MUSIC

Alynda Segarra explores “Life on Earth”

Generations of Music, Track 2: Taking a transformational journey with Hurray for the Riff Raff

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Alynda Segarra raises their right forearm to reveal a new tattoo: a simply rendered machete. “I definitely get power tattoos, things that feel mostly connected with ancestral work,” the singer-songwriter explains over Zoom. “Machetes are really important to Puerto Ricans. It’s like this old-school form of protection, independence, and resilience.” A butterfly is another strong symbol—and tattoo—for Segarra, tied to their chosen middle name: Mariposa. “I feel like butterflies have always represented the ancestors to me. Also, they defy borders, and they migrate. They’re so beautiful. And they transform. So I really wanted it for my middle name, because I feel like I transform a lot and shed skin.”

Segarra, who makes music as Hurray for the Riff Raff, has unpeeled a lot of layers since leaving the Bronx at 17 and settling in New Orleans, in 2007. Over eight albums, the daughter of a lawyer/politician mom and music teacher dad has explored life both internal and external, their just-released Life on Earth—a gorgeous 11-song LP recorded in late 2020 and produced by Brad Cook (Waxahatchee, Bon Iver)—full of totemic tunes. An inveterate explorer, Segarra’s journey began in New York City. Growing up, “I definitely had a bit of a mythological mindset about the future of my life. Like, what is my fate? What is my destiny? What kind of Hero’s Journey do I have to go on?”

Reading beatnik poetry and hanging at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Segarra felt early on that “if I didn’t feel like I could go through these normal society landmarks [like college] and I had to make myself useful somehow, I knew I had to sacrifice. I knew I had to do something that was difficult.” As a child, they’d gone through a Rent (the musical) phase, seen Tina Turner in concert with their aunt, and had a dad who was immersed in salsa and Latin jazz. But soon, all subways pointed to the arts and activism center ABC No Rio, on the Lower East Side, along with punk rock shows. Hanging out in Tompkins Square Park, the teen Segarra met kids who were on their own, traveling the country. “At the time, there were still squatters in the Lower East Side. And anarchists and punks of the ’80s were teaching us, ‘Oh you kids, back in my day….’”

So Segarra became, in their words, a “hobo,” riding the rails, joining a community of like-minded souls exploring the country and life, and also forging a connection with nature that influenced what they call the “nature punk” of Life on Earth. Though that era of life is more than a decade past, the COVID lockdowns allowed Segarra time for rumination. “You’re sleeping in bushes, you’re hiding under trees. If it rains, you get wet,” they recall of the travel time. “You’re an animal. And you have to be very in touch with your intuition. Whether you want to call me female or whatever, it’s just the reality that no matter how I identify, there’s so much danger.”

Though their expressive, wide-set brown eyes appear calm, the artist is drawn to danger, of a sort. “I’m always trying to figure out what scares me,” Segarra explains. Making The Navigator concept album in 2017 “scared the hell out of me, it really challenged a lot of negative self-talk that I had ingrained in me,” they admit. In creating the LP, Segarra traveled to Puerto Rico and to their Bronx birthplace, giving The Navigator a storyline about a teen in an overgentrified city in the future, basing the character on their own 16-year-old street-kid self. After that successful creative journey, nonetheless, “the next thing was this little voice that was, ‘Well, I don’t know if you’re brave enough to really bare it all anymore.’” When first writing songs in their late teens, Segarra’s compositions were “brutally raw.” That’s not to say they shy away from pain on Life on Earth. But sometimes, as with the tale they tell in a lovely rap voice on Life on Earth’s “Precious Cargo,” it’s not their own pain.

“I have two men I was visiting in immigrant detention during volunteer work here in rural Louisiana,” the singer explains. “I felt like it was really important to go to these places and to try to be useful, but also share a story.” With the men’s approval, Segarra recounted their journey of harrowing river crossings, I.C.E. agents, and sleeping on the floor “for 17 days”—“you sleep on the floor like a dog,” Segarra sings. “I just felt like that’s a part of the tradition with songwriting, being a witness and putting something in the history books right now, saying, ‘This is an important thing that I don’t want to get erased, because it’s so brutal, because it’s so ugly.’ We want to ignore it. I want to write it down so that we remember that this was happening to people.”

And happening to the earth, as well. As to the impetus of the title track, Segarra claims an otherworldly influence for the phrase and the feeling “life on earth is long” in a nearly six-minute song with a spare, melancholy waltz feel. “I was joking with Brad in the studio, like, ‘I didn’t write that line, some 200-year-old tortoise put that in my brain,’” they say, laughing. “Because sometimes I feel like artists get these downloads of something. And you’re like, What the hell does that mean? So that’s how that song came to me.” Segarra strove to discover the meaning. “I’ve got to find it in the darkness, figure it out. It becomes, like, that’s the treasure. I’ve got to find the map, and it does mean a lot of different things. It can be agonizing, how long [life] can feel, and it can also feel so short that you’re like, ‘Are you being sarcastic?’ It goes like that, right?” they say, snapping a finger.

To its creator, the song is also a sort of “prayer mantra” of believing in the will of humanity to survive, “but not just humanity, of all creatures. I believe in the power of this planet.” While Segarra is at once fearful for and entranced by the natural world—witness ‘KiN,’ the album closer, which is their field recording of the Singing Oak (a tree hung with wind chimes, by artist Jim Hart), wind, and birds in City Park, New Orleans—they’ve cultivated an internal strength: “I’ve got some tools on my belt now, how to walk through this world and be present.” Those tools include preservation, of self and of the planet. “How do I take care? I kept thinking with Life on Earth I wanted to get this regenerating quality of energy. I wanted to not just put out and not just take in, I wanted to find a way,” they say, “of finding out how I sustain myself and care for myself while also giving honest work that I think could be healing to people.” Brutal, beautiful, or both, whatever Segarra sings about, they conclude, “honesty is the point.”  ❖

Katherine Turman has written for Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Billboard, and other publications, is the author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, and produces the classic rock radio program Nights With Alice Cooper. She lives in Brooklyn.

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