to have that Greek chorus in that. I think everybody has that 'lonely girl or lonely boy in the spotlight' moment where they're complaining constantly how much they hate living here, and I thought it was just really funny to get the backing vocals to kind of call back, to make it sound ridiculous, because it's not that big a deal at the end of the day."
"Add Value Add Time"
"If you buy an MTA pass on the subway, the first screen that comes up is 'Do you want to add value, or do you want to add time?' For us it's just really funny, because it's such a loaded question to ask, and normally you get it at the beginning of your day 'cause you're going to work or whatever. So it was just my really sarcastic take on the government in New York asking us, or bothering to ask us [that question]... Subway culture is part of it too. I don't think [anywhere] in the States has big of a metro as we do in New York, and we're so dependent on it. Within itself it has a lot of politics: whether the MTA goes on strike, whether they raise prices – the subway totally shuts out a lot of kids going to school that live in the outer boroughs, that's a really big issue in New York. Using the MTA, using the subway stands for a lot of political control and controlling of the city. So it's definitely a comment on that as well."
"Revelations Of A Stamp Monkey"
"I wrote 'Revelations Of A Stamp Monkey' commenting on seeing something really horrific during the day and then going into work or going into some other facet of living and it being completely watered down or not acknowledged at all... I was commenting on Eric Garner's murder and how strange it was to see it for the first time while I was actually at a laundromat, which was nuts, and they had TMZ on or something crazy... I'm looking up and watching footage of a man being choked to death — and then having to go to work straight afterwards and having to behave, and dealing with other people who are behaving like it never happened. And that was really wild to me. The second part is about the two cops getting shot on the border of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill. I was down the street from the incident when it happened. I got out of some label meeting and I was walking out, and we couldn't ride the G train and nobody knew why. There was like a mob and lots of cars and stuff. And [then], going to watch a show and again, [it's] completely watered down, nobody wants to talk about this, everybody wants to kiss the bands after they're playing that night and just do lots of drugs and pretend nothing's really happening.
"The musical part of this record is all digging into what I felt was indigenous music from New York City, so a lot of the influences of this record as a whole came from doo-wop, punk, noise, hip-hop... So 'Revelations of a Stamp Monkey' is a throwback to when hip-hop was just coming out, and it was mostly storytelling. You would just tell a full story against a consistent beat. A lot of the influences for that were Spoonie G and the Treacherous Three, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill... I had a wonderful person rap in the middle — her name is Skurt Vonnegut, and she plays in a band called Deathrow Tull, and she's the real deal. When her part comes in, it's for real. She wrote the lyrics and they're really beautifully done."
"EMT Police And The Fire Department"
"There was actually a night [at my job] when somebody called the EMT, the police and the fire department – and they showed up all at once. It was like one of those nights in the summer when you know there's a lot of trouble about to happen, because it gets swampy and hot and everybody goes crazy... I've definitely seen people fighting in the front. It breaks out in this massive wave: it gradually happens and then somebody calls out some kind of a sexist or racial slur, because they always just go to that... Then the whole place just goes crazy. I've definitely seen somebody break a bottle over a guy's head before over something really stupid.
"This was actually one of the toughest to write, lyrically, because I had to hit a 16-syllable meter on it to make the drums do what I wanted them to, and to have that sort of rhyme scheme. So the story itself was cool because I could just kind of riff off what I had in my head and match some noise behind it, but then to get into the meat of the song, it had to have a very strict meter. And to write to a meter like that, and get your point across, is not the easiest thing to do. But once I pulled it off, it felt really good to me."
"'After Hours,' I wrote inspired by an incident after working New Year's Eve, where me and one of the guys who was bar-backing that night, decided to get completely wasted, and after our shift, which ended at like four in the morning, run out right after work to go to the Empire State Building... The time we got there, every perky family that woke up early to see the Empire State Building, all these happy-go-lucky tourists [were there] and we were completely drunk and so disheveled... It was a comment on our journey there, because we were so sloppy, but the city itself is so quiet after five. You only get two hours of this too, between five in the morning and seven, when there's nothing going on. It's not quite asleep, because the city never sleeps, or so they say. It's the best you're gonna get."
