"I really wanted to write a song that was about the struggle of coming to America" In conversation with Hurray For The Riff Raff
After a few folky albums, two self-released and two on UK Americana label Loose Records, Hurray For The Riff Raff were a well regarded if hugely under the radar band. Then, with little warning, their splendid Small Town Heroes appeared on many top ten lists in 2014, and this year's follow-up, The Navigator, is a stunning piece of work that should again dominate the year end best of lists. We spent some time in the company of their erstwhile, and endlessly fascinating, leader Alynda Segarra to talk... well.. about everything.
Let's get straight into it, you've been to the UK a couple of times so far in 2017, do you like playing in the UK?
Yeah. I mean, I feel like people here are definitely getting into the album more than in the States honestly. I guess it's hard to say. I've been coming out here for six or seven years now, and I just always felt like people here were more receptive to me.
What do you think it is about your music and the UK that people get into? Do you think it's the lyrics? Because there's obviously a lot of depth in your lyrics and stuff.
I think it's a very... the audiences here are really lyrically-minded. People really listen. I think in the States, people kind of get into lyrics more so in their bedrooms. [laughs] But here I've noticed the live show is so listener-focused, when I came out here for the first time, that was when I learned how to do stage banter too, because it was just an acoustic duo. And I realised that people here also really like to hear the story behind the song, so I learned how to craft that, too.
And I guess on stage, if you're not chatting between songs, it's pretty quiet.
In the States you don't have to worry about being quiet, you've got to worry about getting them to listen to you. But yeah, so I really noticed that [in the UK]. But it just seems here that the audiences I've experienced really love the story behind the song, and they love to get in the mindset of the songwriter.
You did a lot of travelling when you were younger. Do you enjoy touring, the travelling you have to do now, or is it quite hard work? Is it different when you travel in the States than when you come to Europe?
Oh, it's different for sure. We get treated with more hospitality here. [laughs] Definitely. I mean, it is hard work. If you haven't toured it's really hard to understand how much work you have to put into staying healthy. If you want to do it for a long time... there's this idea that it's just like partying all the time. Those days are kinda gone.
For us, it's a lot of being like "I want to do this for a long time so I'm going to make it sustainable". There's a lot of focus on trying to take care of yourself while flying... I mean, the thing that I hate most of all is flying. I just hate going to airports, I hate the bureaucracy. I hate being searched, I hate all of that stuff. I would love to not do that ever again. But I love going all over the world...
Right, The Navigator then. It's a concept album, so is it really important to you that people listen to it as an album with a through line and messages in the lyrics, or are you happy for people to think "I love that song, and I'm not too fussed what it's about?"
I feel I'm getting more and more laid back about how people listen to the music. You spend so much time thinking about the sequence of your album, but I was very aware that we just live in a digital age, where people are going to re-sequence it. They're going to do whatever they want with it. I was very inspired by Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly.
And, of course, Ziggy Stardust. But I thought it was really brave for Kendrick Lamar to put out this epic album that he knows that people are just going to move all around. So for me, I wanted the story to be out there, I wanted it to be in the album art, I wanted the concepts to be out there in the world. I also wrote it on purpose for every song to stand on their own. And whether you know what they're about or not, whether you know 'Hungry Ghost' is a song that my character is dancing to. Or whether you think it's a song about me running away, it doesn't really matter to me. I just wanted to put the magic out there; I wanted people to be able to opt into this fantasy story, and to dive deeper.
Do you think people get more out of it if they see it as a story?
Definitely. I think what I love about film and concept albums, I kind of tie the two together. Because I think the album is very cinematic. And you know, I would also really love to put it on as a play. But I love this idea of getting lost in another world and to see the intricacies and to see themes and to be like "why does this number keep coming up?" "Oh, she mentions this person and she mentions them again in another song". I really... I just think that stuff is fun.
I guess things like playlists must really be the bane of an artist's life. Because you don’t really want people to hear stuff out of sequence necessarily, but it's the reality of the music business isn't it?
Yes, it is. And I don’t think it's going to help anyone to be very precious about it. I'm more precious about different things. If you're listening to the song and you're getting something out of it, put it in whatever shape, order you want. I just wanted to present it my way, and then I feel that people are free to do whatever.
