Esther Rose and Alynda Segarra Have Thick Skin

The old friends talk their New Orleans origins, embarrassing lyrics, and collaborating on Safe to Run.

Esther Rose is a country singer-songwriter formerly based in New Orleans, and now in Santa Fe; Alynda Segarra is the New York City-born artist who helms the New Orleans-based band Hurray for the Riff Raff. Alynda is featured on the title track of Esther’s new record, Safe to Run — out this Friday on New West — so to celebrate its release, the old friends caught up about “secret weapon” chords, sexual lyrics, their most embarrassing lyrics, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Esther Rose: I wrote down some questions, because I’m a total nerd and I was like, what if I just black out?

Alynda Segarra: Oh, my god, of course. 

Esther: But if you want to just, like, flow, that’s fine too.

Alynda: OK, cool. 

Esther: So my first question is: what band do you want to run away with and play rhythm guitar and sing harmonies in?

Alynda: Oh, my god! That’s a good — OK. It doesn’t have to be a band that exists now? 

Esther: No, doesn’t matter. 

Alynda: I really want to be in The Strokes. I think that I do a really good Julian Casablancas, and I feel like I could give him a run for his money.

Esther: You just wanna take over The Strokes.

Alynda: [Laughs.] Take over the band. No, I’ll sing harmony. 

Esther: I love that. 

Alynda: They just seem like a fun band to be in, as far as living bands.

Esther: You’re ready for that era, too? The wild New York aughts?

Alynda: Yeah, for sure. That was when I was a freshman in high school. I was really deep into the punk scene, so I was just like, “Fuck all this hipster bullshit.” And then me and all my friends decades later were like, “Those were great songs and we were just, like, hating.” We were just little teenagers hating.

Esther: It was too mainstream for you at the moment, but now you’re ready for that mainstream appeal.

Alynda: Yeah. I just love that songwriting. And it’s something I really have a hard time doing, so it feels like it would be so fun to learn how to write like that or sing like that, you know?

Esther: Yeah. I would like to join Mapache now. It’s soft rock, and they write songs about, like, their dogs. It just seems like really easy and fun. [Laughs.]

Alynda: [Laughs.] Yeah, soft rock is also making a comeback!

Esther: We both just want to be in fun bands.

Alynda: Yeah, exactly. Can this be fun? Is that possible?

Esther: But what if we already have the fun bands?

Alynda: I don’t know. I feel like whenever I try to get fun, people are just like, “Can you go back to, like, the trauma? That’s why we’re here.”

Esther: “We want to cry.” 

Alynda: Yeah, I think that’s what they want.

Esther: I love that. Yeah, you said recently that people actually do just want to cry at your shows and not have fun, and that’s OK.

Alynda: Yeah. I mean, I think for at least me, that is fun. I think I forget what it’s like to not be in this musician lifestyle, and to be stuck maybe pretending to be somebody that you’re not in your everyday life and your work and that grind. I think for people, it’s really fun to go to a show and publicly cry and let it out, you know? That’s something that people need. So I think I’m learning how to just accept that responsibility of being the cry doula. [Laughs.] 

Esther: Yeah. I mean, let’s face it: I cry at party shows, too. 

Alynda: Oh, my god, yeah. I’ll see a great rock & roll band, and that’ll make me cry. I saw Special Interest, who are based in New Orleans — I’ve seen them a couple of times, but I saw them at Primavera, this last one, and it was like 2 AM and I just sobbed. Because it was so fucking, like, [pretends to yell]. And that will make me cry, because that’s my outlet that I don’t know how to get to, you know? So when somebody can take you there to that corner that you really need to dig out, it’s so freeing. 

Esther: Yeah. Well, we could talk about crying this whole time, but I’m going to move it along. [Laughs.] OK, here’s one that’s kind of fun: What chord is your secret weapon?

Alynda: Ooh! So, it’s an A, but you just take your middle finger off of it — I don’t know what it is, but it feels instantly John Lennon to me. I think it’s just an A7. Some dick is going to be like, “That’s actually whatever.” But I think that you take that middle finger off and all of a sudden you’re just like, I’m so deep. [Laughs.]

