Alynda Lee Segarra is the "voice of a generation" and "the voice of the future." The 26-year-old songwriter and Hurray for the Riff Raff bandleader — whose latest album Small Town Heroes, out Feb. 11 on ATO Records, has won her those superlatives from Billboard and National Public Radio — doesn't take the titles lightly.
"I've read some Internet comments — you should never read the comments — that are like, 'But every generation feels so disillusioned. Every generation feels like this. Everyone complains in every generation.' That's such a silly idea," she says. "That's the end of the world when people stop (caring). 'Well, we might as well throw in the towel.' I'd love to be a part of encouraging our generation to not be apathetic. That would be my dream come true."
Segarra grew up in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop, to Puerto Rican parents who came of age with the counterculture but listened to '50s doo-wop and Latin jazz. "I feel like I haven't seeped in all those influences, but one day it might all pop out," she says, laughing. Segarra fell in love with punk rock, catching shows at ABC No Rio on the Lower East Side.
"When I started getting into a more rebellious age, I felt like I needed to break away, find my own genre, my own release," she says. "Punk rock was so raw, and I loved how passionate it was, and the politics behind it, this idea of creating another way. ... I loved being around a community of people who were all interested in finding alternative ways of living and making music."
She hit the road at 17, hopping freight trains and traveling the West Coast and the South until she found New Orleans, where she joined a community of fellow musicians and artists. Segarra performed on Royal Street, across from Cafe Du Monde, and on bass drum for Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?.
"New Orleans is such a proud city, with such a specific culture," she says. "It's not a place that wants to be or is trying to be like anywhere else. Being a New Yorker, I felt like I was brought up with that pride, especially being from the Bronx. When I came here it really resonated with me. I could relate to feeling proud about where I was from. It really led me to learn about all the things people are so proud of, and learn that they have every right to be."
Segarra released songs under Hurray for the Riff Raff in 2007 and began making waves with 2008's It Don't Mean I Don't Love You, 2010's Young Blood Blues, and 2012's Look Out Mama. The band released a covers album, My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, last year, and announced a deal with ATO Records, home of Alabama Shakes, Drive-By Truckers and My Morning Jacket.
On Small Town Heroes, Hurray for the Riff Raff's ATO debut, Segarra writes radically and traditionally — song titles evoke folk, blues and country archetypes or Bruce Springsteen. "Crash on the Highway" is the album's sleepy, juke joint prelude to the darkness ahead — bandmates waiting for traffic to clear and reminiscing about BJ's Lounge while "it could be you up there, so you better say your prayers." A harmonica blasts through "End of the Line" in the Lower 9th Ward, where Segarra sings tribute to her neighborhood. Segarra sings all colors of the blues — the "Good Time," the "New SF Bay" and the "St. Roch," where "bullets fly from a young man's hand, people are dying, no one understands." Segarra's refrain — "But I keep on cryin'" — distills into a dreamy, harmonized doo-wop, an "Earth Angel" for the departed. "Please don't go down to New Orleans /You don't know the things that I've seen," Segarra sings. She wrote the song with The Deslondes' Sam Doores following a violent winter in 2012 — home invasions, murders and the deaths of eight people who perished in a fire in an abandoned 9th Ward building.
"I felt this was a part of the city, a struggle about living in this part of the city, that people from here have had to deal with for so long, and now it's finally hitting home," she says. "I wanted to not only honor the people we lost and the people who were affected, but also give that song out to the people of New Orleans to say, 'This affected me, and I see a little bit what you're going through, or what you have gone through, and I see it's something we need to change.' It's also just about that neighborhood. It's really beautiful and has amazing people. ... I felt like we needed something, we need a song, something to ease our spirits a little bit."
"Body Electric" reframes the country murder ballad as a political weapon, a shotgun blast to misogyny, in which Segarra is off to "settle the score." The album's title track tells the stories of strangers, friends and travelers, all looking for love in all the wrong places.
"I felt really connected to that song the minute I wrote it," she says. "I finally felt like I was able to tell a story about a lot of different characters who all had a common search and a common goal, to find love. It's a really universal idea. I felt close to that song for that reason. ... Sometimes it's hard to tell if you're getting any better. You're writing by yourself all the time. That song gave me a little glimpse, 'You can keep getting better.'"