Alynda Segarra of Hurray For The Riff Raff is part of a pedigree of US-based musicians who initially purged their belief system through punk rock, only to eventually exhume a sense of self and belonging playing roots and folk music. It allowed Segarra for instance, to subvert the meat-headed concept of murder ballads with her fantastic folk hymn ‘The Body Electric’.
Unlike many of her fellow American songwriters, however, Segarra had to take a slight detour to chase down her own identity. The disconnect of not being well-versed in her Puerto Rican lineage informed the making of her extraordinary new album, The Navigator. It was something that had to be addressed. Segarra sat down in Amsterdam with Drowned In Sound: an insightful encounter that interspersed both the personal and political.
DiS: I know it’s horrid to ‘fad’ the weight behind a piece of art, but a lot of what you address on The Navigator is weirdly prophetic.
Alynda Segarra: Well, I was actually pretty worried about that as we were making the album. We wanted to put it out before the election, because back then, we were still so sure Trump would lose. I figured the subjects I would sing about would come off as corny in that scenario. That people would be all like: “Why are you still talking about that?” It’s all been very surprising. I think a lot of people are very alarmed at the moment.
You developed your craft around DIY spaces and punk communities. That must've purged you from a lot of preconceived notions.
It really saved my life. It gave me something to do every week after high school. When you feel like you don't have control over your life, you have no agency over what you can accomplish. You feel that the world is fucked up. Going away once a week to see your friends is like church basically.
I'm interested why you wanted the video for ‘Hungry Ghost’ to be a tribute to DIY and grassroots movements. Does the song itself address this topic?
I wrote ‘Hungry Ghost’ because I was trying to come up with this Ziggy Stardust-like story concept. Even though it's a very personal song, it was also about this fictional character I created. I know what her friends were like… which wasn't explicitly written in the album. But I know. It was just my imagination running wild. What do her friends dance to when they go the club in this made-up city? So ‘Hungry Ghost’ is what came out of that.
You're talking about the protagonist of The Navigator right?
Yeah, the heroine in the story. Once you see the album art, it becomes clearer. It says: "Based in the life and times of Navita.” Navi is like the person I was at age sixteen. A bratty street kid… but she's different in a lot of ways too. She's this very independent spirit, a tough girl. She feels very suffocated by the city, the poverty and how everyone is cramped together. She has this overwhelming feeling that something is wrong. And she's also very ashamed of where she comes from. So that's where The Navigator begins. She wants to escape.
It's like this Wizard Of Oz story: Navi asks this wise woman to wake up the next day without remembering or recognizing anyone or anything. So this woman puts her to sleep for forty years; she then wakes up in the same city. In this future, gentrification has gone rapid. And basically in my mind, Trump is mayor in this place. I thought about this very extreme dictator-like figure who wants to separate everyone. Someone who wants to get all people of color and the poor out of certain neighborhoods to somewhere remote. That's where ‘Rican Beach’ is. So The Navigator was a fun way to think about what's happening right now. It's about history, but it's fun to illustrate it with a fictional storyline. In a lot of ways, it makes you braver to talk about these things. Because then you're like: this is part of my story too.
Before, you said that Navita is different from you in a lot of ways. Can you be more specific?
Well, growing up, I felt like I didn’t really belong anywhere. I felt like I never fitted into any community. Navita is different from me in that respect, because she does fit in. But she still feels this underlying shame creeping in. She is everything I wanted to be when I was younger.
Is it fair to say you're the wise woman transferring your own experiences and knowledge to her as she navigates through life?
Yeah, a lot of it is just one big metaphor for me running away from home. I ran away from home when I was seventeen. And suddenly, I was going back to New York City temporarily. What strikes me the most about it: how could I even feel ashamed of any of this? This is such a beautiful place to come from, with such beautiful people. My wisdom for Navi is like a fable you hear as a kid; you gotta be careful what you wish for! I felt like I time travelled when I ran away. By the time I got back to see my family, I felt like so much time had passed. Even though it was like eight months, I felt like I could never really go back. That's what they usually say once you leave home.
Artists in America with a punk background often develop their vernacular through roots music. MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger for instance, initially played in a hardcore band. Where do you fit in that conversation?
The history of American folk music is very anarchist. It was about people going by with what they had, not about making money but bolstering your community, taking care of their people, basically. A lot of that music was political and controversial in nature, the information they would spread critiqued the government and society. That really spoke to me when I was young. I heard that song ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’, which appeared on the soundtrack of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. And I remember thinking: "Damn, I wanna go there! How do I get to that place?” It felt very punk in a way. The lyrics read stuff like "Let's hang the jerk that invented work". And I'm like: damn, that's a punk song!
That's what I love about The Navigator: it bleeds all over the place. There's disillusion, there's hope: "Today I feel weak/but tomorrow I feel a queen". Even on ‘Living In The City’ you paint a very bleak picture, but musically, it all sounds so welcoming. The whole record has that in spades.
