How many choruses does it take to turn a party song into an engine causing social change? Is it possible to honor American cultural traditions while dismantling the traps and habits that make them restrictive? Every so often a new voice engages these basic questions in subtle, exciting new ways. Alynda Lee Segarra, the 27-year-old guiding light of the New Orleans-based band Hurray For The Riff Raff, is this year's champion.
I recently reached Segarra on the phone in Nashville, where she was enjoying some downtime before hitting the promotional trail in support of Small Town Heroes, out February 11 on ATO Records. It is the prolific collective's sixth album and first on a major independent label. Segarra's a self-starter; as every description of her notes, the Bronx native spent her late teens hopping trains before settling in New Orleans, where busking became her means of musical self-education. There, she developed a singing style based in gentle persuasion — Segarra's morning-after alto might be the least showy great voice to hit the national scene this year — and a conversational way with old song forms. In conversation, she reveals herself as a busy reader, a dedicated friend to outsiders and a bubbly enthusiast when it comes to the peers she plays with and the musical elders she reveres.
Our long, idea-sparking talk concluded with Segarra explaining the origin of the song debuted here, her most explicitly political to date. "The Body Electric" is a riot grrrl-inspired confrontation with musical misogyny she's dedicated to Damini, the woman who was killed during a gang rape on a Delhi bus in 2012. "My generation has just seen so much," Segarra said. "Every time we feel like nothing can shock us anymore, something does come along and shock us. It always feels like things are getting crazier than they just were." Hurray For the Riff Raff makes music that helps listeners find a place within old folkways, and gets them dancing in ways that change things.
ANN POWERS: Your songs often have a very traditional frame. You even use familiar titles, like "Crash on the Highway" and "End of the Line."
ALYNDA LEE SEGARRA: I try to go about being very obvious about my inspirations. It's kind of a brave move on our part to say, this is obviously taken from an older form of music. And we're so comfortable with ourselves as a band, and I'm trying to be comfortable enough as a songwriter to say that we're bringing something unique to it and it's going to be a point of view the world hasn't really heard yet. I'm not afraid to make that connection obvious.
I also feel like that with songs that we cover. A lot of bands try to cover songs that are more obscure. While that can be really interesting, sometimes I want to do songs that everybody knows, because they haven't heard someone like me sing them yet. So it's going to be different.
What exactly do you mean by "someone like me"?
A Puerto Rican from the Bronx who went to the South, who also feels queer, who also loves classic country and rock 'n' roll. What's interesting about all of those elements together is that it can attract a lot of different people, can relate to it. That's something I've learned over time: learning how to be comfortable with yourself as a complex person, and feeling like you don't need to throw away any part of yourself in order to become an artist, or feel connected to one particular group.
What is great about what we're doing with our music right now is that we're expanding a lot of people's ideas of who listens to these certain types of music, or who belongs in that realm. I really like to make our image as a very queer band. Yosi [Perlstein, the band's transgender fiddle player] identifies as queer. So do I, as a longtime ally of queer causes. And it really means a lot to people to feel like they belong in certain places that they never felt they belonged in. We'll play in dive bars, or in country bars, and for the first time maybe ever, a lot of queer people feel like they can go there and hang out. And they can listen to that music because it doesn't have the connotation of being sung by people who hate them.
What about being Puerto Rican in a mostly white scene?
It's definitely become more of a focus for me, just in learning how I identify as Puerto Rican. It's a really interesting way to grow up when you don't fit into all the expectations of what you're supposed to be like because of your race or ethnicity. So it's been a journey of me learning about other Puerto Ricans or Hispanics — or people of color in general — who've played music that I do connect with. Because I didn't grow up loving salsa and hip-hop. So in my personal life that's definitely been a real focus. But it's also just a part of my worldview. It comes from studying feminist theory and trying to figure out how to change all types of boundaries with whatever we're doing.
You were putting together your musical canon at the same time you were reading those books.
A big part of my musical education was me saying to myself, "I wanna listen to primarily women, and I don't wanna listen to the [male] legends. When I was finally able to settle down and get a record player, I only wanted to listen to Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith, or Nina Simone. I wanted to educate myself about female musicians. And only after I felt like I did that for a good period of time was I able to listen to Sam['s advice — guitarist Sam Doores of the Deslondes is Segarra's frequent collaborator] and listen to some Dylan.
You're such a politically-minded person, but this isn't a time when overt ideologies express themselves much within popular music.
