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Hurray For The Riff Raff

Hurray For The Riff Raff

Interviewed by
Danielle Street
Monday 17th November, 2014 1:24PM

Alynda Lee Segarra is the heart and soul of Hurray For The Riff Raff. The Puerto Rican singer, songwriter and banjo player grew up in the Bronx and as a teen found her way into the hardcore scene on New Your's Lower East Side. It wasn't long before she was living the archetypical beat lifestyle, hopping freight trains around the States before eventually settling in to her spiritual home of New Orleans, where she has channelled the energy of early blues women to help forge her own folk-blues sound.

Having recently released fifth studio album Small Town Heroes, Segarra's music is taking on a life of its own thanks to the potency of her song 'The Body Electric'. Written as a response to the tradition of murder ballads, the track has become an anti-violence anthem of sorts, with the band setting up The Body Electric Fund to raise money to make a video for the song, as well as shed some light on The Trayvon Martin and Third Wave Foundations. UnderTheRadar caught up with Segarra to ask her more about her early musical influences, the development of her social consciousness and the Body Electric project...

UTR: I was reading a little bit about your early life, and how you fell into the hardcore scene in New York. When did you discover your love of country music?

Alynda Lee Segarra: I actually think a lot of it came from Johnny Cash. Doing these interviews has made me think about how Johnny Cash is a great bridge from punk rock into earlier country music because he has such a punk attitude. He’s just got such a great message and he was such a man of the people. He really spoke to me, even though he was such a success he was also an outlaw, and it really spoke to me when I was a kid. First I found him and then I started going back. Woody Guthrie was another really big moment for me. Especially because of how I travelled and the life I was living, his songs felt so current for me, they didn’t feel very antiquated at all.

They are both strong figures in terms of making music that appeals to the working class…

Yeah, and what really bought me to punk rock was the love of the riot grrl. I just needed it so bad as a young girl, I just really needed the power and to feel like it was protecting me. So learning about Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie was really important, but then it wasn’t until I went to New Orleans and started learning about these blues women, and that brought it home to me that it was a power I could also channel, that feels natural to me and it’s very feminine and very strong and I needed that as well ,just bring in all these influence. And not just being inspired by famous men, I wanted to do my research and learn from the women of the past as well.

What drew you to New Orleans in the first place?

Well, I part of a circuit of young people that were wandering the country and you’d get little tips while you went from city to city, and I people just kept telling me that New Orleans was unlike any other place in America. And that’s where I wanted to go. A lot of America was really worrying me, so I really wanted to go somewhere that felt really unique.

Do you ever see yourself returning to New York to live?

You know, I love New York and the older I get I realise I’m such a forever New Yorker. But sadly new York has changed so much I don’t think I could ever afford it. It’s so hard for people to survive there, or more than survive, to live a life that’s isn’t just chasing after money. I don’t think I would be able to afford it.

Do you still get the urge to jump ship and travel like you did when you were younger, or does touring fill that need?

Touring definitely fills that need. But, you know when I was travelling in that way I was really lost and I was really looking for what my purpose was, or what I could do. And now that I have a project and I’ve become more confident in being a writer, because at the time I was so young I didn’t really consider myself a writer, even though I was writing all the time, a lot of poetry. Now that I feel comfortable calling myself a writer I don’t really feel that urge, although I love to travel. Now I just get really excited just to be at home and work on a project, that’s the most exciting thing for me.

So you wrote ‘The Body Electric’ and after writing it and recording it, you realised the potency of what you had written, and since then it’s found a life of it’s own. Is that fair to say?

Yeah definitely. I definitely thought a lot about the song before I wrote it, but it was a very narrow idea that I wanted to write a female response to the tradition of murder ballad songs. And then once I wrote it I realised it was a very powerful feminist statement of feeling like a target, feeling like you live in a world where there is a lot of danger around, or even just unwanted pressure, you know. And right now in America there is a lot of young black men getting killed and it immediately gets picked up by the media, who say ‘well they smoked weed’, or ‘they did something bad when they were 15’, and it gets turned into a very normalised state of violence. It becomes this culture of violence where women are unsafe. And people of colour are unsafe. And queer people are unsafe. It’s when that violence becomes normalised is when the people in power begin to convince you that you should expect violence. That’s what I really started to think about with the song. The song started to mean more to me. So yeah, the song has taken on a life of it’s own and I feel so lucky because it’s taught me a lot.

Can you explain a little bit about The Body Electric Fund and how it fits into the picture?

Yeah, well we wanted to make a video for the song, a friend of ours made her own video which was really amazing. It has a cartoon narrative of this woman who is telling her story and we thought it was so beautiful, but then we thought we want to make our own video and we really want to make it a powerful statement. We were thinking of doing some crowd-funding to get some money together, and then I thought why don’t we try to help out these great organisations that I really look up to. The Trayvon Martin Foundation are doing such great work to help families that are affected by violence, and really focus on how violence affects a whole family. I really wanted to give back to them and shine some focus on them. And then there is this Third Wave fund that does lots of work with youth organisations and with queer youth. Really trying to empower these young kids and give them resources. So we wanted to make a video and we wanted to let our fans know about these organisations, and kind of show how these people are doing the real work. They are doing this every day and they don’t get the applause that we do at shows.

And so you started shooting the video the other day how did that go?

Yeah, it’s going good. I think its going to look really beautiful. It’s definitely simple but I think it’s going to be powerful. It’s hard with a song like that not to be too heavy with symbolism and be too preachy, we wanted to make it artistic and powerful. And let people take in the images and get what they want to get out of it.

Last question before we wrap up, was your social awareness something that arose from you being involved in the punk scene in your younger years?

Yeah definitely. It’s also a lot from growing up in New York City. I’m Puerto Rican and there was a big movement there called Nuyorican, that were New York Puerto Ricans who wrote poetry and a lot of it was really political. And that was really big in the 60s and 70s and I feel like I really learnt a lot from that. It was all over New York, you could find it everywhere, and it just kind of seeped in.

Hurray For The Riff are performing on Friday 21st November at The Tuning Fork in Auckland. See below for details.

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