An eye-opening tour of New Orleans: “When the sun goes down, it’s different here....”
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?”