Over the last couple of decades, Allison Russell has preferred to do her songwriting, singing and playing alongside others. She's been the consummate collaborator, bringing exceptional emotional intelligence to a series of respected roots groups. In the process, she's gained necessary perspective on her own experiences and abilities, and worked her way toward readiness to step out front. On her first solo album, Outside Child, she's proved that her voice can carry a story of tremendous weight — of desperate youthful survival and imaginative applications of agency — and command the spotlight in the revelatory telling of it.
In "4th Day Prayer," a track that lands on the silken, Al Green side of Memphis soul sensibilities, she marvels with grown-up comprehension at the resilience of her younger self: "These are the best years of your life" / If I'd believed it, I'd have died / Something told me that they lied / Oh I, oh I survived.
During an interview on her Nashville front porch, Russell twice offers a gently adamant definition of what she is and isn't up to in that song, and the 10 others on her album. "This is not a record about trauma," she says. "It's a record about art and community and chosen family."
A few minutes later, she reiterates the point: "The record itself isn't really about abuse. It's about the journey out of that, and breaking those cycles."
To grasp the superhuman distance Russell has traveled on that journey requires a sense of the torment she's put behind her, which she's come to understand, with much mindful labor, as the product of generational trauma and mental illness intersecting with white supremacy.
She was born in Montreal to a Grenadian student who'd already returned home and a Scottish-Canadian teenaged single mother, who struggled with undiagnosed schizophrenia and lost her toddler to foster care. Russell's mom regained custody when she married a white man who became her daughter's adoptive father, and abuser.
"They gave me to him and that was it," she says. "I was in bondage for a decade. The abuse started pretty soon after I went to live with them."
It ended only when 15-year-old Russell decided that being without a home would be more tolerable than staying in that one. "In the summer, I would go to the Mount Royal Cemetery, which is a huge, 65-acre cemetery," she recalls, appropriately accompanied now by outdoor sounds, birdsong, passing cars and dog-walking neighbors. "It's beautiful. And there were lots of peaceful, hidden spots near trees and mausoleums. I would sleep there sometimes, and I would go to the oratory or the basilica and, you know, pretend to be praying and snooze in the pews."
Russell hid her situation for a while. One of the first people she disclosed to was a classmate and first love who gave her refuge, and who inspired "Persephone," her harrowed yet sweet and sensual roots-country remembrance. "She showed me what consensual loving kindness was," Russell says. "I felt like I needed to just thank her and pay homage to that, because she's one of the people who saved my life."
Through it all, Russell kept attending her arts-friendly alternative high school, because she treated literature and theater as lifelines. She'd long been drawn to and dreamt up melodies for historic myths, fables, Child ballads and poetic verses she learned from her Scottish-Canadian grandmother or encountered in her own voracious reading.
"It offered me these encoded road maps to survival and freedom," she explains. "I feel that about the oral tradition: I feel that that's the hidden canon. Those are women's songs, mostly, passed on. And it's a distillation of these universal, archetypal human things, human emotions. There's betrayal, there's murder, there's parents being horrible to their children through all of those songs and lullabies. And that helped me process what had happened to me."
From the moment she was invited onstage in an Irish pub to sing an old ballad she knew, Russell found great, if momentary, relief in making music with kindred spirits in the folk scene. "Music was the thing that made the unbearable voices of self-hatred that had been so deeply instilled within me stop," she says.
At 18, she became a social worker, helping get people in the most vulnerable populations in Vancouver, where she'd moved, into housing. She played in bands on the side until she made her most serious project to date — a combo called Po' Girl that specialized in jazzy, cosmopolitan singer-songwriter updating of old-time sensibilities — her focus in 2003.
Among her contributions to the group's repertoire were her feathery yet firm vibrato singing, acoustic picking, self-taught clarinet playing and numerous originals, including a reworking of a pre-war blues number as a loosely personalized cautionary tale.
