Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Long, Wild Ramble to the Top

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 02.07.14 in Interviews

It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday, smack in the middle of one of the most paralyzing cold snaps New York City has suffered in years, and Alynda Lee Segarra, frontwoman, songwriter and principal persona behind the New Orleans band Hurray for the Riff Raff, is sitting in an unheated restaurant in Brooklyn singing Mariah Carey.

The song she’s singing is “Always Be My Baby,” which was working its way up the Billboard Top 100 while a preteen Segarra was living with her Aunt Nereida in the Bronx and, in the way that great songs often are, was still ubiquitous a few years later, when Segarra started riding the subway down to all-ages hardcore shows at the East Village punk venue ABC No Rio.

She’s singing it now for her manager, who’s never heard the song, a fact Segarra finds hard to believe. “How can you not have heard it?” she asks, sounding baffled and vaguely offended all at once. “Here, listen,” she offers, gingerly navigating the song’s delicate, pirouetting chorus as her manager shakes his head blankly. Finally, Segarra relents. “It’s such a beautiful song,” she says. “If you heard it, you’d know it.”

In a few hours she’ll be singing again, this time on stage at the Jalopy Theatre, a charming, old-wood-and-rafters-style venue in a still-desolate area of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood that feels like it’s been airlifted in from somewhere in 1961. There’s a small box near the front stocked with folk and jug band records for sale, and a bookshelf with instruction manuals for playing guitar, fiddle and banjo. Segarra is performing as part of the venue’s weekly Roots and Ruckus folk revue, a night designed to showcase the city’s still-thriving underground Americana scene. According to Jalopy’s website, “You will see and hear people playing banjos, guitars, washboards, tub-basses kazoos and harmonicas.” Segarra started playing Roots and Ruckus when she was a teenager, between long jags of train-hopping that took her as far away from her home as Seattle and Minneapolis. Her appearance tonight, in advance of a significantly larger show at the Highline Ballroom later in the week, was supposed to have been a relative secret, but the thick knot of people piled into the auditorium and back through the narrow hallway that leads to the club’s entrance indicates that word has gotten out. A few minutes before her set, her manager looks around the packed room and smiles. “This is great,” he says. “I hope we keep doing these.”

Segarra opens the show the same way she’s been opening all her shows lately, with the hushed and wounded “The New SF Bay Blues,” which is built from nothing more than Segarra’s caramel alto and a guitar figure that circles like dry leaves in a breeze. “I like to open with that because it makes me really vulnerable,” she says later, “which I feel like opens the crowd up. I’m saying, ‘Here I am everybody. I am the root of the band. Can you connect with this?’” The song itself acquits a neat structural trick. Its back half belongs to Segarra, who uses it to fret over loss and heartbreak before dispensing the arresting, koan-like lyric, “A woman’s heart is made of solid rock.”

Its first half, though, is a direct quote of “The San Francisco Bay Blues,” a song written by Jesse Fuller and recorded by everyone from John Lennon to Mungo Jerry. Their lives run in eerie parallel, Segarra and Fuller: When he was a child, Fuller was sent by his mother to live with foster parents. He rode freight trains in his early adolescence, learning guitar from a woman named Big Estelle he met along the way. Though he was living in Oakland, the state of California in the early ’50s was enthralled with the music of New Orleans, and Fuller eventually made a name for himself as the style’s most adept West Coast practitioner. He invented something called the fotdella, a contraption that combined a drum, harmonica, piano, washboard and bass, essentially making Fuller the root of his own band. So popular was “The San Francisco Bay Blues” that Fuller himself included a version of it on nearly every album he recorded, which helped the song achieve a kind of subtle ubiquity. Fuller’s version is more carefree than Segarra’s, its guitar leaping and strutting, Fuller hopscotching merrily over the verses. It’s a bright, ambling song, fitting Llewyn Davis’s definition of folk music as the kind of song that’s “never been new and never gets old.” It’s a foundational phrase in the American folk lexicon. If you heard it, you’d know it.

Hurray for the Riff Raff

A few days later, Segarra is at New York’s fabled Electric Lady Studios. She’s here to record a segment for the World Cafe as part of a whirlwind promotional tour to generate buzz for Hurray for the Riff Raff’s fifth album, Small Town Heroes, their first to be released on ATO Records, home of similarly roots-minded bands like Alabama Shakes and My Morning Jacket. As always, she seems refreshingly worry-free, though she’s trying hard not to be cowed by the building’s towering history (“I keep thinking of the part in Just Kids where Patti Smith runs into Jimi Hendrix in the stairway,” she says.) In person, Segarra exudes a relaxed, easy poise; where other country singers project toughness with bare-knuckle bravado, Segarra is more like Loretta Lynn. The surface is all Southern charm, but beneath is a steely, unswerving confidence.

