Interview: LGBTQ Music Scene Vets, Hurray for the Riff Raff

* Originally published at cherrygrrl.com, September 13, 2010 – Read the full text here

Hurray for the Riff Raff are not your average folk band, and the story of their lead singer is certainly everything but. Alynda Lee Segarra was a 17-year-old girl fascinated by punk rock and the world outside of the borough of the Bronx in New York. She ran away from her aunt and uncle’s home and found her way around the country aboard freight trains. Alynda finally found a place to call home in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she made ends meet by (seriously) playing washboard in a group called Dead Man’s Street Orchestra. As she met other musicians and learned more tunes, Alynda found a home for her smoky vocals when she founded Hurray for the Riff Raff. Comprised of Alynda, Yosi Perlstein, David Maclay, and guests, the band combines a contemporary soft-rock and soulful sound with the timeless folk of Bob Dylan and the Band.  Their new record, “Young Blood Blues,” is out now. Alynda shared some of her fascinating story with Cherry Grrl.

Cherry Grrl (CG): Thanks for your time. First of all, “Daniella” is my favorite tune by you guys. Can you tell me about writing that song?

Alynda Lee Segarra (ALS): It’s one of the first songs I ever wrote. I felt that a girl named Danielle really deserved a love song, so I wrote it. It felt great to write a catchy song people could sing to; one that was simple enough that there were a lot of possibilities for it.

CG: I read that you “hopped freight trains in the States” for a while after you ran away. What is the story there?

ALS: A long story is there – too long to [summarize] here. I rode freight trains for a while, a couple of years, a short period compared to others. Most hobos are hobos for life, and ride for ten years or more. I am a baby in those terms – it’s not out of my system, but my life definitely changed enough that it doesn’t make sense to travel that way anymore. I miss it, and I respect those who are still out there doing it. It’s a very secret world in a lot of ways and I want to keep it that way, out of respect.

CG: What artists did you listen to growing up, and how did they influence your pursuit of music?

ALS: Growing up I was obsessed with 1950′s musicals. As a kid, around ages 5 to 10, I would watch “West Side Story” and “The Wizard of Oz” repeatedly. I would learn all the words and try to imitate the singing, as best as possible. Especially with Judy Garland, I worked really hard on capturing her pronunciation and tone. There is something so warm and clear about her voice, it’s very strong and yet it doesn’t overdo her “smoky” sound. She goes right for the song and doesn’t overplay anything. I recently understood how much that helped me.

Later, I got into punk rock of course, being a little weirdo. I loved the energy of the shows and listened to a lot of Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill. She made me love women before I understood I did too. Before I was too shy or scared to say I was a feminist I was singing along to “Rebel Girl” and when I got older and fell into folk music I found inspiration in all the greats: Odetta, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Bessie Smith. I sang a lot of Bessie songs when I was a street performer. They’re great to belt out, they taught me how to be powerful. Growing up, I stayed away from the classics like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Neil Young, etc. I wanted to listen to more women, and I’m glad I did. It made me search. Only recently did I start to really get into those guys and now I feel I can fully appreciate it, with my own background. I can learn from them now. It’s really exciting.

CG: You grew up in the Bronx, but have said that you felt like a transplant in the Lower East Side of New York punk scene. What was it about that scene that enraptured you?

ALS: Like I said, I’ve been weird ever since I was a child. I knew there were other weirdos in the L.E.S. I was really inspired by the squatter movement I read about down there in the 80’s and I loved the energy over all. People were exciting and strange, the kids that hung out wanted to be outside all day in Tompkins Square Park, talking and meeting people. I loved that part, being outside, not watching T.V. all day. In a lot of ways it was a dangerous scene, but it could also be real wholesome too. The kids really cared about each other, thankfully there were a lot of other girls who looked out for each other. I loved that the girls could be tough, and wanted to lead exciting lives.

CG: What is the inspiration for your sound? It immediately rang as “folk,” to me, but I also noted a classic rock sound. I immediately thought to myself, “These guys are a softer Wilco!” It’s so multidimensional.

ALS: I’ve been really excited lately about our direction, as far as our “sound” goes. I’ve fallen in love with the “folk-rock” sound that happened in the 1960’s. A big inspiration has been the Byrd’s album Sweethearts of the Rodeo. It combines the 60’s pop sound with country and folk music. I really love it. I want to have some tunes people can dance to and still slow it down and play a ballad acoustically on the banjo, if I want. We’re just trying to mix it up and do what we feel, I guess.

CG: What motivates you to create music?

ALS: My friends. There are definitely times when I feel worn out and uninspired. Sometimes I’ll go a couple of months without writing a new song and start to feel pretty down about the ones I play a lot, and then a friend will play me a tune they just wrote, or a great old song they learned, and it’ll wake me up to the beauty around me. I am really grateful to be close to some brilliant musicians.