I was listening to The Navigator and Small Town Heroes on the way over. Obviously they're both you, but they're quite different in their sound and tone. Is that something you consciously set out to do on the new record?
I wanted to grow. Small Town Heroes felt like the end of my adolescence in a way. Maybe adolescence isn't the right word, but I just felt like I'm growing up, and I wanted to make it more intentional, more controlled, and more crafted. I really wanted to make a piece of work, and not just be like "oh, we're a bunch of kids, we get in the studio and we play" and it's just like, whatever.
I did that with my friends and we captured that, and now I wanted to make something that just captured a different part of my career or something. And also [producer] Paul Butler is a huge part of it, obviously. Meeting him, working with him, it just changed my life, and it was very spiritually enriching and changed me as a singer and musician. I just felt like there was a lot of growth.
Did you find him, or did he come to you?
Oh no, we tracked him down. [laughs] I'm a huge fan of Michael Kiwanuka, and he did his last album [Ed - Paul produced Kiwanuka's debut and part of Love & Hate]. And I heard some of The Bees but I'm now a Bees fan. I didn’t really know them as much then. But we tracked him down, I wrote to him, I was like "this is my idea", I totally freaked him out sending him this incredibly long e-mail with an explanation for every song and the idea of the story and everything. And he was like "this girl is mad. She's crazy". But then once we met...
And it was really good for me because at that point I felt like I was so comfortable with Paul. It was getting together with him in his garage in LA where we started doing demos. Okay, what I noticed before was that I was surrounded by a lot of my friends who were just kind of telling me "oh, you're great". It wasn't a lot of constructive criticism that was pushing me to go forward. And what I loved about Paul was I met him and he said "I see it in you, but I don't really see it". It was very honest. Something that really meant a lot to me was he came to see us play and he was like "I see that you really care about what you're doing, and you're standing in your song and you're presenting it, but I feel there's so much more you could do".
And at that point, I really needed somebody to kick me a little, to get better. I knew it would be challenging and that I would have to maybe... not even toughen up, but be more open to criticism and to growing. Because growth is painful, but it's worth it. So that was a major lesson for me. To just try to step it up.
I guess it's good to think like that, because it's very easy to get to a level of success where there are people saying to you "yeah, you are brilliant" and just keep going down that same path.
I'm sure it gets harder as I get older. I think as you get older, it's definitely hard to grow. And also I think there's the fear... for me there's the fear of "can I do any better than this? Maybe this is the best I can do" and I'll never be as great as I want to be. Or something. But I think it's always good to just push yourself. And at that age, I was what, twenty-eight. It's the perfect age to shake things up before you turn thirty and you get comfortable. Like I am now. "I don't want to grow!"
How comfortable, how satisfied are you with The Navigator then? On a scale of one to ten, how good do you think it is in the way you want to be?
I think it's an eight and a half. Yeah. I'm so happy with it. I think the tiny things that I would change are... I don’t remember who said this. Someone was talking about just creating stuff and how there's that natural thing of "There's always going to be a difference in your head between reality and your perception". But if you can get it close enough, it's pretty great. And yeah, so I'd give it like an eight and a half.
I thought it was a great album. So most of it has a message. I wouldn't say it's necessarily political, but obviously in USA as well as here in the UK there's been a lot of crazy political stuff that's happened in the last year or so. Was that an influence when you were writing it?
Well, it started very local in my mind, the idea of it. I wanted to write about gentrification. I really wanted to write about immigrant communities, people of colour, in cities, being just demonised and kicked out, because I feel that's the common theme all over the world. In big cities it's like "this one neighbourhood that's full of Dominican people, it's such a cool neighbourhood. But it would be a lot cooler if all the Dominican people were gone".
And all these young wealthy, white, hip people who have businesses that I like to go to, they come in and it's kind of this new thing that's happening everywhere where it's like this new economy. If you want to be a part of this economy you have to look a certain way, be a certain age, have a certain amount of money. And for me as a New Yorker, it was like, this is getting crazy. You can't even be a cab driver without being a hip, young person anymore. What really made me think about it was thinking about my parents and thinking "where does my dad fit into this economy, this new world"? So it's really confusing. And it's great that young people are starting businesses. And cities are going to change. But I think as an artist you get this gift where you can think outside the box, they don't have to be so literal.
