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‘This is my path’: Allison Russell on trauma, self-love and healing through music

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“Frankly, telling my own story, in my own words, under my own name is the one of the most terrifying yet empowering things I’ve ever done – after charging my abusive adoptive father when I was twenty, becoming a mother seven years ago and meeting my biological paternal Grenadian family for the first time 11 years ago. I’ve come to understand that my path as an artist is to build empathy and to delve deeply into the truths, feelings and experiences that scare me the most – in order to be a small part of leaving the world better than I found it. It’s about breaking the cycles of abuse. It’s about the redemptive, restorative, transcendent power of love, of chosen family and community, of art and creativity.” — Allison Russell in the online sleeve notes for the single “Night Flyer,” a song from her forthcoming debut solo album Outside Child.

I met Allison Russell in 1998 in Vancouver BC, just after she had moved here from her native city of Montreal. It was in the SouthHill Candy Shop on Main Street, a small, intimate music venue where her Aunt Janet often performed. She joined her aunt for a couple of songs and promptly blew my mind with the power and emotion of her singing. We ended up performing and recording together as a duo and in the band Fear of Drinking.

During this time she confided in me that she had been abused by her adoptive father. Since then she has made her story public and and has become active in raising awareness of the need for support for survivors of abuse and in speaking out against all forms of discrimination and injustice. She has gained international recognition as a musician, singer and songwriter as part of Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters.

Her first solo album entitled Outside Child is to be released on May 21.

When I spoke to her on Zoom for this interview, it was the first time we’d connected face to face in around 20 years. We talked a lot! We discussed the pandemic, vaccinations, politics, equality, discrimination, abuse, environmentalism, the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter, community, solidarity, parenting and many other topics. Suffice to say I now have enough material to easily write a university thesis, if not a book!

Instead, I am going to tell the story of how Outside Child was conceived, gestated and delivered.

As our conversation begins, I’m reminded of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime.” Allison is now living in Nashville where things are really starting to happen for her and I have to ask, David Byrne-style, well… how did you get here?

As it turns out, she has quite a story to tell.

“Our Native Daughters — that’s a group with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and me — started up in 2019 and we put out our first and only record to date called Songs of Our Native Daughters. That’s where this solo project really started, with that record. I had a pretty severe writer’s block for about three years after we had our daughter. I was still writing a few lullabies and kids songs here and there, but I think I just felt overwhelmed by motherhood and the magnitude of it. Then when I joined the project with Rhiannon and Leyla and Amethyst, it kind of kicked the floodgates back open. We were delving into a lot of history of the black diaspora, particularly from black women’s perspectives. At the same time, I had been connecting more deeply with my biological paternal family and learning a lot more about my heritage on the Grenadian side. I learned about one of my ancestors, as far back as we can trace a matriarch in our paternal lineage, named Quasheba. She was kidnapped somewhere in West Africa, sold off the coast of Ghana, survived the ocean passage, survived multiple sales and horrific violations, survived her children being stolen and sold and she died still enslaved. I can’t really describe how powerful that was just to learn her name, and to know that I exist because of what she was able to survive. For the first time, I really understood that my history is not in a vacuum. And I wrote two songs for that record, ‘Quasheba, Quasheba’, which was about the great, great many times great matriarch of my paternal lineage, and a song called ‘You’re Not Alone’ that I wrote for my daughter.”

Songwriting slipstream

The evolution of Outside Child was gradual, since Allison initially had no intention of doing a solo record. The flow of songwriting that had resumed with Our Native Daughters continued unabated after the release of Songs of Our Native Daughters.

“There were still songs coming through. When the Muse won’t leave you alone, when you step into that slipstream, you just get carried along,” she said. “It’s like, what are you going to say? No, no, thank you, I’m not going to, I’m not going to receive this? I just had to. The songs just kept coming through. And I had to, I had to do it,” Allison said.

Writing the song “Little Rebirth” provided an end point for the story, which in turn created a growing urgency to complete a cycle of songs telling her story. First, she had to overcome a crisis of confidence.

“That’s fear. That’s fear based on conditioning that told me I was worthless for the first 15 years of my life, and that’s hard conditioning to break,” Allison said.

Part of the way she tackled that fear was to imagine herself as the protagonist in a story she was reading. Then she could tell that story for all the other people who might hear the songs and gain strength and inspiration from them.

“It felt like I’m going to be the hero of my own story and write the story as though I love this character. Self-love is the hardest thing for many survivors that I’ve talked to,” she said. “I decided I’d give myself the same love I give to any protagonist of a story that I adore. That was the beginning of the song ‘Fourth Day Prayer’.”

Up until she joined Our Native Daughters, Allison had been touring relentlessly with Birds of Chicago, sharing a tiny space in the van with her musical and life partner JT Nero and their daughter. They were playing around 300 gigs a year in order to subsist. There was little time for creative reflection.

“Suddenly, we both had a bit of space to think and write. And we started sending each other these messages back and forth. I had that feeling of all the hair on my body standing up because JT had been essentially dreaming about my childhood and channelling parts of it and writing and we realized we were writing parts of the same song. He was like, you’re gonna slay those demons and I’m gonna stand behind you ready to catch any of the ones that get by!” she said. “It was the most intimate, creative experience I’ve ever had in my life, as we wrote many of those songs together. He helped me excavate them and and get through it and scraped me off the floor when I was having a hard time with it.”

Her remarkable transition — from experiencing writer’s block to being a prolific and driven songwriter — propelled them both toward a vision that still wasn’t entirely clear.

“In the space of three months, I had or we had together written 11 songs, and knew this is a whole arc. It’s a whole cycle. It’s its own journey and we need to record it. And I didn’t really know how and when we were going to do that.”

