Alynda Lee Segarra has packed a lot of living into her short 26 years on this earth, her backstory suggesting that she was born with the heart of a nomad. Either that, or The Wizard of Oz got its hooks into her as a kid deeper than she thought.
“When I started travelling, there was definitely this feeling of ‘Wow—I’m totally living this kind of Dorothy life that I’ve always wanted to when I was a kid,’ ” the Hurray for the Riff Raff singer says with a laugh, speaking on her cellphone somewhere deep in the heart of Texas. “What’s funny is when I first started travelling, I was with these people who had a little dog who was just like Toto.”
The period to which she’s referring surfaces quite understandably in almost every article written about Hurray for the Riff Raff, whose current album, Look Out Mama, has seen Segarra graduate from the New York punk scene to become one of the most promising songwriters on the Americana frontlines. The Bronx-born musician hit the streets at 17, eventually hopping freight trains around North America. The singer’s wandering ways would eventually lead her to New Orleans, where she did something she never felt comfortable doing in New York, despite having bought into Bikini Kill’s DIY ethos as a teen: play music.
“I’m surrounded by people in New Orleans who are just the most laid-back geniuses ever,” Segarra offers. “They are perfectly happy just playing on the street, or playing in bars every night of the week, and are also really happy to be sharing their knowledge with people. There’s not a lot of competition, and that’s really special. Where I grew up in New York City, I never had the guts to play shows. I was still learning how to write, and I knew that people would tear me apart. In New Orleans all they are looking for is a sense of soul and a sense of realness and a sense of honesty. If they feel that, they are really willing to stick things out with you, and give you some time.”
The singer suggests she’s still learning her craft today, even though Look Out Mama makes a pretty iron-clad case she’s already arrived. The record displays a mastery of classic Americana, with “Go Out on the Road” fortified with whiskey-dipped saloon piano and “What’s Wrong With Me” a gorgeous last-call-at-the-roadhouse waltz. But Segarra also proves anything but a gingham-dress-wearing purist; “Little Black Star” throws ’50s doo-wop into the mix, “Lake of Fire” is pastoral folk with an unlikely ’60s-surf twist, and “Ode to John and Yoko” fittingly dishes up pop at its most fab.
Released to little fanfare, Look Out Mama has since been embraced as something of a revelation, helping turn Hurray for the Riff Raff into a buzz-bin act at showcases like the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, where the band made a huge impression earlier this year. As satisfying as that is, the singer argues her journey is just beginning, to the point where she can’t wait to take the next step with My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, an album due out next year. Expect an attitude that’s punk rock in spirit rather than sound.
“The best part of punk rock is remembering that you should be yourself,” Segarra says. “That’s what Look Out Mama was about—like ‘Let’s put all of our influences in there,’ which I’ve tried to do as a songwriter this time as well. I don’t subscribe to what I should be writing because of the genre I’m part of. It’s more that I’m not throwing out any part of my background or personality.”