COVER STORY | Hurray for the Riff Raff’s American Pastoral of Radicalized Memory

Alynda Segarra talks about The Past Is Still Alive, their brilliant, multi-dimensional new album of boundless communal love, meditations on class disparity and courageous songs armed to the teeth with queer, liberating power.

Music Features Hurray for the Riff Raff
COVER STORY | Hurray for the Riff Raff’s American Pastoral of Radicalized Memory

There is a slab of cardboard hanging on my living room wall. It’s got a painting of James Dean plastered across it, of him in his Giant get-up. He’s wearing a beige cowboy hat with the brim dragged down—just low enough to shadow his eyes—and there’s a slight purse to his lips, a reflection of blue steel some 45 years before it would ever become anyone’s native vocabulary. The painting was a gift mailed to me after the release of my first poetry collection three years ago, and it has had a place on a wall in every home I’ve lived in since.

On the cover of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s new album, The Past Is Still Alive, Alynda Segarra sits in a white bathtub—a desolate western landscape posed behind them—with their cowboy hat tilting a mystery across their face. With just one look, Segarra manifests a lifetime of drifters and dreamers searching for the West, a place where time is both long and short, damning yet possible. They are James Dean; they are a beautiful, sensitive dreamboat boy turned into a picture-perfect cowboy. And, at long last, this is a portrait of the Alynda Segarra that’s always been alive in their head, now fully embodied before the rest of us in an archetype of American mythology and queered to all get-out. It’s not just a still personifying reclamation, it’s a confident embrace of power.

Segarra, now 36, left their home in the Bronx at 17—living briefly in Philadelphia before decamping to New Orleans and serenading the streets by singing Tom Waits songs with a crew of sea urchins named the Dead Man Street Orchestra. When I started listening to The Past Is Still Alive in early January, I began thinking of Segarra’s recounting of their earliest days in NOLA, when they sang Bessie Smith, grew thick skin and figured out song structure through trial-and-error performance.

The Past Is Still Alive speaks greatly to that kind of education, in making language fit in limited and sometimes marginal spaces—and Segarra conjures it through a massive undertaking of painting-by-memory, where there’s deliverance in rejection, in making a folk record that, while perhaps at its core is built on tradition, is stubbornly fascinated with admonishing any type of pre-determined framework. You can hear remembrances of the Hurray for the Riff Raff that was still a hungry musician busking on the streets of the French Quarter, be it in the demands for survival on “Buffalo” or the waltzing curbside turns-of-phrase Segarra shares with Conor Oberst in their duet on “The World Is Dangerous.”

“Writing [The Past Is Still Alive] was so much more about me writing for myself than I’ve experienced in a long time,” Segarra says. “It was so much more about me investigating my journey so far and diving deep into memory. I threw away a lot of my old rules that I was having—or, I guess, limitations and critiques that I had of myself. And it just felt so freeing, to feel like ‘Okay, I’ve learned a lot about form and these traditional ways of folk songwriting and, now, I can write a song like ‘Snake Plant’ or a song like ‘Colossus of Roads’ that is just really diving more into ‘Let’s get more in the beat poetry of it all, let’s go on a ride, let’s have a mantra.’ I felt really free to do that.”

LIFE ON EARTH, upon its release two years ago, signaled a departure from the guitar-and-a-microphone folk music Segarra had a penchant for playing in the 2010s. As The Navigator cemented Hurray for the Riff Raff’s place in contemporary Americana in 2017 by being this record adorned with intersectional singer-songwriter wonder laced with motivated and personal polemics, LIFE ON EARTH burned any pre-conceptions about Segarra’s work back down to ground zero with stirring electronica and a time-honored rawness that was palpable on their self-released albums at the end of the 2000s. Where LIFE ON EARTH found Segarra honing their writing about Southern-border disparity and reckonings, like police barricades, immigration, ICE cages and families separated through river-crossings and detainments, The Past Is Still Alive takes those narrations and opines the American Dream of way-warding West, as Segarra uses cowboy imagery and barren, Annie Proulx-mirroring idyllics to make sense of their own living, breathing, melodic memoir; the duality of hope and hopelessness becomes transposed into a contemporary archival of survival.

