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Hurray For The Riff Raff: Exploring Root Cause

American folk/roots band’s vocalist Alynda Lee Segarra on making political statements and looking into her Puerto Rican lineage on their upcoming album

Nirmika Singh Jun 27, 2016
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Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray From The Riff Raff. Photo: Sarrah Danzinger

In the embarrassingly misogynist country/folk music scene in America [accurately labeled bro-country!], a little bit of feminism and inclusivism goes a long way. And although Hurray For The Riff Raff would like to avoid the country tag ”“ they are more roots/blues-folk actually ”“ their small but noticeable contribution to the country scene cannot be missed.

You might want to call Hurray For The Riff Raff Americana radicalized. Because vocalist Alynda Lee Segarra doesn’t shy from making political statements ”“ whether it is calling out disturbing murder ballads on “The Body Electric” from their 2014 album Small Town Heroes or openly declaring her queer status. She says on the phone from New Orleans, “I enjoy making statements. People often ask me ”˜Isn’t that exhausting?’ but you know, it gives me energy to know that I am doing something I am proud of. Like I enjoy speaking with women, it energizes me to connect with them.”

Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican descent, grew up in the Bronx, New York. She ran away from home at the age of 17 and after many wanderings and hitch-hikes, settled in New Orleans. After a stint with a band called Dead Man Street Orchestra, she formed HFTRR  in 2007 and released a couple of records between then and 2010. But it was Riff Raffs’ 2012 record Look Out Mama, which they crowfunded on Kickstarter, that brought them eyeballs. With their next release Small Town Heroes, the band consolidated their status in the roots/folks space with their unique positioning ”“ Segarra didn’t make your regular country girl-next-door with her songs about morbid car crashes [“Crash On the Highway”] and infamous crime-infested neighborhoods [“St. Roch Blues”]. Says Segarra, “In order to be an artist, you have to be opinionated. It is time for us to be fearless.” In her upcoming record, The Navigator, the 20-something singer has taken on another exploration. She’s dug deep into her roots. “I have been looking into my ancestry. I have been listening to a lot of Puerto Rican music lately, and also taking inspiration from modern music.” Curiously, the seed of this album was planted even before Segarra started work on Small Town Heroes. “But I wasn’t ready for it then,” she says, adding, “on Small Town Heroes, I was trying to do everything, but for this album, I am tapping into my anger.”

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Signed to ATO Records since 2014, HFTRR share their label with a mean bunch of artists such as blues rockers Alabama Shakes, soul/R&B artist Allen Stone and Mike Gordon, the vocalist/bassist and founding member of jam band Phish. Segarra is particularly in awe of Alabama Shakes’ vocalist Brittany Howard. “She is a goddess. I connect with her performances. She has no fear. And the band is so good.” There’s another artist, a pop queen actually, who Segarra has taken a liking too lately after years of being sceptical about her music. “Beyonce ”“ I used to be a hater. I didn’t get her music. But I’ve been looking back on her career ”“ she’s been writing pop songs that have a message, like “Grown Woman”. I think pop stars are becoming brave,” she says.

Segarra’s own journey from vagabonding to fronting a band has been no less brave. Although it is all kinds of amazing now, she often reminds herself about where she came from. “Sometimes, it [the early days] seems like a past life.” And keeping the good work up requires pushing boundaries constantly. “My vocal coach in Nashville tells me to keep going further”¦ I feel I am changing in the way I want to be projected musically.” Is there a cost to displaying a certain fearlessness in your music? Segarra admits there is. “But I wonder why”¦ especially when anybody can tear you down. I do my best to shut out from the world.”

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