An eye-opening tour of New Orleans: “When the sun goes down, it’s different here....”
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One warm lunchtime in early May, New Orleans does not seem a particularly dangerous place. The French Quarter is full, as usual, with tourists brandishing frozen daiquiris, ambling past the voodoo stores and buskers. At the edge of the district, a guide shepherds her tour party out of this bohemian theme park and across Rampart Street. “Now,” she says, “you can tell your friends back home that you actually left the French Quarter.” Ten minutes later they return, unbloodied.
Beyond the tourist zone, all appears peaceful. In the Lower Ninth District, still recovering nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina, nothing moves on the levee overlooking the Mississippi. A few minutes’ drive away in the St Roch neighbourhood, Music Street is just as quiet. We cruise past the old house of Alynda Lee Segarra, fulcrum of Hurray For The Riff Raff and one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged from New Orleans – and, perhaps, from the United States – in the last few years. While Segarra was living there, in 2010, the area endured one of the city’s periodic explosions of violence: a series of murders, rapes and home invasions concentrated on the streets between Franklin and St Roch Avenues. Among the victims was Jon Flee, 27, a hobo and artist whom Segarra had known since she was 15. He had been shot in the head by, police believed, a 16-year-old on a spree that included two more murders that same night.
“When the sun goes down, it’s different here,” says Segarra. “I’m from New York, and when I first came to New Orleans I thought I was tough, but it was nothing like what I’d ever experienced. In New York, I got mugged twice but never really felt that afraid. I always felt there was some kind of order glueing everything together. But in New Orleans, especially after the storm, people have to go through such hardship and injustice, and it just gets rid of that order. It makes the anger so strong, the confusion so strong.”
The fifth Hurray For The Riff Raff album, Small Town Heroes, contains a song called “St Roch Blues”, a spare, haunted doo-wop written and sung by Segarra with her sometime bandmate and former boyfriend, Sam Doores; a eulogy for Flee and the many other casualties of this mystical, unsettling city. Segarra’s songs often capture the romance of New Orleans, and her own unusual story – how the punk daughter of New York’s Deputy Mayor ran away at 17, hopped trains across country and reinvented herself singing folk ballads of a modern, complex American South – has the alluring quality of a myth.
New Orleans’ charm is easy to understand. It is a city steeped in history and culture, where young musicians can live out an escapist fantasy, hustling from the buskers’ domain on Royal Street to the clubs of Frenchmen Street, from one impromptu and surprisingly lucrative performance to the next. But at the same time, the messier fundamentals of New Orleans make it a hard place to hide from reality. 155 people were murdered there in 2013.
“St Roch Blues” comes loaded with a sorrowful warning to those dreamers who might follow Segarra’s path. “Baby please don’t go down to New Orleans,” she harmonises with Doores, “Cause you don’t know the things I seen.” One day, Segarra saw a 15-year-old boy get shot just across the road from her house, in the middle of a block party. “His grandmother told us there were some kids who were upset he wouldn’t join their gang,” she says.
“That was a really big wake-up call. ‘St Roch Blues’ is about my outsider’s perspective and about feeling naïve, more than anything. We’re singing, ‘Don’t come to New Orleans,’ but really what we’re trying to say is, ‘Don’t come ignoring that there needs to be help here. Don’t come ignoring the fact that the storm happened, that there are people who are struggling.’ That’s what I would like to get out, especially to young buskers who come here: ‘Be aware of the pain that people went through, and respect that pain.’”
Alynda Lee Segarra has the temperament of a wanderer, but she has been embedded in the culture of New Orleans for the best part of a decade and, just back from a month on tour, she is plainly glad to be home. She has returned a star, of sorts. After years of low-key preparation, the first half of 2014 saw a dramatic spike in Hurray For The Riff Raff’s fortunes. Small Town Heroes has been by some distance their most feted record, with the calm, tender authority of Segarra’s voice and songs eliciting comparisons with Gillian Welch. A couple of days ago, the band made their network TV debut on Conan O’Brien’s chat show. Tonight, they will support Charles Bradley in a rowdy French Quarter club with bordello styling. Tomorrow’s agenda involves an afternoon slot at the city’s massive annual Jazzfest, and a headline show, supported by hill country gospel singers, in a Presbyterian Church.
