Sometime around 2007, Andy Bizer—a young lawyer and passionate New Orleans music fan—witnessed a rough-and-tumble ensemble of street musicians perform at the Big Top, under the name Hurray for the Riff Raff. Blown away by the melodies, voice, and inherent star power of the young woman at the band’s center, Alynda Segarra, Andy—who also happened to have extensive experience in the music industry—approached her and asked point blank if Alynda wanted a career as a professional artist.
From there, an artist/manager relationship was born that would take Alynda and Hurray through several albums and international tours, then finally to the proverbial doorstep of ATO Records in 2014, where Hurray would release its first major label album, Small Town Heroes, to much critical and fan acclaim. Since then, Alynda has graduated to the management wing of Electric Lady Studios.
Now, Hurray for the Riff Raff has just come out with their second album on ATO, The Navigator. Says Andy about this latest release: “The Navigator is Alynda’s finest work yet. Some may find it a departure from her previous records. Those people would be right. It is. However, to me, it is a welcome next step for an artist whose sound has always been developing. When we were (unsuccessfully) ‘shopping’ 2012’s Look Out Mama to record labels, one prominent independent label outright stated that they didn’t want to offer a record deal because Look Out Mama was such a drastic departure from 2010’s Young Blood Blues. That decision clearly turned out to be much too short-sighted. While her collaborators and backing band have turned over multiple times, and her sound is evolving, what hasn’t changed is her ability to craft a melody and tell a story. And of course, that voice.” Even with a hectic touring and travel schedule that splits Alynda’s time between her native home of the Bronx and her adopted home of New Orleans, she found time to reunite with her old manager and friend to discuss how The Navigator came to be, as well as what the album means for this time of great political turmoil. —ed.
Over the summer I saw there was an article titled, “Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff Is Writing A Whole Album About Gentrification” [bitchmedia.org] And I thought to myself, oh wow—
She’s run off the rails!—
That’s not going to be easy (and inspired by Ziggy Stardust, of course). But you pulled it off. It’s a great record. Did you ever hesitate to go forth with this vision because of cynical reactions like the one that I just expressed?
[laughs] Yeah, because I had the reaction to myself when I thought about it. I don’t remember when exactly I had the idea, but I do remember the feeling of getting the idea that I should write a concept album, and then instantly I was just like, too bad I’m really lazy and I don’t finish anything that I start. I probably will never do that. Or tons of thoughts like, I’m not musically/ technically skilled enough so I wouldn’t be able to write it, I would need somebody to help me… all these ideas. And then because I’ve been watching a lot of RuPaul, I decided to challenge the “inner-saboteur” in my mind and tell myself that I was going to try to do it. And then more and more I was worried about people thinking I was gonna be preachy, but then once I started coming up with the superheroine character, I thought, people can’t really fuck with this. I was like, what would my Ziggy Stardust look like? It would be a street kid girl that’s really tough and who is struggling with inner shame and gentrification and addiction issues. And when I started getting into the story, I thought, I don’t care if people think this is stupid.
You were saying you needed help and you ended up with Paul Butler, who produced the record. And with all due respect to people who helped you on previous records, this is the first time you ever worked with a producer with a capital “P.” How did that come about?
