Alynda Lee Segarra fell in love with music in the Bronx. "There was reverb in the hallways so that's where people were always singing, and that's what I grew up on," says Segarra, founder of the New Orleans-based folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff. But Segarra's rustic, Americana-inspired sound is one she picked up after leaving the Big Apple for a life of hopping freight trains.
"It was actually this subculture I found myself in just from the punk scene in New York," 26-year-old Segarra says. "I really was at a place where I was 17 and I was running away from home and leaving school, because I was doing so badly in school. And I was just like the definition of confused and lost, and I really felt like that adventure was what I needed to do. I just wanted to really experience life in the most extreme way, basically.
"I found myself in this little world with other young people, who were traveling around, who were just trying to see the country with no money and kind of push themselves to their limits," Segarra explains. "It was really interesting how some were kicked out and some had chosen to go out on the road. It was a decent mixture of both. I really related to the idea of feeling like I didn't belong anywhere, and I really wanted to be in constant transit. It made me learn so much about our country, and it led me to the tiniest towns and the smallest roads."
Segarra's travels eventually led her to New Orleans, a place so magical she had no qualms about giving up her vagabond ways and calling the city home. "You get on this circuit where you're hearing about these different places. People were telling me where it's more travel-friendly, where it's easier to sleep outside. And people kept telling me [New Orleans] was unlike any other place in America."
Plus, it didn't hurt that Segarra could actually afford to plant some roots. "I also learned you could make good money playing music on the street here, and at that point I had been spare-changing," she says. "I was doing random drug studies, the most random stuff to make money. So then I felt like, 'Oh, wow. I can earn my money and feel good about what I'm doing.' It led me down this path of learning how to play music."
Initially a washboard player, it was the troubadour scene of NoLa that encouraged Segarra musically, even teaching her to play banjo. Then she met Walt McClements, who played on Hurray for the Riff Raff's earliest EPs. Unlike many young people she'd found in the Big Easy playing traditional jazz and folk, McClements was creating original music. He invited Segarra to play with him at Melvin's, a tiny bar inside a Pepto-Bismol-pink building on St. Claude. Once she built up her confidence in performing, the songstress decided it was time to hit the road again — but this time her music led her purposefully across the States.
"I just wanted to try to make it work by playing houses, coffee shops, and just kind of like bust ass until we could eventually get to a place like Newport Folk Festival," Segarra says. "So it took a few years and a lot of touring and a lot of word-of-mouth spreading and making our own CDs. Then after that, ATO [Records] came, and there are all these landmarks of, 'Wow, I guess I should keep doing this,' you know? Something would come along right as I thought, 'Oh God, I have got to go and get a real job.'"
Hurray for the Riff Raff began with Segarra before she eventually added fiddler Yosi Pearlstein, keyboardist Casey McAllister, guitarist Sam Doores, bassist Dan Cutler, and drummer David Jamison. The band released its third full-length this year with Small Town Heroes, the band's first on the ATO label. The record is full of NoLa scenery. "St. Roch Blues" is a beautifully delicate 1950s-style ode to the New Orleans neighborhood. When Segarra sings, "Bullets are flying from a young man's hand/ People are dying, no one understands/ And I keep on crying," she's lamenting a series of murders that occurred in St. Roch back in 2011.
And "Crash on the Highway" is about driving around on tour, drinking wine on the side of the road, and getting homesick. The line "Take me back home to BJ's on a Monday night" refers to a dive joint in a part of town called the Bywater. Locals flock to the bar on Mondays for live R&B and free butterbeans and rice. Not surprisingly, some listeners have misinterpreted the line. "We realized later on we should have said 'BJ's bar,'" Segarra jokes.
Segarra and company even appeared on HBO's Treme performing outside a Bywater coffee shop. "Treme was so awesome about bringing local people onto the set," Segarra says. "They brought me on there a couple of times, and actually it was funny because we were busking, but on TV."
But Segarra appreciated the series for the way it brought attention to other important New Orleans musicians, the ones who have paved the way for artists like Hurray for the Riff Raff. "I saw a lot of just local characters, local legends who were getting older in age, and then finally they got to be recognized for how much they helped the city just by being themselves," Segarra says. "It's such a great use of such a rich music scene, you know?"