Music News
4:34 pm
Tue February 11, 2014

Singing To The Strength Of New Orleans

Originally published on Tue February 11, 2014 7:00 pm

Beneath the benevolent gaze of a statue of Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs, invalids and bachelors, Alynda Lee Segarra sings: "People are dying. No one understands."

Segarra is the lead singer of the band Hurray for the Riff Raff. She's singing one of several songs off the group's new album Small Town Heroes — not the genteel uptown life or the bawdy scene on Bourbon Street, but stories from the neighborhoods most tourists never see, like St. Roch.

"This is the neighborhood I lived in for a long time," Segarra says. "This is kind of where I first settled down when I decided I wanted to live in New Orleans, and I lived on Music Street, actually."

Walking down the tree-lined street in front of the cemetery, we pass brightly painted shotgun houses: long, narrow homes with a straight line, open shot from front to back door.

As in much of New Orleans, there's renovation underway here, but also signs of disrepair and poverty. St. Roch has struggled with crime, too; Segarra recalls a rash of home break-ins and murders a few years ago.

"It was the first time I really felt close to the violence in New Orleans," she says. "It just really changed just the way I wanted to write songs."

She says the experience also taught her a lot about community, and about the city's strength.

Not yet 27, Segarra seems an old soul. She has a tiny frame and big, dark eyes that hint at her stirring voice. She grew up in the Bronx but left home at 17 and wandered around the country, hitchhiking and riding rails before being drawn to stay put in New Orleans.

Her musical career started here, on the streets of the French Quarter, busking for tips from tourists in a loose-knit collaboration called the Dead Man Street Orchestra. She played the washboard and sang.

"At first I was learning a lot of Bessie Smith songs and Ma Rainey, a lot of blues women," says Segarra. "It taught me to project because I had to sing on the street."

She's moved up from washboard, and now plays bass drum, banjo and guitar. She's also fine-tuned her sound.

"I realized that I loved microphones, that I didn't really want to have to project," she says. "That wasn't really what I loved about singing."

She turned to classic country.

"Learning Loretta Lynn stuff, and Hank Williams Senior songs," she says. "That really helped me find my niche."

Small Town Heroes covers a lot of musical ground, from stripped-down country to bluegrass to doo-wop. Seggara says Hurray for the Riff Raff aims to unite outcasts, mixing different worlds into their own. The result is a modern take on traditional storytelling.

The song "The Body Electric," she says, is her feminist retort to the classic murder ballad.

"Over the years they've started to turn into more of a controversial, detached way of songwriting that's really macho," she says. "Just like, 'Well I killed that girl 'cause she cheated on me.' ... And one day it struck me that I wanted a woman to be a part of the conversation."

Hurray for the Riff Raff has toured with Alabama Shakes and Amos Lee. Soon, the band will headline its own tour to promote Small Town Heroes, returning in time for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this spring. But don't expect Segarra to stay in one place too long.

"Even when I'm at home, I seem to be going somewhere all the time," Segarra says. "I've been like that ever since I was a little kid. That was kind of my happy place: the journey, not really getting anywhere."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel, and now a few moments with the voice of the future. That's how our friends at NPR Music have described Alynda Lee Segarra. She's a young singer/songwriter with a soulful American roots sound. This native New Yorker fell in love with New Orleans and that city's rich musical heritage, jazz, blues and funk. Segarra's band is Hurray For the Riff Raff.

Their new record, "Small Town Heroes" pays tribute to New Orleans and NPR's Debbie Elliot went there to meet them.

ALYNDA LEE SEGARRA: "St. Roch Blues" take two.

DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: Alynda Lee Segarra has gathered some friends and musicians, the Riff Raff, in the eerie chapel on the grounds of the St. Roch Cemetary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. ROCH BLUES")

SEGARRA: (Singing) People are dying...

ELLIOT: Here, beneath the benevolent gaze of a statue of St. Roch, the patron saint of dogs, invalids and bachelors, she's recording a video for the song "St. Roch Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. ROCH BLUES")

SEGARRA: (Singing) And I keep on crying. I keep on crying. I keep on crying, I keep on crying.

