Allison Russell Reacts to Being on Barack Obama's Playlist: "Barry Has Great Taste"

We spoke with the Montreal-born songwriter about Grammy nominations, famous supporters and sharing her "hard-won Survivor's Joy"

Photo: Francesca Cepero

BY Alex HudsonPublished Dec 21, 2021

When Barack Obama released his annual best-of-the-year playlist last week, it included a genre-agnostic selection of major American stars and international acts, plus one Canadian singer-songwriter: Montreal-born, Nashville-based roots musician Allison Russell, whose single "Nightflyer" was slotted in right between Nas and Lil Nas X.

It's the latest in a string of high-profile accomplishments for Russell. A member of the groups Our Native Daughters, Birds of Chicago and Po' Girl, she released her debut solo album, Outside Child, earlier this year to universal acclaim. It was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, led to performances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and at the Grand Ole Opry, and most recently earned three Grammy nominations.

Exclaim! caught up with Russell about all of her recent success, her reaction to being included on Obama's playlist, and showing fellow survivors of abuse that "it can and does get better."

How did you learn that you were on Barack Obama's 2021 playlist? What was your reaction?

My phone started blowing up with friends and family telling me the news. I was stunned and overjoyed of course. I'm in fabulous company — Barry has great taste! I look forward to his playlist every year. To actually be on it is just wild. It reaches such a broad and diverse audience too — which is such a boost for each of us. I am truly grateful.

Prior to this, were you aware that he was a fan of your music?

I had no idea. Though I did sing on my friend Joe Henry's song "The Fact of Love," which Mr. Obama put on his playlist in 2019 — so perhaps he followed the thread to find my music. I like to imagine he's someone who reads the liner notes and credits and discovers some of the less well-known artists that he champions in that way. He is also a big fan of Brandi Carlile — and she has been such a champion of my music, he might have taken notice... I often find my favourite new music through other artists' recommendations. 

Before this, were there any other particularly famous or notable people who you knew were fans of your music?

Brandi Carlile, Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah have been and are generous champions of my music. Tressie McMillan Cottom loves my song "Nightflyer" and has tweeted about it. I found out that Katie Couric, Kimberly Williams-Paisley and Brad Paisley liked my songs when I was a guest on the last stop of Katie's book tour at the Ryman in Nashville. Jason Isbell invited me to open for him at the Ryman because he likes my music. Thandiwe Newton and her daughters Ripley and Nico Parker and Joan Baez came to our show in San Francisco and told me they loved my music — which was thrilling beyond belief. Evan Rachel Wood told me she went deep on Outside Child on a road trip. Valerie June — she had me open for her years before we became labelmates at Fantasy Records. Kathleen Edwards has been sharing my music on Twitter. Alice Randall, Rosanne Cash. Taj Mahal, Joe Henry, T Bone Burnett, Colin Linden, David Wilde. Joy Williams, Rissi Palmer, Adia Victoria, Beth Behrs, Rain Phoenix and Steve Dawson have all had me on their excellent podcasts. Brittany Howard told me she was proud of me — which made my year. Sa-Roc — we have a collaboration coming out next year; her album The Sharecropper's Daughter is required listening. Queen Mavis Staples is a fan of my other project, Our Native Daughters, and we've had the honour of singing with her and Hozier and Phil Cook. Iggy Pop is also a big fan of my band Our Native Daughters, though I don't know if he's heard Outside Child yet… Amy Helm, Grahame Lesh, Luther Dickinson, JT Nero. Ebonie Smith who is a brilliant, young Black producer, engineer, composer, artist, activist that everyone should know — check out her credits, they're impressive. Joshua Kissi — brilliant director, filmmaker, photographer; he just did incredible photoshoots for Colin Kaepernick and Issa Rae. Mickey Guyton's been very supportive online. Chely Wright. Letterkenny's own Jacob Tierney. Paula Cole. The amazing Brittney Spencer, she sang "Nightflyer" with Brandi and me on Jimmy Kimmel Live! I heard through the grapevine that the Indigo Girls are digging OC, which is joyful. Lauren German from the show Lucifer shared "Nightflyer" online, which I got a kick out of. All of the women who participated in my Once and Future Sounds curatorial project are notable and we all love and support each other's music and poetry:
Adia Victoria 
Amythyst Kiah
Brandi Carlile
Caroline Randall Williams
Celisse Henderson a.k.a. Celisse 
Chaka Khan
Daisha McBride a.k.a. the Rap Girl
Joy Oladokun 
Kam Franklin a.k.a. the Suffers
Kyshona a.k.a. Kyshona Armstrong
Larissa Maestro a.k.a. Mztza
Margo Price 
Megan McCormick
Monique Ross of SistaStrings 
Resistance Revival Chorus 
Sunny War
Yasmin Williams

Before this, you got nominated for three Grammy Awards. How do you feel about the response to Outside Child?

Honestly, it all still feels quite surreal. I have been making music professionally for over two decades as a founding member of Po' Girl, Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters, among many other projects and collaborations. I have always been a hard-touring, grassroots, working-class musician. In some ways, I think it took the trauma of 2020 for the greater music industry to be able to see or hear me at all. Black women who embrace Black eclecticism in the arts, who make music that can't be easily classified or stereotyped (broadly genre-resistant roots/Americana music in my case) have been so intensely tokenized and sidelined in the past — despite being foundational to every genre of modern song — that most of us had little-to-no industry support until very recently. 

Making a "solo" record was not something I ever thought I would do. In fact, the notion terrified me. To step forward under my own name, singing my own story in my own words, took some courage. I felt compelled to do so because I've been fortunate enough to find such a loving and supportive chosen family and creative community of peers. As a survivor of 15 years of severe childhood sexual, physical, psychological and emotional abuse, I wanted to sing my roadmap out, my Underground Railroad to Freedom. I wanted to sing about breaking the cycles of abuse, bigotry, trauma and violence that once trapped me — by breaking my silence. I wanted to write and sing my hard-won Survivor's Joy, and I decided to share it because there are so many people still trapped in those cycles of intergenerational trauma, abuse, bigotry and violence who need to see and hear and know that it can and does get better. If I can survive and thrive, so can you. So, for this most vulnerable and close-to-my-heart album to be the record that has broken through to the broader music industry, and to a much wider audience — after so many years of flying under the radar with my various projects and albums — is affirming and hopeful and joyful beyond belief. I obviously don't make music for accolades or nominations or awards or praise or best-of lists — or I would have given up long ago — but it does feel like a gift when they come. I am deeply grateful. 

What's next for you?

I'm writing a book, working on the next record, teaching my daughter French, touring internationally in 2022, and working on the next installment of the Once and Future Sounds collaboration that I conceived, curated and initially debuted at the Newport Folk Festival in 2021. I'm working on an expansive multi-disciplinary project with Tift Merritt called Hungry River. I'm collaborating with other artists and with harm-reduction non-profits like Unmanageable, the Highlander Research and Education Center, Thistle Farms, Farm Aid, and the Looking Out Foundation. I'm serving on the Board of the Americana Music Association and working on a DEI task force committee to make sure the full spectrum of artists feel welcome and uplifted in our international #AllAmericana community. I'm composing a piece for the Nashville Ballet and mentoring some of the next generation of artists and writers. Always working on harm reduction, community building, coalition and cross-pollination. 

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