This afternoon, though, the 27-year-old Segarra is pondering whether to order something called a Green Eggs’n’Ham Sandwich, and trying to regain her bearings. She is sat in the back room of her manager Andy Bizer’s offices in the Bywater district: a space that incorporates Bizer’s legal practice, the Hurray For The Riff Raff nerve centre, and his wife’s art studio. Across Segarra’s knuckles, tattoos spell out the word “Songbird”, dating from her late teens and a time when she barely considered herself a singer, let alone a songwriter: “It was like I was making a self-prophecy,” she suggests. Her latest piece of body art depicts a matchbook. “This is my Bob Dylan tattoo,” she says. “‘Strike another match, go start anew…’”
Segarra got her first tattoo at her seventeenth birthday party in New York; a drawing of Frida Kahlo on her arm, with the title of her favourite Kahlo painting, ‘The broken column rebuilds itself’, written alongside in Spanish. The next day, she left town. “I had this incredible urge to get the fuck out. I’d known travellers forever and I was living part time at this squat in Brooklyn [Jon Flee was another resident]. I wasn’t going to school anymore and my aunt was obviously extremely worried about me. New York was so expensive and I just kept thinking, ‘I’ll never survive here.’ My mother seemed to be such a great professional person, but I didn’t really know how to ever emulate that.”
Her mother, Ninfa Segarra, had spent the ‘90s as Deputy Mayor of New York City in Rudolf Giuliani’s administration. “She grew up in the projects in the Lower East Side and, especially as a Puerto Rican woman, she was such a trailblazer. There are definitely things I learned from her but, as a child, I wasn’t necessarily interested in learning those things.”
Alynda Lee actually spent the vast majority of her childhood living with her aunt in the Bronx projects, daydreaming about the vast empty spaces of Kansas and Montana. It was an unlikely fantasy for a misfit of Puerto Rican descent, hating school, victimised by classmates, and obsessed with Marilyn Manson. Manson led to the Dead Kennedys and Bikini Kill and, by her early teens, Segarra was hanging out among the punks in New York’s East Village, petrifying her aunt – though not, as her family suspected, becoming involved with drugs: “I tried smoking weed when I was around 13 or 14 and it terrified me. I was always the kid who was trying to prove that I wasn’t scared of anything, but I felt – and still do feel – like my mind was already overactive enough. I never wanted to lose control – I was trying to gain more and more control.”
She was, in fact, making connections with an underground network of travellers who combined a DIY punk ethos with a Woody Guthrie fantasy of hitching rides on freight trains across America. When she left New York at 17, a better sense of her own identity started to crystallise as she headed west to San Francisco and then, slowly, south towards New Orleans. “I was able to find the punk rockers and that felt like a step,” she says, “and then I was able to find the travellers and that felt like a step, and then I met the people that put all that together for me and were honest and queer and feminist. That’s when I felt like, well, I’m really with my people now.”
Segarra identifies as queer herself – “I’m somebody who feels like my gender doesn’t fit into this very solid idea of feminine and masculine” – and currently leads a band that joyfully debunks the idea of roots music being somewhat reactionary; a band as disdainful of old ideologies as they are respectful of old aesthetics.
“I just want to play with people that I feel a soul connection and a musical connection with,” she continues. “And that soul connection means you have to be a very open-minded person who understands this feminist and queer idea of what we’d like the world to be.”
“When people see us for the first time, most straight people probably don’t immediately think we’re a queer band,” says Yosi Perlstein, the transgender violinist and drummer who emerged out of the travelling community to become Segarra’s right-hand man in 2009. “I’m guessing over time they realise, ‘Oh, they’re actually really political and queer,’ and then we’re able to subversively say, ‘See? It’s OK, we can do this too!’ That’s my hope.”
