Reading the harrowing back story of Allison Russell while listening to her remarkable debut solo album is a humbling experience. The Nashville-based French Canadian calls herself and her record Outside Child but her achingly soulful voice has earned her a place in the inner sanctum of artistic recognition.
Outside Child speaks eloquently of joyful triumph over profound personal trauma. ‘Telling my own story, in my own words, under my own name, is one of the most terrifying yet empowering things I’ve ever done,’ Russell says. The 41-year-old singer filed charges against her abusive stepfather when she was 20, met her biological paternal Grenadian family for the first time in 2010 and became a mother seven years ago. ‘I’ve come to understand that my path as an artist is to build empathy and to delve deeply into the truths, feelings and experiences that scare me the most in order to be a small part of leaving the world better than I found it. Silence is deadly.’
Redemption is possible even in the grimmest circumstances. She describes creating an album out of her refusal to succumb to the unspeakable pain inflicted by a cruel stepfather as a liberating act, ‘like sucking the poison out of a snake bite’. ‘He was a white supremacist and a bigot, and it took me years to realise that his abuse was a form of enslavement,’ Russell says. ‘My hope is that in spite of the autobiographical nature of this work – or perhaps because of it – these songs may resonate for some of the many, many others who have endured similar trespasses.
‘This is my attempt at truth and reconciliation and forgiveness – a reckoning and a remembrance. This is my attempt to be the hero of my own history, despite the shame that has been my closest and constant companion all these years.’
Birds Of Chicago, the band Russell formed with husband and songwriting partner JT Nero, has been put on hold for this solo enterprise. As a new mother she suffered writer’s block during a spell of heavy touring but her participation in the roots supergroup of banjo champions Our Native Daughters (with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla) rekindled the creative spark.
The opening track on Outside Child, 4th Day Of Prayer, was written on the road in 2019 with her soul sisters whose material, immersed in the misfortunes of violated and enslaved black women, powerfully resonated. Quasheba, Quasheba, about the subjugation of her Grenadian ancestry, and the defiant You’re Not Alone, an ode to her daughter, were proof of her songwriting rehabilitation. The menacing All Of The Women sounds like it should have lived on that Songs Of Our Native Daughters album. ‘It is more perilous to be a woman in every culture and society,’ says Russell. ‘Even more perilous to be an indigenous woman, or a black woman, or a trans woman.’
The crisis of confidence still needed to be conquered and the writing of Little Rebirth hastened the process. ‘It was fear based on conditioning that told me I was worthless for the first 15 years of my life, and that’s hard conditioning to break.’ She is grateful for the part played by Nero: ‘He was like, you’re gonna slay those demons and I’m gonna stand behind you ready to catch any of the ones that get by,’ she told Roots Music Canada. ‘It was the most intimate, creative experience I’ve ever had in my life, as we wrote many of those songs together. He helped me excavate them and scraped me off the floor when I was having a hard time with it.’
Father used me like a wife
Mother turned the blindest eye
Stole my body, spirit, pride
He did, he did each night
The Dan Knobler-produced Outside Child, recorded within four days, begins in dreamy, jazzy style with Montreal, an homage to the city where she was raised (and almost erased). ‘I was a teenage runaway. I believe in many ways the city herself protected me. I wandered the Mountain at all hours and slept in the graveyard in the summertime. I haunted the cathedrals and slept in the pews. Sometimes I stayed up all night playing chess with the old men in the 24-hour cafes. I was very lucky to grow up there.’
Russell switches on her genre blender: Memphis soul, blues, folk, country and gospel. Nightflyer is the outstanding track, the mission statement, the album’s unbroken spirit despite its breaking heart. Inspired by the exhortatory poem The Thunder: Perfect Mind, the singer skilfully owns every role and emotion as she confronts her sexual abuser and in the bewitching chorus sings of resilience and hope...
I’m the sick light of a hurricane’s eye
I’m a violent lullaby
I’m six fireflies, one street light
I’m a suffocating summer night, hmm mmm
I’m each of his steps on the stairway
I’m his shadow in the door frame
I’m the tap tap of a lunar moth
I’m the stale beer on his breath, hmm mmm
His soul is trapped in that room
But I crawled back in my mother’s womb
Came back out with my gold and my greens
Now I see everything
Now I feel everything, good Lord
What the hell could they bring to stop me, Lord?
