Allison Russell’s fascinating journey to “The Returner” a testimony the importance of perseverance

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      The backdrop sounds mind-blowingly magical—some sort of cosmic reward for nearly 20 years of struggling and uncertainty while often making little headway. As Canadian-born roots chanteuse Allison Russell gets ready to head out on the road for her triumphant sophomore release, The Returner, she’s gathered with her band for rehearsals in Ireland, where the tour will begin. From what she describes over the phone, she’s in the kind of setting that makes one feel lucky to be alive.

      “I’m in a very surreal place right now: an estate just outside of Dublin called Camelot. I’m not joking,” Russell marvels. “It’s run by the heir—the scion—of, I guess, a very wealthy family whose name really is Lancelot. A lot of the studios in Dublin proper didn’t survive the pandemic shutdown, so this is the only spot that could accommodate our band rehearsal. It’s all misty, and it feels like a druid is going to come wandering through the forest at any moment.”

      Making the surroundings all the more special is the road that’s taken Russell to where she finds herself today. The singer’s story is a long and fascinating one that has seen her go from homeless teen on the streets of Montreal to Vancouver roots scene veteran to Nashville-based breakout artist hailed as one of Americana’s most important new voices.

      For years, there were more challenges than wins, to the point where she once seriously thought about walking away from music.

      Today, Russell is proof that, if you’re willing to keep at it, sometimes there’s a payoff.

      When the pandemic hit, she made a reluctant decision to go solo, releasing a deeply autobiographical debut, Outside Child, that propelled her into the mainstream—accolades including three Grammy nominations. Last fall brought The Returner, a genre-spanning follow-up that, while not without moments of pain and introspection, captured the sheer joy of being alive in a post-pandemic world. Another four Grammy nominations followed, including a Best American Roots Performance win for "Eve Was Black".

      Over the past few years, Russell has been profiled by everyone from Rolling Stone to NPR, found herself championed by artists ranging from Brandi Carlile to Joni Mitchell, taken the stage at iconic events like Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid, and generally proven herself an inspiration for any artist willing to keep the faith when all seems hopeless.

      What blazes through the phone line from Camelot is that Russell is wildly grateful for the path she’s taken, even when times were tough. Repeatedly, her message is that she hasn’t got to where she is alone, instead drawing on a huge grassroots community of fellow artists she’s lucky to call friends.

      And so, now comes the next important part of her journey: doing her best to make sure no one in that community is left behind.

      “When doors open, I walk through them,” Russell says. “And then I take as many people through with me as I can. That’s my MO these days.”

      THE RETURNER IS in some ways even more multilayered than Outside Child—the album that put Russell on the Americana map. The singer has described the record’s creation as joyful and intentional, a celebration after the horror years of the pandemic. As did many of us, Russell struggled when the world was upended.

      “It was despair; it was mental health unraveling,” she acknowledges. “It was drinking too much for a period and then realizing, ‘I cannot become an alcoholic mommy, so I have to stop.’ It was all those things.”

      But lockdown also brought blessings, including invaluable quality time with her young daughter instead of being on the road. There was also the scary decision to launch a solo career, that paying off in ways she never dreamed when Outside Child was hailed as one of the most important records of 2022. Her breakthrough found her processing a childhood marked by unforgivable abuse.

      The Returner is, as advertised, a celebration, Russell showing she sees Americana as more than an easy shorthand term for grassroots folk and unvarnished country.

      Lyrically, Russell wastes zero time making it clear where she was at during the writing process, with the lead-off track “Springtime” kicked off by, “So long, farewell, adieu, adieu/To that tunnel I went through.” Bringing that sentiment full circle, “The Returner” has her singing “Of all the goodness and the love that the world’s gonna give to me/I’m a give it back ten times, people, are you ready?/If you think you’re alone, hold on, I’m coming.”

      In between those songs, Russell covers no shortage of musical territory, swinging from harmony-drenched blues (“The Returner”) to block-party funk (“All Without Within”) to bright-eyed Motown pop (“Shadowlands”).

      But uplifting as it is, The Returner is also—like its predecessor—painful and unflinching at times.

      As beautiful as Sunday church service in Harlem, “Demons” finds Russell broaching past personal indignations such as, “Standing on the corner/Waiting for the school bus/She said I had such bad luck/I got the bad hair and the bad skin.”

      Over plaintive banjo and sparks of guitar violence, “Eve Was Black” dives into America’s long history of racial injustice, the Russell at her most devastating and emotional while singing, “What do you hope for as you tie the rope?/What do you hope for as you hoist me up?”

      Ultimately, she suggests The Returner can be seen as an album not only drawing on her own experiences, but also a reflection of the world we live in.

      “For any mother right now—actually any parent, any caregiver—in this time, it’s extremely difficult not to feel deeply hopeless,” she opines. “We have the most extremist forces, and fringe forces, driving our species over the edge of a cliff, which spells our own mass extinction. The earth will recover, but we will have made it uninhabitable for ourselves.”