At Jazzfest the next afternoon, Perlstein’s hope is made explicit. Though their songs may often touch on sadness and politics, Hurray For The Riff Raff are also a mighty effective good-time band, exuberant enough to sustain the momentum generated by the act that immediately precedes them on the bill; storied New Orleans institution the Hot 8 Brass Band.
“A big part of what drew me to traditional jazz is Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey,” Segarra says. “There are a lot of songs where they talk about queer topics, about getting dressed up like a man and going out on the town and hitting on women. Bessie Smith was my idol for so long, like, ‘Man, I wanna be fearless like this lady.’”
When she first rolled into the Crescent City, the best part of a decade ago, Segarra started off playing washboard in itinerant jazz bands; ad hoc, revolving collectives with names like Loose Marbles, Tuba Skinny and the boisterous Dead Man’s Street Orchestra, who gained a certain notoriety from a Time magazine photo-essay portraying them as hobo urchins. “I got arrested bumming for money on Bourbon Street,” says Segarra, “and I just felt, Oh God, I’ve got to figure this out. When I started playing music, I didn’t have to spare-change anymore. I really wanted a goal, and when I found music, that was when it all really clicked into place.”
“I learned that street music paid well here and that it was respected. There definitely is this idea that if you’re playing on the street you’re taking part in New Orleans culture. If you’re learning the music of New Orleans, the traditional jazz, a lot of people seem to really appreciate it and tip their hats to you for doing that.”
Segarra would flit from band to band, part of a theatrical, amorphous scene, setting up camp on Royal Street at 4am to secure the best busking spots. Walt McClements, currently recording as Lonesome Leash, first came across her playing washboard and remembers “a shy, kind of reserved, wonderful musician. Some people just have a nice feel for anything they pick up.” She fell in with McClements’ own band, the gypsyish Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship, and he eventually gave her “this really shitty banjo that I’d sort of destroyed, carving out part of the neck. The whole thing was bent and it was super hard to play. I don’t know how nice a present it was.”
The banjo, though, went back to New York with Segarra for a summer, and when she returned to New Orleans she had written a bunch of songs that became the foundations of Hurray For The Riff Raff. “I first I heard her play a song or two in her friend’s backyard,” recalls McClements, “there was a party going on, and she played me some songs way over in the corner, and they were amazing. She’d demoed 20 songs in the span of a month back in New York. And then we started playing together.”
Andy Bizer, Hurray For The Riff Raff’s manager, stumbled on the band when he caught them supporting Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship in 2007. The lineup featured banjo, accordion, trumpet, upright bass, autoharp, toy piano and suitcases for drums. “I was fucking floored,” he says. “Because she was playing in this old timey style, I didn’t know if the songs were covers – were they Ma Rainey songs I didn’t know? But they were all original.” Segarra sold Bizer a CD-R out of her purse for $20 – “I knew I was being hustled and I didn’t give a fuck” – and he was soon her manager. “I said to her, ‘Look, would you like to travel and hop trains and shit, and just play music as a hobby? Or do you want to try and make a career out of this?’ She said, ‘let’s do it…’”
With McClements as main accomplice, two self-released albums swiftly followed – It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You (2008) and Young Blood Blues (2010) – that aligned Segarra’s rapidly maturing songcraft with the waltzing influence of McClements. Gradually, though, new ideas were feeding into Segarra’s world, in the shape of folk aficionados Yosi Perlstein and a laconic guitarist from San Francisco via Kansas, Sam Doores.
Sam Doores lives in a 19th Century house made out of old barge wood, right next to the Mississippi levee. There is a woodworking shop at the rear, and a campfire where songwriters seem to cluster even one early May afternoon. For a good while the house, in the Holy Cross area of the Lower Ninth Ward, was also home to Segarra, immortalised in the rousing “End Of The Line” on Small Town Heroes.