Esther: [Laughs.] I love that. Yeah, exploring chords in that way has been really awesome. There’s a Phoebe Bridgers chord — I was learning one of their tunes, and it was just like, Oh, you just take off one note in the G. Just taking off the bottom note of the G. But mine is D minor. I freaking love D minor. 

Alynda: Nice!

Esther: I’ll kind of play through and try stuff out to see what new combinations I can come up with, and whenever D minor comes in, it takes the melody someplace totally unexpected. Like with “Spider” — that song was originally written C and F, and when I went C, D Minor, it just exploded the song.

Alynda: That’s also a combination that I do way too much. It’s like the 1 to the 2 minor or something. D to E minor — I’ve made way too many songs that are just that, because it just feels really meditative and it can take you somewhere, but there’s a tension. I love repetitive two chord songs that are like, “Let’s just try to get somewhere here,” you know?

Esther: Well, I mean… OK, so you’re about to record your ninth album.

Alynda: That’s so weird. [Laughs.] 

Esther: At some point it must take the pressure off to come up with something totally original to you, as far as chord progressions go, right? You’ve probably explored them all. 

Alynda: I mean, definitely not them all. That’s definitely my insecurity, is guitar playing. I feel way more strong in my lyrical ability and my singing ability than the guitar playing sometimes. I mean, I love playing the guitar for rhythmic purposes. Like, we were just talking about how we’re both washboard players, so that’s how I come to the guitar. 

But right now, where I’m at in my life is just like, strip it all down. I don’t want to have some pretension about my guitar ability or my chord structure. I just want it to be so caveman bare. I want to be like, “Here’s my lyrics” — I think the lyrics and the poetry of it all is where I really craft, and everything else I want to be really rough. I want it to be jagged and just like, “Yeah, this is fucking two chords, get used to it!” [Laughs.] 

Esther: [Laughs.] You want your lyrics to shine. Touched on a lot of things for my future questions — one of them was, I was wondering what your mindset is going into this new recording process.

Alynda: Yeah. I don’t know how you’re feeling in your career — I feel like this next record that you’re putting out is such a huge step for you, and it’s so much growth that I’ve seen and heard happen. This is a moment for you that I’m really excited about. And for me, I feel like I really jumped out of my comfort zone with my last record [2022’s LIFE ON EARTH], but I also feel like I got tangled up in a lot of wanting to prove myself, in a certain artistic way or in a certain success way. And now I feel like this record that I’m about to do is me just free falling in a way that feels really good. Just like, what if I stop trying to climb this tower and just fucking let go and see what happens? And that feels like a really true place that I’m at. 

But it’s really fun for me to be on “Safe to Run,” and to see where you’re at and feel the electricity of this moment, you know? 

Esther: Oh, wow. Yeah, I was thinking, because it is such a leap of faith to be like, “Yes, I will collaborate on your track and be in your music video” — especially music videos, because they can come out so corny. It’s risky as an artist, I would think, to be collaborating. So I feel just really grateful that you trust my vision. But I also feel like when I sent you the track in 2021, November — a year and a half ago — and then you sent me your album, we had so many themes that were really similar. And lyrically, there’s something that you say like “thick skin.” I was like, Woah

Alynda: Yeah.

Esther: So clearly we worked through some super similar shit during lockdown. And a lot of that probably has to do with living as a climate refugee all the time, right? In New Orleans. 

So really similar themes that we’re both working through. But I just [thought], there has never been a song better than “Safe to Run” to ask you to sing on. 

Alynda: I mean, it felt for me — I really love when somebody writes a song. There’s no better high. Well, guess the better high is when I write it. But when somebody else writes a song that I’m just like, Fuck, this just says everything that I’ve been trying to say, you know? And that’s how this song feels to me. 

I mean, talk about similar themes — LIFE ON EARTH is so much about running for my life, like running to safety or just being a runner. Me and a friend had a talk about this recently, but when you’re in a relationship and you’re a runner, when you get that trigger, when you feel danger is coming in any way, you’re like, “I’m in the car. I’m already packed. I’m halfway out of town.”

Esther: I call it, “packing the Subaru in my mind.”

Alynda: I remember you saying that!

Esther: It’s like, “the Subaru is packed, but I’m just going to stay right here.” [Laughs.]

