“Banjo” and “Bronx” are two words that rarely find themselves in the same sentence, and yet Hurray for the Riff Raff have made it their business to not only smush ’em together side by side, but have them dancing across a chorus or two in perfect time.
Headed up by Alynda Lee Segarra, Hurray for the Riff Raff hail from New Orleans, which is where Segarra settled after she ran away from her home in the Bronx and meandered down South at the age of 17. Since then, she’s taken to the bars and back rooms of the Big Easy with her guitar in tow, the Always Lounge on St. Claude serving as unofficial home base for the band she’s assembled over the past few years. It’s the grit of the concrete she grew up on paired with the drawl of the bayous and bougainvillea that keep Segarra from bringing Hurray for the Riff Raff into Patty and Loretta tribute territory. The sensibilities from her past, present and the future of her place in New Orleans’ music scene are all at play in the folk ballads and rockabilly refrains she pens. In a world where movie trailers are regurgitating any given Lumineers track on a loop, Hurray for the Riff Raff offer up a welcome compromise for those who want the goods of traditional folk and country without the common, tired schtick that’s trudged along with it.
As the past 24 months have yielded not one but two records–2012’s Look Out Mama and Small Town Heroes, their ATO debut out February 11–and superlative-snatching appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, South By Southwest and CMJ, Small Town Heroes could be the catapult that hurtles Hurray for the Riff Raff from NPR pleasantries and opening slots to the next big thing in Americana. It’s the blend of Bronx, banjos, the open road and a voice that’s learned from all of it that’ll set it off, and it’s what keeps Hurray for the Riff Raff right at home on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Lots can change in two years, and it seems like you’ve spent most of the time in between records on the road! What’s the most marked change you hear between Look Out Mama and Small Town Heroes?
As a songwriter, I was definitely able to focus more on what I wanted to work on [with Small Town Heroes]. I guess I just found different veins that I was more comfortable in, and different sounds that I really liked. As a live band, I think we just learned a lot about performing, because we’d been touring so much, and also just having the support from ATO. Doing things like playing Newport Folk and being able to open up for great bands, we’re just getting a lot of inspiration from finally feeling like we’re doing it.
How do you measure growth in songwriting, when you’re looking at your own work?
Small Town Heroes was a big breakthrough for me. I finally found my voice, I guess. What I really aim to do is to take familiar veins that we’re all used to and put my own voice in them, and that was a really big achievement for me, just feeling like a singer/songwriter who was being true to herself. I feel like we have to copy the people that we look up to, because when you’re younger, and you’re finding yourself, you learn their tricks and techniques. When you’re able to tell your own story, that’s the most satisfying part. I don’t think I’ve reached the top of what I hope to gain as a songwriter, but I feel like writing Small Town Heroes, and especially the title track, I was able to get somewhere and tell my story.
People make a lot of comparisons when it comes to putting the pin on the genre you’re affiliated with, and Loretta Lynn in particular seems to be the name that pops up the most. There are absolutely some stylistic similarities between the music you make and the country and bluegrass standards you’re constantly put up against. What’s the trick to experimenting with a vintage genre while making sure your music sounds current?
I guess a lot of that is what I’m saying about just telling your own story. I’ve learned a lot from Look Out Mama to now about throwing all of my influences into one pot. When it comes to a song like “Levon’s Dream,” we talked about the girl group sound and a Shangri Las sound when we were recording it. We’re trying to take these sounds that I love so much and put my voice in there. No matter what, I’m still a kid from the Bronx; I normally try to put something in there that’s urban and very much what I grew up with. I think that really adds to keeping it new. When you’re someone who doesn’t normally fit into a category like country music–[like] if you’re a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx–I think it’s a really great thing to bring all those parts of the personality into the genre, and that’s what will make it fresh and exciting for people. I think that’s what people are drawn to.
It doesn’t sound like Hurray for the Riff Raff as we know it ever would’ve happened had you decided to stay put in New York City.
No, I don’t think so. I think if I’d stayed in New York, I’m sure I would’ve done something different creatively. I definitely think this record is the product of a lot of hard work and travel, and really the support and inspiration from the musicians I’ve met on tour and in New Orleans.
Do New Orleans and the open road factor in as muses in equal measure, or has one been more favored in your process?
I guess it’s always changing. I think that’s a lot of the reason why I write about it so much; I’m still figuring it out. New Orleans is definitely home, but my idea of home is very different than most people who get to go home every night. I have a different relationship with my home, but it’s definitely my muse. Sometimes it’s like I’m writing a love song to it because I miss it so much.
Would you say your relationship with New York City has changed, now that you’ve been able to return to it as a touring musician on your own terms?
Going back to New York as a musician has been a really positive thing. Little things have been happening that have felt really huge to me, like someone from my old high school telling my old art teacher that they like my band. That’s always been my dream, to have some kid from New York hear something I’d made and feel inspired by it. I’m starting to experience things like that, which has been really powerful for me.
2013 was a huge year for folk in the mainstream–hell, Avicii is ripping off Mumford-esque strumming for club tracks for chrissakes. Where does Hurray for the Riff Raff fit into folk the shifting landscape of folk music as we know it?
I feel like I’m contributing something for the people who, when they think about folk music, they look back to the ’60s days of Greenwich Village, those who are longing for something more stripped-down. I don’t want to say heartfelt, because I don’t know how heartfelt those musicians are. Just because they’re playing huge venues and are very successful doesn’t mean they’re not heartfelt. I really want to be as modern as I can be, but at the same time, we’re for people who are looking back for something older and vintage, I guess, that’s coming from a place of not really trying to sell anything, but trying to tell how you feel about your world, to get some message out that doesn’t have anything to do with making money. I like to be associated with folk music because of my songwriting skill and because of all the aspects of being an artist and musician that I’ve really worked hard on. I’ve really learned from the old records. I feel like that’s an important thing, for young people and musicians to get inspired by records and not just stop at the current folk music that’s coming out. You make the best modern music when you learn from older music. I’d like to be more associated with someone who’s trying to carry on a tradition. I guess that I want to carry on certain traditions, but make those traditions into something new that’s for someone like myself. We have a murder ballad song [“The Body Electric”] and I’m carrying on this tradition, but I’m trying to start a conversation. So many of these old songs are about killing women, and a lot of people sing them very casually because they’re really into a vintage sound. They want to sing an old song, and they think it’s cool and want to detach themselves from it. I want to change that, to make a very personal bond with old music, where you’re like, “Actually, I want to say something about that. That affects me. I don’t want to sing that.”
Hurray for the Riff Raff join Yuna and Rebel Tumbao tonight (1.9) at the Highline Ballroom.