"Shilpa Ray's Got A Heart Full of Dirt"
"I got rejected by a record label while I was trying to get on board with one because I'd just left Knitting Factory at the time. That was rough... When I was shopping Last Year's Savage and getting a lot of rejection letters in from various labels and booking agents, I was having to stomach a lot of it. This one came out of one rejection in particular that was just like, 'I don't see a hit. She doesn't write strong enough hooks.' And I was like, 'F*** it! You want a strong hook? I'll give you a f****** strong hook!' And I wrote this in about an hour or so, really angry. But it happened for the best... Things happen for a reason and I was kind of glad someone pushed me to that kind of anger, because this was the start of the record. This was the first song I wrote for this album."
"I've never been on it, but I've bore witness to so many Tinder dates at the bar where I'm like, 'I don't think you should go with this guy!'... I've seen guys going in there like [they're] harpooning prey and they drag the girl down, and you're like, wow... That happens in every bar, every drunken social thing where guys definitely take advantage of the fact that there are a lot of girls that are not quite alive at that point.
"I've definitely said a lot about stuff like this before but this is probably in the same vein as 'Stamp Monkey' where you're seeing like the worst case you could see, but you're just living in an environment where it's passed off as an everyday thing. That duality is something that I'm very interested in, because people have these huge declarations they make, especially on social media, about right and wrong, and everyone's the judge and the jury over these cases that are just brought out on the internet, but in real life, it's completely different. Nobody stands up for anybody in real life. They just don't. People just go about their way and they're just out for themselves and out for whatever's gonna work for them and that's it. So it is very much like 'Stamp Monkey' where I'm just making commentary on seeing something that's very patterned and horrendous and noticing that nobody seems to give a s*** at the end of the day.
"This is my homage to Joey Ramone. I had this moment on Rockaway Beach where I was at a party and I [had] broke[n] up with my boyfriend at the time and people just say weird things like, 'Oh, he was so hot, why did you break up with him? It must have been your fault.' And I'm at this party and I'm like, 'Oh God, I'm going to have to absorb this now and still be part of the party.' I remember having this moment, sitting on the beach, drifting off and being like, 'What would Joey Ramone do?' 'Cause he wrote the best breakup songs. I mean, his bandmate stole his woman and he still wrote some great songs out of it... So I definitely wrote lines, even vocally, just copying how he sings, just to have that in there."
"You're F****** No One"
"This one, I had a lot of fun writing, because I got everything I ever wanted to say to the city out of my system. The first line on it is 'In 1983 I saw you naked on the street.' 1983 was my first memory of my parents taking me to New York... And I just have memories of the subway being cluttered, so much graffiti everywhere, and trash. I kept smelling hot dogs. It was just a lot to a three-year-old's senses. But knowing that it was dirt poor at the time, 'cause it wasn't as glossy as the suburbia we were coming from. So I have that in my head and all of a sudden, it's just become this thing of a million Whole Foods and Duane Reades, and everything's just so posh. It's like – you're trying to fake something, but I know who you really are, 'cause I saw you back in 1983 and you were not this."
"This Is Not A Dream Sequence"
"Yeah, it is a transitional track. We had some fun in the studio and my drummer actually invited a few of his friends over and we just had a short jam session, just started banging around on some instruments and that's how that came about. That's me screaming and banging on the piano, and I almost destroyed this old, awesome piano at the studio. They were like, 'Wait, Shilpa, the hammers are really old!' But that happened before they even said anything to me, so I'm glad we got that take instead of the really polite one I played afterward... It was a fun thing we did for a laugh and then the "BQE" track came right after it, and it sounded really cool against that. It was kind of a nod to New York noise and free jazz and that kind of a vibe, and also trying to make the sounds of a highway. Sounds that are about the city."
"My Heart Shatters By The BQE"
"I wrote this song 'cause I live right by the BQE and my apartment actually shakes as the trucks comes in, because I live right by an exit. And it's also just so much noise, constantly, and it's like my last thing I wanted to tell the city before I left, you know, this whole record.
"I guess I do [love the city]. I don't know. Every few weeks I threaten to leave, but it's been 17 years. I'm just going to stay here, I don't know how I'm going to do it... I still dream about one day living out by the shoreline and just having a car and coming in sometimes. But I don't know. I have no idea what I'm going to do with myself."