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AmericanaFest 2021: Talking With Allison Russell

From the Your Guide to AmericanaFest 2021 series

Catching up with the Emerging Artist of the Year nominee about the power of music and music communities to promote healing

  • 9 min to read

 

 

It’s an unseasonably nice September morning in East Nashville. Allison Russell is seated on the front porch of the home she shares with her husband and collaborator J.T. Nero, their daughter Ida and their dog Millie. A cool breeze moves through the small wonderland of flowers and greenery in the family’s front yard. It’s the kind of day that almost makes you forget about the news — like protests against masking, overflowing hospitals, the abortion ban in Texas, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, to name just a few recent headlines. But not quite. Over the course of an hourlong conversation, Russell finds many connection points between her own story and the ills of the day, particularly as they relate to caring for her family and raising her daughter.

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It’s been a banner professional year for Russell, who celebrated the release of her critically acclaimed debut solo album Outside Child in May. Though Russell has been a fixture in roots music for nearly two decades — first with the band Po’ Girl, later with Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters — the album, with its deeply vulnerable exploration of the sexual abuse Russell suffered as a child and her subsequent road to healing and redemption, is still something of an introduction to the singer-songwriter. When asked what it felt like to visit that trauma in such a public way, Russell credits the support of her family — her chosen family — as enabling her to open up and finally tell her story.

Below, Russell talks with the Scene about Outside Child, her Emerging Act of the Year Nomination at this week’s Americana Music Honors and Awards, and how raising her daughter has helped her weather the tumult and tragedy of the past year-and-a-half.

 


 

It’s tough to sum up a year-and-a-half, but how have you held up during the pandemic? Both personally, for you and your family, and as a professional musician reliant on income from touring. 

It’s been, in turns, devastating but also deeply reflective. It’s been a very big reset for me and for my family. When the pandemic started, we were living in Madison with my sister Awna Teixeira and Yola, and my partner J.T. , and our daughter Ida, who was 6 when the pandemic started. We just battened down the hatches together and did a crash-course in how to continue working via Zoom. We just tried to keep each other going. We did lots of benefit concerts virtually and just tried to find ways to keep engaging with our chosen community, and helped when we could. … I had this record that I had made that I didn’t know what to do with.

That pandemic time, I just dug in on that and decided that I needed to find a family for it. That was a lot of the pandemic for me, as well as learning to be a homeschool teacher, taking care of my daughter, making sure I wasn’t terrifying her more. I couldn’t allow myself to fall into the depression and despair I felt at the beginning because our daughter needed us. So that was great, to be forced to keep going and get creative and get into the desperation of, “What do we do? All our work is gone.”

That seems to be a common sentiment, that sense that the pandemic forced us to confront our priorities and take stock of where we put our energy. 

We were in this grind of subsistence touring for so many years. I was in another project called Birds of Chicago with J.T., and we did that for years. We brought our daughter with us for years until she had an intervention with us, when she was about 4-and-a-half. She told us she wanted to go to school and not be touring all the time. So we had been, since that point, realizing that we couldn’t be out on the road all the time and learning to take shifts. That was part of the motivation, really trying to find a home for this debut solo project. 

That was one way we could eventually make ends meet in this working artist family. It gave us a chance to do outreach and think really deeply about what our values were in the way we were approaching our art — and art also as our career and business and how we provide for our child. In that, I got to have great conversations with women I admire. Yola and I would spend hours debriefing at the kitchen table and plotting how to nudge some doors open for ourselves and others like us who are perhaps less well-represented in the roots world. Yola had such an incredible year in 2019, and she really used that platform to kick the door open for other women, like having Amythyst [Kiah] go on tour with her, and for me as well, just putting in good words about me to people she was beginning to have influence with.  

Those doors certainly don’t open often without a nudge, especially if you don’t look or sound a certain way. 

It was actually our friend Brandi Carlile who connected me with Fantasy Records. She really championed my record. I sent it to her because she’s someone I deeply admire and whose business acumen I have taken note of and am so impressed by. For a long time, I felt abashed to think of art as business as well. And I think women tend to have a harder time with that. We really created this long-distance network and community of a coalition of the willing and creative. 

Speaking of that coalition of roots musicians, you’re going into a particularly big AmericanaFest season. It’s not your first rodeo with the festival, but what is it like going into things with your first solo album and as an Emerging Act nominee? And does it feel strange to think of yourself as “emerging,” given how long you’ve been a professional musician?

I was just joking that I’ve been “emerging” like a cicada for 20 years. [Laughs] But I think that it’s also appropriate, in that this is the first time I’ve ever put work forward under my own name, telling my own stories in my own words, and just owning it, in a way. It’s new for me. But I am also just so enamored of that whole category. I feel so honored to be nominated alongside Amythyst Kiah, Joy Oladakun and Waxahatchee and Charley Crockett. Just the fact that three queer and Black women were nominated in one category had me like, “OK, we just won. There you go!” And four women out of five artists. And Charley, who is not white. So it was really exciting to see that category because it felt like this opening up — and I don’t think there was ever this intentional ostracizing, or anything like that. But you can only see from where you stand, and from your lived experience. 