Though Heroes was recorded in Nashville, the city the band is most closely associated with is New Orleans, where Segarra has lived for nearly 10 years. New Orleans has been good to Segarra, providing her with a strong community of musicians and artists who supported and encouraged her when she was taking her first tentative steps as a songwriter, and she is quick to redirect praise from her to them, at one point flatly saying, “I couldn’t have done it without any of these people.”

Though her own story has become inextricably linked to New Orleans, Segarra was born in New York. Her mother is Ninfa Segarra, who served as a deputy mayor for education during the Giuliani administration — a story about the Segarras in a 1994 issue of New York magazine features a photo of a pint-sized Alynda and her brother Pablo standing next to their mother at her inauguration. The New York article depicts the Segarras as a close-knit family, but her mother’s increasingly chaotic work schedule threatened any sense of stability. Eventually, Alynda was taken in by her aunt, with whom she lived for the better part of her childhood and adolescence. The decision was not without emotional fallout. “It was confusing for me,” Segarra says. “I’m not really sure why it happened. I don’t think there was any reason other than that my mother was really busy and — I feel bad saying it — not cut out to be a mom.”

Segarra’s love of music developed early. “I was obsessed with West Side Story,” she says. “Learning all of the songs, that was my thing. When I was in elementary school I was still living part-time with my mom, and I would force my brother to shine a flashlight on me and I would put on a show for everybody. Up until I was 10 or 11, I was really outgoing. I was ready to be a star. The minute I hit adolescence, I became a different person.”

Gradually, Segarra turned inward. She closed off from her family and became quieter and moodier — less cheerful, more detached. To hear her tell it, it was likely some combination of the usual teenage alienation combined with a nagging sense of rootlessness and confusion about her own identity. “I felt kind of like an alien,” she says. “Especially being Puerto Rican, but not feeling like I fit into the idea of what a Puerto Rican woman should act like as a teenager. I didn’t really listen to the music that people expected me to listen to. I didn’t dress the way they expected me to dress. There was the idea of, like, ‘Do I belong in this culture? Am I not accepted?’ The older I get, the more I realize that you can do whatever you want; it doesn’t mean you’re not Puerto Rican. But when you’re younger, you don’t know that you can be complicated. And so I was like, ‘I’m a punk.’ That’s what I chose as my ethnicity.”

Fueled by a combination of classic New York Please Kill Me-style lore and a deep, elusive sense that there was more to the city than the several-block radius around her aunt’s apartment, Segarra began to gravitate toward the Lower East Side, eventually becoming a regular at the all-ages afternoon hardcore shows at ABC No Rio.

“The first time I met Alynda, she was 15 years old and she was playing in this acoustic punk band with two other girls called Hot Dog is My Hero,” says Barnabus Jones, a tuba player and fellow New York punk ex-pat that Segarra reconnected with when she moved to New Orleans. “They wrote their own songs, only one of them played guitar and they all sang.” It wasn’t long, though, until the center started to shake. Gradually, Segarra’s time as a New York punk became enveloped by shadow. One evening at a sleepover party with some friends, she accidentally smoked pot laced with PCP, an experience that left her rattled and wary of drugs. “I went into another dimension,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is reality, and everything I have known up to this point has not been real.’ I kept slipping in and out of consciousness. It lasted from that night into the next afternoon.” Understandably, her aunt was dismayed by her new friends and lifestyle. “My aunt was like, ‘What the hell are you doing,” she laughs. “She didn’t understand me and she did all at the same time. She knew that I was going through something that she couldn’t relate to, and her way of helping me was saying, ‘I love you, no matter what.’” To hear Segarra explain it, her teenage years were as trying for her aunt as they were for her. Countless times Segarra would emerge from the subway in the dead of night after a day marauding through the East Village with her punk friends to find her worried, angry aunt waiting at the top of the station stairs.

