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Hurray for the Riff Raff, the rail-riding teen poet who lived to sing the tale

<em>The Past Is Still Alive</em> is Alynda Segarra's latest and perhaps most autobiographical album as Hurray for the Riff Raff.
Tommy Kha
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Courtesy of the artist
The Past Is Still Alive is Alynda Segarra's latest and perhaps most autobiographical album as Hurray for the Riff Raff.

Singer/songwriter Alynda Segarra is perhaps uniquely qualified to make music under the banner "Americana." Segarra records as Hurray for the Riff Raff, and they spent time as a teenager hitchhiking and riding the rails across the United States, sometimes evading police. In the song "Snake Plant (The Past Is Still Alive)," they describe camping on a toxic cleanup site, and also singing for fellow vagrants:

Segarra's journey began in the Bronx, where trouble at home left them to be raised by an aunt and uncle. "I found it to be a really great place to grow up," Segarra tells Morning Edition. "Of course, at the time, I felt really bored and I was itching to get out of there. I wanted to go to the Lower East Side where, you know, all the weirdos were. I always felt like there was a world out there for me."

Hurray for the Riff Raff's latest album, The Past Is Still Alive, reflects on the years of wandering that followed once the artist set out on their own. Segarra spoke with host Steve Inskeep about writing some of the most personal songs of their career, and why it's so important to them to document relationships with friends and mentors, no matter how brief. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Steve Inskeep: The song "Alibi" begins with an amazing first line: "You don't have to die if you don't want to die." You've said, in talking about this album, that heroin was a big part of your childhood. What does that mean?

Alynda Segarra: Well, as soon as I got downtown — I was probably 14 or 13 — all of the people around me, all of these young kids, were experimenting and dealing with the early stages of addiction. It was really easy to get your hands on these dangerous drugs, and I, luckily, was really scared. But I pretty quickly found my role in this punk scene, as somebody who was trying to save people or help them.

My dad was a Vietnam vet, so he told me a lot about the struggles that people at the VA were dealing with. He was so real with me about that whole experience, so I understood that this would be something these young kids were going to deal with for maybe their whole life, and it formed a lot of my worldview, seeing these really brilliant people that I thought were not disposable. But the song "Alibi" is so much about realizing that I can't save anyone. I can't even convince anyone that their life is worth saving. They have to get there on their own, you know? But it does take community, and it takes support. It's a balance.

Just to understand, you said 13 or 14 is when you started going down to the Lower East Side. Does this mean you're an unsupervised kid getting on the subway from time to time, or did you leave home at a very early age and you were down there?

This is when I was still staying at home, but getting out there as much as I can. Those travels really made a big impact on me, because that's when I would listen to music and read poetry and write in my journal.

So you were writing music then? Or writing poetry?

I was writing a lot of poetry. I was really obsessed with the Beat poets, really got into Allen Ginsberg. When I was very young, I would go visit my dad and we would play music together — I would sing and he would play the piano — so I had those early experiences of this freedom and this joy. Once I hit puberty, it all got very murky and I lost that confidence. It took me a long time to gather it up again.

So tell me a little bit about a slightly later phase of your life: You traveled by train across the country. What were you doing and how did you get started?

I met some young train riders when I was hanging out in the Lower East Side and was doing bad in school — I was basically flunking out. I felt like I was really a burden on my aunt and uncle, who were doing their best to raise me. I wanted to figure out what my life purpose was, and I felt this call to join these kids. At that point, I was deep into listening to Woody Guthrie, and it became this obsession of mine to be a train rider.

So that was about two years of my life: heading out on trains. Eventually it would lead me to New Orleans. And in New Orleans was where I met these other young kids playing music on the street, and I joined a hobo band with them. That was really the start of me getting back into playing music.

I have all these images in my head of riding the rails, of hopping a freight train — but the images are from movies or books from maybe a century ago, when the trains were different and the rail yards were different and things maybe were more accessible. What was it like to be trying to hop a freight train in the early 21st century?

Well, there were a lot of issues with getting caught. But people are pretty resilient, and find a way to be sneaky. I think a lot of it has to do with me having a 17-year-old brain: I was just convinced that nothing bad could possibly happen to me.

It was a really incredible experience in the way that I was kind of opting out of living in the modern world. You spend all day waiting for a train — maybe eight hours — and then it's going really slow, and you're seeing parts of the country that are really small that you would probably have never seen. That was my favorite part: seeing these tiny towns, seeing America through the back roads. I had this desire to really feel in touch with this country, to feel I really understood it. And when you're hiding in a bush or under a tree, you have to kind of become part of the landscape. When it's cold, you're cold. When it's raining, you get wet.

Are there — like in old Woody Guthrie songs — "railroad detectives?"

Oh, for sure. I mean, at one point we went to jail as a hobo band because we got caught on a boxcar. We had a joke: "We're too cute to get arrested!" Well, kids, no you're not! We looked like Fraggle Rock. We looked like Sesame Street characters.

What is the charge when you're caught riding a train?

Trespassing. I'm never going to get sponsored by Amtrak.

