New Orleans is living and breathing again; teaming with life. Music is exploding out of the rebuilt city like never before. But don't get lost in the mess of noise, Hurray For the Riff Raff is a big supporter, and part of it. With her outlaw style, Alynda Lee's songwriting will make you feel like she's your long lost twin. Filling the noise between her light banjo picking, she's supported by the rest of the Raffers who wield accordions, fiddles, toy pianos, double bass, saws, and autoharps. Not only have they specialized and crafted a homely sound, their stories will craft a deep place in the home of your music collection.
Interview by Charlie Weingartner
TMC: Hey there Alynda! I guess Iíll just ask you to do a brief autobiography on yourself, since youíve got a great story that people might not know about.
Ok, I was born in the Bronx in New York. And I grew up in New York City. When I was 17 I left home and started traveling. I had met a lot of younger people who were exclusively riding freight trains. I met them when I was really young, hanging out in the punk scene in the Lower East Side. That was like happening at the time. So, I was really fascinated by that and when I decided to leave home, I decided that that was what I had to do. I did that for awhile, for a couple of years Ė like 2, until I eventually made my way to New Orleans. Which was where I met some friends of mine that were just starting to play traditional old music. Appalachian tunes and not blue grass, but older than bluegrass. I decided that thatís what I really should be doing. And even though I didnít know how to play music at the time, I started playing percussion with them. I was playing like the washboard and started to get into singing, until eventually I got a banjo. We all, that band, that I had at the time was called The Dead Man Street Orchestra
. And we were basically a band because we wanted to travel together and learn music together. I learned how to play from those guys and eventually I decided that I wanted to live in New Orleans because I fell in love with it so much. I met my friend Walt, and Aubrey, and I started writing songs and here I am a couple years later!
TMC: Howíd you end up playing the banjo?
Well, thatís a funny story because the band that I was in at the time Ė we had an accordion, we had a fiddle, we had a guitar, we had all these other instruments, but the one that we didnít have was a banjo. And actually Walt, before I started playing music with him, or really even knew him that well, heard that I was looking for a banjo, and he gave me one. One of his old ones. So this was this musician I respected so much that was like a million times better than me, and he was just like, ďHey I have a present for you. I was about to leave town. He was like, ďI have a present for you. I heard you wanted banjo and here you go.Ē He like gave me it, and I was like, ďWell I better learn how to play it because this great musician just handed it down to me.Ē
TMC: Thatís a mighty nice gift. Iím incredibly jealous. Do you do all your songwriting on banjo, or do you experiment with other instruments?
Yeah, I actually started just learning how to play guitar. There are probably going to be some songs written on guitar. But really the banjo fits my voice I think. I feel most comfortable singing with it. Thatís the instrument that Iíve learned the best, also. That Iíve been the most studious on.
TMC: Was Waltís encouragement to move to New Orleans a big factor in the decision?
Well, it definitely felt that way but I think when you get used to moving around, especially at a pretty young age, it gets hard to stick through tough times because your mechanism for dealing with depression is to really leave town because itís so exhilarating to just go and always be moving. I think that was the hardest to get used, and Iím still getting used to now. Him encouraging me made me feel like Ė I felt like I wandering around looking for something, trying to figure out what it was that I should be doing. And to have encouragement from someone, him, was just like, ďMan, if I can stay here and make something with this person. Iím doing something. You know?Ē When he was telling me that he wanted to start a band with me, I was like, ďI cannot say ĎNoí to this. This is the opportunity of a lifetime,Ē because heís such an amazing musician, and a person as well. Great person.
TMC: Did you ever imagine that your own music would grow more than from a solo project?
I always assumed that it would just be a little hobby, you know? I had written some songs and he heard them. I was amazed that he even liked them. I made a recording that was just me, and he was one of the two people who I gave it to down here, cause I just thought it wasnít that good, really. What I always imagined Iíd do is become a musician that sits in with traditional bands, because thereís a lot of jazz bands down here. You know, a working musician, you come and you play, then you leave and play another gig. And thatís what I always imagined Iíd do working with music. But yeah, I was really surprised that he liked the songs. So it was like, ďReally? You think this is worth something?Ē
TMC: Are any of the songs on ďIt Donít Mean I Donít Love YouĒ tracks found on the first demos he listened to?
Yeah, actually, there was two of them that weíve kept. But besides that Iíve grown out of most of them. But "Daniella" was a song that I wrote when I first started writing songs that was on the first album that he heard. And there was another one but I canít really remember. There were a lot of them, but I was like, ďOk. That was good, but now itís time to move on.Ē
TMC: Did moving south to New Orleans affect you personally or your writing at all?
