Ten years ago, Alynda Lee Segarra -- the estimable frontwoman of the much buzzed-about New Orleans outlaw Americana act Hurray for the Riff Raff -- said goodbye to New York City. She was 17 years old, and she wanted to carve out a life for herself as an artist.
It's a move that goes against everything most creative types and otherwise ambitious people have been told about New York City. That's where you go to make it, because if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. You don't leave it. And you certainly don't leave it if, like Segarra, you grew up there. (The singer-songwriter of Puerto Rican descent was raised by her aunt in the Bronx.)
That's all changed, though. In 2010, Patti Smith -- a pillar of the mid-'70s NYC punk movement -- had some widely quoted advice to young, hungry artists: "Find a new city." With its skyrocketing cost of living -- and, if you were to ask Talking Heads frontman/fellow NYC institution David Byrne, its devaluing of creativity -- New York City is boxing out the artists it once nourished.
"I left New York because I didn't see myself succeeding there," Segarra says via email. Her schedule has made phone interviews all but impossible; Hurray for the Riff Raff is currently on a tour in support of 2014's stellar Small Town Heroes that will bring it to the Winnipeg Folk Festival's mainstage on Friday night.
"It's becoming more and more expensive, and a lot of New York natives are being forced to move. I never did well in very competitive environments and, though I had no idea I would become a musician, I wanted to be an artist of some sort."
Segarra hitched her way to the West Coast, and then travelled around the south before falling hopelessly in love with New Orleans, "a city that has so much culture and beauty and rawness. I felt very welcomed there and finally began to play music when I landed there 10 years ago." She started busking, and became a voracious student of the roots genre. "I love how roots music is about telling your story," she says. "It's about continuing traditions and changing them with the times."
A decade later, and Hurray for the Riff Raff is indeed writing roots music for these times. The band has firmly established itself as one of the American roots scene's most vital young voices with Small Town Heroes, which will doubtless make many Best Of lists come December. Along with fiddler Yosi Perlstein, keyboard player Casey McAllister, guitarist Sam Doores and bassist Dan Cutler, Segarra has crafted a record that not only cuts new paths but serves as a master class in subtle beauty; to quote NPR, "Segarra's morning-after alto might be the least showy great voice to hit the national scene this year."
Segarra is also responsible for what might be the year's greatest political anthem. The Body Electric is a gutting, feminist take on the traditional murder ballad, a narrative structure that has a long history in American folk, roots and country music but in which the victim is all too often a woman. In her reimagining, Segarra changes the script. Her tale isn't one of revenge; it's one of change. "He shot her down, he put her body in the river/he covered her up, but I went to get her /And I said 'my girl, what happened you now?' / I said 'my girl, we gotta stop it somehow.'" There's a clever nod to Johnny Cash, too: "Delia's gone but I'm settling the score." (The band recently performed the track on Late Night with David Letterman.)
"The Body Electric is my response to rape culture," Segarra says, referring to a term used to describe all the ways in which our society tacitly accepts and/or condones violence against women. "(Feminist author/activist) Bell Hooks says: 'If you cannot imagine it, it will never come to be.' I want us to stop using our imaginations to create storylines of murder and violence against women. I think it's time all of us began imagining a world where women feel safe, and where we are not to blame for the violence against us.
"I was reading about many different high school girls who had been sexually assaulted by classmates and videotaped, and it was painful for me. I wanted to write something for those young girls to know that they are a part of a lineage of violence. They did not create it or ask for it -- it was there before they existed. It's time for it to end so they can finally be safe and their daughters can be as well."
During her formative years in the Bronx, Segarra -- an obsessive writer who has kept journals since she was old enough to write -- was raised on a steady diet of Motown, doo-wop, and the scores of 1950s musicals. "West Side Story was big for me, since there were Puerto Rican characters and that was the first time I ever saw that represented," she says.
By the time she was a teenager, she was drawn to the energy and urgency of punk rock, finding kindred spirits in the pioneering women who made up the 1990s riot grrrl movement.
"Bikini Kill hit me hard and instilled a lot of belief in myself and my desire to change the world," she says. "Even if I help one girl believe in herself, I did my job -- and you can thank (Bikini Kill frontwoman) Kathleen Hanna for helping me when I was in eighth grade."
Just as Hanna and her fellow riot grrrls challenged the misogyny rife within punk rock culture with their girls-to-the-front ethos and showed a generation of women and girls that they could be in the band, not just with the band, Segarra, who once described herself as "a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who went to the South, who also feels queer, who also loves classic country and rock 'n' roll," is approaching a traditional genre from a fresh point of view. She makes music for the underdog and the under-represented. And representation is a powerful thing; Segarra says she's been thrilled to see more Puerto Ricans at Hurray for the Riff Raff's shows.
"There is a lot of beautiful folk music from Puerto Rico and a history of very strong independent female thinkers and artists," she says, pointing to poet Julia De Burgos as one example. "There's also such an important musical history of what Puerto Ricans brought in the '50s to New York and a lot of other major cities. The Ghetto Brothers were a band from the '70s who made Beatles-inspired music in the South Bronx and they have been my soundtrack lately. The more I learn, the more I realize I am a part of something greater. Puerto Ricans are a very important part of American history, culturally and politically."