Thankfully Canadians still have access to the kind of public arts funding unavailable in so many places around the world. That provided Allison with a vital source of financial support, which made everything possible on a practical level.

“Kaia Kater, another musician friend of mine, her mother helped me apply for some writing grants from the Canada Council and I found out that I had gotten these grants right as we landed back home in Nashville for Americana Fest in 2019.”

‘It felt like this healing, magical alchemy
where trauma transforms into art.’

With the funds in place for the project, the stars aligned and everything fell into place, as if guided by an unseen hand or some kind of magic.

“I just spontaneously decided to try and record a demo while lots of my chosen musical family were in town for the festival. It turned out that the Sound Emporium had someone cancel and they had four days come free. That’s one of my favourite studios here in Nashville so we booked that. And then everybody was available. Dan Nobler – who is just a beautiful musician and human, chosen brother and a producer whose work I love – he had made a record for Erin Rae that I just loved. I reached out to him, would he be interested in producing it? Yes, he would. Yes, he had those four days free. And so we just sort of gathered the magic circle of friends and chosen family and recorded Outside Child in four days. We recorded every song maybe three times – we sort of did the Neil Young and Crazy Horse approach: if we don’t get it in three, we’re not getting it this session. And so it was just this whole family converging and with their generosity just pouring their artistic brilliance into these songs. I would never dream of telling any one of those people what to play. I can’t really describe how healing it was to make this particular song cycle that, in some ways, was really difficult to write and sing, but in other ways just felt like this huge relief. I ended up coming up with this description that it felt like sucking the poison out of a snake bite. It’s been festering since I was 15 years old and it felt like closure. It felt like this healing, magical alchemy where trauma transforms into art. I got to do a joyful thing with my friends and put something out into the world that hopefully will be of some sort of use to somebody. That was the experience for me – the recording was just such a healing gift.”

In Allison’s mind however, what they had achieved — no matter how magical the experience — was still only to have made a bunch of demo versions of the songs. There were still a few more twists in the plot to be navigated before the recordings could be considered as an album for release.

“I was in denial, even when we were recording it, that it was a solo record. I was like, we’ll just make this recording and Dan and JT are both okay to make it a demo. At the end they threw me a listening party with about 50 of our really close friends and family here and I’d never had an experience like that. We were just sitting in a room of people listening to a piece of art that many of us made together and we are all just totally silent for 45 or 50 minutes, however long it runs, and going on this emotional journey together. It felt like this beautiful reunion and it was after that night that I thought, OK, I have to do something with this. I don’t know what or even how to begin or what to do.”

Once the realization dawned that what had been created was far more than a mere demo recording, there were still many pieces of the jigsaw to get into place. Enter American multiple Grammy-Award-winning singer-songwriter and producer Brandi Carlile.

“It was my friend Brandi who called Margi Cheske, who’s the head of Fantasy Records and said you’ve got to hear this record, and that’s the reason I got signed. Then they connected us with Concord publishing, who were just wonderful, a very artist-friendly company. So both JT and I ended up getting signed as writers, and that saved us from not being able to pay rent, not being able to buy food!”

Looking back from here…

I ask her, when she looks back at the time we met in 1998 in East Vancouver when she was 18 and we played together, toured and released a live CD, if all that feels to her now like a different planet, a totally different world.

“No, it doesn’t. It feels like that was the beginning of my agency, of my stepping into my calling as an artist. I was still pretty much in the closet as a musician and certainly as a writer when I moved to Vancouver. When we first started working together and playing in Fear of Drinking that began to change and those were my first forays into writing a little bit. I was also doing this Django Reinhardt stuff with Michael Dunn and the Hot Club of Mars and writing French lyrics for some of the songs I did with them. My Aunt Janet introduced me into her whole circle of musicians and took me to the SouthHill Candy Shop, which I write about in ‘The Runner’ on the new album. It’s about that moment of realizing this is my path. That this is what makes me feel better and feel like myself. And this is when all the voices of self hatred and worthlessness stop. Making music with people, that’s when I felt the strongest and had the most hope, I suppose. And that’s when it started. So it doesn’t feel like another world, it just feels like that was the beginning.”

Returning to the present day, we conclude by talking about the here and now and what the future may hold.

“I’ve already started writing the next record. I’m so, so fortunate to be with an artist centred label that really sees when they sign an artist, there’s the need to be looking at it in a long term way. It’s our artistic vision that they’re supporting, they have no say in that and they don’t try to. Now I get to write songs for a living really and truly. For me signing with Concord Music Publishing was just such an empowering, incredible, life changing thing to happen. Both JT and I love not just writing for ourselves, but writing for other projects, writing for other people. It’s something we can do and not just be on the road kind of spinning our wheels. We were working poor for so long – not that we’re suddenly rich or something like that – but there’s the ability to not have to grind it out on the road 200 to 300 nights of the year. And now we have a beautiful, wonderful manager Carissa Stolting at Left Bank Artists. We have structure and strategy. I’m writing a book of poetry, I’m writing a book of prose – a memoir really. It’s like once those floodgates finally opened they just haven’t shut since! It has been such a liberating, empowering, wonderful, kind of experience – like a new door that’s open. You know, all there used to be was all these walls. And suddenly I’m like, oh that’s a door and there’s a hallway and there’s a giant Secret Garden. Who knew? It’s just amazing!”

With that there’s a voice off-screen telling her she has to get ready for the next interview. After all there’s an exciting new album to promote. It’s a powerful collection of original songs sung by a woman who has paid her dues 10,000 times over and who deserves every drop of success that she gets.

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