'I Need to Save Myself': Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra Sings Out
Alynda Segarra had almost gotten through a full take of a new song called “Pointed at the Sun” when they began to cry. “And I crucify myself” went the outro refrain, their voice breaking as they repeated the line.
By the time Segarra, who records as Hurray for the Riff Raff, entered the studio in the fall of 2020, they had become wary of self-martyrdom. Their previous album — 2017’s The Navigator, which mixed Patti Smith-inflected punk with conga drumming and samples of Nuyorican poetry — launched them into an artist-activist crusade during the first half of the Trump administration. They organized benefit shows for asylum seekers, wrote essays on abortion access, and started to get questions like “How do you have hope?” in interviews.
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“I didn’t feel big enough to do that anymore,” says Segarra, 34. The hero complex that they’d come close to adopting was “coming from a place of feeling like who I am is not enough, that I’ve got to amp it up somehow,” they add. “I don’t want to get into that activist world that turns into savior shit. It was more like, ‘I need to save myself.’ ”
There’s a riotous joy to hearing Segarra save themself throughout Life On Earth, an album of synth-rock, folk balladry, and arena-worthy alt-pop. If The Navigator was about Segarra reconnecting with their roots as a Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx, their latest LP, Life on Earth, finds Segarra simply luxuriating in their newfound artistic space. It’s a record where New Age astrology pop and free-associative odes to flowers sit comfortably alongside hair-raising depictions of trauma.
“This record was really about being like, ‘It’s okay that I’m a tiny piece of this huge world,”says Segarra. “How the fuck did we survive everything? That’s what I hope people get: this journey of, ‘You’re still here.’”
Roberto Carlos Lange, who’s performed alongside Segarra under his moniker Helado Negro, sees this evolution as a powerful next step for Hurray for the Riff Raff. “You can tell there’s intention, which doesn’t have to be an academic thesis on how to save the world,” he says of Segarra’s latest work. “It can be just the idea of why we’re alive, or it can be, ‘Damn, that was an amazing hike today, and it feels like a song.’”
Segarra’s mood board for the record, whose ethos they describe as “nature punk,” included everything from the comforting country-folk of Waxahatchee and the reggaetón of Residente and Bad Bunny to the New Age experimentations of Beverly Glenn Copeland and the Black feminist writings of Adrianne Maree Brown.
The latter writer’s concept of “radical joy” proved particularly instructive: “After four years of being so intensely glued to the news and every disgrace to humanity,” Segarra says, “it just felt like, ‘This is not how we’re going to build a new world. I need to find joy.’”
For as long as they’ve been an artist, Segarra has used their middle name as a signifier. As a teen, Segarra fled their New York home after growing up the child of a prominent New York City government official mother and music teacher father, and raised in part by an aunt and uncle; before long, friends on the road dubbed them Alynda Lee. “That was my traveling name when I was a train rider,” Segarra says, referring to the period when, inspired by the romanticized tales of heroes like Woody Guthrie, they traversed the country by rail.
By the mid-2000s, Alynda Lee had settled in New Orleans, becoming part of its DIY busker scene and gigging with a rotating crew of young musicians who’d congregated in the city post-Katrina. (There exists footage of a young Segarra playing Louis Armstrong tunes on washboard with street performers.) Over the next decade, Segarra formed the banjo-fiddle collective Hurray for the Riff Raff and emerged as one of NOLA’s foremost singer-songwriters on rootsy records like 2011’s Look Out Mama and 2014’s Small Town Heroes.
“Alynda feels like a kindred spirit: a next-generation ruffian, outsider folk-punk,” says fellow NOLA artist-activist Ani DiFranco. “I just get where they’re coming from. They feel like part of my extended musical family.”
In 2017, feeling it was time for a new middle name, Segarra chose Mariposa. “It felt like, ‘Okay, Alynda Lee needs to go away,” Segarra remembers thinking. “I need to go to a new chapter.” The name, which Segarra still uses, came from a character singing love songs in The Navigator. At the time, they felt a strong need to reject Hurray for the Riff Raff’s acoustic guitar-strumming Americana associations. The Navigator showed that Segarra could be just as convincing a storyteller when playing electric guitar or singing to a New Wave beat as when picking a banjo and singing about the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But like their previous work, The Navigator was primarily informed by the alluring romance of history (in that case, the touchstones included the Young Lords and Fania Records). If the ensuing several years convinced Segarra of anything, it was that they were done looking back. “I didn’t want to be wrapped up in the energy of the past,” Segarra says. “Now is a pretty incredible time to write about.”
When Segarra arrived at producer Brad Cook’s studio in North Carolina to begin Life on Earth, that genre angst was still ongoing. “At the beginning there was a hard ‘I don’t want to use banjo or acoustic guitar if we can help it,’ ” says Cook, who describes the session (which ended up including plenty of acoustic guitar) as an exercise in “not let[ting] the world tell us what this instrument means.”
Creating Life On Earth was often a process of reining in Segarra’s elaborate imagination. They initially daydreamed that the title track could be recorded by musicians all around the world, with a documentary film crew capturing the process, but the song ended up becoming a stripped-down piano ballad.
On Life on Earth, for the first time in years, Segarra sings directly about personal relationships. “I have been like, ‘Am I even a romantic?’ ” Segarra says. “I’m constantly singing about society.” But writing songs about running into exes and what-could-have-been heartbreak felt necessary now. “This song about a relationship, or a breakup, or about healing from trauma — those are huge topics too,” they say.
Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff photographed outside New Orleans in December 2021
Camille Lenain for Rolling Stone
As its title suggests, the album also represents a turn towards the natural. “When you hear Alynda sing, it’s as if they’re creating topographies on maps; you can hear the hills and valleys,” Lange says of tracks like “Rhododendron” and “Jupiter’s Dance.” “In this moment when we’re experiencing the climate crisis, if it’s not a big topic for someone to think about going outside and walking right now, then it might be something we’re taking for granted.”
Segarra doesn’t shy away entirely from the overtly political, either. The spoken-word, beat-driven “Precious Cargo” tells the story of a man who was detained in an ICE facility, whom Segarra met through their volunteer work with the organization Freedom for Immigrants. As the song concludes, the man gets the last word via a recording of his voice: “Immigrants are suffering. This song is my life.”
But Segarra has little patience for anyone who expects them to deliver such a message via a three-chord folk song. “What I was taught is the honorable thing to do as a musician is to reflect the times, and these are the times.”
Segarra reflects the times once again on the record’s finale: “Saga,” a moving tale about trauma and abuse that Segarra began writing during the 2018 Christine Blasey Ford hearings. “This should not be the defining moment of her life,” Segarra remembers thinking. “Then it started to get more introspective, thinking about versions of myself when I was younger and more vulnerable, more desperate for love, being in situations that were unhealthy and damaging. I realized I have a lot of healing to do. The true point of the song is to be like, ‘My story is not over yet. I’m a fucking adventurer.’”
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