Well, we recorded the whole album in a similar way that we had recorded our other albums. And it was me and my buddies—none of the same people that recorded this version—and I was very unsatisfied, [thinking] this is not a step forward; this isn’t really challenging me or the music. And I thought a lot of the songs were not coming out the way they were supposed to. So we kind of racked our brains—me and the crew that were trying to help me bring the idea into life—and somebody mentioned Paul Butler. I had already loved the Michael Kiwanuka album, so instantly I thought that would be amazing. Because I remember just especially on “Tell me a Tale,” all the string arrangements, all of the percussion, everything sounded like Marvin Gaye or something from the ‘70s. So I already knew that I was a fan of his. And they got in touch with him. He said, “Sure, tell her to send me an email, a little bit about her idea of the album.” And I sent him this looong play-by-play, every song, what it means… you know, the concept behind the album. I sent him this huge email. And he was instantly like, this girl is crazy. I’m not reading this, I don’t know this girl, I don’t have time… He was moving to the States at the time. He didn’t even have a studio together. So he [replied], “Sorry guys. She scared me.” But I wanted him to know what I was like from the beginning. So then we had to convince him to come to a show. And he came to a show in L.A. and we met, and he [asked] “Why don’t we just hang out for two days? You can stay nearby my house and we’ll make some demos.” And then the two days hanging out together was when we really became such good friends. We were listening to a lot of music. I’d play him a song and we would just record percussion for five hours over it. Just a lot of listening and a lot of talking and bonding… He kept saying, “People keep telling me that there’s something great about you and with all due respect, I don’t really see it.” And I kind of liked that. Because he wasn’t trying to knock me down, he was just kind of like, yeah, I think your stuff is good, but… After hanging out with me, he said, “OK, I see the potential. Let’s get it out of you.”
I saw Patti Smith perform live when I was making the record and that changed my life
Well, I think we were definitely on the same page. He definitely was letting me steer, so there was never any time that he had some crazy idea that I thought, I don’t see it. We were really on the same page for most of the time. What he did that was so great was he really pushed me to just be better in every way. We had been in there for maybe five days (we were there for a total of 14 or 15 days). And we’re getting to the fifth day mark and things were not really gelling that well. He sat down with me at the end of the night and [asked] “How are you doing?” And I was telling him, “Oh I just feel so lucky and so happy to be here and what a beautiful place we’re at…” all this stuff. And what he did that was really great was, he said, “Stop being so grateful to be here. Why do you feel like you need to thank everybody? Because you’re here, you’ve worked really hard, you deserve to be here. Act like you deserve to be here and stop being afraid that if you’re not grateful enough, people are going to kick you out.” And I felt like he really got into my mind, like, this guy’s good. It was kind of a spiritual training, Yoda thing! [laughs] I felt really challenged because that is how I feel, like I need to be so gracious. And once he snapped me out of it I felt like I woke up a little bit. And I thought, Oh, I’m an artist and I’ve worked really hard and now I gotta fuckin prove it, gotta be my best self. And there were songs like “Pa’lante,” you know, where he created the space for me to break out a little bit. He made it feel very safe—but safe is not the right word. Maybe he made me feel like he cared about me and he believed in me. And I’ve always needed that, so I feel like I constantly recreate that. I’m lucky that I know when people are good. So that’s mostly what he did; he really pushed me mentally.
“Pa’lante” is the most powerful song on the record, I think. When you were writing the song, were you thinking “I’m going to write my anthem?” Or did this song just come naturally and it built, and then you were like, “whoa, I got an anthem here!”
Well the B part (The Harry Nilssonesque part) I had written… I think Small Town Heroes might not have even come out yet. So I had that and I had been holding onto that forever. And when we were recording the album the first time around, I had a whole different arrangement; I was playing it on guitar. And I didn’t have the ending really. It was something different but I’d always been trying to write that song. But I didn’t have that “Pa’lante!” part. I just wanted to write a song about feeling like a part of the machine. I wanted to really express that feeling of hopelessness and being so tired of being treated like a thing. And then when we were going to record the album again, I actually started reading about Bruce Springsteen—and it’s so weird because I never even listened to Bruce Springsteen that much. But reading about him in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire… it’s a book all about New York, a couple of years in the ‘70s, and all the different music scenes going on. You would probably love it because it’s really nerdy music stuff. It’s like hiphop’s happening, Fania and Salsa’s happening, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith—all this stuff. So I was just reading about the beginning of his career and what he represents to people. And suddenly that helped me start the first verse. And then I had been doing so much research about the Young Lords and Puerto Rican history, and that was my eureka moment where I was like “Pa’lante!” That could be the cry. I’ve always been waiting for my [John Lennon] “Mother” moment. I want my primal scream moment! So I told Paul (I came into the studio very focused): we can’t fake this one. This one has to be the one where I’m very vulnerable and I break out of my shell.