Oh, it really influenced a lot, I think. Growing up in New York City was really amazing, and it was important for me. But living here thereís been so much more time to really interact with people. And I think that my interactions that Iíve had with people whoíve grown up in New Orleans, or people in the south in general, itís so much more personal and thereís so much more of an emphasis on not really rushing around. Thatís like the stereotype in New York. Everybodyís rushing around and trying to make their rent. And thereís also a lot of focus on whatíre you going to become, and what is your angle. Thatís really in the culture. Like, ďWhat do you do?Ē And ďWhat is that going to get you,Ē you know? And I think that especially with musicians down here, Iíve just found that a lot of them gravitate towards the south to get away from that type of mindset, and try to create a good musician community. Thatís focused on us all playing together and learning from each other, and trying to create Ė In New Orleans, people are living like weíre back in time. Sometimes itís really hard, and sometimes itís really inspiring. Sometimes, with the musicians I meet and the music I hear I think, ďIím living in the 40ísĒ or something. (laughs) So, in that way itís really changed everything because Iím trying to soak in as much as I can from everything around me. New Orleans has a such a rich musical history that thereís just so much to learn. My long winded answer. (laughs)
TMC: I'm always interested to know how artists perceive their own music. You've called yours "jug music," What does that mean to you?
Well, jug band music is always understood as made from people who are working class or poor, who are getting together either making their own instruments or creating a getaway from everyday life. And thatís what Iíve always gotten out of those old recordings. Like, these are hard working people who are trying to create this separate culture outside of everything. And so thatís what Iíve always really related to with the way our band works. Creating this other world away from popular culture. Making an escape, kind of. Thatís what Iíve always strived for, is that when people come to the show I want them to feel like their really escaping from everyday life. So thatís what Iíd say itís related to.
TMC: Itís great that you have such a grass-roots appreciation for music. Thatís something thatís unfortunately very hard to find. I read that in one of your bios, rent is still payed by money you earn from playing on the streets of the French Quarter, down in New Orleans.
Yep. (laughs) Iím there. Yeah, everyday for the most part. Today is actually a good day, well for an interview, because itís like cloudy and rainy here right now. But thatís another great thing about New Orleans life, is that Royal Street, which is a street in the French Quarter, is closed down everyday of cars from the hours of 11 to 6. So, I have a band that Iím a part that we go out there everyday and play. We have some swing dancers and stuff. You can just set up in the middle of the street. Itís pretty competitive, thereís a lot of bands out there. We play traditional jazz, and itís great practice! Iím learning a lot from the musicians I play with. Itís a really great way to spend your day. Itís a lot better than working on houses on something, or working in a coffee shop. I feel really lucky that I can do that for money.
TMC: A lot of musicians have day-jobs to cover their expenses, but you chose to stick to it the hard way. Does that have any special reason or meaning to you?
Umm, itís a mixture. Itís such a good opportunity, itís like, ďwhy wouldnít I do it?Ē Like, I said, itís such a nicer way to spend your day and Iíd feel really lucky to play music to make money. With this band I play with on the street, I can. I just feel like itís an opportunity that I shouldnít let go of. I know itís not going to last forever, and honestly Iím not the best at holding down a job. (laughs). So, Iím not the most reliable in that way. Iím like, ďMan I gotta do what I can.Ē Thatís what I can do. I figure if I can do it, I might as well do it all the way.
TMC: Well, you certainly are lucky to be doing that, and donít worry Ė we wonít give away the secret of your town. Whereís your favorite place to write?
Good question! Iíd say thereís a spot in New Orleans that I really love actually thats called Press Street. Itís this street right by the railroad tracks that I really love. A lot of people go there because itís really quiet and thereís not a lot of traffic going through there. So, that is one of my favorite places. Besides that, I guess I would just say someplace that I know that no one is going to walk in or start talking to me or something. Like my room locked up. (laughs) Actually, now I have the right answer. I was searching for it. The bathroom is where, because you can just lock the door and lay in the tub or something. Thatís what I used to do when I first started writing songs, I would just turn on the shower and sit on the floor and have the shower be running. Which is really bad, because youíre wasting water. I remember when I first started writing songs, and I was really into it being like, ďI could do this all day. I donít have to talk to anybody!Ē Thatís what I would do at the apartment I was staying at. So, thereís my answer.
TMC: Yikes! Talk about the water bill.
Yeah, and your roommates will get mad. Like, ďGet out of there! I know youíre just writing. I need to take a shower.Ē
TMC: (laughs) Yeah, they might not like that too much. As a street musician, you've had to have played in some weird places to odd crowds. What's been the strangest?