She was also there for the times when Segarra’s ambition to rebel outstripped her own capacity to handle the reality of it. “I loved Marilyn Manson,” Segarra says. “So my aunt took me to go see him. I remember vividly that Nashville Pussy played first, and all of a sudden, I got really scared. I was like, ‘I can’t do this!’ But my aunt looked at me and said, ‘We paid money to be here. You want to listen to this kind of music? You’re gonna have to tough it out.’ She was totally out of her element, but no matter how much she didn’t understand it, she was there to support me. I even remember afterward her saying, ‘It really wasn’t so bad! I mean, I didn’t like when he tore pages out of the Bible, but…’”

Despite her aunt’s support — and deepening worry lines — Segarra’s drift gradually became more frightening and more pronounced. “I started associating New York with this really dark energy,” she says. “A huge part of my teenage years was witnessing the drug use of people in the punk scene. I saw lot of extremely passionate and brilliant young people with so much potential who just felt like doing drugs was ‘their way.’ It started feeling like my whole life was becoming a Velvet Underground song.” The night after her 17th birthday, Segarra snuck out of her aunt’s apartment, left a goodbye note on the table, and set out to hop freight trains to California with friends she’d met downtown. “I don’t remember what that note could have possibly said,” she recalls. She pauses a long while before continuing. “I’ve thought about it a lot before. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Hurray for the Riff Raff

Saying New Orleans is a city that cultivates musicians is a bit like saying Bob Dylan occasionally can be a little opaque. But while the city’s reputation has been built mostly on its staggering lineage of jazz and R&B giants (the Meters, Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith — to begin to list them is to realize it’s impossible to stop), in the mid ’00s, the city’s all-together-now, roving-ragamuffin folk movement was in full, riotous sway. “It was a super important place for me as a songwriter and musician,” says Walt McClements, who played with Hurray for the Riff Raff in their early days and now records as Lonesome Leash. “That period in particular it felt like things were really thriving. You would put a song out there and people would say, ‘That was awesome — we want more.’ Everyone was just constantly egging each other on.”

It was into this environment that Segarra arrived. Her stint as a train rider was on a momentary pause, and she pulled into town in a van with her friend Andy, who’d offered her a place to live in the city. “Everybody there was the most innocent person I’d ever met,” she recalls. “It was such a big relief. I felt like I was ready to have a new childhood.” She quickly fell in with a band of musicians called the Deadman Street Orchestra, of which Jones was also a member. “Alynda was just wandering around the city with a washboard,” he recalls. “We all kind of met up at around the same time and started playing music together. We’d play on the street every day and drink by the railroad tracks every night.” It’s easy to see why that setup would appeal to Segarra — its dogged populism and egalitarian ethics closely echo the “anyone can be an expert” ideals that power punk. Although a particularly sensationalized TIME magazine photo essay attempts to portray the group as a gang of anarchist petty-crime hooligans (the photographer confided to Segarra that he had been instructed to “play up” that angle), Segarra’s description of it sounds more like doing time with the Lost Boys in Never Never Land — a scruffy band of teenagers in homemade costumes, playing pirate and hopping trains to play spontaneous street shows in cities whenever the impulse struck. “We did everything communally,” Segarra says. “We were a pack. When we were hungry, we were all hungry. When we were tired, we were all tired. We were travelling around and being this crazy sight everywhere we went, rolling into these tiny towns and being like, ‘Well, I hope we don’t get arrested.’”

It was while travelling with the Deadman Street Orchestra that Segarra met Yosi Perlstein, a transplant from San Francisco who’d also spent some time riding trains and who Segarra heard about long before she ever met him. “Yosi was one of the toughest train riders there was,” Segarra recalls. “He was well known. And I knew that there was a transgendered and queer train-rider community out there, and I was just dying to find it. When I met him, I was just so excited. And he was already playing fiddle, and I just remember being like, ‘This person is my hero.’”

Perlstein’s memory of Segarra is similarly affectionate. “I liked her right away,” he remembers. “I had been hearing about her from friends, and it kind of felt like when we met, we were friends already. It was just, ‘Oh, yeah. Here you are.’” The two rode trains together up to Seattle, where the Dead Man Street Orchestra was performing, and shortly thereafter Perlstein began playing regularly with the group. But even amid Dean Man’s boisterous, bash-and-clatter performing style, Segarra was beginning to stand out. “There was a lot of stompy, shouty, proto-Tom Waits-ian yelling going on in New Orleans at the time,” McClements says. “I always loved it when Alynda sang, because it was this beautiful, strong voice coming out of this quiet 17-year-old punk girl.”

When Segarra was 19, she returned to New York for a summer and began tentatively recording some of her own songs to a laptop in an apartment she was sharing with six other girls. “I was around these people who were really inspiring me to write a lot. So I did this batch of songs that was just me.” When she returned to New Orleans, she gave a CD containing the songs to McClements, a respected local musician at the time and someone Segarra in particular idolized. McClements was floored by what he heard. “The songs were amazing,” he says. “I mean, even putting aside the quality of Alynda’s voice — which is a singular and beautiful thing — the quality of the songwriting was so unique. There was a kind of poetic directness to her writing that came through from the very beginning.” Listening to those songs now, which are compiled on a hard-to-find CD called Crossing the Rubacon, it’s easy to hear what McClements heard. The hushed, waltzing piano in opening song “Bricks” is as shivery as spider legs across the back of the neck; its lyrics foreshadow Segarra’s uncanny ability to blend romance and darkness in a single verse: “My love’s hair is the color of bricks/ and she holds me right down on the ground/ so I don’t fly too far away.” And though her young voice lacks the fullness and tremolo she’d quickly master, you can hear her tentatively exploring its limits throughout, like a teenager learning how to drive stick.

