Alynda Segarra, frontwoman for the indie rock band Hurray for the Riff Raff, knows what it’s like to feel at-risk. She knows what it’s like to feel invisible. She knows what it’s like to hop trains, sleep under trees, duck into bushes and hedges and she knows what it’s like to be on the run. In many ways, these moments are the foundation for who she is, both as a person today and as an artist. But these days she is also creating new formal moments upon which she’ll stand, assured. She’s continuing to grow and evolve in big ways. She’s continuing to listen as well as to make new music. These are the ingredients of her newest record, Life On Earth, which is set to drop on Friday (February 18). These are the lenses through which she sees and experiences the world around her.
“I’m still figuring out my relationship with train riding,” says Segarra. “It’s a part of my life story. It’s also something that’s very sacred to me. It’s hard to even explain it to people. How sacred and beautiful and fucking difficult it was.”
Segarra was raised by her aunt and uncle in New York City. In their home, she heard doo-wop, oldies, Motown. She became obsessed with Judy Garland, Dean Martin, West Side Story, Frank Sinatra. “That was my world,” she says. Her classmates, as a result, thought she was “such a freak.” Later, Segarra got interested in pop music like No Doubt, Jewel, and The Spice Girls. But all of this eventually led her to the world of punk rock and the community that genre tends to form comprising young, poor artists who dig DIY living.
“Growing up in New York City when you’re not rich, you don’t have a lot of space,” she says. “I shared a room with my aunt, I shared a bed with my aunt. I couldn’t play electric guitar real loud. But it did lead me to being really addicted to going to shows.”
Taking in these shows and the bands that played them, Segarra saw how music could be the thing upon which she could travel both the country and the world. While the bands she was into didn’t make much money, they also didn’t spend much (or need to). They slip on the floors of friends of friends. There was a loose but important network that could help her.
“That sparked something in me,” she says. “This is possible. Everyone tells me it’s not, but I’m witnessing this world outside the ‘real world’ where it is possible.”
So, she ran away from home. She panhandled, asking for money. She eventually found herself in New Orleans, prior to the devastating Hurricane Katrina. In Crescent City, Segarra discovered community. She even helped to form her first band, Dead Man Street Orchestra. That group’s members encouraged her to not only sing and perform but write her own material. Segarra was making her way.
“I’m still trying to find the language for it,” she says of those early, formative years. “It really taught me so much about my intuition, it taught me so much about survival. It taught me a lot about community and desperately needing, for physical safety, to have very close, very powerful friends. Because I was a little kid.”
Looking back on those days some 15-20 years ago, Segarra can see the dangers. At the time, like most young people, she thought nothing could stop her. Luckily she survived. She did thanks in part to nature, sleeping amongst it perhaps more times than she can count today. And it’s these experiences she drew from for her latest LP, she says. She remembers feeling around that time, in the early 2000s, an urge to want to have power over her life. When you’re homeless, you’re in the wind. Like birds, she traveled from warm locale to warm locale, trying to stay afloat. But that gets harder with each day.
“Life On Earth, to me,” Segarra says, “is an album about survival. It’s a bit of a memoir. It’s me trying to honor how the journey that I’ve been on so far and difficult experiences have taught me about survival and community. Also, it’s so much about right now, this particular moment that we’re all in on this planet.”
Like many, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown had a dramatic effect on Segarra’s life. It was the first time she was stuck in one place, the first time she stopped moving. So, instead of heading outward, which has been her want historically, Segarra traveled inward to understand herself better. She realized how she was living wasn’t sustainable. It was like she was running, running but doing so with a limp, she says. Segarra’s new LP, which she put together during the pandemic, has many standout tracks, but one that is particularly striking is “Precious Cargo,” born from some selfless volunteer work she did in her home state of Louisiana.
“Right now,” she says, “Louisiana is a hot spot for immigrant detention. They’re building new for-profit immigrant detention centers all over rural Louisiana with incentives to rural places that they’ll make money for the county. I was learning a lot of immigrant people sent to rural Louisiana get stuck in the system.”
Many of these folks, she says, get stuck in the system. They get lost under our noses. So, Segarra joined a group working to help them, both legally and humanely. In this process, she met two men who had been running for their lives, through countries, jungles. She even includes one of their voices at the end of “Precious Cargo.” Recording and now releasing this song was her way of trying to talk about these realities.
“Now,” she says, “my story is celebrated. But I remember being a kid, a runaway, and being woken up by the cops, being treated like ‘Get the fuck out of here or we’re going to arrest you.’ Or they would arrest me or give me fines I couldn’t pay.”
Segarra will take these songs on the road with her via an upcoming tour that begins in March. She’s looking forward to these days, she says. For so long, she’s been writing and recording and now she has to dust off her performance skills. But in this way, she’s like a proud parent showing off her song-babies.
“I love how music connects us,” Segarra says. “I love how it heals us and it gives us strength to keep living honestly. That’s what I hope more than anything if I can just know my songs have helped people get through really difficult times of isolation or trauma. That’s what I love about it. Music is medicine.”
Photo by Akasha Rabut / Nonesuch