Umm, we played at a barn in the mountains of Tennessee, on this land called Ida. Itís called a queer sanctuary. The purpose of the land is to create a space where gay, queer, and transgender people can come work, and stay and create this community. Itís a really beautiful place thatís been there for a lot of years. They have a music festival every year called Idapalooza
. Pretty small, but itís gaining popularity. We played their in the front barn and it was really one of the weirdest and greatest things Iíve done. Cause it was just like, ďWeíre in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of Tennessee.Ē Everybodyís waltzing around with each other in the dark. It was really fun.
TMC: That sounds great! Where in Tennessee is it?
Itís by Smithville, I believe. Itís like an hour away from Nashville.
TMC: Great. I reside in Nashville currently, so thatíll have to be something to check out!
Yeah, the festival is great. They have some really great musicians that play there. This lady Diane Cluck
played a couple years ago. Theyíve been trying to get Hope For Agoldensummer
. Theyíve been trying to get a lot of southern, clear musicians to come out there.
TMC: That sounds fantastic. Recording in a home studio is something that happens more and more often, and you were fortunate enough to record "It Don't Mean I Don't Love You" in Aubrey's. Do you ever want to record in the traditional commercial studio ever?
No, Iíd love to just to try it out. You might as well try anything, and see where itíd take your music. Iíd really love to just to see the difference. Thereís this idea that goes on nowadays that if you go into a studio itís probably going to sound really clean and wonít have any rough edges on it. Thereís hundreds of recordings that I really love of artists that were popular that were done in studios and just done well. Thatíve had so much feeling put into them. So, I feel like you might get lucky. Work with someone who really knows what theyíre doing and itíd be great.
TMC: I think the most important thing is finding the right engineer and mixer who will work with the sound aesthetic youíre trying to create.
Yeah, definitely. You know producers really do a lot. The bassist basically produced this album. I would go away and come back, and heíd be like, ďI added a string section.Ē (laughs) Or stuff like that. Iíd be like, ďWow. You guys do a lot for an album.Ē
TMC: Certainly. Do you have a song from the record that you feel was the most successful?
Umm, thereís a couple people seem to really like. I definitely feel like when it comes to what I think about my songwriting that Bricks is the best one, just because I feel itís simple and it can be played a long time from now. That was when I was like, ĎOK, I did a good job.Ē I feel like this song can last throughout time and a lot of different people could appreciate it, and sing along to it to, which I think makes a good song. So, thatís the one Iím most proud of.
TMC: If there was a visual artist, piece, movie, photograph that could describe the musical aesthetic you're trying to achieve, what would you point us to?
Wow, thatís a really good question. Itís funny because Francesca Woodman
is who. Do you know Francesca Woodman?
TMC: I honestly canít say that I do!
Sheís a photographer that sadly died at a really young age. I think she was around in the 70s. She mostly did self portraits, and most of her work was from her years in college and high school, when she was just trying out new things and doing projects for school. Sheís really amazing and her self portraits really capture a lot about the female experience, which I really try to put out in Riff Raff music as well. The photographs are just so personal, haunting, and beautiful. Sometimes their funny, and sometimes their kind of grotesque. Iím really affected by them, so Iíd say Francesca.
TMC: Iíll certainly have to look into her work, considering I love photography. As an unsigned artist, are there any record labels you'd dream of being signed to?
. Tom Waitsí record label. Iíd love to do that.
TMC: Excellent choice! Weíll forward the interview along to them. Put in the good word. (laughs) Are there any other instruments youíd love to add to your musical talents?
Yeah, Iíd love to play the piano. As you can hear, thereís one at my house that people are always banging on. That has always been my dream, to be able to be an old woman and be able to play the piano to myself. Hopefully Iíll progress more because right now Iím still just playing really childish waltzes.
TMC: Pianoís not an easy instrument to learn, and fortunately banjo and piano are very similar so thereís a small learning curve.
Yeah, itís true. Itís just hard to get passed certain points in the learning curve with an instrument thatís so intimidating.
TMC: And we always as artists to finish off interviews that since this is The Milk Carton, are there any artists or bands that youíd like to see become more popular and find a larger audience that we should go check out?
Yeah. Thatís a good question for a New Orleans person because thereís so many good bands down here. Thereís two bands Iíd say. One of them is called Church Rag
. Theyíre a band thatís based out of here. The other, is the other band, but... Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship
TMC: Great. Weíll be sure to check out both, and spread the word about Hurray for the Riff Raff.
Well, thanks for the interview it was great!
TMC: No, thank you! It was fun.
You can now purchase "It Don't Mean I Don't Love You on" CD Baby and iTunes.