During the past 10 years, Alynda Segarra, leader of Orleans-born band Hurray for the Riff Raff, endured an odyssey of discovery, which informed HFTRR's new concept album, The Navigator (ATO Records, March 2017). Inspired in part by David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, the dystopian-tinged Navigator is the story of Navita, who, upon returning home, finds her city destroyed, so she sets out in search of identity and family.
The real-life journey for Segarra began when she dropped out of high school and left her Bronx home at 16. She squatted in abandoned buildings on the Lower East Side of New York.
"I kinda felt that was where all the weirdos were, all the artist and the poets," Segarra says. "I was really drawn to the romanticism of it being near the village and the beatniks. I thought I was being very rebellious ... Actually that's where my mom and dad grew up, hanging with all those beatniks in the 70s, playing music in the park. It's funny how long it takes you to realize you're following in your parents' footsteps."
Squatting, making art and living free inspired Segarra to ride the rails, hitchhike and explore the country before ultimately landing in New Orleans. There, the inward-looking poetry she had been writing turned into outward-facing music.
"When I got to New Orleans, it was so much more focused on community, and music was a very public thing that you shared with people. I really loved that," Segarra says, recalling how her "real" education came from busking in the Big Easy. "Being on the street was the first step in [realizing], 'Oh, this is an exchange, and it takes being vulnerable.' In your vulnerability comes a lot of strength. That's where you learn: when you're messing up, when you're vulnerable."
This, too, was a search for identity. Living in the Lower East Side, she loved punk bands—they spoke to her sense of individuality and rebellion. In New Orleans she fell in love with Americana, but as a Puerto Rican woman, she wanted to connect these disparate parts. Patti Smith helped.
Watching Smith slinging vibrant lyrical poetry while feeling and responding to the music triggered something for Segarra.
"It was really interesting to go from the street to the stage, and I've been learning that transition now, like how to ... make it an exchange and a community feeling while you are on stage and people are literally looking up at you," Segarra says. "It has taken until this album to figure out how to do that. I think a big step was making music that had more focus on rhythm and movement. In all this, I saw Patti Smith perform and I thought, 'Well, that's what I want to do.'
"I was very focused on 'I'm a singer/songwriter, I sing and pick my guitar,'" she says. "I felt like there were all these labels I should get into. Should I become a soul singer? Or should I do this? Then with Patti it was perfect ... like, 'Oh, there it is. Be yourself, sing your songs and you feel it and you are open to it.'"
Segarra explored a mix of folk and blues in the Americana vein on her first four albums before bringing an entirely different palette to The Navigator. Those primary influences jostle against strains of gospel, soul and Caribbean rhythms. While she wanted to explore the "lost" native Latin sounds of her heritage, Segarra had considered herself unworthy until she heard the story of Salsa music in New York during the 1970s.
"These were kids that were either born in the island or born here, and they felt like they couldn't get the folk music right enough," Segarra says. "It was never pure enough ... but they were like 'We're going to make Salsa. We're going to mix all this stuff together: Cuban music, and Puerto Rican and all this stuff happening in New York. I realized Salsa was born out of that mixture of everything. It was one of those moments where I was like, 'Oh, that's what I do already.'"
The validation gave Segarra the confidence to embrace not only her musical heritage but the history she'd made for herself as well, with the ethos and spirit of punk and Americana simmering beneath. She didn't need to account for it. She was the melting pot.
However, being authentic is also about sacrifice: Without a kiln, clay is never finished. Segarra's kiln was Nashville and despite hardly knowing a soul, she moved there after signing to Dave Matthews' ATO label and releasing HFTRR's 2014 breakthrough album, Small Town Heroes.
"It had a lot to do with age," Segarra says. "I was 27 turning 28 when Small Town Heroes came out, and I still had a curious feeling as to what else was out there. I just wanted to try and shake things up and see what it was like to leave a place [where] I had become very comfortable.
"Going to Nashville was really challenging because I felt like for the first time in a while—even though I had some buddies out there—I was kind of on my own, and what am I when no one is around? It just had me get really reflective of where I came from and what that means and what I want to do with that lineage going into the future. It was a really great thing. I think it's very good for an artist to be lonely sometimes."
Like Navita, Segarra returned to something she knew and, lyrically, began telling the story of people getting driven to the edges of the city.
"Let's bring the focus to that world of the people that are pushed out and try to humanize it. That's something that artists can do right now that's important to a lot of people," Segarra says. "So much of the album is about healing and dealing with fear, feeling like I'm going to try to heal wounds that my grandmother had. Really just feeling like now is the time to heal, so we can move forward together."