One of my favorite discoveries of last year was Hurray For The Riff Raff's Look Out Mama. Singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra, who is originally from the Bronx, NY, left her home at 17 and traveled all over the country, ultimately settling in the vibrant musical community of New Orleans.
As Hurray For The Riff Raff, Alynda has previously released 2008's It Don't Mean I Don't Love You, 2010's Young Blood Blues. She then began playing live with The Tumbleweeds and released last year's superb Look Out Mama. (I feel compelled to mention that HFTRR offered an amazing homemade, limited edition CD of covers called My Dearest Darkest Neighbor as one of their Kickstarter incentives to help finance Look Out Mama- both of which made my Uprooted Music Revue's Favorite Audio Releases of 2012. It's totally worth searching for... Good Luck!).
To coincide with Hurray For The Riff Raff's current week-long residency at Al's Den here in Portland, OR, this seems like the perfect time for me to share my recent conversation with Alynda Lee Segarra. (FYI: I have another interview going up this week with Tumbleweeds' Sam Doores & Riley Downing on the their own musical history and their new album Holy Cross Blues, so if you're a HFTRR fan you'll want to check that one out too!)
Hi Alynda, thanks so much for taking the time to participate in this interview. I'd like to start by asking you if you can discuss what it was about the musical community of New Orleans that prompted your decision to settle there?
Alynda: The folk music scene in New Orleans is unique in the way that it is truly non-competitive. I was welcomed into that world and found a lot of very talented and knowledgable people who were willing to teach me. There is a strong emphasis on teaching there, sharing songs, showing each other what you play and learning some tricks and lyrics from other people. I felt like there was a lot I could learn there and I knew I was capable to become a musician. I had the passion, but I just needed someone to sit down and show me how to play something. I had that there, and I knew it was special and I couldn't walk away from it.
How has living and working in New Orleans influenced your work? What has been most rewarding and inspiring for you being based out of New Orleans?
Alynda: It is a humbling place to live and there is brilliance and strength all around you. I have never been somewhere filled with so many talented people, of all walks of life. It's not just technical ability, it's soul. You gotta have soul if you want to get noticed in New Orleans, and that's something that makes me very proud of the city I live in and what keeps me going. I wanna try to be my best, and be in the music as much as possible.
When did you begin writing music for your first record? Can you discuss your experiences writing and recording your first album It Don't Mean I Don't Love You (2008)?
Alynda: I wrote a lot of that album in the first house I really lived in on Burgundy Street in the by water. I was living with Michael James and Alleyn Evans (My Graveyard Jaw) and Pauly Lingerfelt who's an incredible painter. It was a really creative household. Michael was very inspiring to me in how serious he is about song writing.
I was flowing with songs and I wrote too many to put on the album. I was playing with Walt McClements and Aubrey and Shae Freeman, and everything was coming together in a beautiful way. I had a tight band and we were recording in Shae and Aubrey's front room of their house a block away. I was still getting used to life in one place, and felt very focused on trying to make this band work. It just seemed like I was on my path. A great time for sure.
How did that record (and your experiences following the album's release, touring, etc.) prepare you for your next album Young Blood Blues?
Alynda: Well, a lot changed. It was becoming obvious that Walt McClements needed to go on to other projects. We had done some touring with a new member who's still with me today (Yosi Perlstein) and we were trying stuff out in a professional studio for the first time (Living Room Studios).
That record was very hard for me. I was at a crossroads musically and in my personal life. I had just started listening to Townes Van Zandt (Thanks to Sam Doores) and you can hear little hints of what was to come, especially on tracks like "Take Me".
I knew I wanted to grow musically but I didn't know who we'd play with! Luckily, Sam Doores was there for me and we decided to tour together. He had gotten a band together and it was agreed him and Dan Cutler would back us up on some sets. It was a slow process, and it was very challenging but we kept going and got a good sound together.
Change is never easy, especially when as an artist you decide to leave behind what has "worked". With Young Blood Blues, I was saying goodbye to what I had known musically and gearing up to make the plunge into unknown territory. I had to be strong and I had a lot of support from Yosi Perlstein especially. It meant a lot to know he believed in me.
When and how did you meet up with the Tumbleweeds? Can you discuss your working relationship and the rewards of working together?