“It’s pretty awesome to be right next to the Mississippi river,” says Doores. “It’s a dream to be able to watch the sun go down over New Orleans and feel like you’re a little bit removed from the whole city and the madness. It’s a neighbourhood where really violent, terrible things happen sometimes, but it’s not a chaotic neighbourhood.”
Doores and his housemates pay $800 a month for the whole place – cheap enough for busking, jobbing musicians to subsist on the generosity of the tourists down on Royal Street. “When Walt went off to do his own thing,” he says, “that was right around the time I was showing Alynda some Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and The Band, Woody Guthrie, different kinds of stuff. She started learning the acoustic guitar and writing songs that were more in that vein. My band at the time were just starting – we were called The Tumbleweeds [now renamed The Deslondes] – and we went on a big tour where we opened up for the Riff Raff in 2010. She was looking for musicians, and me and Dan Cutler, my bass player, started playing with her.
“New Orleans’ street music scene is very well-respected, and it’s more geared towards trad jazz bands, swing bands, jug bands. Alynda and I really wanted to focus on original music, and play in New Orleans as much as possible but also take it out into the world. She had the strongest ambition for that of any musician I’ve met in town.”
Doores figures on three excellent Hurray For The Riff Raff albums: Look Out Mama (2012), the covers album My Dearest Darkest Neighbor (2013), and this year’s Small Town Heroes. He and Segarra were also a long-time couple before splitting up – amicably, it seems – last autumn. “It got too hard,” he says, “to keep a relationship together with all the changes that were going on.”
“We were in a very long relationship for six years and it was a really incredible journey,” says Segarra, “learning about ourselves as artists and as people. And throughout that, I was learning about the way I wanted to present my gender and, y’know, my queerness in the world. The ages of 20 to 26 are so huge. You grow so much and we were travelling all the time, not seeing each other. It felt like a very artistic relationship: very hard in all the good ways, and hard in all the bad ways, too.”
Doores remains, though, a critical member of the Riff Raff family. Judging by a walk down Frenchmen Street with Andy Bizer, every other scenester seems to have passed through the band for a tour or two (“I was drinking too much,” contributes one former bassist ruefully, before cycling off to sell his paintings to tourists). And while the current five-piece lineup is the most dedicated and stable yet, it is still malleable enough for Doores to figure in a stripped-back Riff Raff, alongside Segarra and Perlstein, for a run of UK dates in late May.
He also turns up onstage, with a couple of his Deslondes bandmates, at the First Presbyterian church concert (“Jesus wants you to enjoy the beer available at the back,” announces the priest, a very New Orleans touch). It is a casual, wonderful show, as musicians come and go around the still, magnetic centre of Segarra. There is carousing, knee-slapping and a singalong cover of “Be My Baby”, all interspersed with songs of heartbreak and injustice, songs which draw on the rich tradition of American folk music and find poignant new ways to update it. One extraordinary unrecorded tune, “Everybody Knows”, laments the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida two years ago. Another takes the Johnny Cash standard, “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes”, a song about an alcoholic World War II hero, and rewrites it to discuss the travails of a gay Vietnam vet.
Best of all, perhaps, there’s the centrepiece of Small Town Heroes, “The Body Electric”, wherein Segarra draws on the drama of classic murder ballads while questioning the misogyny that underpins so many of them, and adding an inspired new moral imperative. The song’s title comes from the Walt Whitman poem, but alludes to the woman who died after being gang-raped on a Delhi bus in 2012: the name used for her, Damini, translates as “lightning”. She is memorialised in the album’s sleevenotes, alongside a travelling friend of Segarra’s, Sali Grace, who was raped and killed in 2008 in Mexico, and “all others we’ve lost to sexual violence”.
“I was somewhere on tour,” remembers Segarra, “in a bar listening to a guy sing a song about killing his girlfriend because she cheated on him. At the end everyone cheered and clapped and I was sat there horrified, thinking, ‘You have no idea what you’re singing about.’ Y’know, somebody writes a song in an old form because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re not singing from their heart, they’re not singing about something they know about, they’re just trying to sound tough and trying to use this whole form to get attention. It made me so angry, it just made me feel like I’m gonna take this whole form and sing about what I know about and be sincere.
