Allison Russell Celebrates Her "Fierce, Hard-Won Joy"

On newly announced sophomore album 'The Returner,' Allison finds hope even amidst life in the "fascist state" where she makes her home

Photo: Dana Trippe

BY Laura StanleyPublished Jun 6, 2023

Allison Russell pinches herself to make sure that she's not dreaming. After two decades of playing in folk bands and subsistence touring, her career as of late has been nothing short of surreal.

Russell released her debut solo album Outside Child in 2021 to universal acclaim, and what followed were so many "unprecedented experiences," as Russell calls them.

To name a few: in 2021 her track "Nightflyer" was on Barack Obama's annual best-of-the-year playlist, and in 2022 she earned three Grammy nominations and won the JUNO Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year, becoming the first Black artist to do so. "The timing of it, the fact that we were at a conjunction of pandemic, of major social justice, and racial reckoning. There's a lot of things that happened for this record to be listened to in the way that it was and continues to be," she reflects. "I'm still pondering these things in my heart."

The Montreal-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is in Los Angeles when she speaks with Exclaim! She's been there for about a week, meeting with Fantasy Records to go over the release schedule of her new record, The Returner, due out this September. During the trip, she also performed at Willie Nelson's star-studded 90th birthday concert at the Hollywood Bowl, singing "Seven Spanish Angels" with Norah Jones. After our interview, Russell is going to Joni Mitchell's house to rehearse for the Joni Jam, a Brandi Carlile-organized event in June at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington that will include a rare performance by Mitchell, alongside many other artists. 

"How did I get to do all of this? How did it happen?" Russell asks with a laugh, even though she already knows the answer. "It's because it's been 20 years of plugging away, and eventually some things start going right." 

Russell is a survivor of childhood sexual, physical and psychological abuse, and music has always been her life raft. One of Russell's earliest musical memories is hiding under the piano to listen to her mother, who was prone to violent outbursts, play along to Joni Mitchell's Clouds and Ladies of the Canyon. Russell specifically remembers holding Clouds and looking at Mitchell's self-portrait on the record's cover as her mother played and sang along out of key. 

In the late '90s, Russell moved to Vancouver. By 2003, Russell and the Be Good Tanyas' Trish Klein started the roots band Po' Girl, who went on to release seven recordings — most recently 2010's Follow Your Bliss. In 2012, Russell formed the Americana collective Birds of Chicago with her now-partner JT Nero. Soon, Russell was pregnant with their daughter and the pair had to navigate touring with a young child in tow. Even as Birds of Chicago released a string of albums, Russell hit a wall creatively. 

"After I had my daughter Ida, I went through a really intense period of lying fallow, but at the time, I would have called it writer's block," she explains. "Having a baby is a major change in one's life, and we were on the road touring without a lot of support. We were broke. I was raising her in a van with seven other people. I would nurse her hurtling down a highway for seven hours after a shitty show to go play a radio show that's supposed to change things. I was having a lot of trouble finishing any songs at that point."

The turning point happened when Rhiannon Giddens invited Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla to form Our Native Daughters. The banjo-led folk supergroup released Songs of Our Native Daughters in 2019, a recording that tells centuries of Black women's stories. The project's collaborative process, and the community it fostered, reinvigorated Russell. "When I joined Our Native Daughters, getting together with my sisters kind of kicked open the floodgates, and they haven't shut again since," she says.

Several months before the pandemic, Russell finished recording her debut album, Outside Child. The songs touch on Russell's trauma, but it's also a record about perseverance and strength. It sounds like the first warm spring day after a long winter.

Outside Child was billed as a solo album, but Russell maintains that the people who rallied around it were its life force. One of Russell's biggest champions is singer-songwriter and producer Brandi Carlile, who played a key role in getting Russell signed to Fantasy Records. "Yes, Outside Child was released under my name, but in fact, the community and coalition around it was the strongest I've ever experienced," Russell explains. "Why you've heard of Outside Child is because of the incredible human beings who put their passion, care and love into amplifying that project."

Russell's follow-up record, The Returner, is also built by a loving coalition. A group of 15 womxn (their group text thread, titled "Vulvatron," is still active) and three "chosen brothers," including Russell's partner, came together at Henson Recording Studios in Los Angeles to record the album mostly live off the floor in six days over the 2022 winter solstice. In the opening moments of The Returner, the sound of laughter ushers in Russell, who waves goodbye to suffering. "So long, farewell / Adieu, adieu to that tunnel I went through," she sings. The recording experience for Russell was, in a word, joyful.

Before the whirlwind session, Russell did a lot of the songwriting on hikes with her dog. The songs were conceptualized in movement, and that energy is carried forward into the final product. Where Outside Child is mostly rooted in folk music, Russell marches into groovier sonic terrain on The Returner. "The way I approached writing this time was different," she notes. "I was going into it very intentionally wanting to be taken out of my own folk ghetto." Russell is an effervescent bandleader, helping shape songs like "All Without Within," "Stay Right Here" and "Shadowlands" to have a disco undercurrent. To listen to The Returner is to be reawakened.  

