The harmonium, a portable keyboard that's part pipe organ and part accordion, was not Shilpa Ray's first choice as a musical instrument. While she was growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s, her parents required her to learn how to play Indian classical music, an education that included piano and harmonium lessons. By the time she was in her teens, though, Ray started sneaking Velvet Underground songs into her repertoire.
"I got my first harmonium when I was 6," she says. "I had to play it because my parents made me take music lessons, and I'm playing it now. I really wanted to play the kind of music I was listening to at the time."
The lessons paid off, because now Ray's distinctive harmonium textures and grooves are a key part of the low-down, bluesy indie rock she plays with her band, the New York-based Happy Hookers. Ray's harmonium—sometimes eerie, sometimes almost funky—gives the band's basic garage rock a vague throwback vibe, making it seem like music out of time, though not from any specific era.
"It adds tone and pace," Ray says. "Once you put a harmonium in the mix, you can't do anything else but kind of move with it."
Ray's vocals, which shift from grinding gutbucket howls to clean, soaring crescendoes, have a similarly timeless quality. Her voice often resembles PJ Harvey's or Patti Smith's, and sometimes the sound reaches all the way back to the blues queens of the 1930s. Ray also lists Damo Suzuki, the transcendental vocalist for krautrock pioneers Can, as an influence.
"I actually started really digging the blues in my 20s, because it's fun and pure," she says. "There's nothing really to it besides that. It's raw—everything now is covered in Auto-Tune and distortion and all sorts of crap."
Ray has been prolific on New York's rock scene since she was a teenager, as both a solo performer and with her previous band, Beat the Devil. But it has taken her years to reach any sort of prominence outside the city. She attributes the Happy Hookers' brand-new rising profile to the stability of the band's current lineup—Ray, guitarist Andrew Bailey, bassist Nick Hundley, and drummer John Adamski.
"This band came together through playing with different people," Ray says. "I've had, like, a bazillion different lineups, and we finally settled on this four. I had a band previous to this band that disbanded, and I wanted to keep working on stuff. I started out as a solo artist, so it's always been kind of add and delete, and now I think we're in a really good place."
Since the release of the band's second album, Teenage and Torture, in January, the Happy Hookers have had a string of good luck: Nick Cave personally selected the group to open for his band Grinderman on a fall tour, and the Hookers also opened for Smith in Brooklyn in November. Now the band is on the road with the out-there Japanese psychedelic space-rock trio Acid Mothers Temple, and will join the omnivorous Philadelphia experimentalists Man Man for a tour later this spring.
"It has been pretty busy, but in a good way," Ray says. "I don't know. I think it's what it's always like. You have to get up there and do your shit."
The Happy Hookers' provocative name matches the sordid narratives on Teenage and Torture, which feature street kids with STDs, crummy jobs, crummy drugs, and crummy boyfriends. Ray says that the band name actually comes from a fantasy about life at a legal brothel in Nevada.
"I was bumming out after my last band broke up, and I was hanging out with a bunch of my girlfriends," she says. "We were dreaming about being prostitutes in Las Vegas and how much fun that would be. One of my girlfriends was like, ‘Man, we look like some happy hookers.' And that's where the name came about. That's where it all originated. People either love it or hate it."