"The first time I started trying to write what had happened to me to kind of exorcise it out of me like a demon, I wrote, 'He's supposed to be your daddy, but he treats you like a wife,' " she says, singing the lines a cappella: "'Sweet child, watch out. That man will scar you for life. He's a part-time Poppa, don't mean nobody no good.' "
"I was writing it very third-person, very 'It's not me; it's a character,'" she explains. "I'm giving moral lessons in call and response, not just in the songs, but to women throughout history. These songs are helping people connect to a lineage of resistance and resilience."
Eventually, Russell formed another partnership, in music and life, with fellow singer-songwriter J.T. Nero. A solo career had yet to enter her mind. "The idea of singling myself out in any way or putting myself forward under my own name in any way is terrifying," she affirms. "It makes me very, very happy to disappear within the group, and to create something together that none of us could do on our own."
She and Nero were just a year into their band, Birds of Chicago, steeping folk-rock in the cadences and conviction of soul and gospel, when their daughter Ida arrived, and they had to figure out how to adapt their nomadic, subsistence touring lifestyle to raise her. (Ida, now 7, returned from an afternoon play date during our interview, bursting with news of her "amazingly great" day.)
As soon as Russell became a parent, she struggled to come up with songs, so she'd shifted to insightfully interpreting what Nero wrote, and accepted that dynamic with equanimity. "I didn't finish a song for three years,' she remembers. "I really felt like, maybe I'm not a writer anymore. I'm a mom now, and that's where all the creative energy is going."
That changed, by necessity, when Russell was invited by Rhiannon Giddens to join a new group of banjo-playing Black women called Our Native Daughters, tasked with a mission. "She had the notion of trying to excavate Black women's hidden histories within the diaspora and experience through the archive what we have and what's missing," Russell recalls. And they were to do that archival and interpretive work through writing and recording an album on deadline.
Russell's band mate Amythyst Kiah witnessed her rise to the occasion. "Seeing that sense of empowerment coming on for her I thought was really incredible to watch," Kiah recalls.
Around that same time, Russell began getting to know Grenadian side of her family. She'd learned a bit about her genealogy from a Grenadian aunt, and wrote a tribute to her enslaved foremother Quasheba for the group.
"It was really powerful to me to connect to that story, and to also understand that I was not nearly alone," she says. "What that project did for me was it kicked open the floodgates, having something to write to, getting so possessed by the history and understanding that I am my ancestors, I am carrying them forward. I survived what I survived because they survived what they survived."
It was during the Our Native Daughters tour — her first chance to travel with Ida on a tour coach equipped with bunks — that Russell really began to wade into writing autobiographically. "I felt like I had enough distance," she reflects. "I never, ever, ever imagined when I was running from my home that this was what I was running to."
She sent those song snippets to her closest collaborator, Nero, who was holed up by himself in a New Hampshire cabin, and eager to help her flesh out her powerful work in progress. "I don't know if I'll ever have another experience like that," he says. "I felt like I was apart from her, but I felt closer to her than I ever have, and so in the slipstream of the songs themselves, of the story that was just kind of bleeding itself out."
How Russell chose to unfurl the narrative on her album is the most striking part. It's an autobiographical story, to be sure, but it's also far more supple and expansive than that designation suggests. With Nero, producer Dan Knobler and a number of dear performing peers from the roots scene gathered around her, she animated fable, myth and fantasy, philosophical meditation, dream sequence and epic alike with her subtly virtuosic feel for torchy chanson, Celtic folk balladry, supple soul and an array of other styles. And she sang it all as the hero at the center of the song cycle, lingering on lines where she finds meaning, establishing an intent and unhurried pace and laying claim to joy. It is by her design that she's depicted a young protagonist who's awake to the possibility of a better life and perpetually in motion, escaping, seeking and surviving.
"I just think about the number of kids that don't get enough positive input to realize that that false narrative they're being told about themselves, about their worthlessness, that it is false — that that's somebody else's sickness, and not theirs," she emphasizes. "And we all need to hear that it gets better. That's why I realized I had to tell my own story.
"These traumas that we carry forward, they don't totally disappear," Russell continues. "But when we can talk about them and sing about them and reduce them to a manageable size, then we can grow around them."