When Segarra and Brad Cook reconvened in March 2023 to make their second consecutive album together, they very quickly agreed that it needed to be stripped down—electing to forgo any instrumentation beyond guitar, percussion, keys, pedal steel, horns and fiddle. “I think it’s even more bare than my older recordings because I think, in those older recordings, I was really playing around with learning how to have a band and playing around with arrangements,” Segarra says. “This was a very different process, it was way more vulnerable, it was way more just me and a metronome. And then my drummer [Yan Westerlund] would come in. It was piece by piece, and it really led to me feeling like I don’t have a lot to hide behind.”

In turn, The Past Is Still Alive kicks off with “Alibi,” one of the most-moving New York City songs you’ll ever hear (along with “PIERCED ARROWS” from LIFE ON EARTH). The Big Apple is the city that radicalized Segarra as a queer punk more than 20 years ago, and they can never seem to outrun its ghost—despite now having been an ex-New Yorker longer than they were actually a New Yorker. But, on an album dripping with nostalgia and memory, its presence was inevitable. “Being a New Yorker is so brutal, because that city is unforgiving in the way that it changes,” they explain. “You go back and it’s like ‘Bitch, that shit isn’t here anymore’ over and over again. It’s these formative years that will always be there with me. I think I’ll just always have these memories that are sense-memories, very deep memories I feel in my body. I feel the walking to East River Park, it’s just embedded in me. But I think, the more I stay away and the more it changes or the more I don’t recognize it fully, it becomes stronger—since it’s a place that only exists in my mind. It’s my childhood, and I think our childhoods are always going to be this well that we draw from in our art.”

Segarra’s vocals arrive on “Alibi” with a pensive twang worn-in and worn-out, as they mine for a plain-spoken understanding with a loved one who is grappling with substance abuse—though the meaning now just as poignantly glows with slight reflections of their father’s memory. “You know that time can take you for a ride, can take you by surprise,” they sing. “Maybe you’ll roll snake eyes. Baby, tell me why you gotta play your luck. Two aces, call your bluff. I love you very much, and all that other stuff.” It’s a gut-wrenching portrait of a crumbling distance pacified by unbiased affection. A strong emotional undercurrent of The Past Is Still Alive is recurring namings of drug use. Likewise, in “Snake Plant,” Segarra sings about “fentanyl in everything” and remembering to carry Narcan on your person at all times, and there’s a stirring line about not recognizing signs in “Vetiver.”

COVID-19 is largely responsible for this expression of grief from Segarra, who was woken up by the pandemic to how many people they loved were struggling with addiction—and how isolation was hurting and killing people. “It’s so scary how fast we’re losing really important people,” they say. “And I think, also, with the idea of historical preservation, I just felt like I needed to find a way to honor people I’ve lost and then, also, just say to people that they’re so important. Most of the time when I’m writing, especially on this record, I’m just talking to myself. But, on a song like ‘Alibi,’ it’s very much me just talking to the listener, being like, ‘I can’t change anything for you, but I can just try to convince you that your life is really important to me.’” And that work doesn’t just end at The Past Is Still Alive. Segarra is teaming up with the Columbus-based organization This Must Be the Place to ensure that there is free Narcan available at every show on their spring tour.

While LIFE ON EARTH was greatly influenced by adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy, The Past Is Still Alive was built up through Jack Lowery’s It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful and Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice—the former of which became a stand-in for Segarra’s own creative and personal motivations, as they found refuge in Lowery’s details about how the Grand Fury Collective used art in an intentional way to change the public consciousness during the AIDS crisis despite the relentless onslaught of loss, grief and fear standing before them.

What I love about The Past Is Still Alive is Segarra’s own illustrations of their phenomena. The entire record is very Frank O’Hara-coded, in that Segarra tells their stories in such a direct manner that every listener is afforded space to know the characters, too, even if they don’t. There’s Eileen and there’s Lorena and there’s Miss Jonathan and there’s many yous we don’t know by name but remember as if we do—and Segarra’s decision to honor these characters for the first time came through trust and a sense of assurance that, by singing these songs, they wouldn’t be exploiting or commodifying loved ones for the sake of selling a record.