McClements’s support galvanized Segarra. She eventually worked up the courage to ask him to play with her and Perlstein in the first version of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Together, they recorded It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You and Young Blood Blues, the latter of which ended up a stark document of Segarra’s continuing struggle to define her identity. [Young Blood Blues was initially released through the eMusic Selects program in 2009 — Ed.] Its title track is a heartbreaking portrait of a young, sad-eyed Segarra wandering from New York to New Orleans and back again, finding a small measure of comfort only at the song’s conclusion where she declares, “My best friend in the whole world/ is a man who’s dead and gone,” a reference to the folk singers Segarra was slowly discovering. The group toured tirelessly for two years, but gradually, in what proved to be a fitting echo of Young Blood‘s themes of confusion and dislocation, the fragile union of the three-piece Riff Raff begun to splinter. “We reached a point where Walt and I realized it wasn’t going to work for much longer,” she explains. Segarra had met Sam Doores, a local musician who had played in the rough-and-tumble country outfit the Tumbleweeds, and the two of them formed an instant bond. “Once I met Sam, I started pursuing a little more of a singer/songwriter approach,” she says. Doores quietly encouraged Segarra to expand her musical horizons, loaning her records and collaborating with her on different methods of song construction. “With Walt, we were writing mostly minor-key waltzes, but Sam started showing me people like Townes Van Zandt, and everything started changing. I used to think I had to only be influenced by musicians that were around me. That was the first time I started feeling like it was OK to be influenced by a legend.”

'Look Out Mama'

via YouTube

The group recorded the buoyant Look Out Mama in the spring of 2011, and the change in tone is apparent from the outset. It’s no coincidence the cover of one is in black and white and the other is in color: Where Young Blood Blues felt like the ghost of an old jug band playing in a haunted barn, Mama opens with the rollicking boot-stomper “Little Black Star,” Perlstein’s fiddle sawing up the center like a drunk mill worker cutting loose at a square dance. The group’s early records were defined by a kind of inconsolable sadness, but on Mama, the balance started to shift; Segarra the Lonely Traveler was replaced by Segarra the soldier and advocate. The ballad “Ode to John and Yoko” uses the couple’s romance as a stand-in for the power of consuming love, and the album’s cover art — a photo of Segarra’s young father during the Vietnam War — was a subtle attempt to illustrate the unfathomable cruelty of war and its cost on not only its participants, but on the generations that follow. Throughout, Segarra conveys a remarkable sureness; her voice, which on her previous records had sounded baleful and far-off, was now bold and commanding, and while many moments on Look Out Mama cast a long glance at yellowed pages of the American Songbook, you can hear Segarra beginning to tinker with the gears, trying to figure out how to make these old machines hum with new life. Listen to the last track on Young Blood Blues and the first on Look Out Mama back to back, and the effect is startling. It’s like a teenager who’d been slouching at the dinner table suddenly snapping bolt-upright. The album’s most beautifully telling lyric arrives, front-and-center, in the title track: “Look out, Mama, I’m coming home/ Look out, Daddy, I’m gonna roll right up to your ever-loving door/ You can tell by the way I look, I won’t be wandering no more.” After years of rolling through punk shows, riding the rails and running away, Segarra had found herself.

Hurray for the Riff Raff

Which is all the long way of explaining how Segarra came to be sitting in Electric Lady Studios in her home city of New York, talking about Small Town Heroes and trying not to be spooked by the ghost of Jimi Hendrix. Her early allusion to Patti Smith’s memoir is fitting: Both Smith and Segarra grew up rooted in the punk scene, but their innate sense of poetry and politics demanded something more, a canvas big enough and broad enough to contain their multitude of ideas. Small Town Heroes is exactly that. Nominally a roots record, the album is powered by a sense of personal mission, its lyrical references to troubled ramblers, weeping outlaws and nature’s splendor placing Segarra squarely in the country music tradition, but its execution is bullish and contemporary. It is, in other words, the work of someone who reveres Patsy Cline but also holds a soft spot for “Always Be My Baby.”

