Of the several dozen cover stories I’ve written for AntiGravity, this was the one for which I received the most flak. Nonetheless, I feel this Hurray for the Riff Raff article was not only above reproach, but rather, one of the better example of exactly what I’m trying to do via music journalism. In my immediate world (and I assume NOT in the worlds of those who criticized the following piece) our neighborhood’s abundance of banjo picking traveler-type kids are ragged on constantly. It is a commonly held belief that they are “all” begging for change while their parents’ Gold Card rests securely against their buttocks. A lot of the uniformity and self-seriousness that goes along with the fauxbeaux look has sometimes made me want this to be true, but journalists know you’re supposed to ask questions before passing judgement. Alynda Lee of Hurray For The Riff Raff is a real train-hopping, banjo playing Bywater musician, so I took this chance to find out (publicly) if the cynics in my neighborhood were correct, or talking out their asses.
Q&A has the capacity to be journalism’s most perfect form, where the author is free to give their opinion and the artist is free to confirm or deny (often in ten times the word space). The artist is more than free to elegantly smack you down, or else prove your point. In this way Q&A cannot really be slanted against the artist. The writer has far more of a chance of looking bad. Framed thusly, I think Alynda Lee took all of my probing questions and leveled the haters she seemed to not even realize she had. I think her answers proved that the cynics in my world don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about. Still, the article upset her, I was told.
I was trying to tackle bigger issues while also complimenting the artists’ nice work, but was criticized for having lumped her into a “type,” or wasted her time asking questions about neighborhood social issues rather than focusing solely on her music, which I stress in the official piece below, is pretty damned good. I guess this is just an example of how you can give a band a blowjob, but if they feel the teeth even a little bit (or are even slightly reminded by your writing that you are a separate human with separate interests outside of blowing them), you have failed completely.
I happen to think this is one of the better and more poignant interviews I’ve ever done.
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For kids these days—at least the kids we see in the Bywater/ Marigny neighborhood—train-hopping is the new being in a band. But Hurray For The Riff Raff singer/banjo player Alynda Lee Segarra chose both, having found her way to New Orleans, and to music, via hopped train. As a result, her band’s affecting and highly professional-sounding recent release, Young Blood Blues, fits solidly within the aesthetic of the Bywater/Marigny acoustic punk scene: banjo, accordion and fiddle in minor key with a 3/4 swing. Though the cymbals are tiny, the bass drum is heavy like a rock band and Segarra’s smooth, pretty voice, though certainly beholden to old country and folk music, has more in common with Cat Power and other modern songstresses, Hurray For The Riff Raff avoids the sepia-toned “feauxbeaux” category. Successful tours, shows opening for Jandek and Grizzly Bear (at SXSW), an upcoming concert at Preservation Hall with their friend Will Oldham, and a high ranking on eMusic’s charts, all have the group poised to bring its better version of the Bywater aesthetic to a national audience. ANTIGRAVITY sat down with Segarra to talk about music in the Bywater, sounding “old-timey” and playing music on Royal St.
ANTIGRAVITY: So what genre does Hurray For The Riff Raff fit into?
Alynda Lee: We fit into two categories – an indie folk scene and I’d say we’re definitely getting more country. We’re a mixture of those two worlds. I’ve always been into classic country stuff like Hank Williams and a lot of Woody Guthrie and early Bob Dylan. And all that makes you want to write on an acoustic guitar.
Would you agree there is a genre of music that’s, like, “Bywater music?” And do you belong to that genre?
Yeah, I definitely think we fit. It has a lot to do with what people here are inspired by –the instruments they play. I am influenced by the same things those kids are; I know where they’re getting those ideas from. Most of the kids who come here are really influenced by old jazz and old country – depression-era music. And it leads you to play a banjo instead of an electric guitar.
Where does the 3/4 and 6/8 waltz-time time fetish come from? That was something I suspected you picked up from playing in Bywater.
I don’t know. When I first started playing, it was with fiddle players who were really into Eastern European music and I think that influences the waltz time. Also minor chords – that’s one thing all of us [in Bywater] have in common; we all love minor-key music and I think a lot of it comes from Eastern European fiddle music.
How much does the instrumentation of Bywater music have to do with the musicians ostensibly being travelers?
I started playing banjo because I wanted to play music on the road and it was easy to carry as opposed to an amp. Plus not having anywhere to plug in. I am only just now getting into plugging things in: electric guitar and bass. And that’s really because I have a home now, so I collect stuff now. It makes it easier.
When you go tour other places, are traveling kids playing this same sort of music?
It’s definitely happening a lot more. And it does have a lot to do with New Orleans becoming a hot spot for traveling kids.
How much of the year do you spend in New orleans? Are you a snowbird like so many other Bywater musicians?
Yeah. I leave for the summer. It’s a great time to tour when it starts getting real hot. And my job—I make my living playing on Royal Street—and summer is when the money dries up and it’s time to go where you can play some shows or something – where you can make some money.
And Royal Street is usually rocking enough?
Oh, yeah! It definitely is!
Here is a snowbird street performer challenge question: Do you know which kind of banjo is the New orleans banjo?
The New Orleans banjo has four strings and is called a plectrum banjo. There’s also a tenor banjo that is not plectrum and a lot of people say is tuned to an Irish tuning. I admit: I have a five-string. And I play with a trad jazz band in the trad jazz style, but not with a plectrum.