ELLIOT: Hurray For The Riff Raff gained international attention after the album, "Look Out, Momma" in 2012 and the buzz surrounding this latest record is even bigger. Not yet 27, Segarra already seems an old soul. She grew up in the Bronx, but left home at 17 and wandered around the country, hitchhiking and riding rails before being drawn to stay put in New Orleans.

She takes me down the tree lined streets in front of the cemetery.

SEGARRA: This is St. Rochs. This is where - the neighborhood I lived in for a long time. This is kind of where I first settled down when I decided I wanted to live in New Orleans. And I was on Music Street, actually.

ELLIOT: We pass colorfully painted shotgun houses, long narrow homes with a straight line, open shot from front to back door. Like much of New Orleans, there's renovation underway, but also signs of disrepair and poverty. St. Roch is a neighborhood that struggles with crime.

Segarra recalls a rash of home break-ins and murders a few years ago.

SEGARRA: It was the first time I really felt close to the violence in New Orleans. I think it really changed just the way I wanted to write songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SEGARRA: (Singing) I seen so many of my good friends go.

That time period also taught me a lot about community and a lot about people getting together and taking care of each other, and the strength of New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SEGARRA: (Singing) It won't be long. It won't be long till I go.

ELLIOT: Alynda Lee Segarra has a tiny frame and big, dark eyes that hint of her stirring voice. Her musical career started on the streets of the French Quarter, busking for tips from tourists in a loose-knit collaboration called the Dead Man Street Orchestra. She played the washboard and sang.

SEGARRA: At first I was learning a lot of Bessie Smith songs and Ma Rainey, a lot of, like, blues women and that was really good because it taught me to project because I had to sing on the street.

ELLIOT: She's moved up from washboard, and now plays bass drum, banjo and guitar. She's also fine-tuned her sound.

SEGARRA: I realized that I loved microphones, that I didn't really want to have to project, that wasn't really what I loved about singing. So once I started playing more in clubs, I started learning a lot more classic country songs and kind of found my voice through that. Learning, like, Loretta Lynn stuff, and Hank Williams Sr. songs, that really helped me find my niche more, I'd say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL TOWN HEROES")

SEGARRA: (Singing) She was a queen. She got all her drugs for free. She walked up to her daddy's door. He said you don't live here anymore. She wanted love, wanted love, oh, but she just couldn't get enough.

ELLIOT: That's the title track of "Small Town Heroes." The record covers a lot of musical ground, from stripped-down country to bluegrass to doo-wop. Seggara says Hurray For The Riff Raff aims to unite outcasts, mixing different worlds into their own. The result is a modern take on traditional storytelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BODY ELECTRIC")

SEGARRA: (Singing) Said you going to shoot me down from my body in the river, shoot me down from my body in the river while the whole world sings, singing like a song the whole world sings like there's nothing going wrong. He shot her down. He put her body in the river. He covered her up and I went to get her and I said...

ELLIOT: The song "The Body Electric," shows how Segarra is developing her political voice. It's her feminist retort to the classic murder ballad.

SEGARRA: Over the years they've started to turn into more of a controversial, kind of like detached way of songwriting that's really macho and has a lot to do with just like, well I killed that girl because she cheated on me or something, you know. And one day it just kind of struck me that I felt like I wanted a woman to become a part of the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BODY ELECTRIC")

SEGARRA: (Singing) Tell me what's the man with the rifle in his hand going to do for his daughter when it's her turn to go.

ELLIOT: Hurray for the Riff Raff has toured with Alabama Shakes and Amos Lee. Soon, the band will headline its own tour to promote "Small Town Heroes," and will be back home in New Orleans for Jazz Fest this spring. But don't expect Alynda Lee Segarra to stay in one place too long.

SEGARRA: I definitely think even when I'm at home, I seem to be going somewhere all the time. I've been like that ever since I was a little kid. That was kind of my happy place was the journey, you know, not really, like, getting anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SEGARRA: (Singing) Way down by the river at the end of the line, oh, I was looking for a real good time.

ELLIOT: Debbie Elliot, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SEGARRA: (Singing) Way down by the river on the end of the line, I was looking for some friends of mine. I was thinking about you just now. Way down by the river...

SIEGEL: You can listen to Hurray For The Riff Raff's new album at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.