      That was very much at the forefront of her mind, Russell continues: “And obviously there were also things like the racial reckoning that’s happening in the US. There was a macabre comedy of, suddenly, people who had never had the time for any Black artist, reaching out. It was like, ‘We don’t know any Black people, so what is your opinion about this, that, or the other?’ I could go on and on about that, but I don’t believe in shaming and blaming—that doesn’t get us anywhere.”

      DESPITE HOW HER solo career has taken off, Russell never wanted to go it alone. North American roots fans first got to know her two decades ago, when, after moving to Vancouver from Montreal, she founded Po’ Girl with Be Good Tanyas member Trish Klein. Seven full-lengths later, she started the self-described secular gospel folk band Birds of Chicago with JT Nero­—her husband and the father of her daughter. There were also countless collaborations and side projects, including Our Native Daughters featuring Russell, and fellow roots iconoclasts Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla. Throughout the years, music barely paid the bills, most of the money coming from hitting the road and playing shows.

      When Covid hit, and loading into a tour van suddenly wasn’t an option, there was a sobering reality check.

      “For years, we were trapped on a working-class, working-poor subsistence touring schedule,” Russell says. “It was a hamster wheel, and you had to keep going because there was no plan B—the baby needed food and clothes and shelter. It was to a degree where, if we hadn’t had the community we had there to support us, we would have fallen into housing insecurity. And we would have fallen into food insecurity. People want to believe that they are far from that, but nobody is.”

      A year before Covid hit, Russell had received a Canada Council writing grant, and she used the money to hit the studio in October of 2019, recording with long-time musician friends who’d been in Nashville for Americana Fest. The four-day session was focussed on a stockpile of songs she’s written but was not totally sure what to do with.

      “We went in, had kind of a creative explosion, recorded Outside Child, and then I was right back on the road with Birds of Chicago,” Russell recalls. “We were actually opening for the Wood Brothers when the shutdown came in March of 2020. I was at the point where our daughter was five when lockdown started. I was feeling fairly despairing about my career—being on a hard working-class-musician, glorified poverty-tour cycle for almost 18 years.”

      Looking back, she was almost at the point when she was starting to resent the business side of music.

      “Our daughter Ida used to come with us on the road, and had an intervention where she sat her dad and I on the couch and was like, ‘I love the band, but I really want to go to school.’ So my ex-girlfriend moved in with us to help us with Ida when we were out on the road doing subsistence touring. We had never had enough to show for it when we came home, and I was feeling so despairing to the point where I went and did yoga-teacher training, thinking maybe that I needed to stay home and JT could tour as a solo thing. It was like, ‘I need to rethink what I’m doing.’ Being separated from my daughter was like the last straw, where I went, ‘I don’t think I can keep doing this.’”

      During the pandemic, the family was able to hunker down in a Nashville house owned by Giddens, her bandmate in Our Native Daughters. The break gave her time to think about a path forward.

      “I had this album recorded, and so I started looking around at other artists, thinking, ‘If I’m ever going to think about a solo career, who would I look to as a mentor? And one person came to mind, and that was Brandi Carlile.”

      Russell had first met the decorated Americana hitmaker in 2015, the two of them bonding not only over music but also as mothers with small children. Over the years they’d bump into each other on the folk fest circuit.

      “When I was trying to figure out what to do with Outside Child, I had the intuition that maybe she would have advice for me,” Russell says. “I didn’t think anything beyond that. Then I realized that I’m the kind of socially awkward person who’s too shy to even get someone’s number, so I didn’t even have Brandi’s number, even though we’d met a number of times. So I DMd her on Instagram, and thought, ‘There’s no way she’s ever going to see this, but whatever—it won’t hurt.’ And, lo and behold, about a week later my phone starts blowing up with text messages from her.”

      Carlile was floored by Outside Child, her first texts to Russell including real-time reactions to every song as she listened to the record. A three-hour phone call would follow, with Carlile offering all sorts of advice, and then working tirelessly to get the record in front of various labels. Offers began coming in, with Russell ready to accept at least one of them, even though she knew the fit wasn’t totally right.

      “That was when Brandi called me and said, ‘Wait, I think you need to talk to Margi Cheske at Fantasy Records, because I think she’s really going to get the record, and she’s going to get you as an artist. Give me 24 hours.’”

      So Russell did, with Outside Child eventually landing on the highly respected indie that’s been home to everyone from Dave Brubeck and Vince Guaraldi to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. First came the gushing reviews and raving accolades from fellow artists, followed by the show invitations and award nominations.

      After a lifetime of playing in bands that struggled to find an audience, Russell suddenly found herself a solo artist with a major buzz behind her.

