SWIFF 2017: Shilpa Ray

If film festivals are good at one thing, it’s that they present audiences highly curated points of view from some of the world’s most exciting artists. Of course, this isn’t just limited to movies: the South Western International Film Festival—coming to Sarnia November 2-5—or SWIFF, as it’s more commonly known, is about transforming Sarnia-Lambton into a place where art is celebrated in all its forms, including music, virtual reality, and, yes, movies.

Now in its third year, one of SWIFF’s most successful endeavours has been CineGAZE, the multi-night music event where original music programming by festival staff invites local talent and celebrated bands from around the world to jam in front of SWIFF audiences. Need a reminder? Last year, the Sadies kicked things off and rocked the entire block of 148 Front St. North with walls of sound—and, because this is a film festival, they played with Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man projected behind them. If you’ve missed out on the past two years of fun, it’s time to come out: CineGAZE is loud. It’s hazy. There’s a metric ton of pizza.

That sounds like a party to Shilpa Ray, one of SWIFF’s CineGAZE headliners this year. The Brooklyn-based musician—who’s been active in the scene since 2004, either with her band or on the road with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—is currently touring her newest album Door Girl, her raucous ode to the down-and-dirty time she spent working in front of Pianos, the legendary music club in New York City’s Lower East Side.

“Do you guys have rats and roaches in Canada?” Ray replies when I ask her about “EMT Police and the Fire Department,” her first single off Door Girl. Ray’s never been to Sarnia, but is super stoked about coming to town. “I’ve never heard of a Canadian rat or a Canadian cockroach. What’s an ugly scenario for you, a moose infestation?”

An ugly scenario is exactly what “EMT Police and the Fire Department” describes—done so through Ray’s signature sense of humour, taking form in her killer vocals and expressive lyrics. “The rats and the roaches / Crawling out in droves straight out of the sewage pipes,” she sings in her distinctive drawl, before going on to describe exactly what it is Door Girl is all about: “And I’m charging 8 bucks / To go to Hell / It’s straight up the stairs,” she yells. (While CineGAZE can’t promise Hell, concerts at 148 Front St. North do involve a sort of descent.)

The album, with its vivid depictions of how depraved New York City night life can be, finds Ray in a conflicted position: On the one hand, her new music is inspired by the town that’s eaten musicians like her alive. On the other, it’s an album that directly confronts this, optimistically ready to make it bow down to her. “I guess I’m a creature of bad habits,” she says. “New York to me is like that really hot unattainable dude who sometimes makes you feel special while he’s out sleeping with the rest of the city. This town will never be mine, which is probably why I’ve been chasing after it for so long.”

Her playful modesty aside, given how good the album is, Ray can relax a little with the release of Door Girl—not that she will, of course, with more than a dozen European gigs preceding her North American shows, which, thankfully, has her stopping right here in Sarnia on November 3rd. It’s hard for artists to break through, and it’s equally hard to predict the ones who do. But Door Girl is exactly the kind of record that has the potential to make Ray something beyond “the beauty queen at the leper colony,” as her Bandcamp biography sarcastically describes.

“I’m not cool enough to be a cult figure,” she says, before describing the time Nick Cave made her a turkey sandwich. “It really blew my mind,” Ray remembers. “It was good! I should have taken that $*#! to a taxidermist.”

She deflects how cool she is—exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from people who are way too cool. Luckily, she’s also got good taste in pizza: “I like my pizza New York style, foldable, plain cheese,” she says. Now, she hasn’t tried a classic Giresi pie yet, so the jury’s still out—but we’ll find out at CineGAZE. And for those coming out to see her play, get ready: Her ceaseless energy and rock ‘n’ roll stage presence are seriously intense. Bring earplugs. If not, we’ve got you covered: SWIFF staff will have the EMT, police, and the fire department standing by, should, y’know, any ugly scenarios arise.

—Jake Howell