You can be "let's just draw attention to the idea of people of colour, older people and working class people, just being seen as not necessary anymore. And not needed. And let's just think about that and think what we can do with it". So that's where it started. And as Trump was rising to power, all over the world there was this nationalistic ideas going on, where the others, the enemy, the emigrant is the enemy, it started becoming more global. And it just feels like... it feels scary, obviously. Because we all grew up learning about World War Two, and it's terrifying that all these different leaders are on the same page "we hate everyone but us". You know what I mean?
It does seem to be spreading...
I do think it's this idea of, you can think about it as a neighbourhood, you could think about it as a city, or you could think about it as a country. As a global idea of "well, we're only necessary and you have to look like this and be this age" in order to be seen as worthy or something. I think the overall concept of The Navigator, besides that, is also getting in touch with your ancestors. And trying to make things right for them. Thinking about what your ancestors went through. It can go either way. They maybe did really horrible things. And it's your turn to make things right. Or maybe they were very oppressed, and killed off. And it's your time as a survivor of that lineage to make your mark heal for them, and to make this better world.
So it's a lot of going backwards to go forwards. Thinking back and going forward. Which I think can really help a lot of people. As they're being demonised, as they're being told that they're just... it's this weird thing where it's like, brown people exist. We can't just disappear for you. I mean what's scary is like "you don't deserve to exist. We don't want you anymore". So that's what I really worry about, and that's what happens in this story, the leader of the city says "we don't want you people anymore, we're just going to throw you over there. Like put a wall around you". Like this idea of put the wall in the city now, because we just need more and more walls. So what I always try to do with the music is just be like, I exist. You might not like that I exist but I'm here, you know.
Have you seen a change in America already? Trump only came in in January, but do you think there's been a change internally in the country?
Yeah. I think it's both ways. I think right now we have two countries. I think right away, the feeling in the air was just different. It was so symbolic, after someone like Obama, who was so... no matter how much criticism you might have over his administration and his practices, he was a very well-spoken, very calm intellectual man, and he really represented a lot for American people. So it was just such a symbolic shift. I was in New York City, the next morning, it just felt like a mourning. I was just walking around feeling so unsafe. You know, there is this overall feeling of the bullies fucking won. Kids were crying. It just felt like so many people were so... I had never seen an election that left people sobbing and scared and hateful.
That had just never happened in my lifetime. Or my parents' lifetimes. But then at the same time, I feel like more people are focused on government issues than ever before. But I think it's just like a really scary time. And I don't know what else to do except continue being. There is nothing wrong with believing in peace, and in a way of moving forward that promotes the most peace in the world, and the most justice for all people. And right now in America, if you say that, people just get so angry. I wore a shirt that said "No human is illegal". It's true! Somebody might have not have paperwork, it doesn't mean that you should call them an alien. They're a human being. They just forgot to do their paperwork. Or they're leaving a war-torn country.
There's this compassion that when you have that, a lot of people try to bully you right now into shutting up. They tell you you're an idiot and they tell you these horrible things. And that, to me, I'm not going to stop saying those things. It's ridiculous. It's kind of like there's this anti-intellectual, anti-imagination. These are people that love the music of John Lennon. And you're going to get mad at me for wearing a shirt that says "No human is illegal" but you love The Beatles? You love this guy that talked about "imaging there's no borders". There's no possessions. Nothing to separate us.
You're absolutely right. There are so many parallels between the UK and US at the moment. And you're right, it's the bullies who have won. It's the people who seem to be shouting the loudest and saying the worst things are winning all the biggest decisions.
And what's terrifying is, they don't have to make sense. You're like "that's not true". Or you could be like "this is a study, people have worked on it for a year, statistics", and they're like "fake news" and they won. It's insane. Who knows what's going to happen? You can't really reason with people who refuse to converse. So the way that I've decided to go about it, is to just be continually like "peace and love and justice". There's a way to be broad enough to be like "if you have a problem with those concepts, then I don't know what to do". [laughs]
It's such a world of fear and people feel like you can't be particularly progressive anymore, so it's quite brave to be open, different, and talk about those sorts of things.