Alynda: Yeah. A really common theme that I feel like my friends are talking about right now is, how do we stay? I don’t know if it has to do with our age, or just the reality in the world that there isn’t really a safe place to run. Like, that’s what so much of your lyrics in the song are about.

Esther: Yeah. I mean our both of our origin stories of becoming songwriters — which is one of the best things that has happened in my life, finding that outlet — was from moving to New Orleans and somebody being like, “Hey, why don’t you play guitar? Here’s a guitar, figure it out.” But even arriving in New Orleans as a young person, not going to college or studying music in the traditional way, it all kind of suits this runner theme that is really specific.

Alynda: Yeah. 

Esther: And I think that might be partly why we are so aligned. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s what I love so much about you and your writing, and why I relate to you.

Alynda: Yeah, I mean, I said it the other night when we had our song trading session — I played you a new one and I was like, “Oh, this is Esther Rose, bad girl shit.” I really love how in the past it felt like you’ve had this wild woman, setting yourself free — it feels like such a blues woman mythology that’s always really spoken to me. And that was what brought me to songwriting to begin, that idea of becoming wild and freeing myself and that type of going against convention. It was all written in blues women lyricism, you know?

Esther: Was there a song where you were like, “I just found my voice”?

Alynda: Yeah, there was some Bessie Smith [song]. Bessie Smith really freed me, because she was so fucking tough. But she was also sexy, and I just felt like she was really punk.

Esther: Was there a song that you wrote that was the one that you felt like you found your thing, what you were doing?

Alynda: I mean, I guess the first batch of songs I wrote. When I wrote “Daniella,” I felt like I really did something. That was when it was really important for me — especially, I feel like, for people who struggle with, I don’t know, just not loving themselves — it was really important for me to have something that was a hit with our friends right off the bat. Because I don’t know if I would have had the courage to keep writing if I didn’t have people at the campfire being like, “Play ‘Daniella,’ play ‘Daniella’!” That immediate love was really important.

Esther: Well, the complexity of that song is what I now expect from you. Your particular perspective in your songwriting always feels like it’s super true and it’s super explosive, and it’s a perspective that we haven’t heard in a song. And “Daniella” is like that.

Alynda: Thanks. 

Esther: Yeah. OK, I have so much random stuff. What instrument are you learning now? Anything?

Alynda: Ooh! I guess I’m really trying — I don’t know how you are with gear. I think this is another New Orleans thing: I’m so bad at gear, and I really try to get into it, and I end up just being like, “You guys? I don’t know. Can I just play this fucking guitar?” I have a couple of pedals, and I know it’s sexy to, like, love your pedals and love your gear, but I just don’t. So I guess I’m not learning it, but I’ve been trying to get into that.

Esther: Yeah. I know what you mean. I’m like, “Do I really need a preamp for this acoustic guitar? I’m just gonna plug it straight in.” [Laughs.] 

Alynda: I keep thinking about how for me — this might sound really pretentious, but I feel like my instrument is my life and my experience and everything in my body. Often, I feel like my body is the instrument. I mean, obviously, with singing, it is your instrument, but it’s your mindset and your healing, or your pain. All of it is there and it tunes it to a certain aspect.

Esther: The tone is in your heart. 

Alynda: Yeah.

Esther: Actually, I just heard that quote — I was watching a Sam Evian song breakdown, and people are always asking him in his recording studio what kind of gear, and he’s like, “tone comes from the heart.”

Alynda: Wow, I love that!

Esther: [Laughs.] It’s in here, baby! It’s not in your pedal. 

Alynda: It is.

Esther: OK, so, we both chatted — we keep referencing an earlier conversation, but we were talking about stage etiquette, and we both agreed that we would never, ever ask our audiences to stop talking. And I’ve been thinking about that entertainer aspect, and if that’s a New Orleans thing that comes from playing in the street. 

Alynda: Ooh, yeah!

Esther: So, who is your favorite local entertainer?

Alynda: Oh, that’s a good one. My friend Lucia Honey, who also directed two of my music videos — whenever I go see her, it’s to me just high performance art. Her commitment and her embodiment is so incredible. And [she’s] another person who’s made me cry with her performance. It can be so tender, or it could be so savage, you know? She has this incredible ability to take over an environment. And I think that’s something I really look up to, because sometimes I feel like I can do it and other times I wish I could do it more. I’d love for it to become more natural and not so much of a, I gotta put on my performer personality now. I’d love to find a way to blend those.