The album opens with Segarra proudly declaring, “My heart is a Blue Ridge Mountain/ My head, an overflowing fountain,” and it scans like Segarra’s own take on the time-honored folksinger introit, “Come gather ’round friends, and I’ll tell you a tale.” The stories that follow document the lives of drifters and dreamers and derelicts while also liberally incorporating elements of Segarra’s own history. In “End of the Line,” she rhapsodizes about the house in New Orleans where she and her friends used to live. “Crash on the Highway” tells a massacre-style story of a pile-up in Germany that caused the band to miss a gig. And “St. Roch Blues,” named after a cemetery in New Orleans, functions as a prayer for the departed, Segarra and Doores harmonizing sorrowfully over rustling acoustic guitar. “Saint Roch was the saint of a lot of things,” Segarra explains, “one of them being miraculous cures. So if you walk into the St. Roch Cemetery, there’s a room full of prosthetic limbs and thank-you letters, from people who had been praying for a cure.” The song functions for Segarra as a kind of ode to New Orleans itself, a message of hope and strength to a city still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. When the song was recorded, Perlstein lit candles and made a little altar and asked everyone in the band to say a prayer for someone they had lost. That sense of sadness and reverence reverberates through the final recording.

But the album’s must arresting moment is “The Body Electric,” a spare, chilling ballad that not only anchors the record, but displays Segarra’s full, shattering strength as a songwriter. Like “The New SF Bay Blues,” “The Body Electric” is a bridge song, one that starts in the archives and gradually connects it to the present. But on “Body Electric,” the source material is far more harrowing.

“I was at a show recently, and the band I was seeing started playing a song about killing their girlfriend,” Segarra explains. “It was in that old murder-ballad form. And there was something about that particular night, and the mood I was in, where I was just like, ‘I am so fucking sick of songs like this.’” Her indignation grew as the song wore on. “I felt like the women in the audience were being completely ignored. It was like we weren’t there. And I was thinking, ‘I don’t need to hear this shit anymore. I just read about a woman getting raped this afternoon, and now you’re singing about somebody getting killed because they cheated. Life’s tough! People cheat!’ We were just supposed to nod along and love the song, but I was like, ‘That’s me you’re talking about.’”

Segarra channeled her response into what could, without exaggeration, be called a master class in political songwriting. In “The Body Electric,” Segarra expertly lifts every classic construct of the American murder ballad as only someone who’s spent a lifetime studying it can, and then slowly, quietly, turns it against itself, giving actual bruised flesh to the genre’s female abstractions. That Segarra can fell even Johnny Cash’s mighty “Delia’s Gone” with just a passing reference is a testament to the song’s astonishing focus. It works — to crushing, quieting effect — not because of its indignation, but because of its deep-seated sadness. Segarra never sounds sanctimonious; instead, as she walks to the banks of the river to retrieve the body of yet another dead girl, she just sounds despondent, utterly deflated that such an unthinkable thing could be allowed to happen. Its final line kills with precision: “Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand/ gonna say to his daughter when it’s her turn to go?”

“A lot of people think the title ‘The Body Electric’ is a reference to the Walt Whitman poem,” says Segarra, “but it’s referencing the woman in Delhi who was gang-raped and killed on a public bus.” In the story in question, a 23-year-old medical intern was raped and beaten by six men, including the bus driver, while she was on her way home from the movies with a friend in December of 2012. She died 13 days later from injuries sustained during the attack. “Because of the case, they couldn’t release her name, so they called her Damini. Well, Damini means ‘lightning.’”

It’s not the first time Segarra has drawn on recent history for inspiration — the stark “Everybody Knows,” a ballad she recorded in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, travels a similar path. But “The Body Electric” is the first time she’s so aggressively coupled her own political conviction with a bold enough belief in her own ability to subvert the form she’s chosen to convey it. That Segarra can write that kind of song without resorting to either vitriol or jeremiad speaks to her personal confidence as much as its subject matter underscores the band’s sense of purpose. In truth, that declaration of purpose has been there since the beginning, hidden in a name that once reflected Segarra’s own place among the travelers, the train riders and the street musicians, but now feels like a kind of shorthand mission statement, a summation of the lives she depicts and champions.

“The older I get, the more I’m getting in touch with so many different parts of myself,” she says. “And I’m realizing I’m a million different things. Because that’s what people are — we’re a million different things. And that’s what that idea of the outsider has become for me. It’s not just that you’re a young feminist punk girl. It’s older people who love the music of the 1960s, and who are dying for people to get inspired by that and to write political songs again. It’s the queer community. It’s kids of color who don’t know what to do with their rage about Trayvon Martin. This band has become this whole other thing. And I’m really, really excited about that.”