      ON OUTSIDE CHILD Russell took an unflinching look at an upbringing with no shortage of horrors. Born out of a relationship between a Grenadian father and a white mother whose mental issues including schizophrenia, the singer was removed from her single-parent home at a young age and placed in foster care. Her mother regained custody after marrying an American expat white supremacist. Russell was abused by her stepfather, sexually, physically, and emotionally, from age five to 15, when she fled to the streets of her hometown of Montreal.

      Often trauma at a young age leads to a pattern of self-destruction in adulthood, including numbing the pain with drugs and alcohol. Russell escaped that path, finding solace instead in art.

      “I had, always, the outlet of writing, the outlet of songwriting, the outlet of prose writing, the outlet of poetry writing to process things,” she says. “Early on I realized what a joy it was to creatively commune with others, and that kept me safe. I was also very shy of substances because my mom was a lifelong addict. I’d watched it destroy so many people.”

      On Outside Child, Russell tackled the abuse inflicted upon her as a kid head-on. Lyrics like, “The jackal came in spring, took me/When I was still so young so young” served as a harrowing window in the past. Ultimately, though, the story told on Outside Child was one of triumph.

      Looking back, Montreal was a place that was somehow, divinely, looked out for her, with Russell sometimes sleeping in doorways, parks, and churches.

      “When I left my home at 15, I was relatively safe, even living unhoused,” Russell says. “The Montreal cemetery in the summertime was like a forest preserve at the time, and I felt safe sleeping there. No one ever bothered me.”

      It was also a city filled with free art, from the famous Montreal International Jazz Festival to Shakespeare-in-the-Park to repertory theatres.

      “I was so lucky to grow up there—I mean, I got to hear Oscar Peterson play for free in the park, and I thought that was normal. There’s a kind of activism of the imagination that has to occur for any of us to better our states, or break the cycles of abuse and harm that we might have been born into, or fostered or adopted into. We have to see something else to imagine any kind of altered reality. I was really lucky to be in a place that fostered the activation of my imagination.”

      A big part of that was finding like-minded kids she could build a community with. That started with an alternative high school called M.I.N.D. (Moving In New Directions), where she fell into a group of “weirdo misfits” with whom she remains close with today.

      “One of them was Ethan Tobin, who just made my video for ‘Demons’, and is now the creative director for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour,” Russell says. “All those weird artistic misfit types—all of us were lifers, and all of us are still doing it today and thriving within our chosen disciplines. We all found ourselves so young when we were these little, traumatized babies who became each other’s support system.”

      That love of community would in some ways make Russell’s decision to strike out as a solo artist a difficult one. She notes there’s a reason she’s always played in groups the past two decades.

      “I was a Black kid, brought up in a white supremacist family with a sexually abusive adoptive father,” she says. “So it was like my whole being was shaped by constantly hiding and blending into surroundings. Where I felt safest and happiest was being a small part of a bigger whole.”

      Unsurprisingly, then, when talking about The Returner, Russell gets most excited while discussing those who helped make and shape the record. It’s no accident the Studio 54 burner “Stay Right Here” serves as a thrilling showcase for string arranger Larissa Maestro and the virtuoso cello and violin work of home-schooled Milwaukee siblings Monique and Chauntee Ross, who perform as SistaStrings.

      “They are part of the story here,” Russell raves. “The bones were there, the structure was there, the basic direction was there on ‘Stay Right Here.’ But they came up with the string part, and when we heard it, it was like, ‘That needs to be front and centre.’ What was exciting about The Returner is that, unlike Outside Child, I went into it fully empowered. It was like, ‘I’m going to co-produce this bitch, and I’m going to write songs to showcase these amazing women who blow my mind all the time.”

      She stresses that what she loves most about being a musician is the collaboration. “That’s not gone with Outside Child or The Returner,” she explains. “It’s just that I’m acknowledging that I am, in this case, holding the centre of the circle, using my own name proudly for the first time in my life.”

      That has put Russell in a position to uplift those who’ve inspired her. Ask for a quick shortlist of those inspirations, and she doesn’t have to think long.

      “Absolutely!” she says. “Off the top of my head: Sunny War, Kara Jackson, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, SistaStrings, Mali Obomsawin, Larissa Maestro aka Mztza, Joy Clark, Ganessa James, Elenna Canlas aka Lupa, Treya Lam, Kaïa Kater, Shea Diamond, Julian Taylor, Caoi de Barra, Caoimhe Hopkinson, New Dangerfield, Jake Blount, Lizzie No, Mya Byrne, Dua Saleh, Mo’Ju, Peter One, Becca Mancari, Yasmin Williams, Kyshona!”

      Most if not all, she adds, can be found on a Spotify playlist she curates called Good Trouble, the header being, “The Revolution is Live—it starts in our hearts and minds. I’m decolonizing mine, one day at a time—one song at a time.”

      The message there is obvious: having persevered, Russell is in a magical place that she almost can’t believe today, but she hasn’t got there alone. And to honour that, she’s propped the door open, determined to make sure no one be left behind. 

      Dana Trippe.