Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Lee Segarra talked with Gambit in this week's issue about the band's Small Town Heroes, its exceptional freshman release for ATO Records, which signed Segarra last year. At 6 p.m. tonight, Euclid Records (4301 Chartres St.) hosts an album release party, and the band headlines One Eyed Jacks (615 Toulouse St.) at 10 p.m. Valentine's Day.
Small Town Heroes, like the title track, glimpses romance and darkness in Segarra's cast of characters, from murder ballad heroines and infinity-riding train balladeers to home- and dopesick roadrunners. There are cowboy blues and the "St. Roch Blues," a prayer for the dead and dying in the namesake neighborhood. In some of her most political and poetic work of her career, Segarra is off to settle the score in the deadly, gorgeous "The Body Electric" condemning violence against women.
Below, read more excerpts from the interview, stream the track "The Body Electric" and watch a video for "St. Roch Blues":
What kind of music did you grow up with? How did you get into punk rock?
My family was really pretty heavy into doo-wop, that’s what they really loved. Even though they grew up in the hippie era, they were very much into the older doo-wop, 1950s music. My dad was very serious about Latin jazz as well. I feel like I haven’t seeped in all those influences but one day it might all pop out.
I really loved all that music so much. When I started getting into a more rebellious age, I felt like I needed to break away, find my own genre, my own release. Punk rock was so raw, and I loved how passionate it was, and the politics behind it, this idea of creating another way, as opposed to just like, "This is what you gotta do: You gotta go to college, you gotta get a job." I loved being around a community of people who were all interested in finding alternative ways of living and making music. That’s what inspired me. It’s what led me to hear a lot of folk music. I lot of early blues and folk and Appalachian music, there’s a lot of similar ideas with punk rock. They sound different but it’s a lot about commentary about daily life, about struggle, about what you wish the world could be like. That really led me to loving old folk music, and feeling inspired by that.
Were you playing in any bands then?
I was in a folk punk band, me and my two girlfriends, and one of us played acoustic guitar, and we all sang. It was pretty laid back. It was mostly just for fun. The thing about growing up in New York City, I always found it would be hard to play electric music because there wasn’t much space. You couldn’t have a basement you could play in. That was another thing that led me to acoustic music. I just thought, I could probably play that in an apartment.
Why'd you choose New Orleans?
It always attracted me. New Orleans is such a proud city, with such a specific culture. It’s not a place that wants to be or is trying to be like anywhere else. Being a New Yorker, I felt like I was brought up with that pride, especially being from the Bronx. When I came here it really resonated with me. I could relate to feeling proud about where I was from. It really led me to learn about all the things people are so proud of, and learn that they have every right to be.
The pace of New York City felt impossible for me. I felt like the city was getting too expensive. I don’t know how I would keep up with the competitiveness there. Coming to New Orleans I also felt so much support artistically. The musicians here were very intuitive with when a musician might not have the technical skill yet but they have the heart, they have the soul. I felt like people were receptive that I really wanted to learn. I loved New Orleans music. It led me to feel like I had a future here, and led me to feel like I wanted to be a part of the community here. I care about the city, and I care about the musicians here. You walk down Frenchmen Street and you see people playing music, some of the most talented musicians in the country, you know? They’re just hanging outside the Spotted Cat, taking a break.
It’s very public, which I really love. It’s focused on it being outside, where people can see it. That’s what I love about Royal Street in the daytime, the fact that people all over the country can see that, which is a really powerful thing. They’re seeing it for free — of course they should tip — but it’s incredible to take music like that and put it in public for everyone. I just think Woody Guthrie would love that.
And you played bass drum in Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? You've come up through that community of players, who've created a scene and sprouted so many others. You still feel a part of that community?
Yeah, I feel there are a lot of roots in the musical community here. It really started to click with me once I started to not only play traditional jazz on the street, when I started to meet other songwriters, like [Walt McClements, bandleader of Big Ship]. Walt was a really big inspiration to me. he was a huge reason why I even started performing my music live. he gave me the courage. "Hey, I’ll back you up." I still feel very close to that community. I feel like, when I come home, I really do feel like I’m at home because of those people. You get right back into it, which I really love.
