“In my mind, folk music is music that speaks of the heart. It’s music that meant to tell the story of your struggle and your path through life,” says Alynda Lee Segarra, the creative force behind Hurray For The Riff Raff. “Whether that’s losing your home in a storm, meeting the love of your dreams, or traveling to a city that inspires you,” she adds. The Riff Raff’s most recent album, Look Out Mama, is a sepia-soaked collection of songs with lyrics deeply rooted in the human experience set to everything from swamp pop boogie to foreboding minor keys and sparse arrangements. Segarra’s rich voice wobbles and dips like a distinctive signature on each track. It’s both familiar and unlike anything you’ve heard in the most beautiful way. In fact, Hurray For The Riff Raff is our favorite Folk Fest discovery and we haven’t even seen the gal live yet.
We’re not the only ones to take note of this incredible talent. The twenty-five year old was recently signed to ATO Records, so we suspect she’ll garner some well-deserved attention in the coming months. For now, she’s content absorbing the creative juices of her Crescent City home and is really, really excited about playing Newport Folk Festival.
Donkey Jaw: Describe your earliest musical memory.
Alynda Lee Segarra: Learning to sing The Lion Sleeps Tonight from a handheld tape player when I was probably around five or younger. Besides that, there’s memories of singing with my Dad while he played the keyboard, I made him play Somewhere over the Rainbow way too many times. Thanks, Dad.
You jumped trains as a teenager and ultimately ended up in New Orleans playing washboard and banjo. How would you sum up your train kid travels?
Freeing, hard, and incredibly lucky. Somehow, I ended up in the right place at the right time and I’m thankful for that. I met a lot of people who were very generous and made some friends who became my family. I walked a lot, and when I say a lot I mean a lot. It was freedom for a young kid, to go where you choose and not have a ton of possessions control you and what you do. You go with the wind, you struggle to make it to your destination, try to eat a little food. For a kid from the Bronx who wanted to see the world, it was a pretty good time.
But more importantly, I met tons of people from all over who have beautiful hearts. They fell on hard times and they’re still out there sleeping in the rain. They are the ones who taught me about life. I do my best not to forget about them.
What’s something people would be interested to know about folks playing music down on Royal Street in the French Quarter?
Sometimes those people show up at 3 a.m to hold down their spot! Normally, we set up shifts with the other musicians and someone will relieve you so you can run home and take a nap before playing. Also, in any band on Royal I’d bet half of the players went to music school and half just started playing within the year. I love that.
What’s the greatest lesson New Orleans has taught you as a musician?
Feel it. If you don’t feel the music then you might as well stay home. The people of New Orleans have always accepted and encouraged me to get better and keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve learned how to fully be who I am on stage, laugh when something goes wrong, and break out of my shell since I first started playing out down there.
You write some pretty timeless music. What would you say are the fundamental elements of songs like the ones on your past three albums?
I’ve written about restlessness and the idea of home, about love, and I’ve done my best to write songs in honor of friends who’ve passed on. I try to keep the topics personal, but also want them open and human enough so that lots of different people can relate to them.
You have a cover album coming out shortly, My Dearest Darkest Neighbor?
I recorded the cover album originally as a reward for the folks that donated to our Kickstarter, but our friends with This Is American Music and Mod Mobilian decided to put it out! I’m real excited because I think it’s a pretty good album and it has some songs I wrote that were based of other songs (a Gillian Welch tune and a traditional) I never felt right about releasing them on any other albums so it’s nice that they have a home on this one.
How did you choose the songs and which one do you connect to most deeply when singing it?
It was easy to choose the songs because these were the ones I had been singing at campfires and at home for my own enjoyment. I connect with all of them for different reasons but sometimes James Hand’s “Just a Heart” just about makes me cry when I sing it. It’s a beautiful song written by a great artist.
Who is your songwriting hero?
I have a number of them. John Lennon, John Prine, Gillian Welch, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Elizabeth Cotton, Bob Marley, Lucinda Williams, Karen Dalton. I just had the privilege of seeing Allen Touissant live and I didn’t even realize how many incredible songs he has written that I heard by other artists. He’s got that New Orleans R&B sound in his blood and I would love to write songs like him someday.
You once said you felt like you were born in the wrong era. If you could go back to any time period, what would it be and why?
I’m getting over that feeling since there’s been such an explosion of great music recently, lots of bands are channeling the feeling of music from the 1960’s. Whether it’s soul, R&B, gospel, rock n’ roll or Greenwich Village folk. I think it’s common for people my age to feel lonely sometimes because we’ve grown up in a digital age with everything at our fingertips, but not a lot in front of our very eyes, alive in the flesh, which is where music and art really thrives. I have wished I was born in a time when people spent more time outside, where they didn’t have so many distractions and so it led to them caring about social change. I also believe in my generation and I think we’re waking up.
Who are you most excited to see at Newport Folk Fest?
I cannot wait to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, he’s one of my heroes! Michael Hurley is also one of my favorite songwriters, Bombino sounds like they’ll blow my mind and the Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir is I’m sure gonna make me cry. (In that good way!)
You’ve played some shows with Will Oldham in the past. Any chance you two might sit in on the others set at the festival?
I’ll leave that up to Will. I’m around!
Lastly, what’s the origin of the band name?
I wish I could give you a better answer than this but, my friend’s mom just made it up one day when she was talking about us and all our traveling friends. Thanks to her!
Hurray For The Riff Raff plays Newport Folk Festival’s Quad stage on Saturday, July 27th at 11:45 a.m.