Just a few years ago, Alynda Lee Segarra, the engaging frontwoman for New Orleans folk outfit Hurray for the Riff Raff, was hitching freight trains, playing washboard in a French Quarter street band, scrounging for food and sleeping in abandoned houses. Now she’s celebrating the release her band’s first album on a major indie, “Small Town Heroes,” out Feb. 11 in the United States on ATO Records. (PIAS Recordings will release the album internationally on April 1.)
“I think about my past and then I think, ‘Wow, I’m sitting here drinking a soy cappuccino and having an interview,'” she says at New York’s City Bakery the day before Hurray for the Riff Raff plays to a packed house at the Highline Ballroom. “That’s pretty cool.”
Born and raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Segarra discovered music at a young age, singing along to musicals like “West Side Story” and “The Wizard of Oz” before later falling in love with the Lower East Side punk scene. “I was really drawn to the political aspect of their music, the feminist aspect,” she says. “I loved girls dancing and being really empowered.”
By the time she turned 17, Segarra was flunking school and feeling restless. “I felt like there was something greater I was supposed to be doing,” she says. “I just didn’t know what it was yet.”
So Segarra, whose facial features and long, banged hair favor Joni Mitchell — “We even have the same teeth!” she says — hopped a freight train with some friends from the punk scene. She rode the rails to the West Coast and back, learning about music from travelers she encountered on the way. Eventually Segarra settled in New Orleans, forming a band named the Dead Man Street Orchestra with musicians she met near the train tracks. “It was such a familial atmosphere,” she says. “Instead of drinking and doing the normal things teenagers do to be bad, we were like, ‘Let’s play this fiddle tune.'”
In 2007, with encouragement from her friends — some of whom are now in her rotating backing band in Hurray for the Riff Raff — Segarra picked up the banjo, and an alluringly world-weary voice to go with it, and started writing material along the lines of songwriters like Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt. The early music she started churning out on smaller indies — five albums since 2008 — has always drawn from this American songwriting tradition, but “Small Town Heroes” weaves country, doo-wop, blues and even zydeco into a more cohesive blend, filled with feminist, politically aware references picked up from New York, New Orleans and her travels in between. “The personal is political to me,” she says. “Seeing the aftermath of [Hurricane] Katrina, and seeing people struggle in their day-to-day life, trying to get back to some kind of idea of normalcy, I just thought that was a symbol of our country.”
And if the Highline audience’s effusive singalongs to the Carter Family tribute “Blue Ridge Mountain” are any indication, Segarra’s rootsy, heartfelt storytelling is hitting a vein.
“People are looking for a new voice to fill these shoes, whether it’s Linda Thompson’s or Neko [Case’s],” ATO GM John Salter says. He first heard Hurray for the Riff Raff-which knew ATO acts Alabama Shakes through Andrija Tokic, producer/engineer at Nashville’s Bomb Shelter studios-when product manager Kirby Lee, who had been following them since 2012’s Lookout Mama, brought the band to the label’s office for an acoustic performance. “I immediately felt something special,” Salter recalls.
Salter says the “Small Town Heroes” campaign will be largely driven by press and college and noncommercial radio, which received country charmer “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright)” early this month. So far, NPR and its affiliates have responded with choice airplay on “All Songs Considered” and in-studio performances at “Morning Edition,” WXPN Philadelphia’s “World Cafe” and WNYC New York’s “Soundcheck.”
Salter concedes that the market is saturated with folk and Americana, from Mumford & Sons to Avicii’s recent banjo-techno chart-topper “Wake Me Up!,” but he’s not worried. “They’re going to cut through the clutter,” he says. “It’s Americana that can transcend and cross over.”
Besides, compared with Avicii’s pounding mash-ups and Mumford & Sons’ arena-ready bombast, which the New York Times labeled “bro-folk,” Segarra’s intimate, political Americana, forged while freight-hopping and busking, brings the genre back to its humble roots — with her own twist.
“I don’t fit into the music you assume a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx would play,” she says. “But I love the old sounds — and we use those sounds with a modern message.”