“When you sing about killing women,” she says and, as in her songs, her measured tone only increases the power of her words, “I’m thinking about you killing me, and I’m thinking about you killing my friends. And I’m thinking about you killing the girl that I knew who is dead now. Y’know?”
Album by album: HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF
It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You
As with 2007’s “Crossing The Rubicon” EP, Walt McClements adds a gypsyish swagger to Alynda Lee Segarra’s prodigious first compositions. “Daniella” and “Here It Comes” remain mainstays of the Riff Raff live set.
Segarra: “It very dark and minor key, very circussy.”
McClements: “The sound that was popular on our little scene in New Orleans was heavy on the waltz. A lot of whimsical arrangement choices.”
Young Blood Blues
McClements’ last album with Segarra, as the influence of country music discreetly increases. Highlights of the first two Riff Raff albums were compiled for an eponymous UK release (Loose, 2011)
Segarra: “I was relying on Walt a lot. I didn’t really believe in myself enough You can hear we’re at the crossroads on that record on songs like ‘Take Me’ and ‘Young Blood Blues’ itself. I’m struggling to go in that direction.”
Look Out Mama
BORN TO WIN/LOOSE 2012
The mature breakthrough, as Segarra’s emerging love for Townes Van Zandt comes to the fore. Elegant barnstormers proliferate: “Little Black Star”, “Ode To John And Yoko”, the country-surf “Lake Of Fire”. The cover star is Segarra’s father, pictured while serving as a teenager in Vietnam.
Segarra: “When Sam [Doores] and Dan [Cutler] started playing with us we were finally able to say, ‘OK, now let’s actually learn how to play and write a country song.’ It was really exciting to be forced into this new genre.”
My Dearest Darkest Neighbor
MOD MOBILIAN/THIS IS AMERICAN MUSIC 2013
Recorded at the same time as Look Out Mama, a spare covers set that reveals the evolving musical influences on the band. Lennon (“Jealous Guy”) and Van Zandt (“Delta Momma Blues”) figure, alongside Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Leadbelly, Hank Williams and, critically, two songs by Gillian Welch.
Segarra: “I like to write out the lyrics of songs that really inspire me: it teaches you how it feels to write that song, it teaches you a lot about phrasing.”
Small Town Heroes
This year’s masterpiece, as Segarra’s original songs take on the simplicity and gravity of standards.
Segarra: “Someone will say, ‘You can’t talk about being down by the river anymore!’ Why not? It’s a great phrase. It would be silly of me to think I could completely invent a new phrase in a folk song. Why not just work with the best?”
Doores: “She’s able to take her most important feelings, and put them in this really simple vulnerable way that makes them universal. Every step of her life has been a big change, and there’ll be a song that captures that and gets her to the next level.”
Three key albums from the extended Riff Raff family
Far From Home
CD BABY 2009
The New Orleans collective’s 2008 debut, Like A Jazz Band In Nashville, set out their MO. Alongside the excellent Kate Cavazos, this second album incorporates Alynda Lee Segarra and Sam Doores into their country songwriting bootcamp.
Segarra: “That was the first band I was in where multiple songwriters all together played country music that was a little weird. They really encouraged me to write.”
SAM DOORES, RILEY DOWNING & THE TUMBLEWEEDS
Holy Cross Blues
The first release from Doores’ own, very fine country band. The band have recently renamed themselves The Deslondes and incorporated a third lead singer, Cameron Snyder, to complement the talents of Doores and Downing. Doores’ solo comp, True To My Luck: The Early Years, is also worth tracking down on bandcamp.com for deep Dylan-in-Greenwich-Village vibes.
One Foot In Front Of The Other
The latest project of key Riff Raff alumnus Walt McClements confirms him as dramatic, evocative indie boulevardier who merits comparisons with Beirut and perhaps even early Arcade Fire.