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Hooray for the Riff Raff: route maps

photo: Tommy Kha

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Alynda Segarra has been drawn to the desert lately.

“It’s like a vortex, an intersection of time,” the singer-songwriter notes. “You are in the past, but also in the present. I feel like so many people go out and get clean somehow. People go there to look for something.”

Segarra – who records vibrant, folk-tinged music under the name Hurray for the Riff Raff – seemed to find a kind of clarity in the rugged, beautiful landscapes of the Southwest. In recent years they’ve spent a fair amount of time in New Mexico – a location that looms large on ‘Buffalo’, a dusty, mid-tempo sing-along from their recently released ninth LP, The past is still alive.

“Two moons and a raging river/ Saddled by the piñon on fire,” Segarra almost whispers over a softly strummed acoustic guitar. “Drew to the edge of the pueblo/ Bought a drum from a man who was crying/ And the children’s show hangs from the ceiling/ And the way you hold my hand/ And I screamed and I didn’t know the reason/ But I knew you it would understand.”

There are other links to the region within the world of Still alive– the cowboy hats and mountain backdrops in the album art, the New Mexico heist filmed in the “Hawkmoon” video. The enigmatic tranquility of the area seeps into the aesthetics. “Obviously on ‘Buffalo’ I’m talking specifically about New Mexico, but on the rest of the record I really don’t; Yet it still feels like the desert to me,” says Segarra. “I spent some time there – I went there for my birthday two years in a row. I checked out Taos Pueblo and I went to Santa Fe. It felt like a place where I could reset.”

Anyone who has spent time there understands the magnetic pull that Segarra describes: that brain-shaking dislocation you feel as you gaze from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge toward the Pueblo or the river. And The past is still alive sucks you into a similar emotional vortex: the songs feel old yet familiar, specific in imagery yet universal in theme, like a kaleidoscope of current joy and painful memory – and vice versa.

It’s a big moment for a songwriter whose story is similarly cinematic, filled with enough struggle and resilience to make for a big-budget biopic. Born of Puerto Rican descent in the Bronx, Segarra did not have the easiest upbringing. Their aunt and uncle raised them after divorcing their father — a jazz musician dealing with trauma from the Vietnam War — and their mother, who worked for then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Segarra found a voice in New York’s punk scene and left home. As a teenager, she hitchhiked and rode freight trains and then discovered a community in New Orleans, where they joined an oboe band.

During the time of the train, Segarra, now 36, began writing lyrics to old folk melodies. They didn’t have phones (at least these were pre-smartphones), so adapting material was the easiest way to remember. They look back fondly on the long periods of ‘sit and watch’, bouncing ideas around in their heads and only being able to have a real conversation when the noise of the train stopped.

“The life of a train traveler is really interesting because you spend so much time waiting,” they say. ‘Sometimes you wait two days for a train and you find yourself in the tramp jungle. I was lucky when I finally found my friends in New Orleans and we started traveling together. We had so much time to sit around and exchange songs.

“And we spend a lot of time walking, you walk for miles,” they continue. “It’s such a monk’s life, even though we drank too. (Laughs.) It’s not That monkish, but it’s the way you think, ‘We have to walk all those miles. Then we have to sneak through this hole in the fence.’ (On the train), you have to become damn calm and have no problem sitting and thinking, sitting and looking. I really enjoyed being in that kind of mindset most of the time. But I still wasn’t necessarily in touch with my voice. Now I feel so much more that all the languages ​​of each album and all the phases of my life are finally coming together. The challenge now is of course: ‘How do I live in modern society and also make time for that artistic realm – to live in that mentality?’

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That challenge has led to a series of fascinating albums that reflect on identity, social issues and the wisdom born of memory, including 2022. Life on earth, their debut for Nonesuch Records and first collaboration with producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Waxahatchee). For years, Segarra reached beyond their Americana roots, but here they rendered that label meaningless and let their artsy, softly twangy croon slide around volatile indie rock guitars and slinky electronics.

“Of Life on earthI was so excited by the exploration,” they recall. “I really needed inspiration, and that meant writing songs with a different approach than just me and my guitar. When it was finished and I was on the road with it, these (new) songs came to me. Brad and I were both talking about the next one and had a feeling it would be different. He brought up Sparklehorse, which I thought was a great reference. He played me It’s a great life, and I was so hypnotized by that. He said he felt like I was so raw during the demo, but that’s not the case performing– I’m just me, and this emotionality comes out. It is not perceived at all. That was the beginning of the path we were going to take, and it grew and changed with the song. It feels very desert-like to me. It feels like there is so much space: the space of time.”

For what it ultimately became The past is still aliveSegarra leaned on a crucial cast of characters to bring that atmosphere to life, including Cook (who also played multiple instruments, most notably bass on nine of the eleven tracks), Mike Mogis (pedal-steel, synth), Phil Cook (keyboards , guitar, Dobro, marimba), Matt Douglas (saxophone), Yan Westerlund (drums), a range of backing vocalists (including Conor Oberst) and Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy (guitar), whose atmospheric parts capture the gut-derived quality of the highlight album.