Esther: Well, a memory that I have of our first time playing a show together: we were babies, it was over a decade ago, upstairs at the Blue Nile. 

Alynda: Oh, my god!

Esther: I was in a different band. But your set was so magical, palpable. It was so intense that the band I was in at the time was so psyched out to even play after you. But that was the moment where I became a huge fan of you, just seeing the live show. I wanted to know how you drop into your music on stage, because it seems very transcendental. I was just wondering, what’s happening for you on stage?

Alynda: God, I’ve had a really long journey with it. It depends on who I’m playing with, and it depends on where I’m at in my life. I’m getting out of a really rough period with stage fright — there was a period that was just so agonizing, where I was getting so nervous and so self-hate-y on stage. And this last tour was really healing in that way — my band, I feel really connected to them, and I feel like I can rely on them in a way that is way more transcendental and more meditative. I think that’s really where I’m trying to get to. 

But I really had to face that self-hate, and that my mental space while I’m performing is affecting my singing. I tried to think that maybe nobody could feel that vibration and I could hide it. And then I started to recognize — talk about “the tone is in your heart,” you know? So I’m getting to a better place with that, where singing has become fun again. I think there was just a lot of like perfection stuff that comes from my childhood, and this feeling that I could not fuck up — and fuck up, meaning, like, be human. There is no fucking up in my experience watching performers. If you forget something, I’m just like, Oh, my god, I love that you’re so human and you forgot it. I’m never mad. 

So that’s where I’m at. I really would love to get to a place of more letting my guard down, letting go of perfection, letting go of being so buttoned up and just trusting more. Being like, maybe I’ll fucking forget something, maybe my voice will crack. That’s why I love everyone I love.

Esther: That’s why you wanna be in The Strokes.

Alynda: [Laughs.] Yeah, totally. 

Esther: That’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about that too, because I took a nice long break from performing over the winter, and now we’re going to go back out. I’ve been thinking about the way I get ready for performance, where I stop eating many hours before the show, have a Red Bull. I’m like, I need this energy to be coursing through me! Getting so fucking high and just intense. But I was like, what if I just, like, ate a sandwich? I’ve been thinking, what if I don’t need anything? And that’s the perfection thing, where it’s like, “I need a tea with honey,” and all these things to do it. What if you don’t need anything to fucking do it? You can just do it right now.

Alynda: Yeah. That’s why I love opening up for other bands and touring co-headlining with people, because I started noticing that other people weren’t fucking doing that. They’re just on the phone and then they’re, “Oh, I gotta go, I’m going on stage right now.” And then they go smoke a cigarette and get on stage. [Laughs.] 

I don’t know if that’s a New Orleans teaching as well — which is funny, because we learned how to play on the street and then it turns into, you need your Throat Coat and your warm ups. And all of that is great, but I have felt like there was a particular way I had to do things, and I was so worried about missing the mark.

Esther: I know what you’re talking about. It’s interesting how it kind of builds up the longer you do it.

Alynda: Yeah, but it is possible to break.

Esther: It is. It’s just your own journey of growth. I love that. I can’t wait to just have my sandwich, straight to the microphone. Like, I never have a beer on stage because I don’t wanna burp. Actually, I don’t drink at all.

Alynda: Oh, I also hate drinking when I play. I’ve now allowed myself a glass of wine — I’ll have it on stage. And that, to me, is letting loose. 

Esther: [Laughs.] Totally. 

Alynda: But I just don’t like the feeling of drunkenness and playing music. I’m not trying to get duller.

Esther: Right, you want to feel it.

Alynda: Yeah. I want to be very present with all of the stimuli. Regular life, yeah, I’ll have a fucking drink. But when I’m playing music, I want to feel everything.

Esther: I relate 100%. And when I’m songwriting, I’m not having, like, a scotch.

Alynda: No. Maybe a coffee.

Esther: But I envy — I mean, there’s this mystique that writers are these drunken geniuses, and it’s like, that is not where my genius comes from. [Laughs.]

