Allison Russell: ‘I was a severely abused child and hiding was safer’
JFor me, it’s a celebration that we’re all nominated, because frankly, the symbolism in this industry is so crazy,” says Allison Russell. Sitting in the sunny courtyard of a Pasadena hotel, the Canadian singer-songwriter talks about the joy of being nominated for a Grammy in the same category as Valerie June, Yola and Rhiannon Giddens, for Best American Roots Song . “A lot of the time they say, ‘We can only have one black woman at a show,’ especially if it’s a roots, American, folk or country show, despite the fact that the diaspora black is the basis of all these idioms. .”
After more than two decades of grinding as a working musician, during which she was regularly on the road with her young daughter, Russell was finally thrust into the limelight with her debut solo album, outdoor child. Along with Grammy nominations for Best American Album and Best American Roots Performance, it’s the Best American Roots Song category that matters most, with the booming, jazz-influenced “Nightflyer” backed by of a trio of black artists to whom she refers. and again during our conversation as “chosen family”.
“When you have queer women, black women, and queer and black women — like I am — nominated, intersectional identities that have been excluded for so long, that for me shows positive progression,” Russell says. “We can be really discouraged about various things, but it’s a dramatic change because in the last few years maybe hardly one of us has been nominated. Certainly not all of us. With previous winners like Jason Isbell and John Prine, this year, for the first time since its inception in 2014, the category features the work of more than one artist of color. For Russell, that’s just as good as winning. “We’re not against each other,” she says with a smile of her fellow nominees. “There is no loss.”
Born and raised in Montreal but now based in Nashville, the 42-year-old singer has been making music for more than half her life. The first was her “baby band” Po’ Girl, which she formed with Trish Klein of alternative country frontmen The Be Good Tanyas. Then came Birds of Chicago with husband JT Nero. Most recently, she joined Our Native Daughters alongside Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla. Founded by Giddens in 2018, the group was a response to the continued whitewashing of music that owed black women just as much but routinely denied them a seat at the table. “She was so fed up with her sisters not being welcomed into spaces,” says Russell of Giddens. “She was like, ‘We’re going to force you to see at least four of us, and we’re different, we’re not interchangeable.'”
In each of his projects, Russell has delved deeply into the roots of American traditional music. outdoor child is no different. Released in May 2021, it mixes jazz and folk with bluegrass and blues. Alternating between French and English, her crystalline and imperious voice rises through the 11 tracks of the album. It’s a truly glorious sound, but such sonic sweetness never takes the listener too far away from the heartbreaking theme of the album – the sexual abuse Russell suffered at the hands of his stepfather throughout his childhood. . This dark subject matter is part of why it took Russell so long to find the confidence to release his first solo record. “I was a severely abused child and it was safer to hide,” she explains. “And even when it stopped being safe, it was a helmet. It just took me a while to feel worthy of putting myself forward.
Yet despite the brutal subject matter of the songs, Russell found catharsis through them. “It became joyful, because I’m surrounded by the most wonderful group of women on the road,” she says of her talented backing band. “Being in this circle of love and in a creative coalition of trust has been so wonderful, even during difficult times. When you’re in the emotion of a song, you’re in the emotion of the song, but feeling our feelings is wholesome. Along with eleven tracks, the album includes the dreamy “Persephone”, which reveals a 15-year-old Russell seeking refuge in the arms of his very first girlfriend, as she sings “My petals are bruised but I am still a flower”.
Songs like the gospel of “4th Day Prayer” (“Father used me as a wife/Mother turned the blindest eye”) are just as powerful, and when we meet in California, she just stormed a powerful performance of it on the late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! while preparing to record an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show the next day.
Russell’s openness, not just in her words but on social media, means many people who have experienced similar exploitation are reaching out to her. Is it a burden to take on someone else’s trauma in addition to your own? “I knew what I was getting into,” she says. “I listen, mostly, and if anyone wants advice I can talk about my experience, but everyone’s journey will be different.” It’s the global prevalence of sexual abuse that compels Russell to share his story. “I know I am not alone in this experience. I am one in three women who have experienced this kind of abuse; one in four men; one in two trans, non-binary, or gender-broad people,” she explains. “This is a pandemic of epic proportions, and it’s old, and it’s ongoing, and it won’t change unless we actively seek to change it.”
After suing his stepfather, Russell saw a kind of justice. “Charging my attacker was a healing step,” she explains. “He received a slap on the wrist. He went to prison for three years and was released immediately. But he’s being watched now. He no longer has the right to be alone with children. So that, for me, was worth going through the horror. Like many women who file rape and sexual assault charges, the process for the victim is often akin to reliving the abuse. “It’s been three years and you’re treated like you’re the criminal,” Russell says. “But we see that play out all the time, especially if it’s a rich or famous man who’s being accused of something.”
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Last year, when actor Evan Rachel Wood took to Instagram to name his own alleged abuser, the rich and famous Marilyn Manson, Russell was one of the first to support her. “I’m a big fan of the work she does, which she does at great personal expense – the toxic reaction I’ve seen from her fans is truly sickening,” says Russell. Wood’s story was close to home for another reason. Russell’s label Fantasy is part of the Concord Music Group, which was also dealing with Manson, but released him from his contract when the allegations became public. “I’m proud of them for letting him down as an artist,” Russell says firmly. “It was the right thing to do.”
Along with the tours outdoor child, Russell is now also writing a memoir. The book will partly detail her time as a frontline mental health worker in Vancouver, work Russell began when she was just 19. Hired on the basis of her own life experience, Russell would work with sex workers and drug addicts, using music therapy. and help with needle exchanges. “It was about meeting people where they are,” she says of her work, which focused on sensitivity and harm reduction. “It didn’t matter if you demoted and went back to drugs or sex work, it didn’t matter if you were in jail and got out,” Russell says. “We didn’t punish people for their trauma and that was transformative. People have this idea that you allow people, but no, all you allow is someone’s humanity, you don’t allow their disease.
Russell managed to stay involved in frontline work for over a decade, returning to it whenever she was off the road. Now his activism has an even broader platform. In January, she joined a number of well-known voices in calling out country music institution the Grand Ole Opry on Twitter after singer Morgan Wallen – who was caught on camera last year using a racial slur – performed on their Nashville stage. “I don’t want to center this guy,” she says now. “I have nothing to say about him, but what I have to say about this organization is that in their history they had two black members, Charley Pride and Darius Rucker – and Charley Pride is dead. ”
Russell was invited to play the Opry last year and did so happily, but he’s adamant they still have a lot of work to do. “I had a great experience playing there,” she said. “I’m not saying they’re all terrible people, but they’re trapped in a very biased way of operating and that needs to change.”
Such change is vital, not just for the music industry, but for humanity itself. “If you’re telling America’s stories,” she says, “then you have to represent America.”