New Orleans’ Hurray for the Riff Raff covered a wide swath of roots musical ground on last year’s Look Out Mama. There were elements of folk balladry, Cajun string band fare, swamp-pop, honky-tonk, early rock ‘n’ roll and plenty more besides.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra, the leader of the band, doesn’t draw her musical inspiration from a single source but the rich array of experiences and perspectives she’s embraced on her journey thus far. Of Puerto Rican descent, she grew up in the Bronx, then hopped trains around the country for a few years and finally landed in New Orleans, where she joined street corner bands on washboard and banjo. And that’s just part of the back story she brings to the stage.
CMT Edge: I had a hunch you appreciated Gillian Welch, and it was confirmed when I realized you borrowed the yodel from her song “My Morphine” for the title track of your album Look Out Mama.
Segarro: I really love her. When I started learning banjo, I was learning a lot of traditional songs. But she was one of the only modern artists that I was learning a lot of songs from.
There are a lot of different reasons younger musicians claim her as an influence. What have you learned from her?
I’ve studied her lyrics a lot. Her latest album, The Harrow and the Harvest, is the album I’ve studied the most, listening to her phrasing and the way that she will take old-time lyrics and blues lyrics and use one line and turn it into a totally different story. I think she’s brilliant with lyrics, and I’ve been really trying to work on that with myself, especially phrasing. On this last album she made, it seems like she totally conquered her voice. I feel like in her earlier albums, she was trying to sing higher and sing in a way that’s more expected of a woman. And now her deep voice is so perfect. And working with David [Rawlings], too, their harmonies have gotten so perfect.
You tend to sing in a lower register, too.
Yeah, [she’s] been inspirational to me because I’ve been trying to get more comfortable with it. I think as a woman, when you are a singer, you feel like it’s expected of you to try to sing higher. I’m not the best harmonizer. When I [would] try to harmonize with people, I felt like for a long time I was trying to reach notes that weren’t really that comfortable for me. And hearing her made me feel a lot more comfortable.
From what I’ve read, you actively sought out women performers to listen to.
That was a really big part of the New Orleans music scene that drew me to it — that here it’s not considered strange at all for there to be women musicians and for there to be women musicians who are bandleaders. There are a lot of great jazz bands that have women leaders. … Also, when I first started playing with street bands in New Orleans, I was really seeking out a lot of information about Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and Ma Rainey, all these old blues and jazz singers, and reading the history of female blues singers, how a lot of them were also songwriters.
When you were a kid living in the Bronx in the ‘90s, you weren’t listening to boy bands or Britney Spears. Can you set that scene for me? What appealed to you about reaching back to older forms of music?
I know that it’s a very obvious reference, but seeing O Brother, Where Art Thou was a huge deal for me because I’d definitely been drawn to an older style of music. That movie made me open up my mind a little bit. I think a lot of it also had to do with being really interested in poetry. I was writing a lot of poetry at the time and really into the Beat poets. I felt like that led me to Woody Guthrie and the idea of rambling and just traveling around. And I was really involved in the punk scene in New York, which had so many young travelers. …
I think that whole way of life was what led me to the music of Woody Guthrie and Appalachian folk music, all this music that was really focused around wandering and trying to find your place in the world and trying to find a home. And I felt like that was exactly where I was when I left home. It fit perfectly for me.
I was going to ask what connection you felt between the wandering that folksingers have been singing about at least as far back as Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers and the life of train-hopping you chose to live for a few years.
I definitely felt like I was more connected to that era and those songs than I was to the present day because I was so out of touch with what was going on in the world at the time. You live in a bubble, and you’re traveling around. You know, we didn’t have cell phones or anything. Especially with the people I was traveling with, we were learning songs all the time, playing music all day long. And all those songs were exactly how we were living.
People seem fascinated with the train-hopping part of your life. You, however, don’t seem to feel the need to dress up as any sort of hobo for your band photos.
I remember when we met this guy that we work with in Europe for the first time. He was like, “Wow, I didn’t think you’d wear a dress.” I wondered what he expected me to wear. Like overalls and have a bindlestiff or something?
I really loved that part of my life, and it was also really hard. I just feel like I’m not there anymore. That was a part of my life that was a huge influence on me, but now I’m really into trying to do what I’m doing now, which is focus on songwriting.
The first couple of Hurray for the Riff Raff albums were more subdued and rustic. Then you teamed up with the country band the Tumbleweeds and made Look Out Mama, which covered a much broader range of musical styles. Was there any guiding principle there?
It had been a long time coming, for sure. When I was still making my older albums, I’d met Sam Doores who’s in the Tumbleweeds. He was influencing me so much, showing me all these bands that I’d never really listened to. … It was music I had dismissed because it was so well known. It was like, “Have you ever even listened to the Beatles? Have you ever really listened to Bob Dylan?” All these people that would make a huge impact on me.
The Tumbleweeds were starting up as I was writing all these songs, and I was really influenced by them because they were bringing so much classic country music to New Orleans. And I think the album was so diverse because I was trying to get out of the box that I write in. I would be like, “Well, what would it be like if I wrote a classic country song? What would it sound like if I were to write a song to John Lennon?” That was what came out … all those songs. Thanks to the Tumbleweeds, we were actually able to bring them to life.
Your band name feels like a contemporary reference to the folksinger tradition of taking up for the downtrodden. How does that philosophy shape what you do?
I definitely feel like it’s grown a lot. A major theme that has taken me in, musically and personally, from the beginning of me playing music has always been a queer or gay scene and also a feminist scene. In the beginning, I feel like there were so many people who were excited to see a girl play personal songs, and also I identify as queer, so that was coming in through a lot of my music. I feel like it really connected with a lot of people. I think what really has made us grow [in] our vision of that was when we joined up with the Tumbleweeds. Then we were kind of [merging] this queer scene with this country music scene and going on tour together and being like, “Let’s see how this goes.”
What did you think was going to happen?
We weren’t sure. It wasn’t like we thought anything bad was gonna happen. But we were like, “I wonder if these people will like your band, and I wonder if those people will like our band.” It was a really great couple of tours where we saw a lot of different scenes of people all hanging out at our shows. That really made my idea of the band — and our message — grow. It’s just trying to be focused on all different types of riffraff.