Alynda Lee Segarra left home at 17 to see America and find a community by hopping freight trains. Along the way she met a fiddler named Yosi Perlstein, and they formed a band: Hurray for the Riff Raff. But HFTRR is way more than a band, as Segarra will tell you. She and Perlstein see the project as a way to claim space for feminist, queer, and trans identities within country and roots music.
We are beyond pleased to premiere the playful girl-gang-themed video for HFTRR’s “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright)” right here, right now:
And I was beyond pleased to get to chat with Segarra recently, when she’d just come home to New Orleans after a long stretch of touring. We talked about how her vagabond life and the friends it’s brought her have radicalized and inspired her.
PAULA MEJIA: You’ve been traveling a lot—how’s tour been?
ALYNDA LEE SEGARRA: We finished a West Coat tour a little bit ago, then we played in England, and we just played this festival out in California called Bottle Rock. So we’ve been bouncing all over the place. We get to play a hometown show today—it’s actually a benefit for this organization called BreakOUT, which is a youth organization for queer people of color. So it feels great to come home and do something for New Orleans.
Promoting positive queer identity is a big issue for your band. Can you talk about that?
I think there’s something really powerful going on. When we first started playing, Yosi and I were like, “How are we ever going to blend these worlds of Americana and queerness?” We felt like we had to choose between the two. And now, more and more, it feels like those worlds are blending. I feel so inspired by people like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, these really proud trans women of color who are so open about themselves. Their backgrounds are important to them, and they bring their race and their class [to their work] and put it all together. It’s been really inspiring for me to see that and then to do this as a queer Hispanic woman playing country music. Yesterday at the airport Yosi and me each bought a copy of Time magazine because Laverne Cox was on the cover. I obsessively watch her speeches—I love her so much. She’s actually how I found out about BreakOUT—she reps them so hard.
You spent a while hopping trains, living nomadically–how does that inform your life now?
Living that way made me very in touch with how I felt as a woman in the world, a young woman especially. You know, you’re very much in touch with danger all the time. I was very young, so the only way to not to go crazy is to convince yourself that you do have some control over your safety. I did everything I could to be safe—that meant traveling with people a lot of the time—but the reality is you’re living on luck, putting yourself in situations where you’re trusting total strangers. Looking back on it now I think, Wow, that’s so crazy. But it was important, and I feel very lucky that I came out of it safely.
When I met Yosi, it was such a revelation. It’s like, here is this trans man traveling around, hopping trains, playing the fiddle, being a badass, changing the words to be gender-neutral or making words that were really misogynstic and making them totally positive. I couldn’t believe someone like him existed, the person of my dreams! He had a really big impact on me. He introduced me to a queer and feminist traveling world, and just really made me who I am today.
But [hopping trains] really got me in touch with that fear of being a young woman in the world and that feeling of being fed up. I had felt that feeling growing up—when you get to a certain age, you start getting cat-called on the street, and it sucks. It was important for me at that age to clock out of society a bit, be on the outskirts and out of touch with technology and pop culture and hone in on music and this craft I wanted to get better at. I also experienced a lot of incredible times with people [on trains] just being so generous. It really amplified my feminism. I want to try and change things.
What was your first introduction to playing music?
I started by playing the washboard in New Orleans. I originally tried playing guitar when I was in middle school, but I gave up and felt really down on myself. I had this big mental block and thought I was really bad at technical things. That feeling was ingrained in me. When I went to New Orleans, the washboard was so unpretentious—there was no stigma attached to it, it just felt silly and fun. And rhythm just came really naturally to me. It was important for me to start that way, because it really built my confidence, you know? I felt like it was the first step at being like, “I’m good at keeping rhythm. Now I can transition into something else, like the banjo.” So much of it was mental, thinking I was too old to play music at 17. Which is not old at all! The washboard was fun, and it made me focus on how music is supposed to be fun! Gaining that confidence, being around other positive people, made me think I could learn different instruments, learn to play chords. So then from the banjo I went back to the guitar.
I think that’s a common experience among girls and women–growing up thinking that technical things are above us.
Especially mechanical things. Fixing things. There’s definitely this idea that’s ingrained in you that’s like, “No, you can’t wrap your mind around that, you have to only do emotional, creative things.” That’s really important, but it’s just so not true.
When I came back to the guitar, I had a lot of great friends who taught me in person, but I also researched internet tricks on my own. I was looking up all of these incredible female guitarists that are at the center of country music and blues history, like Maybelle Carter and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. If you look [Tharpe] up, she’s this wonderful granny just rocking out on the electric guitar! So many people have been influenced by this person but just don’t know it. I feel like the internet was really important for me, because I was just able to see everything visually. Watching videos of Nina Simone, people like that, made me think, Whoa. Women are actually really good at music, and we’ve been doing it forever. ♦