A lot of folks are calling you "voice of a generation." I'm 27. People have told me our generation doesn't have that voice, like a Dylan, which isn't a fair comparison. I guess people don't feel like there's someone out there representing them, or saying things that haven't been said. Are you stepping up to that role, or is it just who you are?
I take it really seriously when people say that. I definitely don’t ever want to think of it like an ego thing. I definitely feel like there have been... to say a whole generation is a really wild thing. I do think there’s something about our band that does click into so many different kinds of subcultures, it can really appeal to a lot of people and touch a lot of people.
I said in interviews I got to a point as a songwriter that I realized I didn’t have to be one thing. I could keep everything from my past, my family and my travels and everything and be myself. I think that really speaks to people. That’s one thing about our generation — we’re coming from so many places. I do think there’s a lack of... I guess, cultural and political critique in music right now, unless it’s hip-hop. Hip-hop is one of the only forms that's really acting like folk music, telling the story of people’s daily struggle and what they wish the world could be like and what they wish would change. Growing up in the Bronx and being Puerto Rican, surrounded by people who listen to that music, that’s what really steeped into me. If anything, I’d love to have there be a million voices of our generation. I’d love for bands to feel like you can still be a musician, you don’t have to just be a political musician, but just have a couple songs that really tell how you feel about the way things are going. There’s a lot we can change. I’ve read some Internet comments — you should never read the comments — that are like, "Every generation feels so disillusioned. Every generation feels like this. Everyone complains in every generation." That’s such a silly idea. We all know there could be things that need to change. There are ways we can become more free as a society. Music is a great platform for that.
Just because people complain doesn't make it less valid.
Exactly. That’s the end of the world when people stop saying it. "Well, we might as well throw in the towel." I’d love to be a part of encouraging our generation to not be apathetic. That would be my dream come true. Encourage other songwriters to put their input out into the world.
What inspired you to write "St. Roch Blues"?
I wrote it with Sam Doores. We wrote that song thinking a lot about a winter a couple years ago where there was a rash of violence in that neighborhood that really respected our community pretty closely. Some people we knew were attacked, some people we knew were killed. It brought me to a place emotionally in New Orleans I felt really… I don’t know. I felt this was a part of the city, a struggle about living in this part of the city, that people are from here have gad to deal with for so long, and now it’s finally hitting home. I wanted to not only honor the people we lost and the people who were affected, but also give that song out to the people of New Orleans to say, "This affected me, and I see a little bit what you’re going through, or what you have gone through, and I see it’s something we need to change." It’s also just about that neighborhood. It’s really beautiful and has amazing people.
There was a lot going on in my community that felt like, "Wow, when is the next bad thing going to happen?" It felt like blow after blow. The community of artists I associate with, I felt like we needed something, we need a song, something to ease our spirits a little bit.
Do you feel that community has been marginalized?
It’s kind of hard to put your finger on describing New Orleans musicians slash travelers slash punk rock… It’s a lot of different people coming from a lot of different backgrounds. That’s why it’s hard to put your finger on it and describe it. It’s not a group of people who all grew up in the same neighborhood with the same economic background. It’s a lot of different people deciding all at different times, :"I want to try and live in a different way than what I was taught I was going to live in." Sometimes I feel like, "Oh, that’s not quite it," or, "That’s not everyone but it’s true and valid." It’s been interesting to move here and see and hear the reaction about that group of people from people who have lived here their whole lives and grew up here, and that I take seriously.
Why'd you choose "Small Town Heroes" for the album's title?
I felt really connected to that song the minute I wrote it. I felt it was a big step for me as a songwriter. I finally felt like I was able to tell a story about a lot of different characters who all had a common search and a common goal, to find love. It’s a really universal idea. I felt close to that song for that reason. I felt like, "OK, I’m getting somewhere." I felt this hope. "This song means I can get to the next level I want to get to." Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re getting any better. You’re writing by yourself all the time. That song gave me a little glimpse, "You can keep getting better."