Who: Hurray for the Riff Raff founder Alynda Lee Segarra currently operates out of New Orleans, but the 26-year-old of Puerto Rican descent originally hails from the Bronx. (Full disclosure: We attended elementary school together.) But days before her 17th birthday, she ran away from her New York City home. "It was definitely the dramatic thing of leaving a note and doing that whole thing," says the singer-songwriter, who spent years hopping trains and traveling the U.S. "My focus was to explore the country and live a nomadic lifestyle. But New Orleans immediately became my spiritual home." Once she established herself in the Big Easy (not long after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region), Segarra fell in with a circle of musicians called the Dead Man's Street Orchestra, a local collective in need of a washboard player. Eventually, she graduated to the banjo, began writing her own songs — folk gems that honor America's ever-evolving roots music tradition — and adopted the moniker Hurray for the Riff Raff, an alias that has yielded a string of albums, the most recent of which, Small Town Heroes, is out this week on ATO Records.
O Coen Brothers, Where Art Thou: "What I love about roots music is that it's so personal, but it also really touches on feelings that everyone can relate to," says Segarra, who was raised on a steady diet of Motown and doo-wop, but also cites the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack as an early touchstone in her musical education. "[That] was a really important album for me, because that was my first listen in that style — the first time I heard music that was based in the South and that was really old. There was this different texture to the recording. A lot of those recordings were modern recordings, but they had that old style down so well. It was really good for a new listener, and that led me to Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline."
Redraw the Margins: With Small Town Heroes, Segarra and her backing band have woven together a tapestry of influences and styles. Recorded with engineer Andrija Tokic at his Nashville studio the Bomb Shelter, the new self-produced LP not only channels doo-wop and Motown, but also honors the blues, bluegrass, country, and folk music. Lyrically, Segarra both salutes and mourns for New Orleans: See the harmonica-blessed "End of the Line," a love letter to the Ninth Ward, and "St. Roch Blues," a spiritual inspired by a shocking series of murders that swept through the city's St. Roch neighborhood in 2011. Throughout the album's 12 tracks, Hurray for the Riff Raff serve the underserved and give voice to those who might not feel heard.
"I always get excited, specifically when young girls are really excited about the music," Segarra says. "They feel like it's really empowering to see another female musician. And also, the band has a really strong connection with queer culture and queer identity." (Segarra herself identifies as queer; Yosi Perlstein, the group's fiddle player, identifies as transgender.) "That's just such a huge focus of our generation, and I think it's been really empowering for young people to see a band represent that, and a band be very proud of that, and put that into their music. And lately, we've been connecting a lot with this older generation — like older hippies that are just like, 'Man, we thought this type of music didn't exist anymore.'"
Small-Town Pride: "I feel like there's a very common theme of, 'I don't feel at home in the world,'" Segarra says, explaining her attraction to roots music. "And whether it's the Carter Family singing it, or Woody Guthrie singing it, or an old blues musician singing, it's just a very common feeling of feeling like an alien and wondering where you fit in." Reflecting on her decision to flee home, she says, "Although I loved New York, I felt really stifled by New York. I didn't really feel like I could live up to the expectations of the city, you know? But even now, when I think about it, I'm like, 'I don't think I could do that now' — go live on the road like that. So much of it was this really romantic, beatnik type of dream, being like, 'I want to go out there and not have any fallback plans.'"
In the years since she ran away from the Bronx, Segarra has reconnected with her loved ones. "I'm really excited to share [Small Town Heroes] with my family, and to have their recognition and their respect," she says. "I've had a really incredible relationship with my aunt, who raised me… Just being able to be like, 'I know that I put you through hell and did all these crazy things, but here is this work that I've done.' Trying to make her proud is really important to me."