Q&A: Hurray for the Riff Raff on Going From New Orleans Folk to ‘Small Town Heroes’

By Jonathan Bernstein

Alynda Lee Segarra has been releasing brooding, lo-fi acoustic records as the lead singer and songwriter in Hurray for the Riff Raff since 2008 when she put out It Don’t Mean I Don’t love You. After 2012’s Look Out Mama expanded the group’s sound and impressed critics nationwide, Segarra is now poised for her biggest year to date. Her band is on the verge of releasing their sixth album Small Town Heroes via ATO Records.

Much of Small Town Heroes serves as a love letter to Segarra’s adopted hometown of New Orleans. When Radio.com caught up with the singer in early November, she was particularly excited about the group’s show in Brooklyn the previous evening, where they decided to try something they’d never done before. Performing their new song “St. Roch Blues,” a precautionary tribute to friends and neighbors who had died in the violent New Orleans neighborhood, Segarra wanted to honor the fallen on the last night of Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday she celebrates each year when she’s back home.

“During the instrumental break, we told the audience just to yell out names of people they love who had passed on, and it was like church,” says Segarra. “It was so cathartic. It was one of the best time’s we’ve ever had performing.”

Radio.com caught up with Segarra to talk about her new album, the roots music revival community in the Crescent City, and what it means to be a feminist folk singer.

What’s different about the new record?

I look at Look Out Mama, the last album, as me doing a lot of writing exercises and trying to break out of the box that I had put myself in at the time. I was trying to be like: How would it sound if I wrote a surf song? What would it sound like if I wrote a country song? I was really trying to play around with different genres, and I hope that Small Town Heroes is more us bringing a ton of different worlds together and making them very much our own sound.

Could you describe that “box” you had put yourself in?

Before, I was really in this New Orleans street musician sound that is very particular to that town. A lot of minor key waltzes and a lot of like dark, really heavy music that I really love, and I’m really glad that we played it. I just felt like it was time to grow and time to just represent different parts of my self.

There’s a lot of rewriting of folk standards in the new record, like in the song “The New SF Bay Blues.” Is that something you’ve always been interested in doing in your music?

A lot of what I learned about songwriting was from sitting at campfires and being around a really great community of songwriters in New Orleans. A lot of what we would do is reference each other’s songs in new songs. If we loved a line we’d reference it a little bit, that’s what Woody Guthrie did, it’s what Dylan did. I think that there’s a lot of stigma attached to doing it now because it seems like you’re ripping people off, as opposed to paying respect to them, but it’s something I’m not really that afraid of. It helps to be coming from such a different place, and also to be a woman doing it, because it’s such a different outlook. It’s a cool conversation.

You hear that conversation taking place when you’re singing these very traditional, very male-driven folk narratives. There’s a real potency to hearing a woman reclaiming the female pronouns in those songs.

There’s a lot that I try to do with that. I think it’s really great for women to sing love songs for other women. In the song “Small Town Heroes,” there’s a line about having a man who is rambling around and sleeping with a lot of other women, and it’s kind of like my “Jolene” type of reference, where it’s a woman talking about that and being like “all those women want is to find love,” not being like “that bitch, she stole my man!” It’s just using that age-old idea of the wandering man but then changing it. I know how it feels to be that woman. That’s a really powerful thing that people can do with folk music now, is deal with gender. It’s something I don’t think we’ve done before.

You really hear that in “The Body Electric.” Can you talk a bit about that song?

I was at a show and I heard someone play a murder ballad that they wrote, and it was about the age-old thing of shooting your woman down. I had already been thinking a lot about it, because a lot of kids that play music on the street in New Orleans sing a lot of old blues songs and there’s a lot of beating your woman, “ain’t it a shame to beat your wife on Sunday” kind of thing. I was just thinking about it and I was like wow, we’ve dissociated from what this means. It feels like it’s just this joke, and when you’re a feminist songwriter, you have this very different lens that you’re seeing everything through. When I hear those songs, I don’t have a filter that makes me think that’s not real. Why would you do that to this woman? As opposed to having a filter and being like “oh he doesn’t really mean it, it’s just a joke song.”

I just think that at this point we can start using this music in a different way and actually be focusing more on how terrible all of that is. I just wanted to put a woman’s voice in the conversation.

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