With their Small Town Heroes album, the New Orleans-based, swinging, socially conscious folk collective Hurray For the Riff Raff has officially achieved buzz band status, landing coveted tour slots and a slew of coverage from highbrow and hipster outlets alike.
It wasn’t always this way. Singing, songwriting frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra, fiddler Yosi Pearlstein and a revolving cast of collaborators experienced plenty of street-corner performing, DIY album-making and relying on the kindness — and couches — of strangers.
And by no means have HFTRR gone soft. If anything, Segarra sounds like she’s emboldened by the spotlight.
CMT Edge: How does where you are right now compare with how you envisioned your career evolving?
Segarra: Me and Yosi do a lot of [vision casting] for the future. And, honestly, what we always envisioned was something like this. Even though it feels really fast, we’re also aware that it’s a slow-moving process. It feels really good to take these steps. … It feels really good to enter into a relationship with ATO [Records] after releasing albums on our own just because they’re comfortable with our vision and what matters to us.
When you opened for Amos Lee at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last year, your performance looked and felt different from every other show I’ve seen there.
Yeah, me and Yosi were making jokes to each other. He was like, “I bet you’re one of the first Puerto Ricans to ever play here.” And I was like, “I’m pretty sure you’re the first transgendered fiddle player ever [to play here].” It’s definitely the first time the two have happened at the same time.
You’ve played some intimate shows to passionate fans over the years. What are bigger crowds and bigger venues doing to your connection with the audience?
We’re still learning what that feels like to open up for a bigger band and interact with their audience and be like, “OK, you guys don’t know who we are at all.” … We’re learning how to be more confident. That’s been a good lesson for me as a front person: “OK, we’ve got five songs, and in those five songs, we’re going to play a lot of our feel-good numbers, but we’re always going to play our anti-murder ballad.” Just let people know from the very beginning this is what we’re about.
As things progress, you’ll get to see what it looks like to have a fan base made up of those who’ve just discovered you and those who once let you crash on their floor.
In Boston, this guy came up to us and was like, “Do you guys remember sleeping on my floor?” And I totally was like, “You had the really good Thai food in the fridge! I remember you so vividly!” He said, “Whoa, you guys are doing awesome.” It was really fun.
Considering you spent your adolescence in an activist punk scene, I’m surprised you haven’t had more political content in your songs before now. What’s made you want to address violence in new songs like “St. Roch Blues” and “The Body Electric”?
I think New Orleans has taught me a lot about what it means to be a songwriter and be a witness to so much violence that’s going on in the city.
With “St. Roch Blues” specifically — me and Sam Doores wrote that together — that’s about this rash of violence that happened in the neighborhood I lived in for years, just watching it affect my really good friends. I’m really privileged in that I didn’t grow up in that neighborhood. A lot of those people, they’ve had to witness it over and over again. And, for me, it was my first time being like, “Wow. Somebody I knew was murdered.”
That was a big wakeup call. “OK, if I’m gonna live in this city, if I’m gonna travel around and tell everybody that my band is based out of there and wear that city everywhere I go, I have to do it the justice of talking about what’s really hurting the people that live there.”
There are so many different ways violence in our culture is fascinating to me. The murder ballad song [“The Body Electric”] is another really good example. I heard somebody play a new song that they wrote, and it’s just so casually about killing their girlfriend. I’m like, “Do you even know what you’re saying?”
They put it in this form: “Oh, it’s kinda like a traditional song. So you can detach yourself from it.” And it’s that detachment that I really want to break down. With my song, I want to say, “This is what it sounds like to me when you stop detaching yourself from a song like that. You’re saying that you want to hurt me because I’m a woman.”
In the opening song “Blue Ridge Mountain,” there’s a real contrast between your smooth, almost crooning vocal delivery and Yosi’s rawboned, Appalachian-style fiddle playing. What would you say has shaped your sense of what good singing is?
My idea of what good singing is, it always changes because it’s so much about the person. Really, I feel like anybody’s a good singer as long as I feel like I’m getting a little bit of their soul when they sing. And it can be totally off-key.
But when it comes to me, you’re so much harder on yourself, you know? I’ve been really trying to learn how to use my voice in a way that doesn’t sound too smooth but also is challenging for me — just trying to make it as powerful as I can.
So you’re trying not to sound smooth?
Yeah, actually. … It’s definitely not something I ever want to do. But I’ve also learned like I just sound like that. I went through a period where I was like, “Man, I wish I sang like Janis Joplin or somebody that’s so different than what I can do.” And you reach a point where you’re like, “This is what I sound like. I should just go for it.”