“There was something that felt different, where I trusted myself more and I trusted my protection of these people that are really sacred to me and felt a little bit less precious about ‘What is the public going to do with them?’” Segarra says. “Also, just feeling very invested in being a historian, I felt more and more like it was important to have, on the record, these people, these types of outside communities, existed, and just leave my trail behind. I say I wrote this for me but I also think about, when I’m gone, I want some person who’s lost on the path to be like ‘Oh, here are breadcrumbs of a life of trying to be intentional, trying to be not harmful, trying to build community, trying to make a life and make art on this planet.’”

I Must Be Living Twice became a crucial text for Segarra after their father suddenly passed away in early 2023. “I kept going back to [Eileen’s work] as a place where I was safe in my mind, a place where I felt really strong,” they say. “When I read their work, I just feel very strong and I feel like I make sense. Seeing someone be so fucking legenadry, it frees people.” The Past Is Still Alive arrives as a very personal, micro record that boasts a lot of meaning in the macros—an immediate result of Segarra feeling weighed down by a deluge of questions about being human. “I’ve just felt confused,” they admit. “What do I do with all these memories? How do I live with them? How do I carry them? How do I let some go? We’re all just doing this and I don’t even know if I’m doing it well or right. Of course, all of those questions blew up once I experienced the really sudden loss of my dad. Then, the whole record just became about honoring moments of life and honoring people that I feel should be memorialized—and, also, just recognizing how I don’t feel like any of these moments have even ended. It feels like they’re still with me and they’re still happening.”

A month after losing their father Jose Enrico Segarra (Quico)—a Marine who fought in Vietnam and carried a lifetime of trauma home with him and would take up a passion at the piano, playing almost daily until his passing—Segarra retreated to Puff City in Durham, North Carolina with Cook, who they worked with on LIFE ON EARTH two years ago. Calling upon friends like Anjimile, S.G. Goodman, Meg Duffy, Conor Oberst, Matt Douglas and Libby Rodenbough, Segarra surrounded themselves with people they felt safe with and supported by. “These are people that have had an effect on my life and in a really rough couple of years for me. I feel grateful I’m slowly emerging from a dark night of the soul,” they say. “Where I was at in my life, I needed to be around people that I knew had genuine community, care and love for me and that I had for them. I definitely felt a kindred spiritness.”

While all of The Past Is Still Alive was written before Quico’s death, Segarra couldn’t avoid making small shifts and edits in the language. But, above all, the biggest transformation for them came in their delivery. Lines got sung with more gratitude, small nods to Quico were subconsciously sprinkled across that album that, while putting it together, Segarra and Cook continued to notice. “[My father’s death] just affected everything,” Segarra explains. “I was tired and I don’t know if I’ve ever been that tired in my life. That fatigue really made me less jumpy and less anxious in my fear of ‘Are people going to like this?’ ‘Is this the right choice?’ Everything became very much more reactive—of ‘I like that,’ ‘I don’t like that,’ ‘I can do that,’ I can’t do that.’ Suddenly, things became very clear. ‘Snake Plant’ came first and that was a big door-opening song where I was like, ‘Fuck form, fuck choruses. I just want to take people on a ride.’”

Deep in the belly of grief, Segarra found salvation thorugh abandoning their own propensity for overthinking small details. They adopted the doomed concept of “this is all going to end one day” and reconstructed it into a document of miraculous connectedness, both with themselves and loved ones. “My dad had an effect on me in so many ways, one of them being that he was a musician and he didn’t get to record,” they continue. “He didn’t really get to tour or anything, but he was really proud of his musicianship. It was just the perfect way to feel really in touch with him—because it’s definitely what we connected on the most. We didn’t play a lot of music together as I got older, because he kind of got shy—which is really cute—but we’d really love to talk about music and he loved showing me stuff he was working on. My dad came from a Latin jazz background and, now, I am just so much more connected to the freedom of jazz. This is my version of jazz, the poetry of it.” At the end of the album, on “Kiko Forever,” a 45-second voicemail from Segarra’s father plays over a jazz arrangement.

