ALLISON RUSSELL: singer writer
by Norman Warwick
Joseph Lee Henry is an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and producer. He has released 15 studio albums and produced multiple recordings for other artists, including three Grammy Award-winning albums. He has also written about Allison Russell on her official web site. A reference from such a source certainly should make us sit up and pay closer attention to a woman we have rarely mentioned and then only in passing. We wrote about her hosting an evening of black female artists in an article called Newport: Folk Festivals Finger Picking A Way Back in 2021 and in November we noted her again in an article asking if Afro-Americana is ill-defined. Two very respected muso-journalists had an in-print spat about whether or not this new categorisation was beneficial to, or welcomed by, artists like Allison Russell. All much ado about nothing, perhaps?
The argument is amplified perhaps when we read Joe Henry´s piece on her web site, (reproduced below) which can surely leave no one in any doubt that Allison is an artist who deserves to be fully acknowledged as important contributor to our musical diet.
Though deep and wide may be the world, it is within dim and narrow rooms ––airless and mundane–– that the true stories of our lives are enacted; are bartered and brokered –– enslaved and empowered; held in and sung out.
And Song most surely began as a cry or a prayer ––though no need discerning between the two, for they are the same ––and both sacred: the prayer and the wail becoming Song as soon as shared.
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.
Many of those, alas, never come back up. But those able are wont to be luminous, struggle having landed their hearts on the outside of their bodies: a swinging lantern within that aforementioned dim room ––where stories are unravelled, thus to be reconstructed… purposefully reanimated.
It was also within such a room that Allison Russell ––singer, songwriter, poet, and activist–– bore witness to herself in descent. But the abused child she was played mother to the brave woman and fierce artist she would become ––surviving being one of only two options, and not the most likely.
Allison’s new album, Outside Child ––that draws water from the dark well of a violent past–– is her first solo offering, she also being a pivotal voice in two bands: Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters. And telling her own story sounds now to have made her free –– not from it all, but free within it: to reframe and reclaim her identity and its singular authority.
The songs themselves ––though iron-hard in their concerns–– are exultant: exercising haunted dream like clean bedsheets snapped and hung out into broad daylight, and with the romantic poet’s lust for living and audacity of endurance.
Nina Simone comes to mind, as well Edith Piaf: two shamanistic practitioners who turned their faces into the blade of storm and roared back dignity and hope.
This music, no less ––no less–– is 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.
Allison recently gave an interview to an excellent and well-informed magazine, American Songwriter. Her interviewer was Jake Uitti (right) who has written for outlets such as Interview, Vanity Fair, SPIN, The Nation, The Washington Post. Another platform he has written on is American Song-writer which seems a perfect categorisation to place, if we must, around the work of Allison Russell. When not poring over a keyboard mid-interview, Jake can be found in search of the city’s best fried chicken or cheese pizza slice. He is the creator of a TV show, author of a book from Sasquatch Books (#1 Amazon New Release) and co-author of an NBA memoir from Triumph Books. The son of Ivy League professors, Jake grew up amidst tomes of French literature, but soulful meals, compelling conversation and thoughtful music are his true loves.
As we approached the pandemic-threatened holiday period, Jacob Uitti pondered in print on what the holiday season really means and Allison (shown below) replied:
To answer that question requires a personal investigation. Certainly, the meaning of a time of year is largely dependent upon its observer. For many, Christmas is delightful; a season of twinkling lights and presents. For others, however, the time can remind them of the harshest of days, the most nightmarish of experiences. So, then what? How do folks move forward? By forging their own ways—that’s the only way. And that’s exactly what Americana songwriter Allison Russell knows as well as any.
Russell, who recently garnered three Grammy nominations for her 2021 LP, Outside Child, has endured unspeakable harms; physical and mental abuses. Yet, today, the artist has much to cherish, from professional success to the family she’s started with her husband (musician, JT Nero), which includes their young daughter, to whom Russell has recently begun teaching the joys of music, movies, and the holiday season.
“Christmas for me, growing up, was very fraught,” Russell says. “I grew up in a very poor and abusive home. It was not that joyful, generally. But the bright light of my childhood was my maternal grandmother, Isabel.”
photo 4 Grandma Isabel loved Christmas. She was a devout, faithful and spiritual woman. Russell is not, she laughs. She identifies as a “hopeful agnostic.” Nevertheless, spending time around Christmas with her grandmother was maybe the only relief she felt growing up. The only place she was ever safe from the grotesque hands at home. Together, she and her grandmother would always watch the 1944 Judy Garland movie, Meet Me in St. Louis. As such, Russell grew up a giant Garland fan. And in the movie, Garland sings, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” This led Russell to want to record the song in both French and English. It was a way for the bilingual artist to celebrate her Grandmother and keep her French going as she taught it to her daughter, Ida.
