Essentials: The Top 10 Allison Russell Songs

Photo credit: Dana Trippe

It can be a bit strange when an artist you’ve been listening to and seeing for over 15 years is nominated for an Emerging Artist award as Allison Russell was for the 2021 American Honours & Awards. Still, maybe that’s more to do with the height of the emergence bar rather than the artist’s longevity.

Russell’s life story has come to the fore in recent years as she has explored and shared her background and personal experiences through her music, concerts and interviews.  Musically though she first hit most people’s radar with Po’ Girl of which Russell was the one constant through its 10-year life.  Originally a duo of Russell and Trish Klein (Be Good Tanyas), Po’ Girl started out in Vancouver at the beginning of the century.  Their first self-titled album showcased Russell’s strengths as writer, singer and instrumentalist with her banjo and clarinet prominent.  The group issued two more albums before Klein’s departure, after which the core band became Russell and bassist/ vocalist/ writer Awna Teixeira.  Po’ Girl released two more studio albums and a live record before calling it a day when Russell and partner JT Nero formed Birds of Chicago around 2012.

Conceived as a folk-gospel band, Birds of Chicago toured extensively and produced three excellent studio albums and a live record.  Russell was secondary songwriter but the lead performer.  In concert she was captivating.  Towards the end of the decade, Russell formed part of Our Native Daughters, the formidable – in both talent and personality – quartet of African American women laying claim to their musical roots and heritage.  Birds of Chicago also linked up with Luther Dickinson as part of his Sisters of the Strawberry Moon project.

During the pandemic, Russell and Nero took the decision to put Birds of Chicago on hiatus and concentrate on Russell’s solo career. Signed to Fantasy Records, she issued the award-winning ‘Outside Child’ in 2021 and follow-up ‘The Returner’, two years later.  Russell has been an active collaborator with other artists and an activist for a range of causes centred around inclusiveness and social justice.

The ten essential songs here are set out in chronological order; the only restriction being that Russell is the sole or co-writer and for such a powerful interpretive singer that’s a pretty brutal exclusion from her canon (while leaving scope for another Ten Essentials some time down the road).

Number 10: ‘Malaise Days’ – Po’ Girl – ‘Po’ Girl’
One of the most impactful songs on Po’ Girl’s debut, ‘Malaise Days’ has a jazzy swing to it as Russell bemoans the malaise of the title before asserting in the chorus “I want jump right out of my skin”.  The performance introduces us to her trademark americana-soul vocal styling and poetic phrasing.  The song was co-written with Trish Klein.

Number 9: Prairie Girl Gone’ – Po’ Girl – ‘Vagabond Lullabies’
‘Prairie Girl Gone’ is solely credited to Russell and has an epic sweep telling the story of her maternal grandmother.  The song is underpinned by a banjo while new member Diona Davies’ fiddle adds a layer of melody that complements the song.

Number 8: ‘Green Apples’ – Po Girl – ‘Home To You’
This song sees Russell entwining nature and human emotion in a simmering tune in which Russell’s banjo provides the rhythm and Davies’ fiddle and Shaun Brodie’s trumpet pick-out melodies.  There’s a winteriness about Green Apples drawn out as much by the accompaniment as the vocal and lyric.

Number 7:Sans Souci’ – Birds of Chicago- ‘Birds Of Chicago’
Growing up in Montreal, Russell is fluent in French and frequently features French lyrics in her songs.  ‘Sans Souci’ was a staple in later period Po’ Girl sets but came into its own performed by Birds of Chicago with its Caribbean feel as Russell celebrates her Grenadian heritage.  Russell’s ukulele acts as the rhythm track while Chris Merrill’s bass hops around it interwoven with Bart De Win’s accordion.

Number 6: ‘Barley’ – Birds of Chicago – ‘Real Midnight’
Another early highlight of Birds of Chicago’s live sets, ‘Barley’ opens with Russell acapella accompanied only by her own handclaps through the end of the first verse.  After this, Jay Bellerose’s percussion track adds its own beat.  Russell’s lyric celebrates her grandmother’s comforting wisdom.

Number 5: ‘Kathy’ – Luther Dickinson and the Sisters of The Strawberry Moon – ‘Solstice’
Written for her mother, ‘Kathy’ was part of Po’ Girl’s repertoire leading off their final album ‘Follow Your Bliss’.  Seeing it performed live for the first time was very moving as the song is steeped in  Russell’s empathy and affection.  The song is the first on this list to feature Russell’s clarinet where her solo is perfect for the moment. There is a video of Dickinson and Birds of Chicago playing a show – including ‘Kathy’– in Washington DC which is worth checking out.

Number 4: ‘Quasheba Quasheba’ – Our Native Daughters – ‘Songs of Our Native Daughters’
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that the ‘Songs Of Our Native Daughters’ had on the music world on its release in 2019, with an outstanding group of writers and performers as well as Russell:  Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah.  Russell’s contributions were excellent throughout.  ‘Quasheba Quasheba’ honours Russell’s great many times grandmother on her father’s side.  Enslaved from Africa and sold into the Grenadian plantations, she had the strength to survive unthinkable suffering and still “founded generations”. It’s a towering performance.

Number 3: ‘Persephone’ – Allison Russell ‘Outside Child’
Russell has been very open on the trials of her teenage years; she describes the process of making her first solo record as “like sucking the poison from a snake bite”.  As a young girl fleeing abuse, she wound up on the streets of Montreal where she found friendship and first love with Persephone.  The performance switches between the fear of the outside and the peace she finds in the arms of Persephone.

Number 2‘Hy Brasil’ – Allison Russell – ‘Outside Child’
Another high point of ‘Outside In,’ ‘Hy Brasil’ is described as a homage to her maternal grandmother whose folk tales rooted in the eerie and the fantastic had gripped the young Russell.  There’s an inherent wildness in the joy of ‘Hy Brasil’ which always lights up in her live shows.

Number 1: ‘The Returner’ – Alison Russell – ‘The Returner’
The title track of her second solo album, ‘The Returner’ is a space for calm in the storm.  Described by Russell in the liner notes as “Pain. Distance. Desire.  I used to Fear, now I Love my body, this life”.  Wrapped in strings, punctuated by Russell’s clarinet, the vocal has a gospel feel and concludes ”You are never alone”.  And, despite the righteous anger elsewhere on the record, that’s good to know.

About Richard Parkinson 150 Articles
London based self-diagnosed music junkie with tastes extending to all points of big tent americana and beyond. Fan of acts and songs rather than genres.
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andrew riggs

Boxes ticked.

Richard Parkinson

Or ticks boxed.

Jonathan Aird

Great list – I don’t know which one I’d nudge out but I’d have to make space for this:

Richard Parkinson

No writing credit for Allison on this one so out of scope.

Jonathan Aird

True, but you can’t tie me to your rules….man…. 🙂

Kevin Harrington

Loosely connected to Allison, if you ever have room, I’d love to see this done for the Be Good Tanya’s- Draft Daughters top of my list