I've been listening to a lot of Brazilian music: Os Mutantes, tropicalia music, and most of all, trying to learn about Puerto Rican music. Specifically, I was drawn to the salsa of the 70s and Fania Records from The Bronx (founded by Dominican-born composer and bandleader Johnny Pacheco). What I loved about Fania; they were these Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican kids born in New York. Hippie-types who never figured out how to play folk music where they came from, but figured out how to mix it together with homegrown music. I was listening to a lot of artists like Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon. And generally feeling, music that felt grounded in drumming and rhythms. I was determined to do the same: to take my music and liven it up. This is how I connected the dots. Because face it, I can't play salsa, I can't sing in Spanish or Portuguese. But I did feel I could do what the musicians on Fania did... to make my own version of it.
The reason that actually came to fruition was (producer) Paul Butler. When I came to him, I had recorded the whole album already. And it was terrible! It sounded so bad! Then we found Paul, and I was already a fan of his. So I told him about my idea and this collection of songs with the question: how do I do this? I knew he was really good at arranging, so me and him just hung out and listened to a lot of music. We'd dissect it, we'd jam it for hours. We brought in Greg Rogove, who drums with Devendra Banhart, which was huge. He studied drumming in Cuba. Bringing in people like him and Carlos Chaurand was so important. Without them, I wouldn't have been able to make The Navigator. If it's just me and my guitar, it's like: "I hear it in my head, but how do I make it happen?"
Had to think about Elza Soares's The Woman At The End Of The World. She’s had a crazy life, but against all odds, she's still alive today and singing. But again, beneath all this weighty grandeur, that album sounds so great. You want to move to that record too.
Wow, I want to go to Brazil so bad! In my case, obviously, living in New Orleans taught me that. I moved away for two years to New York, but now I'm going to move back there. When you go to a funeral in New Orleans, people are crying, but also dancing. That was something I needed to tap into. I realized that is how you live, this is how you use music. I need to bring it into my body. We might feel that the world is going to end, but we need to tap into the joy of being alive this very moment. That's a way of decolonizing your mind. You're kind of like: "Okay, there's not a lot that I do to change the outside world but I'm going to be present and control this."
It's not an easy place to live. In a lot of ways, New Orleans gets forgotten about by the rest of the country. When Katrina happened, this became evident. It's really hard to figure out how to fix it. I've lived there for ten years, it'll be twelve years, and I'll always be an outsider because I'm not from there. There's not much you can do but amplify the work of people from New Orleans, to keep their culture alive and strong. A lot of it boils down to being mindful of the people coming to live in the city. To communicate with them: why are you are trying to dilute this culture? Or appropriate it, diminish it? Because that's what happens: you starting to ask them why they even moved to New Orleans to begin with, if you just want it to be like Portland, Oregon? That's what gentrification does all over the world: it's happening in London, in Mexico City, and in New Orleans. It's a global phenomenon.
I feel gentrification creates this schism within your identity. I mean, you felt shame towards your Puerto Rican heritage. But that's a complicated story in itself: the island's been colonized, so that creates this whole other level of disconnect.
It took me awhile to even identify myself as a Puerto Rican person. When you're not part of the diaspora, you don't really fit in. It's very complicated. But what really inspired me, was learning about the Young Lords. And this woman Julia de Burgos, who is one of the famous poets from Puerto Rico in the 30s and 40s, she was a feminist and a really incredible individual. But there's a time period in the 30s and 40s that was all about poets and artists deciding that maybe Puerto Rico wasn't going to be free. The US took over the land, so things weren't looking good back then. They were trying to outlaw our language, our flag. So we created poetry and art that serves as our declaration of independence: to plant a seed for future generations. It was all very intentional.
There have been so many different Puerto Rico's throughout its history. Did you feel like you needed to consume the big picture, or was it imperative to exhume your own lineage first and foremost?
There are people from the island who feel very attached to the land itself. There are also many Puerto Ricans who have never known the land. To create a network between the two is something I hope to accomplish. As you said, there are many different versions of Puerto Rico, of what our identity looks like. But still, we can work together, as opposed to turning the other ear. What I want to do is create a body of work that people of the diaspora can listen to and feel. And be like : "Wow, it's okay to feel in some shape or form connected to my ancestors." People might tell me that I shouldn't. Maybe the powers that be would find such a thing dangerous. They don't want me to feel connected to my people. They want me to feel cut off and very alone, not belonging anywhere. Because when you feel empty like that, what are you going to do? Consume a bunch of shit?
The Navigator has field recordings that complement the record’s overall ambience. 'Entrance' begins grounded at the subway, ‘Finale’ is ethereal and percussive. Are there specific things you handpicked for specific reasons?
