The singer-songwriter finds solace in Cleveland and honors Lou Reed.

Shilpa Ray photo
Shilpa Ray by Ebru Yildiz

It’s fitting that Shilpa Ray’s signature instrument, the harmonium, is also called a pump organ. Her attachment to the accordion-keyboard hybrid is so corporeal that it’s “like an appendage,” Ray says of the machine whirring through her songs. But for all of its physicality, in Ray’s hands the harmonium is most remarkable for instilling a heartfelt pathos in her songs.

Ray plays at Circle Bar Friday to promote her two-song EP Make Up, released last month. 

Deep emotion is the raison d’être of Make Up. In two separate instances, an acute response to a song motivated Ray to lay down her own version. The title track is Lou Reed’s Transformer deep cut about a dolled-up lover. 

“He was my hero,” Ray says of Reed, who died at the start of her 2013 tour. His death followed her "like a cloud” until she heard “Make Up” at a Sicilian street party. “The song came on and this yellow lab came up to me and started swaying and I was like ‘Okay, I’m gonna dance with this dog, and we just started dancing in the middle of the street. ll of a sudden it took on this other meaning.” 

The EP’s cover of Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes” came out of another bittersweet circumstance. In the middle of a financially disastrous tour during which everyone was “harshing each other’s mellow,” Ray says, she got even more bummed after a stop in Cleveland. But hearing Washington’s voice in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listening booth, “unbelievably polished and sophisticated, with so much emotion,” gave her enormous relief. She resolved to record it at a later date.

Ray wants to ignite an equally ardent reaction in her own audience. Although she says her favorite part of playing live--bringing people into her own world--is narcissistic, her main goal as a performer is pretty selfless. “I just want people to feel something, even if you hate it. Hatred is still a feeling; it’s still valid.”

But, she says, laughing,  “I would really hate it if somebody felt really scared after listening to my music."

Shilpa Ray’s album Last Year’s Savages comes out May 19.