I've listened many times to this song "Snake Plant," which is really, really specific in its lyrics: "Pee in the bushes while I wait for a train / Under the bridge when it starts to rain / I never got to ride the sunset route / But I drank enough 100 proof." Is this pretty literal to the experiences you had?

It really is. A lot of this record, I don't even know if it counts as poetry, because I'm just kind of telling the memories as they come. I felt like I wanted to make a memory box, or a document of all these experiences that were really sacred to me.

I've gone through different musical phases and focuses in my work, and I think it was lockdown that made me look back on these communities that took me in and raised me and supported me and made me who I am. This record is like a love letter to all of those places and people that took me in at a very vulnerable time in my life, and protected me and taught me.

Who took you in?

Other kids, wandering kids. Young people who were confused about where we're going as a society or what they wanted to do with their life. The city of New Orleans took me in; other musicians took me in. They saw something in me and said, "Hey, I think you should keep writing songs."

I'm interested in how you got connected specifically with New Orleans. Did you meet somebody who had a base there?

Yeah, there was a lot of word of mouth. The minute I got there, I was in love with it. I loved how people played music on the street. I loved that it was a late-night town. Being a New Yorker, I love going to other cities that are not trying to be like New York — they're like, "We've got our own thing going on." I love that experience of being humbled. I loved that New Orleans had its own way and its own music and its own food. And I wanted to learn: I wanted to be somewhere where I have to learn the ways of this place.

I feel that I hear the ways of that place — or of the middle of America — in listening to your music. I hear a lot more of that than, say, Upper Broadway, the Bronx.

Yeah, I think that what's really important to me in my songwriting — and it's becoming more important with time — is documenting people that I find to be really important, or places or times in history, or what I'm witnessing around me.

You're almost like a musical journalist.

Yeah, I would say that's a lot of what this record is. And also learning what I have to say goodbye to, learning about what I can carry with me. We can't take everything with us: Some people are going to leave and some experiences are going to end. But at the same time, people stay with us. Their memory stays with us. I think that's where grief also becomes such a huge part of this record, grief being just another way that we love.

Is it true that your father died recently?

Yeah, it was a year a couple of weeks ago. When I went into the studio to make this record, he had just passed away. It had only been a month, so it was definitely unexpected. I went into the studio with an entirely different perspective than I had originally planned.

How so?

Well, I just wasn't expecting this huge, life-changing experience to have happened. Suddenly a lot of these lyrics — I thought they meant one thing, but they ended up meaning something else.

My father was a really big inspiration to me. He's always been kind of a part of the band — I had him on an album cover, I had him in my music video for the song "Pa'lante" — so going into the studio and still being in the early stages of understanding that he was gone was very intense. It made me express the songs differently. I didn't have as much energy for my neurotic brain, my brain that was full of self-doubt or wanted to be a control freak. Instead, it was a lot of reactivity: "I like this," "I don't like this."

I think that what I'm learning about grief and my early stages of this journey are that there are gifts that come with this suffering. And one of the gifts that I was given was a freedom of fear: "Well, the worst has already happened." I felt, well, now all that's left is to tell the truth. What am I going to be afraid of?

There's another song here that had a particular meaning for me when I first heard it: "Colossus of Roads." There's a couple of verses that seem very deeply romantic. Is that what you meant?

"Colossus of Roads" is a song that is finding romance in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of violence. It's a song that I wrote for queer people, for outsider communities, right after the Club Q shooting in Colorado.

It came very quickly. That's one of those songs that I didn't need to edit, really; it just kind of flowed out of me, and I was really grateful to be in a mindset where I could get out of the way of the song. I wanted to create a bit of a cocoon — I say in the lyrics, "a bomb shelter" — a place where we can just be safe for a moment, even if it's in this imaginary place that a song creates.

There's another song called "Hawkmoon." What's a hawkmoon?

Actually, I got the title from a Sam Shepard play, but I haven't read it yet, so I'm not sure what it's about. But I saw the title in a bookstore and I just thought, wow, I love that phrase!

That song is commemorating a friend of mine from way back in the day, Miss Jonathan, who was the first trans woman I ever met, when I was still a runaway 17-year-old kid. What she instilled in me, this fierceness and this desire to find new routes to freedom and to liberation and to bravery — I thought that it was just really fitting.

Was she about your age?

Probably a couple of years older. I met her before I started playing music — I was still just wandering the streets of New Orleans. I kind of became her sidekick: We'd drive around in her very illegal car, and I just was so enamored with her. At the time, I wasn't really thinking about gender or gender expansiveness in any way. But I knew that I felt a little different, and like I thought gender roles were honestly just silly. She gave me this new outlook on life.

It took me a couple of decades to really reflect on everything that she gave me in our friendship. It was probably only a couple of months, and that's something that this record also really touches on: These friendships, these moments, can be decades long — or they could be a couple of months, or a couple of minutes. But it doesn't change the impact that it has on us. It only takes a couple of moments to open our minds to a whole new way of living.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Phil Harrell
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.