A lot of those recordings were done on my phone. We wanted to recreate that subway singer beginning right off the bat. Growing up, I'd take the subway and you'd hear these doo wop guys singing in harmony on my way home from school. I always considered them to be these guardian angels, so I wanted them to open up the story. In 'Fourteen Floors' you hear coqui, which are a frog species from Puerto Rico. They come in when I'm talking about my father and his journey from Puerto Rico. And then there's some people jamming out in a park at the end of the song. There's also a girl selling stuff with her dad in Mexico City, at the beginning of 'The Navigator'.
I love your words on that title track. Protest music tends to get soapbox-y quickly, but the descriptions on that one paint such vivid imagery already.
I'm excited that you mention that. I was listening to Kendrick Lamar a lot during the making of The Navigator. I started writing the lyrics for that track on my phone, with no music. That's the part of the album where Navita starts to transform. I wanted it to sound very cinematic. I listened to a lot of Jorge Ben Jor too, especially his album Força Bruta. The strings on that album are gorgeous.
Sound-wise and structure-wise 'Pa'lante' reminds me of your version of 'A Day In The Life' by The Beatles. The song has three separate acts brought together.
That's definitely what I wanted to achieve. The first act represents Navi reaching the end of her journey. It renders her still working through her emotions. If you're from the Puerto Rican diaspora you discover all this history. How do I not know about what's been going on around my people? It does affect me. But it was also influenced by Bruce Springsteen, funnily enough. I was reading about him. Everyone in the world is tired of being taught to get up, go to work and cut yourself off from what happens to the rest of the world. To not give a fuck about anybody and just consume and consume. The Springsteen book described that emptiness at one point. And the antidote for emptiness is your history: learning about the world you interact with. It makes you feel like a person, not just an object. I wrote the middle part of Pa’lante when I was 26 years old. I'm 29 now. I always held onto that second part. It was written at a very low point in my life. I wasn't like suicidal or anything. But more like: what's the point of all this? What am I doing?
When I write, I tend to coach myself a little bit. Even if I don't believe in it yet, soon enough I'm going to come out to the other side of this. I'm going to be okay. That desperation, feeling like "oh, any day now, I'll come along". The ending of 'Pa'lante' didn't present itself until I was in the studio. I didn't have anything written in advance. The song is my version of John Lennon's 'Mother'. I basically told Paul (Butler), "I need to primal scream.” It was really fun to do the end bit, actually, even though it was a very emotional recording session. It has a lot of little 'shout outs'. To Julia de Burgos, but also Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican trans activist who started Stonewall with Marsha P. Johnson. I want to speak for people who had to hide all their lives.
So that's actually what Pa'lante is largely about. It's the ending of the story: the idea that in order to go forward, you first need to understand where you came from. You have to make good with all of the past. The Dakota Access Pipeline protesters are trying to heal generations of pain. They understand that if they heal today, they're healing for their ancestors. I've been very fascinated by this idea: if you heal your trauma now, you're doing right by your ancestors. I really believe in that. It's this other idea of The Navigator: let me guide you forward.”
Yesterday at your gig I bought your album Look Out Mama. The cover art depicts a photo of your father when he was serving in Vietnam. He probably has a lot of traumatic experiences that he struggles with on a daily basis. Some people shut trauma out to spare their loved ones. Did he talk to you about his Vietnam days when you were young?
Yeah, trauma actually seems to become more present as one gets older. As life slows down, when you don't work everyday, there's not as much distraction. I think my father spared us from a lot of details, but he was very open with me ever since I was a child. He was forthright about the idea that war wasn't something to take lightly. He'd tell me: "I've been to war, I've seen things I never want you to see. And it will never get us anywhere." People in power will always try to use you and your people as a pawn. I was taught that from a really young age. I learned a lot from my dad.
Of course when you're all grown up, you start communicating about these things as two adults. How has that been?
It's been really good! I think a lot of our relationship has been about healing. It's been a long journey with my family. We're still trying to make up for lost time. Even though I ran away for eight months, I never really came back. I've been trying to reconnect with them, make good on that lost time. I think they are very proud of me, which is a beautiful feeling. I think that's what me and my father finally share. He respects me, he sees what I'm doing. He also finally likes one of Hurray For The Riff Raff's records! Before it was like: what is this country stuff you're playing? Why are you yodeling? (laughs)
I reckon that him being so candid to you about his trauma gave you courage to run away from home at such a young age.
Yeah, absolutely. At that age, like Navita, I really didn't think anything bad could happen to me. Like her, I had this overwhelming feeling: "This is something I must do". I have to be free. Now, looking back on it, punk music taught me how to hack the system in a way. You live in an oppressive society as a woman, especially where you're coming from. This is one way to be free. But you're going to have to make some sacrifices. You're going to have to live, eat and travel without money. And knowing it isn't always going to be easy. As you get older, it becomes harder to live rough. At one point you'd like to sleep in a bed. Honestly, going into this new administration, I'm glad I learned those tools along the way. I feel a little more prepared than most people, for when it REALLY gets bad.
Hurray For The Riff Raff’s forthcoming album The Navigator is out March 10 via ATO Records. For more information, please visit their official website.
Photo credit: Sarrah Danziger