It was a long time before Allison Russell was ready to sing her own full story. As soon as it was her, the songs came out.
Her solo debut “Outside Child” speaks bluntly about sexual abuse by her adoptive father. She puts it through an unwavering Memphis soul beat in the first song she wrote for the album “4th Day Prayer”: “Father used me like a woman / Mother turned the slightest eye / has my body, my mind , stole my pride / He did it, he did it every night. “
In this song and on the entire album, however, she also sings about liberation and redemption, about places and people and realizations that have helped her survive and claim her freedom. It’s an album of strength and validation, not victimization.
“When you are with her and her family, she is just pure joy,” said singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who met Russell on May 21, after listening to the album and admiring it from her face the entire time. And you’d never know she came from a brutal and harrowing childhood situation other than the fact that she honors it by telling you. “
Russell, 41, wearing a Brandi Carlile rainbow t-shirt (admiration is mutual), was chatting recently from her home in Madison, Tennessee, near Nashville. Behind her stood overcrowded bookshelves, her clarinet and banjo, a sign that read “When Women March, Stuff Gets Done” and an LP by the undoubtedly African-American folk singer Odetta. “She’s an inspiration,” said Russell.
Russell has recorded extensively as a member of eclectic roots rock groups. She founded Po ‘Girl in the early 2000s and founded Birds of Chicago in 2012 with songwriter JT Nero (Jeremy Lindsay). They married in 2013. Their music is based on folk rock, blues, Celtic ballads, gospel, field hollers, country, klezmer, bluegrass and much more. Your voice can be smoky or steely, genuinely firm or sinuous jazz.
Singer, songwriter and folklore researcher Rhiannon Giddens invited Russell to join Our Native Daughters along with Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla – all four black banjo players – to create an album for Smithsonian Folkways in 2019 called Songs of Our Native Daughters to do that celebrated the West African origins of the banjo and included tales of slavery, perseverance, and resistance.
Working with our local daughters broke writer’s block for Russell. She wrote “Quasheba, Quasheba” about her birth father’s original ancestor in the New World, an enslaved Ghanaian woman who was transported to Grenada. And in the summer and fall of 2019, Russell wrote the songs on the tour bus Our Native Daughters that would land on her solo album. She and Nero started building the songs by sharing their ideas online.
“The story we unearthed on this project really made me understand my own story in the context of this continuum,” she said. “Bigotry and abuse are intergenerational trauma. It’s not just my story. “
Russell was born in Montreal to a teenage Scottish Canadian mother and a visiting student from Grenada who returned home before her mother knew she was pregnant. Allison spent her early years in nursing. But when her mother got married – to a white man who grew up in a separate, so-called “sunset town” in Indiana that prohibited blacks from staying in town after dark – the couple took custody of the five year old Allison. “They just gave me to them,” she recalled. “He was seen as the savior.”
Instead, Russell said, “It’s been a terrible decade.”
She went on to explain how the situation seemed to her as a child. “It is someone you depend on who appears to be kind and loving. Kids are incredibly good at double thinking, borrowing from Orwell – just to separate your brain. And that worked for me until puberty. And then it was like I couldn’t keep the worlds separate anymore, and it was devastating. “
At 15, she ran away from home. She was still in high school, slept in cemeteries or friends’ homes, hung out in student lounges at McGill University and the cathedral, and had a cup of tea in 24-hour cafes. The album begins with “Montreal”, her gentle thanks to a benevolent city: “You wouldn’t let me hurt,” she sings.
In rural Persephone, Russell remembers a teenage friend who offered refuge and comfort. “Blood on my shirt, two torn buttons / Could have killed me back then, oh, if I let him,” she sings. “I had nowhere to go but I had to get away from him / My petals are broken but I’m still a flower.” She escapes to Persephone’s bed; The music is optimistic and hopeful and enjoys the comfort.
“It was that awakening to regaining a part of you that was all about pain, shame, and misery,” Russell said.