Another breaking out of the shell moment is “Hungry Ghost.” When you first hear it, your ears are like, “whoa, this is different for a Hurray for the Riff Raff song.” But when you sit down and listen to it, it’s not that big of a departure. It’s basically a blues song. How did that song develop?
Well, I wrote it on guitar. And to me, it just sounded like a grunge-doo- wap song. That’s what I wanted it to sound like. I was thinking [about] the Pixies and thinking about a gothy-angsty song. But I was writing it because I already had the storyline in mind. I was like, what is the song that all the kids are dancing to in [Navigator protagonist] Navi’s world? So that made it easier to try to do something different and to want it to be danceable. I was really tapping into just being an angsty 16-year-old. The lyrics are just like, to me, Robert Johnson lyrics. It’s funny that I wrote it from a place of wanting it to be a part of the story, because I feel like those lyrics are some of the most personal lyrics on the album—leaving home and feeling like, does anybody eve notice that I’m gone? And wanting to tap into that feeling that Navi is having right before she leaves. We were also listening to a lot of ESG [Emerald Sapphire & Gold]. That was Paul’s influence that he showed me. Like ‘70s punk but dance band from the Bronx.
“Living In the City”—how much of those lyrics are autobiographical, and how much of that is idealized fantasy?
All the characters are real (I was obviously thinking about Lou Reed). Big Danny was a dude who hung out in Tompkins Square Park who was totally sketchy and older than everybody. But we all hung with him anyway. And Gypsy was the first veteran homeless biker dude that I had ever met in Tompkins Square Park. And I remember when he died; I was 14 or 15. And just thinking about the building that I grew up in with my aunt, that’s where the 14 floors constant thing comes about. So a lot of it comes from very distinct memories.
And then “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl”—The outro for that song is awesome. Where did that come from?
I got invited to go to this women writers’ retreat; it’s called Hedgebrook, outside of Seattle. They give you a cabin for a week and you just get to write. It’s a very feminist place: Gloria Steinem had stayed in this cabin. And they leave you journals to write in so that people can read them and see that so-and-so was here, and also just to see what other women went through when they were isolated and had to write. So I was really feeling that energy of the woman or the girl that cannot be tamed, the idea of the girl that you can’t keep down. Everybody’s fucking with her everywhere she goes and she still gets back up and does what she wants anyway. And that’s the stubbornness that I wanted from Navi. But that ending part, it just sounds good. I just liked the way it sounded. But it was also just me trying to talk to myself about getting into a relationship that was healthy and getting to a place where… I’ve always felt like I was waiting for a type of relationship that would come eventually that was totally equal and respectful and loving, that I knew I had to do some work within myself to face my demons (I guess for lack of a better term). Or learn how to love myself and take care of myself first. And so that was me kind of talking to myself from a future point, or looking into the future and just being like, I’m not ready for that yet. I know that type of love will come eventually, but I know I have all this work to do. And that’s a lot of what my lyrics are normally: trying to bring things to fruition, trying to tell myself stuff that I need to hear in order to heal or get there. Like things I don’t believe yet, but I’m going to say it so I can manifest it.
You’ve played a lot of these new songs live in the U.K. Those audiences can be a bit stubborn with their expectations. How were the new songs, sound, and band received?
I was very worried about people being like, “where’s the banjo?” And it was the opposite. I mean, first of all, we went there the week of inauguration, so I felt like everybody was just down with it. We played maybe six new songs and I didn’t hear a complaint. Nobody that I met at the merch table was wondering what we were doing. Everybody was just really down for it. And the thing about U.K. audiences is that they listen really well. So I felt like in a way it was better than what I suspect will happen in the States. They were able to really take in the new songs and dissect them; they were studying them. Whereas in the States, I’m a little worried that people will be like, “whaaa?” [and] talking while we’re playing the new songs, [thinking] “when’s she gonna play the one I know?”