The last year — not just the pandemic but all of the renewed zeal for true equality and the pain of the violence that has been perpetrated on the Black community, with Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. In some ways, the hardest thing for me as an artist in 2020 was that a lot of things started to shift and open for my career after George Floyd. Suddenly people were looking at me, and I started getting a lot of phone calls and opportunities that had never presented themselves before or been available to me before. I’m deeply grateful for that, but it was also painful to think that’s what it took.

That had to bring a host of complicated emotions, knowing you could realize some of your dreams but only after experiencing such grief and trauma. 

We had to do some processing. A critical mass of us did some processing. And then another critical mass did some reacting and resistance to that. But it’s important, I think, that we’re finally having a sustained conversation about the ongoing disparities and inequities. That does actually give me hope, that we’ve had a sustained conversation and one that resulted in a lessening of tokenism. You can honor and support and hear more than one Black woman at a time, you know?  

You can even have more than one represented in the same awards category. 

And we’re all totally different! [Laughs] We are not interchangeable. We don’t look alike. Our music is completely different. I know that sounds obvious, but I have to tell you, the number of times in my career that I’ve heard things like, “We love your band, but we already have a Black woman who plays banjo at the label.” Can you imagine, saying with a straight face to, you know, Neil Young? “You know, we already have Bob Dylan.”

Sorry, we already have a white guy with a guitar. 

We have one. We don’t need more. And that’s what it was. We have room for one of you. Which then sets up false competition, which isn’t actually competition. And it sets up false scarcity and this idea that there’s only a limited amount of attention that can be sustained for Black women artists, or queer artists. And that’s just not true. That’s a manufactured disinterest based on never platforming these artists. Like of course, no one will be interested in this music if they’ve never heard it and you won’t play it on the radio and your label won’t support it and you won’t distribute it and you won’t publicize it. So, you’re right. There’s no interest. [Laughs] 

And that’s the thing that has been so surreal about this album release campaign for Outside Child. It goes against all the things that I’ve been told in the past, like, “Oh, that’s uncomfortable, no one wants to hear about that,” or, “You’re opening a can of worms,” or, “Let’s talk about pleasant things.” This is really the most honest I’ve ever been on a record, and it’s the record that’s breaking through to these new listeners, people willing to listen.

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To your point about this creation of competition and scarcity, the anecdote you shared about your kitchen-table conversations with Yola seems important. You worked together and created a network, and a community, that lifted all of you. 

Right? What did we get paid for that? We are so scared, as artists and as women, to ask about money. And men have no qualms, generally speaking, about that whatsoever. They will happily negotiate for their worth. And women are made to feel grasping, or like a bitch, if you have a boundary and say, “I’m worthy. I’m worth as much as that man.” It’s like women headliners being paid considerably less than male headliners, even when they have a greater draw. It’s insidious. And it’s not just in the arts. 

A moment ago, you mentioned Outside Child as being your most honest work. Now that the album has been out for several months and you’ve had the chance to see how listeners connect to the music, has your perspective on the material shifted at all? How has it felt to have those stories, which are so personal, out in the world and living lives of their own? 

I think I understood immediately, as soon as I put it out, that it wasn’t really mine anymore. That’s the alchemy, to me — the magic of music. It becomes whatever it is for the listener. That is real interaction and that’s a transformation of whatever I intended. So many people have reached out to me about their own experiences. And I knew the statistics. I think it’s 1 in 3 women, 1 in 4 men, 1 in 2 trans or nonbinary or intersex folks who have experienced similar histories or present ongoing sexual abuse. I think those stats are probably low, unfortunately, due to underreporting. 

There has been this communion that has occurred, and deeper conversations, and it’s painful, obviously, but also feels very human. It gives me hope that we can get to a critical mass of people who understand that this is a pandemic, too. It’s not just COVID. We’re dealing with abuse and bigotry, and those pandemics are plaguing our human family. In the same way I feel like the album isn’t really mine, I’ve also learned, since the birth of our daughter, that this world isn’t ours. We are supposed to be ensuring safety for future generations, whether we are directly parents or not. These are the future generations of our species, as well as the other species we are destroying. … 

I’m also understanding more and more, as I talk about the record more, that it’s really not about abuse. It’s about survivor’s joy and survivor’s community and chosen family, and the power of art to help us process trauma and transform it into connection and into community. I think that’s art’s worth. Creative problem-solving is required of all of us right now. You don’t have to be an artist or a musician. That creative, problem-solving part of our brain needs to be on high alert. So I feel good about having a tiny part in helping nudge things in a less harmful direction.

It feels strange to ask about plans for the future when everything is so uncertain, especially in a line of work like yours that relies so heavily on live events. But I’m wondering what you see when you try to look ahead to your next few months. 

I have a literary agent and I’m working on a book. It’s a memoir, with poetry mixed in. It’s grown out of the explorations I began with Outside Child. I have a wonderful literary agent. I am also looking around at what’s happened with all of the full hospitals, and seeing a lot of artists who can afford to cancel shows, who aren’t relying on that income, and thinking about the rest of us trying to get every venue on board with basic safety measures. In my case, I’m not willing to play a show unless they have them. I’m inevitably going to be losing some shows, which I’m OK with. I have to go by my own moral compass. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.

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Allison Russell

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