Songwriters on Songwriting: Alynda Lee Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff)
There’s a saying in the music industry that it takes your whole life to write your debut album, and then you get a few months to write the next one. If the first album is successful in any way, the life of a traveling musician so quickly takes over, it’s almost cliché for a young songwriter to quickly devolve into writing about life on the road, playing to unforgiving crowds, missing the people back home. Looking beyond the end of one’s own nose for inspiration and emotion can seem impossible when you’re in the throes of that life, but in order to remain relevant to most of the rest of the world, who does not live in that bubble, a great songwriter must have wider vision, must be able to see through subjective experience, into the heart of what we all have in common: that yearning thing in us that seeks out music so that we might be connected with something bigger than ourselves.
The music world is so flooded with new albums and artists these days, it can sometimes feel hard to believe that any of them will have much staying power, much less prove to be the kind of classic songwriters mentioned above, still expanding our ears and minds years from now, beyond their glowing first impression. But, whenHurray for the Riff Raff showed up a couple years ago, the band’s front womanAlynda Lee Segarra seemed to me to be one such songwriter.
As she’s released a few more projects, garnered attention from all quarters, blown minds at festivals and clubs (within a couple of months, I saw her in a jam-packed tent at Newport, followed by a tightly packed tiny room at a bar in Nashville), Segarra has come through all that fog machine smoke with even better, more thoughtful, incredibly haunting material.
Though this column has, so far, been mostly populated by writers with decades of expertise behind them, the decision to include Segarra seemed like a natural next step. Our discussion about songwriting began with my belief that a specific song from her new album is one of the most stunning topical songs I’ve heard in some time.
Kim Ruehl: I usually don’t talk specifically about any particular project for this column, but I wanted to start with [your song] “The Body Electric” as an exception. I think it’s an extraordinary song. I wanted to hear about where that song started for you.
Alynda Lee Segarra: That song was coming from a place of frustration. I’m kind of a news junkie, and I was reading a lot of stuff in the news about, specifically, girls in high schools getting sexually attacked by classmates. I read a lot about the woman in New Delhi who was attacked and ended up dying. I was just reading so much about these women and it started to just… I was at a show one night and I heard a guy sing this song that was written in the murder ballad fashion, a new song that he wrote, that was all about killing his girlfriend because she was cheating on him. I was so frustrated and felt like I couldn’t bare hearing another one of these songs ever again. We really detach from songs about violence against women, especially when they’re written in an old style, we tell ourselves as an audience that they don’t mean it in that way and we shouldn’t take them seriously. That started linking with “He didn’t mean it, he was drunk,” or “he was really mad,” or the kinds of excuses we give to the people who [do that]. I felt like I need to write a song or I’m going to explode. I wrote it, actually, really quickly. I was driving and I had to pull over and record it into my phone really fast. I feel pretty good about it. I feel like, playing it live is sort of my most, it really feels like me when I play it.
That’s such a huge, overwhelming topic. You said it came very quickly, but certainly there was a lot of thinking about it before you wrote the song. How do you distil something like that into a song?
There’s a Tom Waits lyric about…I forget what [the actual lyric is] but it’s about letting the song come to you. I feel like I’ve thought about this [song] a long time before I wrote it. One day was just the right day. I feel like I try not to overthink the whole process. I think it’s a spiritual connection that when you’re open to it, it’ll fall on you. You just have to respect it when it comes to you, make sure you’re ready to record it or jot it down. When there’s a topic that’s really important to me, I try to keep it on my mind and be open to it.
This is true of a lot of your stuff, it’s more of a story. It’s not preachy. It’s not like you’re trying to convince people of your idea; you’re just presenting it. Is that a result of your editing process? Or do you think that’s just a result of being really open to the song?
I think that’s actually coming from another idea that I’ve been thinking about for years. I really wanted to make political music but I knew that it wouldn’t be so easy. I know people are very suspicious of political music, especially in the folk world. It’s become this corny idea – it’s an overplayed, sort of corny, preachy [thing]. But, I’ve thought about: what’s the most effective way to get an idea across? People relate when you just tell a story…when you tell someone a story that’s so heartbreaking, there’s really not much they can do to argue with it. You just set the story and tell them. When it means something to me, I just tell them, this is how I feel. You put yourself in there. It’s a really effective way to get into people’s hearts. I feel like my generation, especially, is really suspicious and cynical and that’s how to change it.
There aren’t a lot of other people going there, though. Do you have any ideas about why that might be, why other songwriters aren’t really writing these sort of socio-political story-songs?
For me, for so long, I just thought it was really hard. It’s still really hard for me. It’s kind of a scary road to go down because you know you can be so easily made fun of, basically. You just really have to be open to where it’s going in that moment. I do think there are people who are writing songs that have a political message, but they’re going about it in a very personal-political kind of way. We’ve been on the road with Shovels & Rope, and they’ve got a new song they’ve been playing on tour with a chorus that says “You’ve got what it takes to save the world.” I would consider that a political song. It’s really giving people this idea that they have control over their life and can actually make a difference in the world. I think there are people going in that direction…
Is there anything in the world that’s not worth writing a song about?
That’s a hard question, I don’t know. I would love to never mention technology in my music. I hope I never write a song about text messaging or anything like that.
Even a “Put your iPhone away at my show” kind of song?
That’s true. That could be good, depends on how you go about it.
What do you think is a song that gets everything right?
“Imagine” is a perfect song.
Because it branches out with so many different ideas. It’s taking all these ideas that are so huge that it’s like, how can you possibly talk to the world about not using your religion for wars? [These are] really intense, overwhelming ideas, and somehow he finds a way to bring them to a very understandable, emotional, personal language that everyone can feel open to and everyone can be affected by.
Right, and It’s also a very simple song. I know in my own life as a writer, it can be scary to be so simple.
Exactly, but I think simplicity is the key to a lot of political songwriting. Think of Woody Guthrie. His songs, he only needed two chords… I really love Woody Guthrie. His music is really simple in a way that’s very deceiving because it’s talking about these huge topics. It shows that he was playing that music for the people, playing for his people.
Originally written for the Bluegrass Situation