Well the new record will be out by then.
I still feel like it takes bands half a year before audiences are into it, but I don’t know…
I was really feeling that energy of the woman or the girl that cannot be tamed, the idea of the girl that you can’t keep down.
I saw Patti Smith perform live when I was making the record and that changed my life… We were in a small room watching her, and all of a sudden something clicked in my mind where I was like, that’s what I want to do. I don’t really want to be an R&B singer, I don’t want to be a soul singer, I don’t want to belt out something. I want to be this poet who is just using their body in the music and commanding. So once I saw her live like that, I was just like, that’s what I want to do, that looks like fun. I just wanted to put down the guitar so I could interact more.
Has it been more fun?
It has, yeah. I’m still learning how to not care what people think about what you look like. But every time it gets easier. Every time it’s like, oh, it doesn’t matter, just do whatever. Like Jim Morrison would just lay around on the ground. It’s fine, you know? (Not that I’m going to take tips from Jim Morrison.)
So, that guy Donald Trump is president. Have you been writing new songs explicitly about that or inspired by it or anything?
No. I think he killed a lot of people’s creativity for a while. I felt this soul death when he won. When he won, the first thing I thought— besides the panic attack that I was having—was, I’ve worked all this time to be who I am, and I feel like now it’s all gonna go away. It just felt like, I’m finally kind of happy, finally loving myself, and wanting to go out and create a positive change in the world; and then I just felt like, those plans are cancelled! I just felt like it was stripping all of that strength away. And since November, it’s been time to regain it and time to be brave and to also be like, wow, my whole life I’ve been into musicians from the ‘60s who were facing all of this scary, oppressive, violent shit and they did it anyway, you know? And it’s been a scary moment of, uh, am I brave enough to be a part of this time? I always thought I’d be, but maybe I’m not. So I’ve been really trying to ask myself those questions and rebuild my inner strength. And then I feel like in a little bit I’ll be able to write again. But mostly it’s been thinking a lot and reading a lot and trying to learn as much as possible. And yeah, just to walk around and not be afraid.
I think a lot of the reason why there were so many protest songs in the ‘60s was because a lot of the white male artists were afraid of getting drafted and dying. They had skin in the game. And nowadays, there are a lot of political songs but not like there were back then. And I think it’s just a matter of what you have to lose. You were saying all this stuff was stripped away from you, all this progress that you feel was made. It’s a matter of the pressure that is exerted on you.
Yeah, and I feel like I’ve gotten this far saying what I think, being as outspoken as I want to be. And I have been pretty safe. I feel like we’re at a level of whoever didn’t agree with me would just ignore it. But now hearing that the President is a—we all know he’s a sexual predator, on top of so many other terrible things (and hearing that tape just fuckin killed me). Because I just feel so obviously scared for young girls everywhere and just scared for everybody. But more and more as I go to protests, as I watch the activism that’s been building, I don’t feel as afraid anymore. I think more and more, I’ve just been feeling like this is reality, this is what’s going on. OK. And I do think that oppressed people of all sorts, that’s what we’re fuckin great at: constantly having to be like, oh, now I gotta deal with this? OK, I’m going to figure out how to deal with this. And that’s what The Navigator is about: navigating how to be as free as possible in a very oppressive society. I’m a woman and I’m a Puerto Rican and I’m this and I’m that, and finding your way to weave in and out of all of those road blocks. And so I feel like now I’m more in the game of: this is what we have to work with, and I’m not going to just stop.
Hurray for the Riff Raff will be at the Civic Theatre on Friday, May 5th with Leyla McCalla and Ron Gallo opening. For more info, check out hurrayfortheriffraff.com
-Illustration by Victoria Allen, photos by Adrienne Battistella