Hurray For The Riff Raff: Bound For Glory

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When it came time to record Look Out Mama, the band went in the studio with Andrija Tokic, who had also produced Alabama Shakes. Tokic heard Hurray For The Riff Raff while working sound in a friend’s bar in Nashville and was impressed with their sound and particularly Segarra’s voice. “When she sings the softer stuff, it gets really hypnotic,” he says. “When it gets beautiful and soft, it grabs me pretty hard. There’s something mesmerizing about the long, soft notes she sings sometimes.”

Segarra’s homemade musical education meant that she relied heavily on others to help realize her vision. Doores translated what she wanted into musical terms that made sense to Tokic. “She had a good ear for how she wanted to throw a song together,” he says. “She didn’t know how to talk about it, but she definitely had a sound in her head.” Tokic did his part to make the process easier as well. “He does so much producing, you don’t have to ask him to,” Perlstein says. “That helped guide us a lot.” They only had a week in the studio, but the experience and resulting album emboldened Segarra. She had experimented with her songwriting to break away from what she knew, and the recorded tracks said the experiment was successful. “I felt like I had more chops,” she says.

Segarra wrote fairly constantly while on tour for much of 2012, singing melodies into a recorder or writing down lyrics to develop later. The studio experience and year of touring confirmed that she was on to something, and she resolved to make her songs more reflective of who she is. “I want to use all the parts of myself in my writing. I’m embracing where I come from,” Segarra said. “No matter what, I can’t get rid of that city part of me. What I realized as I got older is that you’re not supposed to get rid of anything; you’re supposed to use it all. John Prine inspired me in that way because he’s such a Chicago dude. He’s true to himself, and when you hear him, you hear him. I don’t have to pretend I’m from New Orleans, but I can’t pretend I’m not at home there.”

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That recognition helped her write folk songs based on her urban, contemporary life. When the guitar player in Doores’ band The Tumbleweeds (now The Deslondes) showed him and Segarra a lick he was playing using his thumb to play a bass line while the fingers played the rhythm, they wrote “St. Roch Blues” using it. As traditional and folky as the music sounds, the words are about shootings in her neighborhood. “Crash On The Highway” was written during the band’s first trip to Germany, and it was her attempt to step into the lineage of Townes Van Zandt’s “Homesick London Blues.” For another of the songs written after Look Out Mama, she indulged her anger. “The Body Electric” questions the murder ballad tradition, which commonly ends with a man shooting his wife or girlfriend. The song asks, “Tell me what’s the man with the rifle in his hand/ Going to do for his daughter / When it’s her turn to go?”

The song was inspired by hearing someone sing a murder ballad in a club one night, and it occurred to Segarra, “You’re singing this song as if there aren’t any women in the bar, as if we can’t hear it,” she remembers. “You take it so lightly that you’re singing about killing somebody.” Her songs usually start with melodies or a phrase, but “The Body Electric” began with an idea, one that struck her as necessary when the shooting at Newtown took place the next day. Not only was it her way to join the gun control conversation, but it represented her as a woman speaking about women’s lives and deaths.

“I’d been a news junkie at the time,” she says. “I was reading so much about violence against women all around the world. I’d been reading about this gang rape of a woman in Delhi in India, and people have the response of, ‘Oh, this has been happening forever. You’re just hearing about it now because there’s the Internet.’ I’m glad we have the Internet and I’m glad we’re hearing about this. I’m glad it’s making me feel crazy, and I can’t keep existing in a world where this is happening so frequently. The song means a lot to me. It’s my breaking point. I can’t keep singing songs in this world and not say something about it.”

She returned to Tokic’s Bomb Shelter Studio off and on throughout 2013 to cut these tracks and others for the album that would become Small Town Heroes. Tokic noticed a difference in her performances when she’d come in to record. “That first album was such a big experience for her to start to learn how to do more things and start to hear it back how she wanted to for the first time,” he says. “She developed so much more control and intent over her voice and the feel of the songs.”

During the year, Doores left to focus on his own music with The Deslondes, but Segarra had found her own way to communicate her ideas about the songs. “Before we went into the studio, she wrote a list of songs for Andrija corresponding to songs on the album, saying, ‘I want the general sound to be similar to this,’” Perlstein says. They cut three or four versions of some of the songs, trying out different feels and different lineups. “She was continuing to record until she felt like she had what she wanted,” Tokic says. “She took her time.” The string part in “Levon’s Dream,” for instance, took a day, and the drums at the end were cut another day.

The songs and the process were more mature than before, Perlstein says, but Segarra hadn’t lost the things that first made him want to be a part of her music. “When she started the band, she gave me a copy of the [first] CD, and I loved the simplicity of it,” he says. “Something can be so simple but really beautiful and touch you, and a lot of her songs are really intimate and touch you in that way.”

One song conspicuously absent from Small Town Heroes is “Everybody Knows (for Trayvon Martin),” a song Segarra performed for a YouTube video with her friend Kate Cavazos. It was the song people talked about after Hurray For The Riff Raff’s sets at SXSW 2013, but she didn’t want to record it without Cavazos, and they couldn’t get their schedules in sync to cut it. Martin was shot on Segarra’s birthday, which made his murder personal. A year later, she found a way to sing about it and make her thoughts musical.

“I’d been thinking about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez – ‘Where are you now? I wish you were my age and you had the power that you had,’” Segarra says. “I felt like it was time for me to try to carry on this tradition and make them proud.” For the song, she stepped into another proud folk tradition – the topical song – and came to grips with the immediacy that is part of its appeal, along with its ability to keep outrage alive. “People can still listen to it now and think, ‘That man was allowed to go free.’ It can restart this anger and response all over again.”

She worries that too many people her age find ways to siphon off their energy on Facebook instead of going into face-to-face action. The Occupy movement excited her because it got people outside and in contact with each other. “It’s what drew me to live music when I was young hanging out on the Lower East Side,” Segarra says. “That was where I could stand around with other people who liked what I liked. I went to punk shows because I didn’t have many friends and I wanted to make some friends.”

That desire for community is a common thread throughout her life. Her year on the road created bonds and connections that still nurture her to this day, and she considers the bands Hurray For The Riff Raff has performed with to be friends. The communal sensibility necessary for traveling penniless remains solidly in place as she recognizes the role Tokic and now-labelmates Alabama Shakes played in getting the band signed, and she wants to pass it on for Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?, The Deslondes, Clear Plastic Masks, Spirit Family Reunion, Feral Foster, and Willy Gantrim.

“There’s a really great community of bands that are all very different, but they all have a common thread, and a lot of that common thread is Andrija in Nashville,” she says. “When there’s a whole circle of bands that get together that respect each other, that’s normally a pretty good sign, as opposed to ‘These are my buddies, you’ve got to check them out.’ There’s a great thing going on in the South right now, and they all want to get successful together.”

This article appears in our March/April issue. Buy it here, or download it here.


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