Hurray for the Riff Raff Live In Studio

Mary Kate McGrath, Hurray for the Riff Raff

Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff is many things: a poet, an artist, a traveler, a feminist, and a musician. When she first started out playing in New Orleans, the only thing she could play was a washboard. Now, she plays guitar, banjo, harmonica, writes her own songs, and recently released her fifth studio album, Small Town Heroes.

Segarra came into the WERS studio with her band, which included a fiddle player and upright bassist.  The first song they performed was “The New SF Bay Blues” off of the latest album. Segarra begins many of her concerts with this song as well, for it eases listeners into her sound. In studio, Segarra plays the song much like she does at her concerts – stripped down, with only her acoustic guitar. The tune tells of her travels across the country and her love in San Francisco that broke her heart. But as with many of Segarra’s songs, despite the subject of heartbreak and loss, the lyrics tend to be empowering and confident.  “A woman’s heart it’s made of solid rock/ And if you love her/ She’ll give you all she’s got/ Oh buddy, that can be an awful lot.”

Next up was “Blue Ridge Mountain,” another track off of Small Town Heroes. She played with her full band, showing off the talents of her fiddle player, Yosi Pearlstein, who had a small solo. The song has a two-step feel, one that can transport you to a dance hall in the South without having to move an inch. The bluegrass genre fits Segarra like a glove, despite being a transplant from the Bronx.  While her childhood may have been troubled and she may have never finished high school, songs like “Blue Ridge Mountain” make listeners aware that this soulful young woman may understand a lot more about life than many of us ever will. When asked if she ever saw herself performing bluegrass when she growing up in the Bronx, she responded adamantly, “No! I mean, my biggest dream when I was a teenager was basically to be an artist and just get by. To make a living and not have to fit into the 9 to 5. Basically not do something that I wasn’t good at… I never thought that I would be a performer. I thought at best I would be a poor poet.”

Poetry saved Segarra’s young life, the singer admitted. Undoubtedly, her attachment to poetry as a young adult informed the last song she performed on air, “The Body Electric.” According to the young artist, there are a lot of different inspirations for the song, one of which is Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric.” The Whitman poem, for those who haven’t read it, is a celebration of the human body, both male and female. While the poem is very much about slavery, it also addresses sexism, which was a topic on Segarra’s mind when she wrote the song. In coupling with “I Sing the Body Electric,” Segarra also uses her song to respond to murder ballads, a common trope in the bluegrass genre that most often employ the murder of a woman as an instigating plot device. In Segarra’s words, “Our song, “The Body Electric” is just about putting humanity back into these characters in our music tradition. These women who are getting murdered, I feel like we really detach from them. And we kind of take away their humanity, so that’s me putting that humanity back into them.”

The band has a pretty full schedule for the rest of the summer, and while this is all well and good, the band has thrived on the image being a rag tag group of musicians, with a special focus on their queer identities (Segarra identifies as queer, while Pearlstein identifies as transgender.) Now with the band getting bigger, could there be the danger of having to change? Not a chance, asserted Segarra. “If we’re going to get this attention, we want to be out there being ourselves.”

By Madelyn Reese
Photo By Mary Kate McGrath

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