An Outsider No More: Allison Russell Confronts the Past and Celebrates the Present

Scars, we all have them. Some are visible; others are hidden deep. Human nature is to bury these secrets — keeping the most harrowing stories for our ears only. The problem is these memories of past traumas circle our brains like caged animals, gnawing away and fraying the wires, hoping for release, a little bit more each day. As the years roll by, you can suppress them and silence them. Even think you’ve forgotten them. But, they are always there. They lurk in your subconscious and wait to remind you of who you once were. 

Songwriters, by nature, are storytellers. Some tell other people’s stories and create relatable characters. Others use the craft as a cathartic tool to share their experiences of this messy thing we call life in hopes of helping those that still struggle with a pestering past.

Allison Russell is one of these brave souls. The Canadian songwriter was born in Montreal, but now calls the suburbs of Nashville home. She rents a place on an acre of land with her husband JT and their daughter. Since Covid-19 arrived in North America in March 2020 forcing her to abandon her tour with Birds of Chicago, this is where she has stayed — growing vegetables, letting love rule, and writing beautiful songs that confront her past. 

On Outside Child, her debut solo record produced by Dan Knobler, released May 21 via Fantasy Records/Concord Music, the songwriter bares her soul. The record documents Russell’s story in all honesty: from childhood abuse at the hands of her father and her survival, living on the streets of Montreal as a teen to finding her tribe of fellow musicians in Vancouver to finally finding true love with her life partner and musical collaborator.  

“I wanted the album to feel like a journey and ultimately feel hopeful,” Russell explains, when we connect via Zoom on a mid-March morning. “While this is a story that begins in abuse and trauma because those were the circumstances of my childhood, the point is that I’m looking back on that now from a place of love, connection, empowerment and happiness. I felt it was so important to share my experiences … it’s a road map for anyone else going through similar things.”

Russell’s map to the world started in Montreal, Quebec where she was born and lived until she was 17. The city of her birth holds mixed emotions. Home is where the heart is, so goes the adage, though these days, that is Music City. But, Montreal is where she found her voice, her strength, and her determination in the face of abuse and neglect. While there was trauma, there was also joy. The journey from a homeless teenager to finding her fellow misfits on the other side of Canada to releasing her debut solo record after more than 20 years in the music business parallels Outside Child’s narrative. This is her story.

In revealing her abuse, and sharing her scars with the world via her songs, Russell does not mince words, nor does she waste time. On “4th Day Prayer,” she speaks to this childhood trauma no one should ever experience. The songwriter sings in a confessional style: “Father used me like a wife/Mother turned the blindest eye/Stole my bodies spirit pride/He did he did each night.”

The “A-side” of the record chronicles Russell’s childhood in Montreal and all of her experiences in the City of Saints and ends with “The Runner,” when she made the decision to leave Montreal behind and head to Vancouver to follow her muse and her music. “That [Vancouver] is where I really came into my own as a musician, an artist, and as a writer,” says Russell. “That is also where I met a whole new musical community and fell in love with my life partner. Hopefully, when people hear this record, they hear a lot of the hope and the joy.” 

At 15, Russell escaped her nightmare at home. From then on, she spent her nights discovering another side of Montreal: the misfits, night owls, lost souls, and McGill students that drifted in the all-night cafes after dark. “A lot of the record is a love song to Montreal,” the songwriter explains. “It’s like you can’t see your home until you leave it; until then, you take everything for granted. I really think I wouldn’t have survived my childhood in any other city and without the escape art offered me through books and music.

“Montreal is a very 24-hour city,” she adds. “I would spend hours in Café Royale playing chess. Next to me were McGill University Poli-Sci students studying and cramming for exams, and old guys drinking coffee. I would leave there and wander around Mount Royal at all hours. In the summertime, I would sleep in the graveyard and watch the sunrise over the city. Montreal held me. And, in many ways, protected me.”

Montreal is also where Russell first started to make music, busking on the streets. Vancouver, her next stop on this musical journey, is where her true awakening occurred and where she found her tribe. Not long after her arrival in British Columbia, the 17-year-old was asked to join The Hot Club of Mars, a gypsy jazz group led by a local luthier named Michael Dunn. The band paid homage to Django Reinhardt’s famed The Hot Club de France. Russell was hired to write French lyrics to Reinhardt songs and join the band for a gig at The Festival du Bois in Coquitlam, BC. Russell had met Dunn through her aunt (Gillian Russell) who was also a singer-songwriter that had started her career in the coffeehouse scene in Montreal back in the 1960s.

