How Hurray for the Riff Raff Learned the Power of the Present

Segarra’s most conceptually ambitious album to date is “The Navigator,” a kind of character-driven folk-rock opera — in the vein of Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown” — about Puerto Rican culture and the American immigrant experience. (Working with the actor and director C. Julian Jimenéz, they presented parts of a stage adaptation in progress last year at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.) The most wrenching song on the album was “Pa’lante,” a piano ballad that somehow blended punk’s political fury with Sondheimian songcraft. (Cook called it “one of the greatest songs I’d ever heard.”) “Lately, I don’t understand what I am,” Segarra sings. “Treated as a fool, not quite a woman or a man.”

Since coming out as nonbinary before “Life on Earth” was released, Segarra has used music as a space to experiment more freely with gender. There’s a gleeful fluidity to the way that manifests on “The Past Is Still Alive.” They sing about the pressure to “be a good daughter,” but also assert, on “Snake Plant,” “I was born with a baby boy’s soul.”

On the album’s cocksure cover art, Segarra consciously channeled James Dean and River Phoenix. “I wanted to embody one of these sad, pretty-boy-in-workwear American archetypes,” they said with a laugh. Queer elders who showed them how to transcend the gender binary make cameos throughout “The Past.” In “Colossus of Roads,” Segarra name-checks the poet Eileen Myles, whose example taught them that “there’s also this option of existence, and creation of who you are.” (Myles happened to be in the audience of a small Hurray for the Riff Raff show in Marfa, Texas, and approached Segarra afterward to ask, “Did I hear my name, or am I just full of myself?”)

Re-examining their relationship with their father, Jose Enrico Segarra (who often went by Quico), has also helped Segarra understand the expansive nature of their gender identity. “When I was with him, I was his daughter, and I said that as a very honorable thing,” they said. But also “in his passing, there were some ways that I really felt like his son, in the honor of carrying his legacy musically.”

Quico was a pianist who loved Latin jazz; Segarra recalls him always scatting, whistling and singing. When Segarra was young, the two would sing together at the piano: “‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Que Sera, Sera,’ ‘You Light Up My Life’ — those were our hits.” Later, when Segarra was a teenager, the pair would get into arguments because Quico was “hilarious in a way that would make me really mad, because I was so goth and brooding.”

Segarra’s father was also a Marine veteran who developed PTSD after returning from the Vietnam War. His struggle, and his decision to seek treatment, continues to inspire Segarra. “I got this really good example from him of somebody who did decide that his life was worth saving. The trauma he experienced was so intense, and to witness him really take his peace seriously. …” They trailed off. “He started making jewelry and he would just bead all day. He started buying Puerto Rican art and filling his apartment with beautiful things.”

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