Hurray for the Riff Raff call New Orleans home, but their beginnings are far from Southern. Singer Alynda Lee Segarra is Brooklyn-born, and it was quite a journey that led her to Louisiana. The band has spent a lot of time in Alabama over their eight years, which have led to this year’s Small Town Heroes, their first release on ATO Records, a label known for harvesting the likes of Drive-By Truckers, My Morning Jacket, Lucero and Alabama Shakes.
Segarra spoke to Weld about her relationship with Brittany Howard and her most memorable Alabama show before Hurray for the Riff Raff return to Birmingham on Oct. 22.
Weld: You aren’t from the South, but you’re fiercely Southern; how did your relationship with the South begin and evolve?
Alynda Lee Segarra: I grew up in the Bronx. I traveled to the South for the first time, when I left home, when I was 17. I really just felt, like, such a connection to the overall vibe, the overall culture of a lot of outside and a lot of talking to each other and I fell in love with the history of the music down here, old-time banjo music and stuff like that. I just really fell in love with all of it, and being a Northerner — being from New York, specifically — I watched New York as a city, I feel like, change for the benefit of people who aren’t actually from there. Living here now, I try to still have that sensitivity of recognizing that I’m not from here and really trying to love what is from here and respect it and recognize that I’m an outsider but really still have a desire to learn about the culture. That’s really where I am with my relationship. I don’t think I could live anywhere else. I love it here.
Weld: How did you meet Brittany Howard and how important is that friendship to you?
ALS: I first heard of Brittany because I was playing at a bar in Nashville called the 5 Spot and the sound person had this music on while we were checking and all of us in the band just stopped and said, “What is this?” [Laughs]
He was Andrija Tokic and he was like, “Well, this is a band called the Shakes and I just recorded them. These are some of their demos.” And instantly, we were like, “Ok, well, we want to work with you. If you recorded this. And where do we find these people?”
And it was from that relationship with Andrija that we all became familiar with Brittany – we actually played at the Bottletree with them, their first show that we ever played with them. And since then, I’ve watched her blossom into this powerhouse. She’s always been so supportive of us; we got to go on this really big tour with them. That was actually one of our first experiences opening up for a big band…going on tour with the Alabama Shakes. And then, of course, I asked her to be in my “girl-gang” music video and she was really awesome to come down here and participate and stuff. I’m just really inspired by her.
Weld: I’ve been told that you have played a lot of really interesting venues on the way up – what’s the most interesting that you have played in Alabama, or in Birmingham, specifically?
ALS: It’s not in Birmingham, but Gip’s Place.
Weld: Yeah, that’s just outside of town, maybe a half-hour.
ALS: Ok, yeah, that, is by far, the wildest place we have ever played. In this country or not. It was incredible. Our friend Joshua Shoemaker actually – he edited our music video, he’s done so many live videos with us, he’s gone on tour with us and captured a lot of moments with the band – he told us about Gip’s Place and he helped us get a show there. That place was wild. It wasn’t just a wild place. Everyone was drinking, like, “make their own moonshine” or something, which took us back in time, but I loved how diverse it was. It felt like such a mixture of races and age groups and everyone was there just trying to have a good time. And it was awesome.
Weld: You spoke to Ann Powers from NPR earlier this year and you identified Hurray for the Riff Raff as “queer.” How important is that label to you, and do you feel any kind of responsibility to the label? Is it a difficult label to carry throughout the South?
ALS: It’s interesting – I feel like, if anything, it’s more confusing to a lot of people. I’m actually becoming more okay with being confusing because I feel like that’s what so many artists deal with. I do feel a responsibility in that Yosi Pearlstein, who is my musical partner for life, he is a transgendered man. And I feel like the spokesperson, because he doesn’t get to talk that much, I feel like it’s really important that I bring it up. I have a choice where I can be seen as many different things – people don’t look at me and from my appearance assume that I’m “queer” or something. I find that it is a responsibility to speak for both of us and to speak for what our music stands for, which is really this queer idea of not just sexual identity, but just this feminist identity and a gender-bending type of way that we like to go about things. So I like to write songs that – I really like to use different pronouns. I really like to bring masculine sides into feminine roles; put female characters into these roles that are typically seen as masculine: “The Wanderer” and “The Cowboy,” stuff like that.
Weld: What Southern bands should I be paying attention to right now that I’m not?
ALS: Clear Plastic Masks. They live in Nashville. There’s another band in Nashville called Promised Land Sound that I really love. I just feel like the South has it going on right now when it comes to new bands; they’re all really supportive to each other. Of course I love Shovels and Rope and the Alabama Shakes. It feels like if you track down whoever Andrija Tokic recorded, it’s probably an amazing Southern band.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
ALS: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ike and Tina Turner, Bo Diddley, The Velvet Underground.