By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
Though only in her mid-twenties, Alynda Lee Segarra has lived a life worthy of folklore.
The singer-songwriter has seemingly seen and done it all: She ran away from her home in New York City as a teenager, joined a troupe of traveling musicians and artists on the West Coast, drifted to New Orleans, and found critical acclaim for her soulful brand of Americana as Hurray for the Riff Raff.
Now, as she revisits the roads and highways she traveled as a young woman, it feels as if Segarra is poised to inspire tales and songs in future generations, though she remains affably humble about it all.
“I just want people to know that there is a possibility for magic to happen,” she says. “Life can really surprise you.”
Segarra recently uprooted again, settling in East Nashville. That’s where I found her earlier this month, at home for a handful of day between legs of her latest cross-country jaunt.
Hurray for the Riff Raff performs with Son Little at DC’s 9:30 Club tonight. The band plays sold out shows with Clear Plastic Masks at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom on Friday and The Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday. Small Town Heroes is out now on ATO Records.
What were your earliest forays into playing music? How does someone from New York City end up playing Americana?
My earliest memory of playing music was me really wanting to learn how to play in middle school. I was obsessed with Nirvana, and I learned as many Nirvana songs as I could on the acoustic guitar, but I just really had a hard time with it. I wasn’t that good at it. I took a couple of lessons from my Dad, and he’s a great musician, but he grew up playing Latin jazz. So, it was this weird experience for me, where I felt like I wasn’t good at it at all.
But I was obsessed with writing; poetry was what I did all the time. I was into keeping a journal during my high school years. I got into slam poetry, and stuff like that, and all of that led me to being attracted to the Lower East Side and the punk scene there. I just loved going to punk shows – the experience of it, and being a part of something that wasn’t being sold to me, you know? It was cheap or free. It wasn’t about making money. It was just there for me to partake if I wanted to; you kind of have to discover it. That was exciting to me. That was really my first experience with live music.
Through the punk scene, I learned about these kids traveling around the country, writing music and hitch-hiking and living in abandoned buildings – just living this underground life, and more and more I felt like that was my destiny, and what I was going to end up doing. And it was terrifying! I definitely felt like I was going to be a bum, and my family was going to hate me and I’d be such a loser, but there was this honor in living that way that I got swept up in.
I wanted to dedicate myself to my artistry and to living this way, and feel like I was really seeing America. I had this strong desire to see outside of New York, and see outside of my experience, and that all led me to folk music. I had heard so much about the Greenwich Village scene, and I was still not really open to that. I never listened to Bob Dylan, and I wanted to stay away from anything classic like that. The older I got, the more I was open to it. I was meeting these kids who were learning American folk songs from all over the country, you know, a lot of Appalachian stuff. I just felt that it was a great way to learn – directly from people. And I dunno, I found something that really clicked with me.
Looking at where you started and where you’ve been thus far – playing on Letterman, and performing at the Lincoln Center – what’s stood out the most for you? Have there been any surreal moments?
There’s been a lot, for sure. Playing on the West Coast, specifically, has such a profound emotional effect on me, because that’s where I went when I first ran away from home.
We just played in Portland, Oregon, at the Aladdin Theater. There were, like, three or four hundred people there. I went out on stage and it really hit me: I used to play on the streets in Portland. It’s where I went when I was just a 17-year old runaway, sleeping in an abandoned passenger train car in the industrial part of town.
It takes me back to that place of being so scared of what my life was going to be like, and so afraid for my safety, and feeling like I just have to make it through this period; I just have to do the best I can to follow this instinct that I have; that this is the right thing. And I didn’t know why it was the right thing, but it just felt like it. And playing for these people at that theater, it was this recognition of finally being out of that, and finally being in a safe place, and having a passion – which meant so much to me. I found something that is my purpose, and why I’m alive. It’s something I had been looking for my whole life, and it’s awesome.
