‘It’s a rough time to be human’: Hey Riff Raff Composing Fun Music Under Fire | Music

aLinda Lee Cigara wields a radical joy. The musician – known as Hurray for the Riff Raff – decided to embrace happiness despite the horrors of this special era. “This is a violent time to be human — it’s kind of always a violent time to be human,” they explain via Zoom from their airy New Orleans home. “How do we stay present, how do we feel so intensely joyful, and not just so overwhelmingly heavy with it all?”

The answer is trees. “We get hurricanes every year but plant life thrives. It was very comforting to look at these organisms and be like: “I don’t know how to survive this. How do you survive this?’” They grew up in a cramped apartment in the Bronx, New York City, and felt that the natural world was reserved for “the very wealthy who go on elaborate vacations. It seemed like a class division.” Now, plants not only offer Segarra’s strength and solace – they also help them forge a whole new species.

“Nature punk” is how Segarra refers to their upcoming eighth album, Life on Earth, which is a follow-up to the revised 2017 album The Navigator. It includes Lou Reed’s heart-wrenching and adorable homage to the rhododendron, while the closest Ken sees Segara collaborating. With a tree covered in wind which they describe as their “favorite experimental musician”.

However, what’s most impressive about Life on Earth isn’t its extraordinary credit list, but the way Segarra transforms dark and disturbing themes into songs full of hope, beauty, and joy. Opener Wolves is an elevated, soothing, rock-cut slice of the Earth’s core that indicates a climate catastrophe. On precious goods, the refugee crisis moves poignantly — but somehow not so desperately — in words that speak of traveling through the woods only to confront the inhumane conditions of American detention centers.

This song is based on the testimony of two men Cigara met a few years ago while volunteering for an organization that supports asylum seekers in ACE detention facilities. It was a move prompted by the musician’s feeling that they “were touched by the news. It was as if I had all this damn free time and feel bad for myself and the world: let me go do something.” In the end, the men were released, and one of them instructed Precious Cargo, asking people to continue helping the refugees: “I asked for his message to the world and this is what he decided. It’s really beautiful.”

Also nice is Jupiter’s Dance, a sticky, sparkly pop song that provides comfort to immigrant children. It features the rhythms of Puerto Rican music that Segarra heard as a child: after years spent ignoring their heritage, they began incorporating these influences into their authentic folk sound on The Navigator. Life on Earth takes its voice once more to something more graceful and structured, thanks in part to producer Brad Cook (Waxahatchee, Snail Mail), whom Segarra describes as a lovingly cheerleading character with a “Ted Lasso vibe.” In the past, their work was usually described as Americana, but the musician is increasingly feeling alienated from the genre. “The world of Americana feels so oppressive to me — a world that doesn’t want to hear the truth about how hard life is. It makes things so beautiful.”

Alinda Lee Cigara.
“The Americana world doesn’t want to hear the truth about how hard it is to be alive”… Alynda Lee Segarra. Photography: Okasha Rabot

As a teenager, it was punk and the friendly community around him that captured Segarra’s imagination. “I was part of an acoustic punk band which was very awkward, but since we have small spaces in New York I couldn’t practice playing electric guitar. I shared a room with my aunt, she would have been like, ‘This is so annoying!” I was born to Nuyorican parents ( New York Puerto Rico) – Their father was a music teacher and their mother worked as one of New York’s deputy mayors in the 1990s – Segarra lived with her aunt and uncle until the age of 17, when they left to travel to the United States and play music in a street band.” I was in this world of wanting to live outside of society. And that was my biggest dream, not to pay rent or pay for anything and have no money. I felt like I was going to be devastated trying to join the world and get a job.” The preferred mode of transportation was cargo hopping – a very illegal and dangerous practice of sneaking into freight trains. “I look back and think how the hell did you do that? Because I am now very neurotic,” they shiver.

The pandemic gave Segarra space to address the trauma of the time. “These bodily memories will overwhelm me, all this stillness and silence stirred up so many.” They found that EMDR — a form of therapy that uses buzzers and flashing lights to get rid of specific memories of their distressing effect — helped. “I’ve been doing talk therapy for many years and can think of something all day, but I was like: Why do I still feel like I’m crawling out of my skin?”

This recovery period has also changed their approach to touring. Previously, they had high expectations of themselves: “I wanted to perform well, and I wanted to give people hope. Now I want to be like, ‘I’m human and all I can do is be present with you.'” As they prepare to get back on the road, Segara hopes to take the lessons of the last two locked years with them; Realizing that “it’s okay for me to skip the day, it’s okay if all I did today was make a really delicious meal.” As their highly encouraging new album proves, they have achieved so much more.

Life on Earth was released by Nonesuch on February 18.

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