Within the songs of her new album Outside Child, Allison Russell delves deeply into the extreme trauma she experienced in her youth spent in Montreal both as a mechanism for personal relief, but also in the hopes that it might reach people with similar experiences.
Although she is a member of multiple bands (including Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters) and is an accomplished speaker and poet, the release of Outside Child marks Russell’s first solo work as a recording artist. BGS caught up with our Artist of the Month, Allison Russell, from her home in Nashville.
BGS: This is a deeply personal record. What was your writing process like?
Allison Russell: The writing process was having to delve deeply into the most painful parts of my past and childhood and history. I experienced severe childhood abuse, sexual, physical, mental, and psychological. In many ways, I think the psychological is the toughest part to unpack and defang. I don’t know that I am ever going to be entirely free of that and the process of dealing with that. What was very beautiful about this to me is that I didn’t have to go on that fearsome journey alone. My partner J.T. [Nero] was with me every step of the way. He co-wrote many of the songs on this record with me. He scraped me up off the floor when I was in the depths of it.
I have tried at different times in my songwriting life to tackle some of that material and I did on various songs with my first baby band, Po Girl, but I didn’t have the same kind of support and stability at home that I have now. I didn’t have the same amount of distance in time from the events and trauma of my childhood. Time and distance, plus boundless unconditional love that I receive from my partner, were really healing to have that collaborative sense on these songs. It is tough. It is hard to contemplate pain and trauma. That is reflected in the macrocosm of what is happening in our world right now. We are dealing with it every day with each news story of violence towards communities of color. …
We have to go into the pain of it or it perpetuates. The cycles self-perpetuate if we don’t take a stand to stop them. That’s what I’m trying to do personally. Art builds empathy and connection and it helps stop cycles of abuse when we really listen to one another and see and hear one another. It is a lot more difficult to practice abuse and bigotry. I believe in harm reduction. I don’t think we are going to achieve nirvana in this lifetime, in this world, but I do believe strongly in harm reduction and that small things can create mighty ripples. That’s why telling our own stories in our own words under our own names is so important because it can provide a roadmap for somebody else going through similar experiences.
I wish my story was unique. It is not. One in three women, one in four men, one in two trans or non-binary folks have experienced stories very similar to mine.
In “Persephone,” you sing about a lover in your youth who was seemingly a refuge from the trauma you were living through. It feels like a really loving tribute to her. Is that a story you’ve always wanted to tell?
It has become more important to me as I get older to honor those friends of our youth and loved ones of our youth and lovers of our youth who helped shape us and in this case, she literally saved my life. And I wanted her to know that. I also wanted to acknowledge that I am a queer person who is now in a straight passing life and marriage. I fall 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 polarization and bigotry, it is really important that people understand that nothing is black and white. Nothing is simple and you can’t assume that because I am married to a man and I have a child that I am a straight person. You can’t say homophobic things to me and have it pass. Part of me wanted to really acknowledge that publicly. I am grateful. I don’t get to be here singing today and having my child and my family if it wasn’t for that first love. She taught me how to love and that it was possible. She taught me about kindness and unconditional love. She taught me about acceptance, courage and bravery.
I’d love to know about your influences coming up in music.
Growing up, my mom was my first musical influence. She is a beautiful piano player. We had a really troubled relationship, but one of my first memories is crawling underneath her piano and just listening to her play and watching her feet on the pedals and hearing the resonance under the piano and feeling connected to her in that way, even though she didn’t know I was there. It was a feeling like the music she made was a truer expression of her than the often very hurtful words or violent things she did. That was my first sense of understanding the depth of music, that it goes beyond language.
My grandmother taught me lots of very violent, creepy lullabies from Scotland. She knew a lot of old murder ballads and child ballads and she sang me all of those songs. I loved them. That oral distillation of archetypal stories over generations and time, generally very matrilineal and passed down from mother to daughter, I connected deeply with those songs. That was my first sense of the hidden archive of the world.
My adoptive father was very repressive about what we were allowed to listen to. If it wasn’t Baroque or Classical or maybe Romantic, we would get in trouble for listening to modern music. One of the sort of transgressive things that my mom and I sometimes did was listen to Joni Mitchell or Stevie Wonder together. I have such distinct memories of holding the Ladies of the Canyon album and poring over it and reading the back and seeing Joni’s art. That was very formative music for me.
With Tracy Chapman, I was 9 the first time I heard her. I was on a trip with my uncle and I remember hearing “Behind the Wall” and just bawling because we were the family behind the wall. We were the family where there was violence and abuse and the police were constantly being called. To hear someone writing this and have this sense of recognition that this happens to other people and I’m not alone in the world and hearing her voice and her writing and poetry made me feel I wasn’t alone.
And when I left home at 15, my sonic world exploded. There were all these endless possibilities. I’m a huge Staples Singers fan. John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal (particularly Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home). And Mulatu Astatke, who I’ve been obsessively listening to over the pandemic. His music is expanding my understanding of melody and structure. It is ongoing. The influences never stop and I’m influenced by my brilliant peers as well.
Has your daughter listened to these songs with you? What do you want her to learn about you from the music?
She has listened to it. One of the hard things has been having to talk about abuse with my child. I think it is incredibly important. I think that by the time we start to do that in schools, it is often much too late for the children, including me. I’ll never forget in Grade 4, hearing the song, “My body’s nobody’s body but mine,” and for me that had not been my reality since I was 3. What I want her to know is that we are strong enough to live through hard things and come out the other side of it. I want her to know that she is strong enough, in whatever struggles she faces.
I want her to know that her stories are worth telling and her experiences are of value. She is an infinitely strong being and she is part of a whole long lineage of strong women. I want her to know that. And that she is loved so much and a huge part of why I strive to do anything or be any kind of good ancestor is because of her.
(Editor’s Note: Read part two of our Artist of the Month interview here.)
Photo credit: Marc Baptiste (top); Laura E. Partain (in story)