Nothing from the earth, nothing from the sea
Not a God Almighty thing
Yeah I’m a midnight rider
Stone bonafide nightflyer
I’m an angel of the morning too
The promise that the dawn will bring you
In a devastating first-person piece for the roots journal No Depression, Russell says: ‘My baby brother used to call me The Brown Girl. I found it devastating. My mind was a landmine back then – booby-trapped and twisted by years of severe abuse, years of careless foster care, years of being crushed beneath the body and ideology of The Jackal, my white supremacist adoptive father. Years of being feared by my white mother whose postpartum depression and undiagnosed psychosis took the form of seeing me – her little black baby born out of wedlock when she was just a child herself – as a demon sent to rob her of comfort, of privilege, of place.’
Piano-playing mum was her first musical influence (‘I could feel in her music that there was love in her’), her grandmother introduced her to the murder and child ballads of Scotland (‘my first sense of the hidden archive of the world’), and a songwriting aunt in Vancouver introduced her to the studio. The songs of Tracy Chapman had a powerful impact on the nine-year-old Russell – ‘we were that family Behind The Wall’. Mastery of the banjo, clarinet and guitar enhanced the mystery of a voice at times as beguiling as Billie Holiday’s.
‘I broke my own heart and my baby brother’s when I ran away from home at 15. I had no choice. I could no longer live with what The Jackal was doing to my body, to my psyche. It was run or die and I could not take my eight-year-old brother with me. Leaving him behind was a nightmare I wouldn’t fully wake from until the day he came to live with me five years later. He was almost 15 when The Jackal went to prison briefly and I became my brother’s guardian.’
Russell’s guardians are the subject of The Hunters, another haunting track. Her stepfather escaped with a three-year sentence on reduced charges, the judge deeming her relatively unscathed by a decade of physical and psychological damage. ‘I firmly believe that if he were a black man and I a white child the sentencing would have been much more severe. This is a dark fairytale retelling, more satisfying than my experience with the broken and bigoted justice system.’
Oh Papa Oh Mama
It is of you I am afraid
The hunter and the hunter’s bride
Your teeth as sharp as razor blades
Russell could only deal with her brutalised past because of the distance from it. Music saved her from self-harm, or worse. Motherhood injected courage. She had attempted to stare down her past with her first band Po’ Girl but the wounds were still raw; there was no support system or #MeToo movement then. ‘One of the things we don’t talk about as survivors is the extreme joy that comes when you are over on the other side,’ she told Jon Pareles of the New York Times. ‘Part of putting this record out is just wanting to show there’s a road map. You are not defined by your scars.’
In a soul-baring interview with The Bluegrass Situation, Russell refers to herself as ‘a queer person in the middle of the spectrum of orientation. I’ve been in love with women and I’ve been in love with men and I’ve been in love with trans people and I’ve been in love with non-binary people. I wound up falling in love and committing to share a life with a man, my husband. One could assume that I’m straight, but I am not and especially in this time of increased polarisation and bigotry it is really important that people understand that nothing is black and white. You can’t say homophobic things to me and have it pass.’ In the gorgeous Persephone she sings of a young girlfriend who taught her about kindness and unconditional love and who ‘literally saved my life’.
My petals are bruised but I’m still a flower
After the Nashville sessions a party was thrown for 50 or so of Russell’s family and friends to hear the demo. ‘We were totally silent for 45 minutes, going on this emotional journey together.’ A recording and publishing deal followed. She could believe it now. Encouraged by her heroes, collaborators and admiring peers – Rhiannon Giddens (‘This woman is taking the world by storm’), Brandi Carlile, Rosanne Cash, Yola, Ruth Moody, Erin Rae, the McCrary Sisters, Margo Price, Kaïa Kater, Valerie June, Rissi Palmer, Kathleen Edwards, Brittney Spencer, Dan Knobler, Jamie Dick, Joe Pisapia, Joe Henry, Hiss Golden Messenger, Aaron Lee Tasjan and her co-writer Nero – she had completed the most crucial stage of her cathartic journey.
It is difficult to grasp how a person could survive such an ordeal and recover sufficiently to create art this beautiful, this important. Work on the next album has already begun. A book of poetry and a memoir are planned. The healing gathers strength. You’re on the inside now, Outside Child.