Russell moved across Canada to Vancouver. She was still in contact with her mother, and in 2001 she learned that a niece and nephew were moving in with their parents. She flew back to Montreal to file rape and assault claims against her adoptive father. “The detective sat me down and said: 90 percent of these cases will not be brought to justice. Of the cases brought to trial, very few can win conviction. Are you sure you wanna do this? There is no longer any physical evidence. ‘
“And I said,” Yeah, I want to do that, “she said,” because my niece will be next in line if I don’t. “
Music has always been a haven. Russell grew up singing; One of her earliest memories, she said, was hiding under the piano when her mother was playing classical music. One of her hangouts in Montreal during her adolescence was Hurley’s Irish Pub, where a violinist, Gerry O’Neill, strongly encouraged her to become a musician. In Vancouver, she bonded with her aunt Janet Lillian Russell, a songwriter who got Allison into studio sessions. Russell also met Trish Klein, who was in a group called Be Good Tanyas; They founded Po ‘Girl together.
Even then, Russell’s songwriting hinted at her past. She wrote the line “He used me like a woman” in Part Time Poppa, a Po ‘Girl song from the 2004 album “Vagabond Lullabies”. It was based on a song from a compilation of vintage blues women from the Library of Congress – Bandanna Girls ‘“Part Time Papa” from 1939 – and Po’ Girl’s song sounded stylized and distant. Another Po ‘Girl song, Corner Talk, was based on conversations with a local sex worker. Russell re-cast it for her solo album as “All of the Women”, a stark, modal banjo ballad.
After police found other women who had attacked their adoptive father, he pleaded guilty to reducing charges and was given a three-year prison sentence with a chance for earlier parole. Russell wrote “No Shame,” which was released in 2009 by Po ‘Girl. “He took 10 years of childhood away from me and spent a maximum of three years in prison,” she sang bitterly. “How can a country’s judicial code be such a world that is not fair?”
But those songs were exceptions on the albums she made with Po ‘Girl and then Birds of Chicago. “At the time, I was trying to do something I wasn’t ready to do,” she said. “I really feel the difference this process is going through now. There are conversations that we have in the mainstream now that we just haven’t had it. There wasn’t this network of survivors that we have now, there wasn’t #MeToo back then. And I’m a mother now, and that changed everything. That gave me courage and armor. “
In 2017, Russell and Nero moved to Nashville, attracted by the musician community. English songwriter Yola stayed with them often on her visits to Nashville as she made and promoted her 2019 debut album. She officially moved in with them during the pandemic.
“When I was visiting and we were hanging out, there was this process of preparing to tell this story,” Yola said in an interview. “We would definitely have conversations in which we worked on this strength and the feeling of existing, of daring to be yourself and of telling your truest truth. It’s really nice to see her get to this place where she is. Now is the time. “
In September 2019, the annual Americanafest had brought roots musicians to Nashville, and Russell took the opportunity to record their album with guests like Yola and the McCrary Sisters. With producer Dan Knobler and a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Russell made “Outside Child” in just four days: three or four takes per song, most of them live in the studio with a full band. But the music is brilliant and varied, from the troubled minor key rock of “The Runner” to the eerie, feedback-capable “Hy Brasil” to “The Hunters”, which has a touch of Caribbean flair, while Russell sings a kind of fable about scooping wolves to escape the hunters: their parents.
Carlile got an early copy of the album and was “blown away” by it. “As a songwriter, her abstract poetry mixed with a literal mind is just amazing,” she said. “It can lead you into the ether and describe something to you in an abstract way and then bring you straight into a brutal reality. I remember thinking this was one of the best conceptual albums I’ve ever heard. “
Carlile was on the phone. She had recently finished producing a Tanya Tucker album for Fantasy Records and when the label heard “Outside Child” Russell signed it. “I didn’t get Allison to get a record deal,” insisted Carlile. “Allison gave Allison a recording deal. I was just trying to find a real way to express my affection for music. “
Recently, Carlile collaborated with Russell and country singer Brittney Spencer on a remake of “Nightflyer,” the album’s first single, which was inspired by an old Gnostic poem with a divine narrator. The track is released to support the Free Black Mama initiative of the nonprofit National Bail Out Collective.
It was both cathartic and exultant for Russell to get “Outside Child” completed and eventually released. “One of the things that I don’t think we talk about as survivors is the extreme joy that comes from being on the other side,” she said. “Part of posting this record is just showing that there is a roadmap in place. You are not defined by your scars. You are not defined by what you have lost. You are not defined by what someone did to you. Yes, that’s part of the story. It’s part of who you become. But it doesn’t define you. “