Alynda Segarra never quite felt like she fit in. A woman of Puerto Rican heritage in the United States, she spent her childhood infatuated by doo-wop and Motown before cutting school to blag her way into punk clubs. At 17 she train-hopped her way across the United States, but when she got back she felt like home wasn’t exactly home any more.
Settling in New Orleans – a place where standing out really is fitting in – she formed Hooray For The Riff Raff, a means to communicate those differences, and perhaps find some form of acquiescence with the country she lives in, with her past, and with herself.
New album ‘The Navigator’ is out now, and it’s perhaps the most potent example yet of Alynda’s quest. And it’s good – like, really good. Not just a good listen – although its curious, punk’d out roots mixture is certainly easy on the ear – it feels like a statement, like a gesture of empowerment. It’s a complete snub to right wing populism, a fist-pumping cry of righteousness. At times, it’s like Springsteen but for the outsiders.
“in these times, especially in the States, I really wanted it to be obvious,” she tells Clash. “I wanted to be more in charge of me saying: this is where I come from, these are the people who are my people, and this is my experience. In this time when Latin people and immigrant people are being demonised. That was my focus, was to have a record that said something cohesive. And I’m glad it worked.”
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‘The Navigator’ is a record that shares incredible timing. Written before Donald Trump had even gained the Republican nomination, his subsequent election had added a furious new poignancy to Alynda’s experiences and artistry.
“I started to see this narrative play out of demonising immigrant people… especially Latin people. But I never thought he was going to win. I really didn’t. There was a part of me that was worried that it would be cliché by the time the record came out. And I thought people would be like: why are you still talking about the wall? And now it’s just obviously played out in such a different way.”
“I’m just really happy that the record’s out there. I think a lot about the children of immigrants, and immigrant people themselves whose whole character is being attacked by this narrative, and if anything I just hope that the record gives them a little more strength, and to feel like somebody is standing with them.”
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I just hope that the record gives them a little more strength…
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For a record that feels so universal ‘The Navigator’ is actually remarkably personal. It’s the product of no small amount of personal toil, of inward searching and picking apart issues that might otherwise be unaddressed. “I just really wanted the record in every song to say ‘this is who I am’. Which is why it’s surprising that it took creating a character in order to have the guts to be able to do that. I think that writing through a character really helped me say more about my life growing up, and my experience of running away. My experience getting in touch with whatever it is when you’re a child and you’re an immigrant.”
Led by Alynda’s perpetually questing spirit, ‘The Navigator’ also owes a debt to the steady influence of producer Paul Butler. “Oh I definitely think a lot of magic started to happen in the studio,” she asserts. “I had a lot of ideas, and I knew what I wanted, but I wasn’t quite sure that the magic would come, and I wasn’t sure if I was capable of what I wanted to do. And with Paul’s guidance I came in with these shells, these skeletons, and we were really able to work out all those kinks.”
It’s a bold, unrelenting listen. The recording process pushed the songwriter to the edge of her abilities, and then kept hauling her out into unexplored territory. ‘Pa’lante’ feels like a centre-piece, the biting, exhausted vocal bringing together the many shards of her contradictory life story into one gleaming whole.
“Well, that one has taken a really long time,” she sighs. “I had recorded that song as a demo the year before making the record and it didn’t really have that ending together. It was just like a work in progress, and I just kept working on it.”
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“The recording of that song was a very emotional experience for me. That day I had been feeling exhausted and depleted, we had been in the studio for 14 days and I had to go for a walk, I was feeling weepy… and Paul, the producer, was like: you’re a mess today! You’ve got to go out and get some air!”
“And when I came back I sat at the electric piano, and it just started happening… and Paul was like: this is the moment, we’ve got to get everything together now and start to record now.”
“I’d always really wanted that moment where I felt like I was breaking out of my shell and getting past my limitations,” she continues. “I felt like I was happy with my past recordings, but I knew that there was a lot of work that I had to do as a past performer to be a little bit braver, and to be more vulnerable and to be less careful. I felt like I was always very careful with my singing. And Paul really helped shake that out of me.”
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I felt a lot more protected with this record, actually, than my last one…
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A songwriter who has always drawn on deep emotional reserves, ‘The Navigator’ was curiously both more open and more confident than anything Alynda had attempted before. “I felt a lot more protected with this record, actually, than my last one,” she insists. “To me, all the songs fit into the story. And I felt like that was important to me, and I wanted people to know the story but it didn’t necessarily need to be spelled out for everybody.”
“But because I had the storyline and the concept I felt very protected. All the pieces fit. And even though I was painting the environment I grew up in and the experience I had when leaving, and what it was like to come back. A lot of me dealing with ancestral pain, and also ancestral weight, and to figure out where I fit in my lineage. And because it ends so triumphant I felt like I was protected. It never scared me really to be too open.”
Being open is often a brave and somewhat uncomfortable step to take, but it can also be an incredibly rewarding one. ‘The Navigator’ has become arguably Hooray For The Riff Raff’s breakout moment, a titanic statement with near universal appeal. At the start of the year the group flew to Glasgow for a show, and found themselves performing on the day of Trump’s inauguration – the chill of fear, it seems, was equal in both audience and performers.
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It never scared me really to be too open…
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“It’s such a universal theme for people to wonder where they fit in, and where people come from,” she says at one point. “And also all over the world there are oppressed people, and people who historically have been oppressed, and I think it’s very universal for people to wonder: well, where do I fit in with my ancestors? And where do I fit in with making things right for them?”
“I think a lot of the record is about looking backwards just so you can look forwards and say: what are we going to do as a global community about where we’re headed right now? Are we going to start taking care of the planet? Are we going to see each other as allies, as opposed to enemies?”
“And I think that’s happening all over the world. Like I said, it’s a universal concept for someone to go on a hero’s journey. For someone to say: I’ve got to leave home and make something of myself and make my family proud. There’s a lot of different ways that it takes shape. And I think once an artist really becomes comfortable with who they are, with the little complexities and intricacies, the you become OK with being confusing – it’s interesting that this is what makes people relate to you more.”
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‘The Navigator’ is out now.
For tickets to the latest Hooray For The Riff Raff shows click HERE.
In Conversation: Hooray For The Riff Raff