For me, it would be a soul death to be quiet about it, because in America right now, when these people, and these bullies, are talking, as I said you're talking about how me and my body and my way of life, all of this stuff that I've worked so hard to have for myself should just be taken away. So for me, I'm like, this is just to help me get through this. It's for me and I feel like it has made me stronger.
Because I know there are people who are with me, and I know that there are people who are scared all over the world who are just like "I just want to raise my family and live a nice life and not destroy the planet. Can we do that?" So knowing that all those people are with me, it just feels very logical to me. Of course I'd say that these concepts are not... they shouldn't be controversial. But yeah... I don't know. Bullies. I quit high school, I thought I'd got away from them. It turns out they run the country. [laughs]
What's the story behind 'Pa'lante'?
Well, the word pa'lante means "to go forward". It's like para abalante. It's a slang to put it together. And Puerto Ricans use it as a way to be like "go forward, don't give up" type of thing. It's supposed to be inspirational. I really wanted to write a song that was about the struggle of coming to America, or emigrating somewhere and being told... it was kind of like a song for my ancestors and my parents about having to be somebody who is always bowing your head.
This idea that you come somewhere and you have to prove to everyone that you're worth anything. You have to prove that you're a human being. Because to them you're just a servant, you're somebody who does their laundry, you're somebody who takes care of their kids, makes their food. You're their best boy or whatever. Very subservient. And it's this feeling of all these incredibly strong, brave and powerful people who had to go undercover in a way. And do those jobs. And they're being told the whole time "oh, make something of yourself. Climb the ladder and you'll make something of yourself". So it was really thinking about that idea of being stuck in that mindset...
I kept thinking of that phrase "be something". And then it starts being that you have this dream and the next verse it's people telling you to be a thing, to be a cog in a machine. And I was just thinking a lot about the history of Puerto Rico and the United States because it's been a colony for so long. And just really trying to make this song about... I don't know, for my ancestors, and having this ending that's really begging people not to give up. Saying you have to go forward. And there's a lot of...
I put in this poem by Pedro Pietri. He's a famous Nuyorican poet, specifically New York / Puerto Rican. And he started a poet's cafe in New York called the Nuyorican. And Puerto Rican culture has a very long history of poets being so important. They're kind of like the people who keep the culture alive, they tell the stories of what's going on. And so Pedro, and he wrote a poem called 'Puerto Rican Obituary' which I read when I was in high school. And it's very beatnik, very gritty, and it's about the experience of living in the ghetto, just getting caught up in the system. So I really wanted to put a snippet of him in there so he can just tell people to keep going.
It's a great song, and like you say it's really powerful. Do you find it, not difficult, but maybe empowering, to play it live?
Oh yeah. It's been really healing for me. And also, even though I wrote it from this specific place, I feel like people from all over the world relate to it. It's funny, somebody from Denmark was telling me it's like the word "pa'lante" is like the word "hallelujah". You don't have to know what it means, you feel it. You know, you feel that word.
And that just meant so much to me, because I just feel like Puerto Rican people don't get enough recognition as their own people with their own culture and their own body of work. So as I go around, I notice people, Scottish people, Irish people, everyone's like "ok okay!" [laughs] They know what it means. Oppressed people know, because they just get this feeling of deep, we've just got to stay alive and stay proud as we are forced to go into these awful roles of subservience.
You're absolutely right, I didn't know what the word meant when I first heard the song, but you know it's celebratory and you just feel something off the back of it. One last question then, is there any song that you're more proud of on the record over the others?
Let me think. Well, 'Pa'lante' definitely. It took me many years to write that one. I think that one felt really good when it was finally together. I wrote the B part four or five years before we quoted it. Besides that, 'Hungry Ghost' was really fun to write.
Hurray For The Riff Raff are currently touring the US, returning to the UK and Europe in October and November 2017. For full tour dates visit their website. To keep up to date with the band follow them on Twitter or like them on Facebook. You can stream all albums, including the fantastic The Navigator, now on all good and average streaming services.