Segarra has never turned their head away from the politics of folk music. In 2015, they wrote an open letter to the folk community, asking their peers to “fall in love with justice” and “bring love back into our culture.” On The Navigator, Segarra aimed to reclaim their own Puerto Rican identity. Across LIFE ON EARTH, their writing explored the fluidity of American music and how elements gravitate towards each other. In New Orleans and Western Louisiana, you can trace sonic developments and histories through migration patterns and economics, be it Zydeco, Cajun or R&B music. That history is always going to be foundational in Segarra’s work, even more so than the New York City punk music they grew up with. It became a matter of them figuring out how to—in a city garnished with an incredible lineage of influential Black history and Black music—tell their own story while being educated by those movements. On The Past Is Still Alive, it was a turning point for Segarra—as they figured out how to take those lessons and apply them to their own experiences, communities, friends and memories.

“All New Orleans music is political, even when it’s not overtly political. There’s so much resistance and so much organizing in music that could be party music—and it’s like, ‘Well, that party is political, because it’s people who are historically oppressed or currently extremely oppressed and policed,’” they explain. “It’s just this really amazing education and, I guess, it takes me a while to figure out where I fit in in that. And, for a while, it was like ‘Okay, I’m a witness to all of these movements and to this injustice.’ And then, with [The Past Is Still Alive], it was like, ‘Well, I’m also a part of it in my own way.’ A lot of this folk music is historic, it’s the newspaper of the times and it’s telling stories that would have gotten buried.”

One of those stories is that of Miss Jonathan, an “incredible, fucking wild-ass trans woman” Segarra met when they were a runaway. She appears in “Hawkmoon”—a stirring account of Segarra leaving the Bronx and finding shelter in Miss Jonathan, whom they would steal beer and sleep in abandoned hideaways with. It’s a song that, instrumentally, rests on the shoulders of a stripped-down, riff-centric rock arrangement—bolstered by the six-string work of Duffy (one of the best-living shredders we’ve got) and Phil Cook’s organ—pinned into warmth by Segarra’s own Bayou pastoral of gender, community and class. “Watch out,” they clamor. “I’m becoming the kind of girl they warned me about.” “I’m so lucky to have met [Miss Jonathan], I’m so lucky that she was my friend,” Segarra says. “I just started to notice how much that experience with her laid down the foundation for me to free myself later on.”

The Past Is Still Alive is, at its radiating core, a measure of storytelling determined to be kind and gentle and affectionate towards the souls that exist on the fringe of worlds the music industry has barely dared to sing about. 16 years after self-releasing their first Hurray for the Riff Raff album, Segarra has a vibrant pen and a confident sense of trust where now, finally they can give people like Miss Jonathan the story they deserve and do it in such a nuanced way that isn’t rooted in misery. “Everything is advancing, I love to see you out dancing,” Segarra rings out on “Colossus of Roads,” amid falling back in-touch with a gratitude towards writing. “There’s women up in the mountains, we could be up there if we could get up there.” It’s a mark of not just joy, but a sense of growth that comes after years of inexplicable loss, heartbreak and organizing.

“I’m noticing a trend of artists getting back into that place of tapping into the expansiveness and tapping out of the scarcity,” Segarra explains. “We have so much creative possibility and it comes from, I think, really trying to take care of ourselves and honoring that we deserve to take care of ourselves. We don’t have to be suffering or struggling in order to make good art. That is just not a real thing anymore. It really affects the way that I love myself and it affects the way that I live. I’ve seen myself deciding that I deserve healing and I deserve love and I deserve safety—I see that having effects on my writing that are really positive, and I was able to see it through and I know now that it’s a holistic thing.”

There’s a line on The Past Is Still Alive that has stuck with me. On the quasi-title-track “Snake Plant (The Past Is Still Alive),” Segarra sings “I only wanted to be a good daughter.” Between the release of lead single “Alibi” and my conversation with Segarra, I came out to my mother as non-binary. Years ago, in a poem, I wrote “I am a good mother,” as I was reckoning with my own relationship to gender. Fast-forward to the holidays in 2023, and I am explaining to my mother that she could still use he/him pronouns for me—because, even though I’m not a man, I’m still her son.