Alynda: Definitely not. If anything, it’s fucking it up for me. I don’t know. I’m in an interesting place with drinking right now where I’m starting to feel like, why do I even do this at all? But also it’s like, Oh, yeah, because I’m a really anxious person in social situations, that’s why.

Esther: Yeah, yeah. Relating hard. OK, we’re almost to the end. Lagniappe question: what is your most cringe song or lyric?

Alynda: There are so many.

Esther: Lyrics are embarrassing.

Alynda: It’s hard, because I try to not hate on my songs from the past, but I feel like I used to just go for these easy rhymes, where I was like, “What’s most important is the melody!” And then I hear the lyric now and I’m like, why couldn’t you have just worked a little bit harder on that lyric? There’s a couple of songs I’m like, why did I even record that song? That song “Riley,” I really cannot listen to it — which is so funny to say the name, because then I feel like people will go listen to it.

Esther: Oh, yeah, totally!

Alynda: When I used to record, it was like, Oh, at most 50 people will hear this song, so it’s OK for me to do a writing exercise where I’m trying to learn how to write a ballad. And then you record it and suddenly it’s 10 years later and you’re like, Fuck that still exists. [Laughs.] 

Esther: Like, the band loves it, so you record it.

Alynda: Or not even. They didn’t even love it, I was just like, “I don’t know, I need another song.” And I wrote this because I just used to do a lot of writing exercises, wanting to write a song in a genre because I was like, I need to learn how to write, you know?

Esther: Yeah. And there’s something to that. You’re a finisher — that’s why you’re going to make your ninth album. Being a finisher is a big deal. I was at a point too when I first started where it was like, I just need to have a set. I need to have a set.

Alynda: Totally, totally.

Esther:  My song, “The Yard Dance” — which is like a vaguely sexual farm animal song — I don’t know, it’s just… it’s out there. [Laughs.] 

Alynda: [Laughs.] I think sex is particularly something that you write about really well that I don’t know how to write about. I’m starting to learn how to reference it. I feel like for me, I’ve been… I don’t even know if it’s afraid, but I’ve been like, [does a robot voice,] “I am too intellectual.” I’m not embodied enough to write about this. But now I’m starting to.

Esther: I’m trying to get even more blunt with it. But when I released that song “Sex and Magic,” I was so scared. I was like, It’s too risque! 

Alynda: [Laughs.] You are so insane.

Esther: Well, you know, we’re all on our own personal journeys.

Alynda: Yeah.

Esther: Like, I’m not a pop star. I’m overcoming super rigorous religious upbringing kind of shit. You know, it’s hard coming into your own. But there’s a line in “Insecure” that I’m really proud of — “It’s not where you’ve been or who you did it with.” I’m just like, boom. No, funny or no innuendo. Just straight up.

Alynda: Yeah, totally.

Esther: Which is what you learn from the blues, like how to innuendo everything.

Alynda: Totally. I know. But especially right now, I feel like sex and writing about sexuality is such a powerful tool. Obviously it’s always been, but it’s also been taken away from us and distorted and used against us. Especially for queer people, there’s so much attacking that’s going on right now, so I feel like it’s a really important time to write about sexuality and about sexual magic, you know?

Esther: Is this album nine or 10? Your sexual magic album? 

Alynda: [Laughs.] Now, I just mean little droplets. It’s definitely not a sex album.

Esther: I think this is going to cut off soon, so, Alynda, thank you so much for singing on my track and doing this interview. 

Alynda: Yeah!

Esther: And I’m so excited for your new album, and what you’re up to.

Alynda: Thanks. Don’t expect it anytime soon, everybody. 

Esther: No. We need another five years. 

Alynda: [Laughs.] No, not five years!

(Photo Credit: left, Rett Rogers; right, Akasha Rabut)

Inspired by the honest writing and timeless melodies of American greats such as Hank Williams Sr. and Joni Mitchell, Esther Rose’s songwriting has been called “The happiest saddest music.” Her 2017 debut, This Time Last Night, caught fire as her listeners tuned-in to a storied chronology of this soulful, heart-worn artist. Her latest record, Safe to Run, is out April 21, 2023 on New West Records.

(Photo Credit: Rett Rogers)