Alynda: Riff Raff and the Tumbleweeds went on a two month tour together, we circled the entire country and we got real close. The whole band consists of more than who plays with us. Riley Downing is a front man and an incredible songwriter in the Tumbleweeds. We just get the privilege of playing with Sam Doores and Dan Cutler. They've taught me a lot of country music, and a lot about songwriting and arranging.
When the record came out, I read that Look Out Mama was described as "an exploration of classic American music as interpreted by Alynda Segarra". Can you describe your inspiration for the new album?
Alynda: Look Out Mama was a leap for us. It was the first time the four of us got in the studio, and it was the first time working with Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes). Andrija Tokic is the man, he's our dream engineer and producer. He's a great guy, funny as hell and really reminds us of Lee Scratch Perry!
It was like summer camp. We got to get away from New Orleans and focus on making this album. It took us a week to lay down all the tracks. We didn't really know what we were doing on a lot of it, just messing around and seeing what we were capable of. We just had a handful of songs and wanted to try out all the styles that inspired us.
Andrija was very patient and pushed us to be our best. I learned a lot about us as a group, including what were our strengths and where we should go musically for the next album (which is in the works now.) I love that album and I'll always remember how great I felt while making it.
Was there a song(s) that set the direction for the record?
Alynda: "Ode to John and Yoko" is definitely my favorite on the record. I had that song in my back pocket for a long time but it took this group to bring it to life. "Look Out Mama" though, really sounds like us to me. It has our energy and our vibe.
What were you listening to during the writing and recording process?
Alynda: A lot of The Band, Neil Young, and The Beatles (of course.)
Can you discuss your songwriting process?
Alynda: It is always changing. Lately I'm just trying to have a recorder near by and ready to catch whatever drops on my head. You gotta be prepared for the muse when she decides to visit, because it is normally unannounced and if you're not ready you might lose a great song. Neil Young's memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, has been helping me a lot with the songwriting process.
I write the core of the songs and the group ties it all together. Dan is great at arranging vocal harmonies and without him "Ode to John" and "Yoko" wouldn't be what it is. Sam is an incredible producer and I think he and Andrija together are a great team. Yosi is always writing such a catchy fiddle line to tunes like "Look Out Mama" that they seem empty without him.
Can you discuss your influences (musicians, artists, writers, etc) and your own inspiration lyrically?
Alynda: I love Gillian Welch. I've been studying her lyrics a lot lately. I think The Harrow and The Harvest is her best work yet. Of course there's also early Dylan. There's some writers I love like Jeanette Winterson, Anne Carson, and Carson McCullers. But I get a lot of my inspiration from feminist thinkers and activists. When I was 18 I read Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider and it changed my whole world view. Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, Yoko Ono and most recently, Sampat Pal of India. These women have changed so many lives, they're doing what I hope my music can do someday.
I really enjoy My Dearest Darkest Neighbor (that was originally a Kickstarter incentive for Look Out Mama). Are there any plans of officially releasing the album?
Alynda: There has been some discussion about releasing it. I really enjoyed making that album. I was especially glad to release some of those lo-fi recording of songs I wrote based on other ones. "Angel Ballad" and "Cuckoo" I wrote right after Young Blood Blues came out and they symbolize the change I was going through musically.
Can you tell us about some of your non-musical sources of inspiration?
Alynda: Reading the news definitely does it for me, it reminds me of how important it is to make music that you think will have a positive impact on our world. I wanna leave a more loving environment behind for the little ones growing up. So far it is looking pretty dim, but I'm not jaded. I've seen and experienced some things that almost made me give up on human nature, but there's always been some wonderful person who came around and lifted me up. I know I'm very lucky in that way, and I want to lift up people as much as I can.
You're playing a 7-day residency at Al's Den in Portland next week. How did that come together and what can attendees expect?
Alynda: This is the first residency we've ever done and it'll be Sam Doores, Yosi Perlstein and I. We're all looking forward to trying out a lot of new material, hanging out in rainy Portland, and just learning a lot of songs and playing our best every night.
What's next for you in 2013?
Alynda: We got a new record that should get done, a lot of touring, and hopefully we will make a lot of new friends.