Alynda Segarra is the heart of Hurray for the Riff Raff, which remains a band thanks to whoever she happens to be working with at the time. Raised in the Bronx, Segarra grew up loving everything from hardcore punk to Motown. But it’s American roots music that defines her sound, giving this city-tough songwriter a decidedly folky feel.
For the past ten years Segarra has used the Riff Raff name, starting with two self-produced albums: It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You from 2008 and Young Blood Blues from 2010. The latter’s title track opens with some old-timey banjo pickin’, and you can’t imagine anything less Bronx. Especially when it starts out, “It’s day out on the levee…” But take as much time as you need to be drawn into the vivid scene. There’s plenty of time. Segarra’s not in a hurry, another fact that belies her big-city background.
The song “Young Blood Blues” was re-released on Segarra’s first studio album, Hurray for the Riff Raff (Loose Music, 2011). Also from that self-titled effort comes the Zydeco-inspired “Slow Walk,” which lays down some pragmatic philosophy: “It’s a slow walk from the bottom to the top.” In other words, once you’re down, it’s hard to get back up.
It’s worth noting that Segarra’s love lyrics talk about women. That’s her preference, and she neither hides it nor makes the fact a big deal. It’s who she is, so it’s what she writes.
From the 2012 album Look Out Mama comes “Ode to John and Yoko,” a perceptive tribute tinged with melancholic Cajun fiddle played by Yosi Perlstein. Segarra turns Lennon’s story into an American ballad that starts “John was born an orphan boy,” spinning out his experiences as if he were Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan. Appropriately, though, the song wanders from its strophic form, just as Lennon strayed from the safety of skiffle and early rock ‘n’ roll once he’d met the love of his life.
After the 2013 release, My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, Segarra stepped up in the indie world by signing with Dave Matthews’ label, ATO Records. She’s done two albums with them so far. The first, Small Town Heroes, came out in 2014.
The Americana is still strong here, but with a different flavor. It’s more bluegrass than bayou. The opening song, “Blue Ridge Mountain,” was inspired by the blended voices and heaven-glorifying melodies of the Carter Family:
When Small Town Heroes came out, it was lauded (by NPR, among others) as representing a new type of political folk music. Well, Woody Guthrie would have had a good laugh at that – for him, there was no other kind of folk music — but it is true that Hurray for the Riff Raff has a distinctly 21st-century take on social issues. And they stand up for these issues not just in word but in deed, by featuring a lesbian lead singer and (for that album) a transgender fiddler, for example.
But their politics are also obvious in their songs. “Body Electric” explores the insidiousness of domestic abuse. The horrific images are presented in long, lyrical lines that bring out the pain in a way that’s almost too beautiful to bear.
“Forever Is Just a Day” closes the album, a lonesome, winsome ballad for voice and fiddle. It takes some major confidence for a New York woman to sell lines — and sell them she does — like “I throwed my lasso across the room / and it fell ʼpon you like the haloed moon.” It also takes some serious artistic guts to end an album on such a quiet note.
After a three-year break, the Riff Raff came out with The Navigator in early 2017. Their influences are widening. Segarra is at the top of her game, both as songwriter and singer.
In general, there’s a more urban sound to this album. That’s not a secret: one song is called “Living in the City.” It could be a tribute to early years of The Cure because of the way the lyrics come out in short bursts. On the drums, David Jamison uses rock patterns in ways that you don’t hear in the other albums:
The American roots music is still important, but the band is following different tendrils of the root system now. “Life to Save” employs blues rock harmony. The keyboard plays in a wobbly Hammond organ-style sample for that distinctive gospel wail:
The Navigator is the album that brings the Puerto Rican Segarra face to face with her own American roots. In this live performance video of the song “Pa’lante” (Go Forward), she explains that “If we wanna move forward, we have to know where we came from.” But, dressed in a t-shirt hand-lettered with the message “No Human Is Illegal,” she quickly takes the spotlight off herself and makes the song about everyone. “There’s lots of people trying to divide us right now, and we’re not going to let them do that, are we?” What follows is a cry for each individual to live freely and have a meaningful existence.
I can hardly wait to hear what’s next.