“My aunt and uncle were entrenched in the Vancouver folk scene and introduced me to their friends,” Russell recalls. “I started to play with people 30 and 40 years older than me and learned a lot from them. I also did quite a bit of busking and taught myself to play guitar and banjo.”

Allison Russell. Credit: Marc Baptiste.

Vancouver at that time had an amazing and thriving roots and Americana scene and it was natural for Russell to find a home within this artistic community. “I moved into a big house with eight other people between the ages of 19 and 27. It was a real artist house. We had wonderful jam circles where we would share our songs. That is when I really started to write my own material. It is also when I first met Trish Klein; she took me under her wing and encouraged my songwriting, for which I’ll forever be grateful. She also introduced me to the banjo, which has now become my primary writing instrument.”

When Klein’s band (the Be Good Tanyas) took a hiatus, she and Russell started a new group together (Po’ Girl) and released a self-titled debut in 2003, which was picked up by HighTone Records in the U.S. Nettwerk in Canada, signed the band for its next couple of records. “That was a sweet time,” Russell recalls. “We toured 300 days a year all over the U.K., Ireland, Western Europe, the U.S. and Canada. We were just kids and still learning. I’ll never forget a day off we had once in Amsterdam when a gig fell through. We decided to busk and made like $2,000 in tips, more money than we had ever made at a gig, in just over 90 minutes.”

BIRDS OF CHICAGO TAKES FLIGHT; OUTSIDE CHILD’S SEEDS PLANTED

While Po’ Girl has never officially broken up, in 2011 Russell decided to collaborate with the love of her life and fellow musician JT Nero, who she had first met at the annual Folk Alliance International Conference, held in Vancouver back in 2001. Russell says the pair started to fall in love five years later when they toured together during a Po’ Girl European tour. “We knew we were lifers,” she says. “We started to write songs together and figured maybe we needed to take this a step further. It took a while because I was scared about what would happen if it didn’t work out.”

Taking the leap, and not looking back, Birds of Chicago was born in late 2012. For the next four years they honed their chops and solidified their sound playing 200 shows a year. A handful of albums met by critical-acclaim followed: the self-titled debut (2012), Real Midnight in 2016 (produced by Joe Henry); Love in Wartime (2018); and the EP American Flowers (2017).

The need to revisit past traumas and share her story came to Russell while she was working on the collaborative project: Songs of Our Native Daughters, released in early 2019 by Smithsonian Folkways. She made the record with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla. The album tackled America’s history of slavery, racism, and misogyny from a Black female perspective. 

“On Songs of our Native Daughters we were delving into a lot of this painful history that is still happening today, but from our perspectives and really trying to find the lost voices of Black women throughout history,” Russell explains. “That was a really powerful experience to do that with my sisters in song. It brought up a lot of stuff and reframed my own experience within this continuum. I was a child who was severely abused. I left home when I was 15. It made me understand my experience was not in a vacuum. It was part of this continuum of ancestral, intergenerational, cyclical, violence of trauma, bigotry, and abuse that is continuing to do harm.

“I feel we are called upon in this time to really try to address, face, and heal this intergenerational trauma we are all carrying forward,” she continues. “It affects us all. I’m a mom now and it got me thinking what does it mean to be a good ancestor? What do our kids inherit? They don’t inherit just everything we want them to. They inherit everything we didn’t deal with, all of our trauma and neuroses if we don’t deal with them. I felt I needed to face some of my past and felt compelled to write about it.”

Outside Child is a personal statement. It confronts the harm and the history of traumas from Russell’s past and reframes them with hope. In the process, the songwriter discovers second chances and spiritual rebirth. A broken traveller Russell is for sure, but who amongst us isn’t? The album closes with the celebratory “Joyful Motherfuckers.” On this duet with JT, Russell sings of hopeful sinners, true forgivers, the courageous, and the lovers — shouting out loud for all to hear the power of love to conquer hate; a wise lesson her grandmother taught her. And, she also speaks directly to her father, telling that “thief of her childhood,” “ragged jackal,” and “loveless coward” that he was actually the thief of nothing for she has found peace and everlasting love. The journey is complete. The past is forgotten. Namaste. 

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