[FOLK] Alynda Lee Segarra admits she's gotten soft. Once a teenage vagabond, who left home before she was old enough to vote and spent time hopping freight trains and hitchhiking around the country, the singer and musician has, at age 26, finally settled into a life of comfort and stability.
"I sleep in a bed, always have a little money in my pocket and don't have to carry everything I own on my back," says Segarra, who fronts the folk-blues act Hurray for the Riff Raff. "I am blessed."
Growing up in the Bronx, raised by her aunt and uncle, Segarra spent much of her time at punk shows in the bohemian Lower East Side, looking for her "people." She often came into contact with travelers who'd regale her with tales of riding the rails and drifting from place to place. "I always had a wandering mind," she says, recalling "epic" family road trips in wood-paneled vans. "I knew I should be out on the road somewhere." And so, at 17, Segarra set out on her own, eventually settling in the South. After coming to New Orleans and joining the Dead Man Street Orchestra as a washboard player, she picked up the banjo and guitar and tried her hand at songwriting.
"I am a fan of simplicity," Segarra says. "I am also a big fan of melody, and that is why I never was interested in performing hardcore or punk music. I wanted to sing something pretty."
She formed Hurray for the Riff Raff with drummer and violinist Yosi Pearlstein and bassist David Maclay in 2007, self-releasing its first two albums of soulful, Woody Guthrie-influenced blues. The group released its fourth album, Small Town Heroes, earlier this year, and while the record maintains the same wandering sound the trio is known for, Segarra's focus is on her adopted hometown of New Orleans. Much attention has been paid to one song in particular, "The Body Electric," which, according to Segarra, was written about a young girl she met on her travels who was later murdered.
"It's a song that speaks about our society's conditioning toward women and their bodies," she says. "When a woman has the audacity to believe she is the sole owner of her body, often she is harmed in some way, physically or mentally. 'The Body Electric' sings to the women killed in murder-ballad folk songs and to those harmed in life. It's also my plea to men around the world to question what they've been taught about women."
This social awareness, though, is not new to her music—since beginning to write her own songs, Segarra has covered a range of topics, including post-hurricane New Orleans.
"I believe art is the only antidote to the sickness of our culture," she says. "It is the artist's duty, whether a poet, painter or musician, to heal the minds of the public, for those who are working hard and not as privileged as I am to travel the world and sing."
SEE IT: Hurray for the Riff Raff plays Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., with Clear Plastic Masks, on Saturday, April 19. 10 pm. $15. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian.