Photographs & Interview by David Norbut
The first time I heard "Little Black Star," I heard a voice that sucked me in instantly. A few seconds more, when I heard that violin, I was transported to the magical streets of New Orleans, a place that stole my heart the moment I arrived. From my experience at Preservation Hall and the Spotted Cat to all the wonderful street musicians along the way. The music of Nola is quite special to me. So as you'll read, my hunch was right that Hurray for the Riff Raff cut their chops in the historic Crescent City.
As I continued to listen to the recordings, I heard traveling songs, stories that we could all relate to, songs steeped in history, love, politics, and fighting for what's right... all of it with a touch of darkness and magic.
Alynda Segarra is the quintessential American songwriter with the voice of a highway angel whose words and sound prove that it's all from experience. A true poet full of grit, honesty and most importantly full of heart.
I spent a few minutes with her after Hurray's set at Big Barrel Festival in Dover, Delaware this past month. We talked about punk rock, hopping trains and, of course, New Orleans.
A: My Name is Alynda Segarra and my band is Hurray for the Riff Raff.
D: Where are you from?
A: I'm originally from the Bronx and I kind of just ended up in New Orleans when I was 17. I was just leaving home, just traveling really, living on the road and ended up in New Orleans closer to 18. That's when I started playing music, playing with people on the street.
D: How much did the New Orleans sound influence your music and your writing? Did it all start there?
A: I've always written a lot of poetry. I always had an urge to write things and share things, write a lot of personal stuff and share it with an audience, since high school really. But New Orleans is where I learned to play and I learned about song structure and just what makes a good song. I was really affected by the local street music scene. There was a lot of theatrical stuff going on. In New Orleans in general, you have to really be tough in a certain way to get an audience's attention. You kind of have to master what you're doing to get people's attention because they see so much good shit all day, but also playing on the street you have to be tough and you have to be loud to get people's attention. So I learned a lot about performing in New Orleans and I had it in me where I knew I was more subtle than that. I'm just not that type of performer, ya know, and I was like there has to be a way that I can fit in here and still be myself and do what I do best. I was learning how to sing old blues songs and playing with some traditional jazz bands on the street and trying to belt out these songs, and I was just not really feeling like that was me, but I learned a lot from doing that. Imitating people at first is really good for you until you find who you are.
D: And what about New York? Any influence there? Any punk rock?
A: YES!!! Actually it's influencing me now a lot more than ever. Yeah, I grew up going to punk shows and those were my first experiences with live music. Just going to shows, going to see bands that nobody had heard of, having it be bands that were my age, seeing people that looked like me going up there and trying to make a band; it was all about just trying, just doing something. It had a really big effect on me and definitely had an effect on my idea of politics in music. I always felt like politics and art were intertwined. I mean, because of the punk scene and also in New York, especially for Puerto Ricans, art and politics have always been hand in hand in the Nuyorican Cafe tradition. Theres a lot of Puerto Rican poets that are always talking about their place in society and their struggles and stuff, so that has really influenced me a lot and the next album is going to be very focused on New York.
D: Will you be recording it in New York?
A: We are going to record some of it. It's funny because I always end up recording in Nashville. It's nice to do it there with our dude, Andrea, because then we can create these fantasy places in our head, ya know? Sometimes when I go to New York I just get bummed out because it's changed so much and I feel like it's losing a lot of what I love about it. So it's kind of nice to just create the New York in my mind.
D: I just want to step back to the punk stuff, do you remember who you saw at your first punk show?
A: It was probably so stupid; it was probably Rancid or something. I remember I started out listening to horrible ska bands and stuff but I was in middle school so I get a pass. I started going to ABC No RIO in the lower east side when I was like in freshman year of highschool and they had these matinees every Saturday. They were five dollars at 3 PM, all ages. That completely changed my life, just having something to do every Saturday. All my friends would go, and it was all ages and you know we were like sneaking drinking and it just gave us a place to be. It was just in the lower east side and all these young New York kids just being able to experience New York and make their own New York. That was when I thought "this is where I belong, going to ABC every weekend." There was this one band, Harum-Scarum from Portland, I have such a vivid memory of them, there were three women, I think it was three of them. All looking like total witches, just like so terrifying and awesome and they had these projections behind them, and all their songs were really political and that was one of the first times I saw women just like rocking out really hard. It had a big effect on me and all of my friends....
D: OK, train hopping? Can we talk about that?
A: Yeah, I like to not give away anything, because I don't want some train hopping kid from to today beating me up or something (laughs). But I was just lucky enough to be around a lot of train hopping kids in New York. I was really into the squatting scene when I was in highschool, where I was kind of half living in this squat with these other kids, just really like one foot in the regular world and one foot in this other world that I was just so fascinated with and wanted to be a part of. I was just lucky enough to have wanted to leave and get outta here, not even in school anymore, I'm just like sucking my aunt dry. I just felt like I was such a burden on my aunt who I lived with. And these kids were like "alright we'll take you, get a fake ID, let's go" and that was how it went. I took a Chinatown bus to Philly, then a Greyhound to San Francisco and that's when it really started. I was really lucky to be with people who knew what they were doing, who knew where to get trains when they were stopped. I'm actually so afraid of so many things; when I look back at it, I'm like how did I get myself to get on those things. It was very meditative, like you have to wait all fucking day to go somewhere and you might not even get there. You have to deal with the elements. You are really living on the total outskirts of society. I went to jail for it at one point, not long but still. I made a commitment to it, there was just something about it that I was like this is exactly what I'm craving. I just wanted to get outside of all of our mainstream culture and that was the best thing for me.
My best memories were when I was traveling with this group, Dead Man Street Orchestra. It was my first street band and there were six of us and we all rode trains in the Southeast and the West Coast, and that was how we went on tour. We just took a train until the next stop, like a junk train, we'd get off in this random town and just go find the downtown and try to busk and try to find a punk so we could play a house show or something. We just did that for a couple of years. Those were some of my fondest memories, it was like we were family or a pack. We were all young and just wanting to learn to play music, and we'd just play music all day long.
D: The Clash or The Ramones?
A: OH, thats so hard... The Clash, when I was younger, stood for something for me. I had this patch that said "know your rights" and I just really loved them, they just represented something so different for me; they just stood for something higher, they were fighting the good fight. And the Ramones, I just love The Ramones. I just feel like they are so New York. If I'm gonna have to choose I would say the Ramones, even though they represent something different for me. Looking back, their songs were just like good doo-wop songs gone punk. I just love Joey; he was just this weird alien angel from another planet.