The album's sound was built by a joyful assembly of multi-generational artists who Russell refers to as the Rainbow Coalition. It includes guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman, who were members of Prince's band the Revolution, and SistaStrings (a.k.a. the sibling duo of violinist Chauntee Ross and cellist Monique Ross), who are also part of Russell's touring band. On the album's hopeful title track, Russell is lifted up by lush strings that embody the tender affirmations of community she surrounds herself with. The many voices that envelop her on closer "Requiem" include Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark and Hozier.

"I think the new record is very much more embodied joy," Russell says of The Returner. This is her first interview about the new record, and she excitedly leans in close to her computer camera when talking, still buzzing from making it. "Recording it felt like we were having a party in the studio. When we were playing songs back, I captured a lot of video of everybody just feeling it in the control room and grooving out to the songs. We were in motion together in this space, fleshing out these songs, and I feel like you can hear that." On the closing track of Outside Child, Russell asks, "Where in the world are the joyful motherfuckers?" — and on The Returner, Russell is a joyful motherfucker.

Whether discussing injustice, music or community, Russell speaks from her whole heart; as our 40-minute Zoom meeting session is about to expire, the artist's compassion is unfazed as a new link is sent, and we then speak for another 40 minutes. Circles are a recurring image when speaking with Russell, and also when listening to The Returner. Across the album, Russell sings of rebirth and reclamation. In the studio, the Rainbow Coalition recorded in a circle; on stage, Russell and her band stand shoulder to shoulder in a semi-circle as equals.

History comes full circle, too: Russell cites Kermit the Frog as the reason she plays the banjo, and his image presides over the Jim Henson Company-owned studio The Returner was recorded in. As a child, Russell stared at a Joni Mitchell record while listening to her mother play her songs, and now she's going to Mitchell's house. In the album's poem epilogue, Russell writes, "There is Power in our Circle." 

"We're so used to toxic hierarchies of various sorts. All of us have been brainwashed into thinking that's the only way to do anything. It's so insidious. It's in everything," she says. "I think that when we acknowledge that all artistic endeavour, all endeavour really, is circle work and that we are interdependent upon each other, upon this planet, I think that things get a lot more interesting and a lot more sustainable."

This summer, Russell will play festivals across Canada and, on top of everything else, she's writing a memoir, a project she likens to learning how to be an ultramarathon runner. "It took me a while to hit a rhythmic stride," Russell says of the writing process. "Frankly, there's been a lot of moments where I think, 'Oh, I really do need more therapy,'" she admits, laughing. Lately, Russell and her partner have been thinking about moving back to Quebec for a few years so that her daughter can experience being a Canadian girl. For now, Russell's home is in East Nashville, where she and her family have been surrounded by a tight-knit community of friends for the past six years. 

But Russell does not mince words when describing the current political landscape of Tennessee. "It's a fascist state," she says referencing the abhorrent anti-LGBTQ+ bills passed by the state, including most recently one that prohibits drag performances on public property or in front of children, and a separate bill banning gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth.

"It's a really strange time to be a Canadian transplant in America. There's an uptick in reactionary fascist rhetoric, legislation and behaviour. Running from it doesn't seem particularly tenable, so it feels important to stay and fight," Russell explains. And fight she is. 

When Russell read the news about the latest discriminatory bills, she immediately started organizing an event in support of LGBTQ+ folks in Tennessee. Eleven days later, the Love Rising Benefit Concert took place at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, featuring performances by Russell, Brittany Howard, Hozier, Julien Baker, Maren Morris, Sheryl Crow and many more. They raised almost $700,000 for the advocacy organizations Tennessee Equality Project, Inclusion Tennessee and Out Memphis. 

The event's success gave Russell hope. That same hope permeates the buoyant rhythm of The Returner, and continues pushing Russell forward in pursuit of joy.

"Part of trying to be radically and physically present in this time right now is not just accepting but acknowledging all of what is happening," she says. "It also means engaging in the fight for this place, for this time, for these people, for our communities. Not shying away from the fact that we are embattled right now. We can be celebratory and joyful, and that in of itself is part of the battle. Reclaiming our own joy when we are constantly under threat. As a Black, queer, immigrant woman in the US right now, there are inimical forces on all sides."

She continues, "Being a returner is stealing joy from the teeth of turmoil and coming back from difficult things. But we do, all of us, come back from, return from, difficult things. That fierce, hard-won joy is part of our human birthright, and it's something that we can claim at any time and that, even in the hardest of times, we can celebrate being in these bodies. That in and of itself is an act of resistance."

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