To get an early start on the celebration of Black History Month, I’ll use this Saturday Soundtrack to highlight an Americana, roots, and jazz-influenced musician who is working to be “the hero of my own story.”
Allison Russell — singer, songwriter, poet, and activist — has come through grief, abuse, and despair. “Some of us come, later in life, to find our knees; while others slip young into trauma like a quarry stone gone under, held down by the weight of their own world.” As an abused child she grew into the “brave woman and fierce artist she would become — surviving being one of only two options, and not the most likely.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Russell “imbues her music with the colors of her city — the light, the landscape, the language — but also the trauma that she suffered there.” That music includes both heartbreaking reflection and a powerful reclamation — “asserted from a place of healing, of motherhood, of partnership — and from a new home made in Nashville.”
In 2022, the Grammy-nominated Russell and Grammy Award-winning Brandi Carlile released a new song together, You’re Not Alone. A version of the song originally appeared on the acclaimed 2019 debut album by Our Native Daughters, a group that features Russell along with MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Amythyst Kiah.
Billboard wrote the following about Russell and Carlile’s performance at the 2022 Americana Music Association Awards.
One of the evening’s most orotund, soul-elevating moments was undoubtedly Russell and Carlile teaming for “You’re Not Alone,” supported by a group of ace musicians.
“Our circle is unbroken. Our circle is whole. None above, none below, all of us equal under the listening sky,” Russell said, a joyous summation of the love in the room that evening.
In addition to performing her new song, Russell also received Album of the Year honors at that awards show for Outside Child, which was produced by guitarist Dan Knobler.
Outside Child is an honest, sometimes raw attempt to tell her story and its ongoing evolution. Part of that story is a childhood of abuse.
When I first went to live with my mother and her new husband, my adoptive father, after the foster home in Verdun — it was in a flat above an audiologist’s shop on Rue St. Catherine in Westmount. He worked for the audiologist and we got subsidized rent. It was there that the abuse began. I was 5. Westmount is a wealthy enclave – and though we were very poor — even the food banks were richer there. And there was the Park. I spent as much time as I could in that Park — to get away from him.
The song 4th Day Prayer from that album references Westmount Park and its meaning to her through the trauma and the reclamation.
One for the hate that loops and loops | Two for the poison at the roots | Three for the children breaking through | Four for the day we’re standing in the sun.
Outside Child has been nominated for 18 awards including three Grammy Awards. In the video notes to Nightflyer, Russell writes that she read The Thunder: Perfect Mind for the first time when she was sixteen.
It’s an exhortatory poem discovered among the Gnostic manuscripts in the Nag Hammadi library in the 40’s. It has never left me. I’ve been meditating on the nature of resilience, endurance, and grace more deeply since becoming a mother. I was trying to bridge the divide and embrace shame and my inner divinity equally with this piece…”
To get a longer introduction to Russell’s music today, enjoy this 2022 Tiny Desk Concert, which opens with her “invocation of the ancestors” in Quasheba, followed by live versions of the three songs featured above.
I first discovered Russell through the group Birds of Chicago, which she and her husband formed in 2012. One reviewer noted that “Birds’ shows attract a mix of indy rockers, jam-kids and Americana/roots lovers, mixing moments of hushed attention with wild, rock and soul abandon.” Here the Birds perform 2016’s Real Midnight.
Russell is a much in-demand collaborator on the Americana/roots/alt country scene. We’ll capture that part of her current work with three songs: the first Black Myself with Our Native Daughters, followed by Georgia Rise with Margo Price, Sheryl Crow, and Brittney Spencer at Farm Aid 2022 in Raleigh, NC, and a nice Margo Price interpretation of the Beatles tune Help, where she joins Price along with Adia Victoria, Kam Franklin, and Kyshona Armstrong.
Singer-songwriter Joe Henry describes Russell’s music as,
(A) triumph: a courageous work ––burnished and bright; unspeakably beautiful as she sings the unspeakable.
Above all, it is an act of remarkable generosity: a cathartic, soulful, buoyant and redeeming gift to us all and, one must believe, to herself as well.
Enjoy the gift.
More to come…
Press photo of Allison Russell credit Marc Baptiste
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