Cook, who co-produced 2019’s second Hand Habits album placeholderrecruited Duffy to drop by while they were in the Durham area – resulting in a day of rapid-fire recording and subsequent deep admiration for Segarra, whose music Duffy had not yet heard at the time.

“The songs were great,” they say. “They are such a good storyteller. When I went into the studio, I had some brash ideas, and they both said, “Go crazy.” It takes a lot of trust to let someone in and do their thing. That makes this record exciting for me – and their stories (offer) a perspective that I don’t think many people bring to the music they make. There’s something blue in their music that I can really identify with. There is such a consistency of yourself.”

All session players added to the mosaic, capturing the atmosphere Segarra envisioned early on. (They cite Lucinda Williams as an inspiration for the record’s “tight, catchy and somewhat simple guitar hooks” and elsewhere they point to the distinctive tone of Bob Dylan’s music. Blood on the tracks.) But the musicians were helpful in another, equally important way: They served as a steadying presence in a time of terrible grief. Segarra began recording at Brad Cook’s studio in North Carolina in March 2023, just a month after their father’s death.

“I came into the studio so devastated and shocked,” Segarra says, exploring how that loss changed both their performance and their perspective. “There were moments that felt a bit creepy. It’s subtle; It’s not like I talk about death that much. It’s just singing these songs, knowing more intimately that life ends, that people leave forever. I have also learned so much about grief, and I am still learning, and it is this understanding now that grief is another expression of love. It just made me feel really tender. I’m more aware of, ‘Wow, this is my life, and I’ve been through so much, but I’m also so lucky! Here I am in this studio, making a record! That’s fucking crazy!’ There were many moments where I felt so much gratitude, and then many moments where I thought, ‘Why me? Why did this happen?’ It has really taken away a lot of the fear of failure that I can sometimes get.

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The past is still alive contains some of the most beautiful Hooray for the Riff songs Segarra ever wrote, including the heartbreaking, finger-picked ballad “Colossus of Roads,” which came about during a tour break when Segarra was reading a lot of Eileen Myles poetry and watching a lot of movies. (“I have a Criterion login,” they say.)

“I just needed beautiful inspiration around me,” they remember. “I tried to create this world of beauty around me because I actually felt so exhausted and disappointed to go outside. (Laughs) When the Club Q shooting happened in Colorado Springs in November 2022, this song kind of slipped my mind. It was this thing of, ‘I want to create these three-and-a-half minutes where you can crawl under a fort with your friend, and I can say, ‘Look at this beautiful thing.’

The album’s centerpiece, ‘Snake Plant (The Past Is Still Alive)’, is soothing, moonlit folk-rock carried by a series of seemingly disjointed memories, including scenes from their childhood (‘Try to remember almost everything/ Like feeding grapefruits to the cows”) and chaotic young adult years (“Garbage island/ Fucking in the moonlight”).

“That was the first song on this record that I wrote – before Life on earth even came true,” says Segarra. “It really felt like, ‘Oh, I’m getting somewhere.’ It was deep into lockdown, and I was really inspired by Kendrick Lamar – he’s such a fucking genius, and I was like, ‘Damn, I want to have bars! I want to go for a ride.” It just freed me up and said, ‘Fuck a chorus. I just want to write and see where it goes, as a mediation.”

“That’s a perfect example of a song that I looked at so differently when I got into the studio,” they continue, recalling that it was almost too emotional to record. “I just wanted to share this snapshot of my family: a working-class family with a lot of trauma and conflict, but also with very interesting people. I really tried to give them something this time that was honorable, and even inside jokes that they could hear and say, “Oh, I remember that.” Then it leads to the rest of my life – and also to escaping from it and feeling like, ‘I can’t just be this. This works for you, but it really doesn’t work for me, and I can’t even explain why it doesn’t work. I’m not who I should be when I’m here. ”

That feeling—fleeing one house while running toward the mystery of another—seems to encapsulate Segarra’s music. It is a delicate balancing act of darkness and dreamy melancholy. Just like the radiance of the desert, these feelings are too great to express clearly. But hurray for the Riff Raff makes as convincing an effort as anyone.

Segarra reflects on the overarching spirit of their music and speaks of a “traveler’s mentality.” “We have to walk twelve kilometers, so we’re just going to do this,” they say. “We have heavy backpacks on, but we can still find beauty and be together in it and joke around. I feel that a lot. I don’t want people to think I’m toxically positive about the future. Shit is pretty crazy right now. But I feel so lucky to know so many radically minded people. I have always had faith in humanity. I don’t know if we’ll win, but I do think we’ll make some really great things along the way.”

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