On The Past Is Still Alive, Segarra alludes to gender and womanhood across the entire runtime, with lines like “I was born with a baby boy soul,” “She’s just a modern bandit, regular dynamo” and “I can be your poster boy for the great American fall.” A lot of it is a product of Segarra queering American pastorals, playing around with binaries. But, on top of that, after going out on a solo tour with Amelia Jackie and Kat Sotelo in 2022 while writing The Past Is Still Alive, they found levels of femininity that were both inspiring and rejuvenating—and would eventually catalyze the album’s heavy population of female characters. “I had this inkling—even before my father passed—that my life was changing and I was going towards a new chapter,” Segarra contends. And I felt this inspiration and excitement about these wild ass women that were surrounding me, including Miss Jonathan’s memory.”

But the “I only wanted to be a good daughter” line rings in a truth for Segarra that lingers generationally and stems from a multitude of inherited and uninherited trauma. “Being a good daughter to my father was very important to me,” they say, taking a pause after getting choked-up. “But, I also felt like I was his son in a lot of ways. Being a good daughter to him was such an honor of mine—and the idea of a daughter, to me, isn’t subservient. It isn’t like the ways that society puts on the role of the daughter, in my family at least. Daughters were actually the protectors of socialized men that had just been so abused by society, which my father was—so I just wanted to protect him from the world.” When Segarra left home on their own, they became a son. “[My father] would spoil me in certain ways and, yet, he never really tried to hide me from the world—because he was like, ‘You’re a fucking musician and you’re out there and I trust that you’re gonna handle yourself,’” they conclude.

Back in 2022, nearly two years before I came out as non-binary, Segarra sang a verse in a song called “LIFE ON EARTH” that I’ve carried with me since. “But it’s in me infinitely, monarchs in flight, dawn’s early light,” they hummed. “Life on Earth is long, the sun in the west and the one you love best.” It’s only a pocket of words, but it meant everything when I heard them the first time. The “life on earth”idea came from something Ocean Vuong said on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. “I want to love more than death can harm,” Vuong says. “And I want to tell you this often: That despite being so human and so terrified, here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night—we can live. And we will.”

That message radiates across The Past Is Still Alive, too, as a lifetime of touring, loss and curiosity has caught up with Segarra deep into their still-moving career. Perhaps our most important disciple of the Springsteen school of raucous misfits forgotten by the system, Hurray for the Riff Raff has written what is, in my opinion, the most important album of the 2020s so far—a stark, multi-dimensional account of boundless communal love, meditations on class disparity (Segarra admits on “Hourglass” to having eaten out of the garbage when they were living on the streets) and despair and fear synthesized into a container of relentless courage. The Past Is Still Alive is a manifest, a readiment to remain alive as the world burns all around us.

On The Past Is Still Alive, Segarra has brilliantly acquired the language to talk about liberation in their most personal way yet. On “Colossus of Roads”—which was written in the aftermath of the Club Q shooting—they sing “No one will remember us like I will remember us,” and it’s such a powerful and necessary line. I contend that for many, many years after this one, people will continue to find pieces of themselves in Segarra’s writing. The Past Is Still Alive is a record that is deeply important for outsiders like me, outsiders like you and outsiders like Hurray for the Riff Raff—be it us queers, victims of unspeakable violence, users or anyone who exists in the margins between our margins. “If the world can’t find me, I’ll leave it all behind me,” Segarra sang two years ago on “nightqueen,” but everyone hates goodbyes. These 11 songs are quick to name trans elders, the majesties of our kin and how a lifetime of hopping trains, watching buffalo stampedes in Santa Fe, outrunning Nebraska cops and hitchhiking across state lines is a measure of radical, irreplicable love entrenched in grief and sanctuary. And, in moments of loss, Alynda Segarra has graciously written down names we must remember, including their own.

“I finally believe that the love that I put out will come back to me and that I’ll gather the support that I need to continue having a life in art and in music,” they say. “There’s a lot more focus on mutual aid and community and, as adrienne maree brown has been teaching us, to dig deep and not just dig wide. With this record, I feel like that was my goal—to honor people that I love and to really speak about the experience I’ve had and my really deep love of freaks. I just love us so much. I have this belief that people will be out there, and grief has taught me that. I was really brought to my knees, just really humbled by grief. I’ve been a hyper-functional person who has experienced trauma but would manage to workaholic my way through it. [When my father died], it really just came over me like a tidal wave and people caught me. I think I didn’t even believe that I was worthy of being caught.”

Watch Hurray for the Riff Raff perform “Everybody’s Talkin'” at Newport Folk Festival in 2013 below.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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