Hurray For The Riff Raff: Bound For Glory


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The lifestyle began to grind down that pride though. When she realized that the community she was traveling with would filter out of her life, she began to think of a way out. But as a punk with dreadlocks and no meaningful employment history, Segarra wasn’t sure how that would happen.

She was relieved to discover that she could play music in New Orleans, and a little more than a year after she left New York, she settled in the Crescent City around Halloween 2004. With its warm weather, easy ambience, depressed economy and overworked police force, New Orleans has long been a welcoming destination for the transient, homeless, and adventurous. It was there that she stopped traveling and began to busk on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, playing washboard and singing Johnny Cash songs with a couple of friends. In the band, she found the same sense of community she had while traveling, but the bonds were clearer. “We all needed each other to express ourselves, and that kept us a lot tighter.”

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On Decatur, street musicians are shoulder to shoulder with tourists bustling from T-shirt shop to T-shirt shop. Royal Street is a more musician-friendly gig. The streets are closed so that they can set up in the road, and they’re part of the street’s attraction instead of an impediment to foot traffic. It has a history of featuring talented musicians, so Segarra didn’t try to play there. She didn’t think she had earned her place. “You really didn’t mess with Royal Street,” she says. “In my world, it wasn’t for beginners.”

By Mardi Gras 2005, her three-piece lineup of guitar, fiddle and washboard had grown to include an accordion player, a saw player and a guy who drummed on buckets. They took on the name The Dead Man’s Street Orchestra, and played in Jackson Square at night “because nobody wanted to play there at night,” Segarra says. “We’d play there until they’d kick us out.”

The Dead Man’s Street Orchestra was on tour in Montreal when Hurricane Katrina hit. She returned to New Orleans around the start of 2006, then bounced around for much of the year. Segarra spent time back in New York City, where she lived with five or six women. The band’s future was uncertain and, lonely, she started writing songs and recorded a CD on a roommate’s computer in the bathroom of the house. When she returned to New Orleans in 2006, she played those songs for accordion player Walt McClements. McClements led Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?, a band that owed a debt to Kurt Weill. Segarra considered him a musical mentor, and he helped her get her first club gig and learned a few songs to back her up. That casually, the first incarnation of Hurray For The Riff Raff was born.

At the time, the line between his band and hers was hazy. She played drums with Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?, and his musical influence was clear on Hurray For The Riff Raff’s sound, particularly as reflected on It Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Love You from 2009 and Young Blood Blues from 2010. She didn’t have a clear enough musical vision to know what should and shouldn’t be in her music, and “at the time, I thought we shared the same brain,” Segarra says. “I trusted everything he did, and I really wanted it to be a partnership.”

Guitarist Sam Doores knew Segarra from her bumming days. He was from San Francisco, Austin, and Lawrence, Kansas among other places, and was excited when he ran into her in New Orleans. “She blew me away,” he says. “She pulled out her banjo and played some of the best songs and best singing that I’d heard.” At the time, her songs drew from Depression-era folk, with McClements’ accordion giving them a Parisian coloring and lilt. Her voice had the warmth that it has today, but on record and in concert at the time, she sang quietly. “I still smoked,” she says. That gave the band mystique, but it was best suited to small rooms and churches – contexts that encouraged quiet, contemplative listening.

Doores helped Segarra fill in some significant gaps in her musical knowledge. He introduced her to The Beatles and Bob Dylan, as well as Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young and The Band, which broadened her musical horizons and brought that version of the group to a close. Her tastes and McClements’ were growing apart, so they parted ways. “I loved how much he influenced the music,” she says, and they remain good friends.


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