CG: When did you know you could/would play music for a living?

ALS: When I first left home, I didn’t have any skills. I was just a wandering kid who was really confused. I knew I wanted to see the world and I knew there was something out there for me. When I started playing with some kids down in New Orleans I knew I found something I loved, but it wasn’t until I started playing with Riff Raff and writing songs… that I knew I wanted to write songs for the rest of my life. Finally I found something I knew I was good at.

I’d say it must have been our first time playing Idapalooza in Tennessee around the summer of 2007, probably, which is a queer festival in the woods, that I saw all these people dancing, singing and just loving the music. It was the best response we had ever had at the time. We had just put out a little demo on photocopied paper and only had a handful of songs. But people loved those songs, and I felt how much they meant to them. I realized that I had the ability to write songs that made people feel connected, feel good and sometimes make them cry. That ability is something I really treasure and take seriously. There’s no better feeling than bringing people together. After that show I knew I wanted to do this for a living, and I probably will do it even if I don’t make one too.

CG: Do you consider your band a “folk” band?

ALS: Yeah, sure. Folk music is for folks! And our music definitely is. I would hope a lot of people are learning our songs and singing them with their friends. That’s folk music to me.

CG: What is recording like? Is it difficult to get all together and record?

ALS: No, recording goes pretty painless with Riff Raff, we go in and get it done. Young Blood Bluestook about three days to record and three days to mix.

CG: You were on the road when Hurricane Katrina hit. What was that feeling like? Do you think the experience affected your life and the way you create music?

ALS: The storm affected me more by what I saw in the city afterward. I had a different experience in the storm than most because although I had just started to spend more time in New Orleans and consider it a home base, I was still very very transient and not rooted there. I wasn’t rooted anywhere, and I didn’t have many possessions.

Coming back though, and witnessing the city in that chaotic state, listening to people’s stories and feeling the energy there, was real powerful. It got very dark and scary sometimes. But I was also inspired by the resilient attitude everyone had, and the deep love New Orleans people have for their culture and way of life. I definitely knew I wanted to stop rambling the way I had, I wanted to be more productive and give something back to people. I felt I had gotten by on other people’s kindness long enough and I wanted to give what I could, which is music.

CG: When did you begin playing banjo? What attracted you to the sound of it?

ALS: I loved how old it sounded; I loved how it worked with female vocals, and how easy it was to make a good sound! You just ring out an open G and it sounds great! I began to play the banjo because my friends and band mates at the time in “Dead Man Street Orchestra” were really encouraging. I had been playing only washboard and wanted to upgrade, and they all said they’d help me learn. They really helped a lot.

CG: What are the themes for creating Young Blood Blues? It’s a clear growth from It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You.

ALS: YBB is a more focused album. It has a lot of themes of growing pains: death, confusion, love, addiction, heroes, all these are things I think of when I think of being young. I always like to think of my albums as a scrap book of that time period and I think YBB is a good one at that. Being young is rough! Changing and growing older is rough, it’s beautiful too. That’s what I thought about.

CG: What subjects do you find yourself writing about continuously?

ALS: I write about subjects I need help dealing with. Death, Love, Forgiveness. I write a lot about forgiveness, forgiving myself for wrongs I’ve done, and trying to forgive people in my life and people from my past. I find that writing in a state of mind I urge to reach, “faking it till you make it.” I guess you could say, really helps me. Of course, death and love, what’s on everyone’s mind.

CG: You said that you had a hard time really connecting with anything when you were a kid. Did you find that connection in creating music? Do you think music has the ability to do that?

ALS: Music can change the world. It can make people love each other and that is why I love it. I want our music and the music of my friends to bridge worlds and help people accept each other. A major part of our tour with the Tumbleweeds I love is, the bridge of worlds. A tons of queers will come to our shows and line dance to Riff Raff, and when the Tumbleweeds play, the good old boys in the audience and country lovers will mix in with them and it’s a real great atmosphere.

Touring with them has been great because on the surface we look so different. They’re all bigger guys who got their cowboy hats on and sing in a traditional style, and we’re not that classic looking. As a group, Riff Raff look like something you’re not used to seeing as far as gender, race, etc. are considered. You don’t see a Puerto Rican girl play the banjo in a honky-tonk very often! You don’t see a transgendered drummer/fiddle player very often! It’s awesome. I think it’s powerful that we’ll play songs with the Tumblweeds and show publicly that we accept and love each other as musicians and people. I hope that kind of acceptance and respect is contagious.

Pick up your copy of “Young Blood Blues.” You won’t be disappointed. You can follow Hurray for the Riff Raff on tour, and the dates are on their website:http://www.hurrayfortheriffraff.com.