Allison Russell breaks through

Photo Credit: Dana Trippe, Glam by Uzo, Hair by Alexander Armand, Dress by Harbison, Styled by Mecca Cox

We’ve all been following the spectacular direction the career of Allison Russell has taken in the last couple of years – a landmark album with ‘Outside Child‘ and a new album ‘The Returner‘ to be released September 8th, 2023.  There’s been the Songs of Our Native Daughters project and helping out Joni Mitchell on her return to the stage.  It’s a wonderful thing, a deserved thing, but to anyone who has been listening to and appreciating Birds of Chicago and Po’ Girl all these long years and wondering “hey, when will the big breakthrough happen?” it is something of a joy to be able to finally say “seems to be happening right now.

Americana UK went along to the recent combined album launch party and interview at Karma Sanctum in London’s Soho, a location so plush that they have a piano in the restrooms.  The main focus of the event was a combination of some insight into Allison Russell’s music and a wide-ranging discussion with Jacqueline Springer, Curator Africa & Diaspora: Performance at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  Asked about the new album, and how it differs from its immediate predecessor, Allison Russell explained that the whole record came together in six days and is an “album very much grounded in the present” and offers a sense of a more positive future as an act of “joyous resistance.” Jacqueline Springer aptly noted that “‘The Returner’ is songs in the key of joy“, but went on to question the toll the songs – in particular the rather harrowing revelations of ‘Outside Child’  – might have on Russell as a performer noting that “every time you get on stage there is a cost to you.”  It was a thought that Russell both acknowledged and offered a different spin-on saying that “I don’t really feel retraumatized when I sing ‘Outside Child’“, and going on to explain that every performance is an opportunity to rebreak the silence that she had been trained to by her upbringing in an abusive household with a white-supremacist stepfather.  This isn’t, of course, news but hearing Allison Russell describing it in person is an emotional thing, one can’t help but admire her even more.

Turning to the dichotomy of music as a way to cope with emotions but also being the day job Jacqueline Springer queried how Russell felt “when music becomes a profession and not just an escape?” The solution, for Russell, is “to try and keep it quite separate, the music and the compulsion.  I try and never let outside considerations come into it“, which ties in with a disinterest in the Tik-Tok quick route to fame of a lot of modern music – it’s more about the depth and inherent truth of the music that she makes.

Moving to the music there was a first airing of the video for ‘Stay Right Here‘ which brings a big helping of funkiness into Russell’s music – it’s a song for her daughter, and a rallying cry for moving forward in positivity.  Classic Allison Russell in other words.

Speaking of some of the other songs on the album Russell noted that the record was essentially recorded live, ‘Eve Was Black‘ for example had just two takes. Some songs did take a little longer, as she described ‘Rag Child‘ evolving as it was played through live.  Playing live, and evolving the song, is very important to her as she said “the record is an archive” whilst playing live “changes the equation.”  Returning to ‘Eve Was Black‘, which doubtless will have a video soon as a friend of Russell’s has created a ballet for it, Allison Russell explained rather movingly that it was in a way a letter to her abusive stepfather and “an open letter to anyone suffering this disease of lack of empathy.”

One more, slightly less heavy, revelation from Allison Russell before the formal conversation part of the evening concluded was that “the reason I play the banjo is Kermit the Frog” – and naturally as a child Sesame Street and The Muppets offered a vision of an alternative way to live – one where people were supportive and loving.

This did, however, leave Americana UK still wondering just how it came about that Allison Russell managed to get the rest of the world to notice what we already knew: fortunately, there is an explanation.  Leaning on the bar, Allison Russell explained it all to us – and it’s an unlikely combination of events.  On the one hand the pandemic, and on the other hand Brandi Carlile.  The pandemic gave Allison the non-touring time to work on a set of very personal songs, the songs that would make up ‘Outside Child‘ which she recognised as not being destined for a Birds of Chicago album, they just didn’t fit.  So she had an album that she didn’t quite know what to do with and almost on a whim she sent the recordings to Brandi Carlile – hardly expecting, she said laughing, to even hear back.  But she did.  Brandi Carlile was more than impressed – she went into action to help ensure that the album would get the kind of release it deserved, contacting Fantasy Records and putting the wheels in motion that ended up with Allison Russell on a big label which ensured that more people sat up and listened when it arrived for review and airplay listening.  Allison Russell was effusive in her praise, stating that Carlile had literally saved her and her family from hitting the poverty line.   It is, she noted, part of the “community thing” in Americana and the adjacent music genres – for example we’d shared a laugh about the recent Americanafest in Hackney and an amusing incident involving this writer, Julian Taylor (who Russell knows, and, like us, thinks is great) and Robert Plant, which she doubled down on by sharing that Plant had greeted her backstage at the same event with the query “So, you’re a soccer mom?” which led to the two of them bonding over tales of junior soccer.  Community is hugely important to Allison Russell, and it’s clear that simple connections like that – and the bigger one through Brandi Carlile who was also involved in putting together Joni Mitchell’s support team and thought of Allison to be part of that – really matter.   Building up with positivity and aiming for a better and more inclusive world.  Maybe it could be real, there’s no harm in trying.

About Jonathan Aird 2749 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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