The new album, Youngblood Blues, how did y’all record it? Despite all the musicians it sounds nicely uncrowded, almost somehow sparse.
We recorded it in a couple of days at the Living Room with Chris George on the Westbank. We had a week and half of the week was spent mixing.
I wondered if there was some time constraint because, though it’s really beautifully recorded, it doesn’t sound very embellished. Was that a choice, or…
It was a choice. [On] our first album we had tons of little overdubs, a lot of tracks, some horns, a lap steel. And this time I wanted a more straight-ahead sound of a band that got together and played. I didn’t want it to sound like a singer-songwriter who got all these people to come in and put pretty sounds on there.
I guess one complaint I have about this Bywater genre is that it sounds too old-timey. And while y’all don’t necessarily sound old-timey, there’s not one sound on the album that couldn’t have happened a hundred years ago.
I like to be inspired by old melodies and instruments, but I like to have lyrics that are very present day. I like for the lyrics to refer to things that could only happen today.
No. There are a couple songs like “Slow Walk” that could sound very old-timey, but then you mention that your friend is having a drug problem. Which, there are definitely old
songs about that…
But do you even think about it that way: I don’t—or do—want to sound old-timey?
I don’t think about it. I just try to let it be whatever’s coming out of me, whatever I’m thinking about.
But you’re not at all into synths, or anything like that?
Synths: synthesizers and effects and stuff? It seems like even modern day folk music will usually have these wisps of computer trickery or something to make it sound modern, but you’re not interested in that?
No, not really. That might be fun in the future in a recording context. Especially since I don’t know how to use any of that stuff. I am more interested in learning new instruments to play.
HFTRR played that rare Jandek show last year, how was that?
Oh, yeah! It was really intense. It was at the college, so official, like a seated auditorium. We met Jandek and he was really quiet. He was older. He was really nice. He just sat backstage and ate some fruit and drank a beer.
Then you’ve also formed some bond with Will oldham, and you’re playing with him at Preservation Hall, April 6th?
Yeah he was sitting at Cake Café (in Marigny). He’d played the night before and I’d missed it. It’s so embarrassing, but I went home then came back with a CD and was like, “I love your music, it’s amazing, here’s a CD.” He was so friendly about it and he emailed me six months later and wanted to set up some shows.
South-by-Southwest music fest has been really good to y’all as well, no?
Yeah, last year we got a great slot with Amanda Palmer and Grizzly Bear, which was amazing! At this First Presbyterian Church, or something, with great sound. This year we didn’t get that lucky at all; they didn’t even give us an official show. So we’re just going to play house shows.
How does that happen?
I am not sure. We had a good friend helping us out and she had good connections and was interested in possibly managing us. She lost interest because she was in New York and we wanted to spend most of our time down here. And it seemed like when that fell through, that’s when SXSW seemed to lose interest in us. I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to get an official showcase this year, but I was proved wrong.
It seems your band in particular would really benefit from being in New York. In modern times, outside of rap music, not much that’s big in New orleans ever becomes big elsewhere. Almost like a special curse.
Well, we want to stay here because I feel inspired here and I love it here. There have definitely been times when people have told me that if I play this type of music I need to move to New York or San Francisco, but I feel like if I did, I wouldn’t have the community I have here; I wouldn’t have the friends. I wouldn’t be able to see the music I see every single night. So I am hoping that if we tour enough we won’t get that curse.
So explain why Walt McClements [accordion, bandleader of Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?] isn’t in HFTRR band anymore?
He’s got so much going on: his band—plus playing with this other band Dark Dark Dark—and I think it was just time for him to focus on Big Ship specifically. He’s on Young Blood Blues and he adds a lot to it. No one plays accordion like that, using this traditional instrument and sounding like a million different things. I love playing with new people though – and we have an electric bass now for the first time ever.
So, the story goes, you ran away from home and started hopping trains at 17. How long were you gone from home before you started playing music?
About a year. When I was 18 I started playing washboard. A lot of it was because I could make money off of it. It could help me feed myself.
But didn’t you have people at home who could send you money too? In [an interview you gave with eMusic], it sounded like you had a good home situation; you just wanted to leave anyway.
Well my aunt and uncle raised me, and so mostly it was me feeling like I didn’t want to take from them anymore. They were older and had already raised their kids. So yeah, I had a family who could help me out. And a lot of it was just pride.
But you didn’t beg on the streets?
I definitely did when I first left. I didn’t beg here. I feel like I was really naïve until I came here; I came from New York, where there is a good amount of money circulating everywhere. And I was traveling on the West Coast in successful cities, begging for change and I was that little runaway who people would be like, “Oh god, here’s a dollar go get something to eat.”
But you say you didn’t beg here, which, it’s always seemed stupid for beggar kids to target this city, which is notoriously low on cash. They just swarmed the place after Katrina, begging locals on Decatur who’d just lost their homes.
Yeah, it was disgusting. Coming here I realized, “These people don’t have any money, I need to wake up and get a goddamned job.” So we started playing on Royal Street. And lots of people still have certain ideas about kids coming here and playing music, and they think that’s mooching too…
No, it’s not. That’s the one positive step in the evolution of street kids, they play music instead of beg for money. It’s created a lot of shitty music but it’s a much better alternative.
That definitely had a lot to do with why I learned traditional jazz. That was also a way to really take part in this city and to show that you love the city and the music of this city in particular. We wanted to make money, but to also add to the feeling of this city.