From the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PAT MORAN
Alynda Lee Segarra isn’t sure what she would print on her guitar. “I thought about Woody Guthrie who had, ‘This machine kills fascists,’ [painted] on his guitar, and then I thought about Pete Seeger’s banjo, where he wrote, ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.’ I’ve been wondering, where’s my middle ground between those two?”
Segarra, who writes and performs with a rotating musical crew as Hurray for the Riff Raff, has been examining that middle ground since 2006. Honing her chops while busking on the streets of New Orleans, Segarra earned accolades for her 2012 album Look Out Mama (Born to Win) from NPR’s Ann Powers. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s breakout collection Small Town Heroes (ATO), which featured “The Body Electric,” a feminist rejoinder to misogynist, old-timey murder ballads, was Americana for the multicultural, all-inclusive 21st century. (See music for “The Body Electric” on p. 58.) It earned rave reviews from Paste, Popmatters, and Pitchfork, while landing in Rolling Stone’s Top 50 albums for 2014.
Segarra’s latest release, The Navigator (ATO), continues in her populist, activist vein, but trades her adopted Southern focus for the polyglot melting pot of her native New York City. Songs like “Rican Beach” provide a voice for Americans marginalized by greed and gentrification, while “Pa’lante” raises a Spanish-language rallying cry, which means “keep on going,” against politicians who want to build a wall to divide us.
Given Segarra’s fiery commitment to speak truth to power, it’s surprising that she initially approached the guitar with trepidation. “Girls are taught since we’re little that we’re all about feelings, that we’re not technically minded,” Segarra says. “When you hear incredibly gifted guitarists like St. Vincent and Brittany Howard, you realize that’s not true. But I was insecure.”
At 17, the Puerto Rican-American Segarra left her home in the Bronx to hitchhike and ride the rails, like her hero Woody Guthrie, before landing in New Orleans. She started playing music on Decatur Street, first on washboard, then on banjo. Mastery of rhythm became her gateway to guitar.
“Coming from a rhythmic place helped me break through my nervousness,” Segarra says. “I was confident that I knew how to groove. The music of Maybelle Carter made me want to play guitar. She played with fingerpicks, but I would try to recreate her style with a flatpick.”
Segarra still adds hammer-ons to fill out the sound when she’s not singing, a technique she attributes to Carter.
On a trip back to New York City, Segarra picked up a Harmony archtop for $100 off of Craigslist. For a while, she continued to play traditional tunes on banjo in the French Quarter while she practiced her own songs at home on guitar. When she got a second Harmony, an all-mahogany 1970s archtop with a built-in pickup, she finally hit the street with guitar in hand. Segarra’s guitar playing soon found a home on Hurray for the Riff Raff’s albums.
“On the first two Hurray records [It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You (2008) and Hurray for the Riff Raff (2011)], I was still playing banjo, trying to make it sound like an electric guitar. Finally, I switched to acoustic guitar.”
‘The music of Maybelle Carter made me want to play guitar.’
Alynda Lee Segarra
The turn to acoustic coincided with the addition of guitarist Sam Doores to Segarra’s band. Doores has since left to concentrate on his band the Deslondes, and for the past year Segarra has shared guitar duties with Jordan Hyde. “Sam taught me how hard it is to play simply, and how perfect that can be,” Segarra says. “We were listening to a lot of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, even though our playing was much different. [Welch] plays a [Gibson] J-50, so that inspired me to get one because it fills out the sound so well.”
The 1957 Gibson is now Segarra’s prized possession, she says. “I used to play it live, but it has so much resonance that it’s hard to play with a band. The bass travels into my guitar and stays in there.” Live, Segarra has traded the Gibson for a Kay semi-acoustic archtop from the 1950s, but the J-50 still defines the sound of her latest studio album.
The Navigator is an ambitious song cycle inspired by Patti Smith’s street poetry and the theatrical conceptualism of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, but the bridge between the two is Detroit-based singer-songwriter Rodriguez, the subject of the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The resulting set is singer-songwriter music with a bold concept and a Latin alternative sound. “My Gibson helped me write ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl.’ I wrote the lyrics stream-of-consciousness to the full bass sound that drones through the fingerpicking,” Segarra recalls. “I was thinking a lot about Dylan because I was doing drop-D fingerpicking.”
When Segarra wrote “Halfway There,” she emulated another one of her heroes, Elizabeth Cotten. “I tried to make the guitar sound a little crooked and play around with the rhythm, like she did so well.”
For “Living in the City,” Segarra set aside her J-50 and picked up her manager’s Gibson J-45. “It wasn’t as big-sounding as my guitar, but its smaller tone cut through,” Segarra says. “The lyrics have a rhythm that I needed to drive. It probably isn’t a steady rhythm, but it’s fluid. We wanted the pace of somebody walking through the city.”
The Navigator is Segarra’s urban-based odyssey, a call for unity, and dream of a better world. It has generated buzz for its sounds, rhythms, and message.
“Our country faces a big question: Are we going to stand for what we claim we stand for?” Segarra asks. As an artist, she says she feels compelled to “speak for equality, justice, and love.
“And I hope whatever I say encourages lots of little girls to play guitar.”
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What Alynda Lee Segarra Plays
Alynda Lee Segarra’s 1957 Gibson J-50 is her “prized possession,” but it’s not her first guitar. “When I was in middle school I had a really silly little Stratocaster that I covered in punk stickers,” Segarra says laughing. “I actually still have it.”
Until recently, the J-50 was Segarra’s primary live guitar. She still plays it in the studio. “I used a pickup live, a K&K Pure Western setup for a hot second, but then I switched to an L.R. Baggs M1 that goes into the soundhole. I really like it because it has a volume knob.
“In the studio with the Gibson, I just go acoustic. I go right into the mic.”
Live, Segarra plays her 1950s Kay archtop, which she can play amplified or unplugged.
On the Gibson, Segarra uses John Pearse light-gauge strings. On the archtop, she uses Martin light-gauge strings.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.