HEARING THE CHEERS
Hurray for the Riff Raff, a New Orleans band led by singer-songwriter and former New Yorker Alynda Lee Segarra, released its new album last week via ATO Records, a label co-founded by music star Dave Matthews.
Buzz for the rootsy and varied “Small Town Heroes” is strong. In the weeks before the album’s release, the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice profiled Segarra. NPR featured “Small Town Heroes” on its “First Listen” web page and Spin.com posted a music video for one of the songs, “St. Roch Blues.”
This week Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “Small Town Heroes” debuted in the Top 5 of both Billboard’s Heatseekers and Alternative New Artist charts.
The album earns the praise and attention it’s getting. Segarra’s light, honeyed voice is instantly accessible and incontestably authentic. That’s true for the old-time country of “Blue Ridge Mountain,” mournful Celtic balladry of “Forever is Just a Day” and grooving, New Orleans piano- and R&B-dressed “No One Else.”
“We’re so excited to share it with everybody,” Segarra said shortly before the album’s release. “It’s been such a satisfying feeling to hear people be like, ‘Well, I already love this album, although I’ve just heard it a couple of times.’ ”
Segarra, 26, credits New Orleans and its musicians with showing her how to be a musician.
“Without New Orleans,” she said, “I don’t know if I would have found what I consider to be my calling in life. Without the city, I don’t think I would have found a culture that was so welcoming to a newcomer and so supportive of somebody just starting out.
“The musicians here and, artists in general, they respect somebody who is putting their life into their music. They respect what they’re creating, their soul and their passion.
“And if I didn’t have the technical skill, everybody was like, ‘Oh, you’ll figure that out later.’ That’s the encouragement I needed.”
Segarra left New York at 17, becoming part of a musical collective of young travelers. Her journeys took her to the West Coast, throughout the South and, in the months before Hurricane Katrina, to New Orleans.
“I was struck by how specific the culture is here,” she recalled. “It’s not a city that’s trying to be another place. That was such a refreshing thing.
“Because I am from the Bronx, I’m used to people being proud of being New Yorkers. We don’t want to be anybody else. When I came here I related to that feeling of, ‘Oh, you love this place and you’re proud of it.’ ”
Following her first visit to the city, Segarra did more traveling, but she’d already decided to return to New Orleans and stay.
“Hearing about the storm,” she said, “didn’t make me think, ‘Oh, I’m not going to go move there.’ It made me feel like, ‘Wow, I really want to go and put love into the city.’ ”
Segarra had been writing poetry and journals years before her move to New Orleans.
“Writing was always my outlet,” she said. “I never thought I’d be able to be a musician.”
But she later picked up the banjo, learning traditional jazz style in New Orleans and clawhammer style in Ashville, N.C. Another breakthrough came when she began singing her poetry.
“It’s been a great journey putting those two things together,” she said.
Rather than make music in a modern pop, rock or hip-hop vein, Segarra prefers such older styles as traditional country music and jazz, classic R&B and Celtic folk music. Her heroes include Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and latter-day folk singer Ani DiFranco.
“Using forms like early country, you can break all the rules,” Segarra said. “That’s what I love about using all those sounds. Celtic and Irish ballads have always spoken to me. There are no rules in them. It’s a form of music that was around simply to express the soul. That always attracted me.”