“It’s really healing for me as a survivor of an abusive, broken home and unhappy childhood,” says Russell, “to experience the magic through my daughter’s eyes. One tradition is watching Meet Me in St. Louis. We watch the movie, sing the song. I also started teaching Ida French during the pandemic.”
Growing up in Montreal, Canada, Russell learned to speak both French and English fluently. So, she had the idea to use the melody from “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and translate the words to French. Who knows? Maybe it will become a new tradition where Russell releases a new version of the song in a different language each year. But if so, it will have to make room amongst her other holiday traditions, which she celebrates with her husband of 15 years and his family. For instance, his mother makes sure to buy an ornament for each child in the family to commemorate a special event in their year. Now, the tree is crowded with happy memories. And his family is her family.
“Honestly,” Russell says of her long-time husband, “I think he picked me as his partner because of that—because I’d never had to negotiate going somewhere else. Ever since my grandmother died, my family is very broken and scattered. So, it’s never an issue. It’s never ‘who’s house are we going to this year?’”
That Russell can joke about all this is a testament to myriad strong aspects of her personality and fortitude. She says she likes to talk about her past, or at least feels benefits from it. It’s part of her self-appointed harm reduction work. In a strange way, she says, it’s empowering to vocalize it. Her (sexual) abuser benefited from isolating her as a child, training her to be silent, and making her lie to the people in her life. So, when she speaks the truth today, she says, it feels as if she’s getting a tiny part of herself back each time.
“And if my experience can be helpful to anyone trapped in that cycle,” Russell says, “for them to know that that’s not what’s going to define you, that it does get better, that there are loving kind people in the world who will see and value you and hear you for who you are as equals. Don’t believe whatever story your abuser is telling you.”
Russell talks about the power of music in her journey to recovery.
“I was nine years old when I heard Tracy Chapman’s Behind ´The Wall, (left) ’ Russell says. “That was transformative and life-changing. To hear her singing about what I was living. We weren’t the only family ‘behind the wall.’ To hear her singing about it with such unvarnished truth and empathy was transformative. That’s part of what set me on the road toward freedom.”
Today, Russell is now a Grammy-nominated artist. Perhaps in a few months, she’ll be a Grammy Award-winning artist. Either way, the moment she found out about the nomination will remain in infamy. At the time, she was doing a podcast interview on Zoom when her husband ran in and did a “very wacky dance.” In that second, Russell didn’t know if he was just trying to get her to break a smile. But then he jumped on and delivered the news live on air. Since then, Russell has begun writing a memoir, diving into her family history, wondering how it became what it did. She remembers one of her uncles who introduced her to Chapman. She remembers her grandmother’s final days, struggling with Alzheimer’s.
“Even when she didn’t have language when she didn’t know who we were anymore,” Russell says, “if I sang her songs she knew and loved, she could sing with me still. Music was the last—Alzheimer’s couldn’t take it. She could sing every note.”
Over the past few years, Russell has developed a few more holiday traditions, from singing holiday songs in a studio with fellow artists in Nashville (safely, of course) to caroling with her family in their home. The family also makes mulled wine with cinnamon and nutmeg. They read The Night Before Christmas to Ida and the young cousins, who range from six months to 17 years old. They binge-watch a television show each night together (last year it was Ted Lasso).
“Now we have to pick a new show!” Russell says after exuberantly describing the plot of Ted Lasso, a show she and her family loved, despite the fact she’s not a sports fan.
Looking ahead, Russell’s professional itinerary is as packed as ever. There are shows in the U.K., speeches to give, and festivals. She’s working on the memoir and already finished the first few chapters and book proposal, which she’s sent to the publisher. She’s going to play gigs with Brandi Carlile and Iron & Wine and Andrew Bird.
She’ll be getting back into the studio, too. And, of course, celebrating the Grammy nods with fellow nominees like Valerie June, Esperanza Spalding, and Rhiannon Giddens, each of whom she loves (though she wishes Adia Victoria also got a nomination this year). Russell (right with group members) is working to ensure the future of Americana Roots music is diverse so that it will continue to have a place for people like her.
“Music got me through 2020,” Russell says, before talking about her daughter, who is in her own process of sonic exploration. “It’s so fun to discover music with her. She’s been writing songs, learning piano, and learning drums. That’s a joyful thing.”
The primary sources for this article were a piece written on the official Allison Russell website by singer-writer Joe Henry and an interview recently conducted by Jake Uitti with Allison Russell and published in American Songwriter.
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This article was collated by Norman Warwick (right), a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio 4.
As a published author and poet he was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (where he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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