Women usually get targeted in murder ballads, the traditional form that echoes in songs like the Johnny Cash-popularized “Delia’s Gone” and Neil Young’s “Down by the River.” Hurray for the Riff Raff songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra counts herself as a fan of Cash and Young, but in her Americana band’s “The Body Electric,” she sings, “Well, Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score.”
“A lot of those songs were just historical accounts, but I also felt like I saw this theme that’s still going on today,” Segarra says of gender-based violence. “I felt we really need to redirect it. I wanted to go back and give voices to those female characters. I wanted to go back and sing for them and say, ‘I want to come and find you and take you out of the well or out of the river,’ because I just thought it was time that somebody did.”
The centerpiece of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s acclaimed 2014 album Small Town Heroes, “The Body Electric” also graces a free NoiseTrade sampler that includes a previously unreleased acoustic song for Trayvon Martin. And the group funded an impressionistic video for “The Body Electric” through an Indiegogo campaign that raised additional money for both the Trayvon Martin Foundation and the Third Wave Fund, which supports gender justice for LBGT youth.
“We’re just trying to bring these intersections together and say, ‘This is where we live,’ ” Segarra says. She calls herself “complicated” as a Puerto Rican woman who identifies as queer but not gay, while longtime Hurray for the Riff Raff fiddler Yosi Perlstein is transgender. “Queer is the term that really talks about how gender and sexuality are on a spectrum, and it’s different for everyone,” says Segarra, 28.
Her socio-political grounding began as a teenager, when the Bronx native hit the Lower East Side to catch feminist punk shows. She moved on to poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. “All these Puerto Ricans reading their poems, it really affected me and made me feel like, ‘Wow, these are my roots.’ ” But at age 17, Segarra left home to wander the country, hopping freight trains and finding a new community of itinerant youths who shared instruments. Before that, she says, “I didn’t think I had it in me to play music.” When she finally settled in New Orleans, busking provided an actual income, and her music evolved into the buoyant and lilting folk, blues and doo-wop of Hurray for the Riff Raff.
“Those early years were so scattered and, in a way, really hard. And now I feel like I finally have this purpose and all that hard work is paying off,” Segarra says from the road in Oregon, winding toward an April 23 show at the Paradise Rock Club. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Do you miss playing on the street?’ And I say, ‘Well, no, ’cause I like microphones and it’s a lot more soothing for my voice.’ ”
That voice captivates on the gentle lament “St. Roch Blues” against the contrast of lyrics like “You don’t know the things that I’ve seen! Them bullets are flying.” Segarra witnessed the trauma of post-Katrina New Orleans, confirming she saw one boy shot across the street from where she lived. “It felt really good to get all that out on Small Town Heroes,” she says. “Even though I was a street kid, I was still not experiencing what the people who are from there experienced.… Through so much of the violence that I saw in New Orleans, I always kept that in mind. I was like, ‘These kids really don’t feel like they have a future.’ ”
That wasn’t the case for her in New York. Though she lived with an aunt, Segarra says she respected her Vietnam War veteran father and her mother, a deputy mayor for Rudolph Giuliani. “She grew up not having a lot and really made something of herself,” Segarra says. “When I was traveling around, living on the road, I always had that drive, [saying] ‘I’m going to make something of myself. I’m going to prove to everyone that there’s something in me.’”