I feel really lonely. There isn't much out there right now. The main genre that's creating politically conscious music is hip-hop, which is really awesome, because it's also the sound that younger people, my age, really trust. They don't see it as a throwback, or corny; it's very new and still rebellious to them. [But] a lot of incredible political hip-hop artists are still really homophobic, or really sexist. When I listen to it sometimes I have to really sit back and try to understand where the artist is coming from, and how they grew up; what values were pushed on them. But also it gets really tiring.
Who do you consider your elders, as a politically aware artist?
It goes anywhere from Leadbelly and Billie Holiday and Woody Guthrie to Bikini Kill. My generation really needs music that is talking about the disillusionment and the fear that we're feeling, that we're trying to be too tough to even recognize or talk about. And I think that the Occupy movement really inspired me and I was really excited by it, and I felt like what was lacking was a major push of musicians and artists to join that movement. When you're looking to the civil rights movement — if you heard that music and didn't feel like, okay, I'm going anywhere you want me to go, I believe in this, you had no soul!
Punk also inspired you.
When I first heard Bikini Kill, it was so freeing for me as a fourteen-year-old girl to say, this music is truly for me. It's there so I feel empowered; it's there so I feel good, and I don't have to worry about this singer saying something that's gonna make me feel like crap about myself.
You busked when you first started out; what did you learn from that experience?
I've thought a lot about the role of street musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans. I started playing in New Orleans the year that the storms happened, the winter before the storm. And the feeling in me changed when I came back and witnessed people really struggling, and the city just really trying to get back on its feet. I suddenly felt like, wow, is what I'm doing mooching off of this city, and using the city's identity to make money? Or am I actually trying to preserve the tradition? I think it's a really fine line.
It's something that a lot of young people who come to New Orleans have a hard time with, because they genuinely love the music. And they just want to be a part of something that is real, that they can trust. They know this music is made by real people and is really beautiful. They also want to make some money. It's an interesting dynamic.
You're not doing the full-on, costume-wearing revivalist thing, though, the way some young New Orleans performers do.
I like to keep artists in mind when I'm writing a song as these little guardian angels. With something like "The New San Francisco Bay Blues" I was thinking a lot about John Prine, and also Ma Rainey. How do you combine all those elements together? I'm learning a lot more about my sound and how I like to sing and play, what feels natural to me, and I found that playing more along the Townes Van Zandt style of very laid-back ... I'm just not a very boisterous person. Learning about where my voice feels comfortable and what feels natural to me, but also keeping a very specific frame of mind. What do I want to put across in this song? And I feel like a lot of times it's not very obvious. It's just a very subtle thing. I just have my intentions in there.
Tell me about writing "The Body Electric." It's a turn toward the overtly political for you.
It had been an idea in my mind for months. I was out at a club one night and I heard somebody sing a murder ballad, it was a new song — very rock 'n' roll, a song about killing his girlfriend for cheating on him. There was just something that popped into me at that moment when I was listening to the song, where I suddenly realized, this person is so disconnected from what they're saying. It was one of those moments when you're like, the whole world has gone crazy! And now he can sing about killing his girlfriend and everybody just shrugs it off.
We hear the song and say, oh, but it's in that old form. They don't really mean that, they're just singing it. That's very similar to, oh he didn't mean it, she was drunk. Or he didn't mean it; she made him really angry. All of those things had started to play in my mind as ways that we try to make sense of something that's basically just violent and crazy. And I just suddenly felt like it was my place to say something about it.
I thought about it for a very long time, and I thought about "Caleb Meyer," the Gillian Welch song, which is a murder ballad, but the woman survives and is able to defend herself. And I was thinking about the woman in New Delhi who was killed on a public bus, and the articles in the news about young women in high school getting sexually assaulted and it gets out on the Internet. These boys are actually not thinking they're doing anything wrong, to the point where they can videotape it, put it on the Internet and not think they're going to get in trouble or that anyone would get upset about it. And suddenly, I thought, it's time for a song about bringing that back to something very simple and direct. I'm a human, when you say that, you're talking about killing me. You're talking about killing my best friend.
But the title is poetic.
The whole adventure of making the title of the song — I'm really bad at titles. I wanted to be proud of what the title was. It refers to the Walt Whitman poem, "I Sing the Body Electric," which was all about [saying] every body is sacred. But it's also about the woman murdered on the public bus. They never released her name; but people called her Damini, which means lightning, because what happened to her sparked a revolution. It sparked anger in women in India, who felt like, this has happened for so long, and this has to be the last one. I wanted to have some kind of reference to electricity or lightning in the title. It all came together in that phrase.