Going out on stage at the last show, and people yelling out, “We love you, Alynda!” – that’s such a fucking cool thing to say to someone! That’s such a welcoming thing. It meant so much to me that somebody yelled that out, especially at that show. I really try to share this with the audience, because I want people to know that it’s possible.
Well, I’m not as disciplined as some other artists, but I’m always trying to do whatever I can to stay inspired. A big part of that is not editing anything at first, and being open to have a recorder on me at all times, whether it’s my phone or a handheld recorder. I take the time to record something, and it might be something as simple as just me singing alone if I think it’s a good idea – a melody or a couple of lines.
When I have any downtime or feel particularly productive, I’ll go through all of that and decide what I like and what I don’t like, and try to always build on it. I like to treat these songs like a plant, always really trying to take care of them and let them grow, and not get in their way until I have a lot of stuff. Sometimes I get lucky, and a song will just hit me. “Body Electric” just hit me completely, but I think I was open to it hitting me, because I was also open to having bad ideas. I try to not get down on myself, and not let things get to me as an example of who I am as a songwriter, just because I write a couple of corny lines, you know? [Laughs] I think because I’m so open to having a lot of ideas, it will make it easier for those full songs to come. It’s a mysterious process, for sure. [Laughs]
There are some songs that are just crazy. It’s really weird what gets stuck in your head. I’ll write a song and be like, “Why did I write a 90s alternative song? I hate that.” [Laughs] If I heard that, I’d be like, “That’s garbage.” It’s funny what gets stuck in your subconscious and comes out sometimes.
I’ve done a lot of reading on other songwriters. I went through a Townes Van Zandt phase, where I only wanted to listen to Townes. He talked a lot about how he just tried to always write and give every song a chance, and throw away a lot of stuff, so that made me feel a little bit better. It’s always really good to hear songwriters talk about songwriting, and I love listening to demos to remember to give some songs a chance.
You play both the guitar and the banjo now. Which is your preferred instrument to compose on?
Well, I still feel like I understand the banjo a little bit more. The guitar I’m still learning a lot about; it’s still a mysterious instrument to me. I know I can do what I can do, but there’s so many technicalities that I don’t understand. There’s a part of me that loves that. I learn by playing songs, so if it requires finger-picking, then I’m learning finger-picking.
I really love writing on the guitar, mostly. I’ll write just singing the line, and the guitar is such a great accompaniment. The banjo is so much more limited. I find myself wanting to get more and more away from being in a specific Americana genre, and I would love to make music that’s more open when it comes to the genre and inspiration. The guitar can really take you anywhere.
Are we going to have your “going electric” moment like Dylan at Newport?
How are you liking Nashville? They say it’s hard to leave New Orleans.
I’m loving living in Nashville. I was really afraid of the transition after living in New Orleans on-and-off for the last ten years, but it’s been so much easier than I thought. We’ve been coming here for the last four or five years, so it’s really been easy.
It’s a lot friendlier than I thought it would be. I was worried that it would be super competitive and industry-focused, but there are so many people who are here doing their jobs and their own thing, and they’re still open to meeting new folks and making friends. It’s really nice to be around people you can relate to with touring so much -not a lot of musicians in New Orleans tour; the majority live there and play regular gigs every day. It was always a little bit weird, to feel like I was one of the few people who was out of town so much. There are more people whose lifestyle I can relate to here.
What do you do when you’re actually in town? How do you make yourself feel a part of Nashville?
We’ve been exploring a lot. They have a really nice park, Shelby Park, and a lot of good Mexican food; great taco trucks, which I’m really excited about. [Laughs] There’s a great independent movie theatre; just stuff like that. I get to do all the normal people stuff while I’m home. It’s pretty nice. [Laughs]
Part of what’s so different about my life here is that I don’t go out as much as I used to. When I lived in New Orleans, I’d be going out every night, because that’s just what you do. It’s been really good for me to just be a little bit more domesticated, and to be inside more, especially as I’m slowly working on a new record and hoping to get back in the studio by the fall. Stuff like that has been good for me – a little bit more down time.