In the year 2023, Allison Russell has come as close as anyone is to being the face of Americana music, even though there are any rock-solid artists who’ve been in the limelight longer than she has — like Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams and her friend and mentor Brandi Carlile — who certainly count as poster boys and girls. She might even be the front-runner for the artist of the year prize at the upcoming Americana Honors & Awards show, which takes place in Nashville Sept. 20, notwithstanding that Billy Strings has been nominated again to defend his title. Russell prefers to see these things in community-building, not competitive, terms, but to an extent, it’s that very coalition-mindedness that has made her beloved in these communities, along with her providing a bold and sweet new voice as a Black, queer woman.
Or newish. Russell’s new album, “The Returner,” released Friday, is only her second album under her own name, so even fans may think of her as a newcomer on the scene, following the 2021 release of her solo debut, “Outside Child,” which won her an album of the year trophy at last September’s Americana Awards. But, as the Canadian-born, Nashville-based artist occasionally has to remind people, she’s been at this for 18 years, as part of the duos or groups Birds of Chicago and Po’ Girl (with her husband, JT Nero) and Our Native Daughters (with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla). “Of course it’s thrilling to win something and it’s fun to be celebrated, but I’ve never made art to do that. For 18 years, I was uncelebrated,” she says. “For 18 years, nobody gave a shit about what I was doing, and I still made art. The only thing that is different about having it be recognized is that it means maybe a few more people will listen to me when I continue to crow about these brilliant artists that I get to be in community with.”
The day before the rapturous “The Returner” came out, Russell got on the phone with Variety to talk about the new album and its more pronounced grooves; her very specific — or much more expansive — definition of Americana; the status of her memoir; and being Joni Mitchell’s current favorite reed player. (Scroll down to see her “Returner” tour dates, which start Oct. 13 and include stops in L.A. Nov. 1 and New York City Nov. 30.)
Even before this album came out, you’ve gotten to have an exciting year. At the Joni Jam at the Gorge up in Washington, you got to be Joni Mitchell’s clarinet player, among other contributions.
That was incredible. The first time I heard clarinet was on Joni Mitchell’s song “For Free,” and it imprinted on me. I was a tiny toddler hiding under the piano at my grandma’s house listening to my mom play along to the “Ladies of the Canyon” album, and I remember the electricity going through my little tiny toddler brain, hearing that clarinet for the first time. Then to come so full-circle and play clarinet on stage with Joni and have her be so into it, I’ll never get over that. I’ll never get over her saying “the most beautiful clarinet player ever.” It’s on record: I get to hear my hero say that. It’s so meta and joyful and surreal.
Your previous record, “Outside Child,” dealt a lot with real trauma from your childhood and youth. The new album, “The Returner,” is more outrightly celebratory, and it starts off with the lines, “So long, farewell, adieu, adieu to that tunnel I went through.” That seems kind of like a deliberate segue that will speak to anyone familiar with the last album. Do you think about how the new record will play to people who relate to it as a sort of sequel to the previous one, versus all the people who will be having their first experience of you through this album?
Well, I think it works for both. Of course I have a bias toward the deep nerds like me who take the whole journey, and who took the “Outside Child” journey first. I think that they will find layers of connection, and throughline, and points of resonance, that that they wouldn’t if they hadn’t heard the first volume, if you will. I think it’s very apt that you’re calling it a sequel. It’s stand-alone, but it is the second volume in the trilogy, really. “Outside Child” is sort of broadly the past, “The Returner” is Volume 2 — it’s broadly the present — and Volume 3 will be broadly the future. In the fullness of time, once the third volume is available, for the people that want to take the deep dive, there will be a journey that’s an arc throughout the three. But no one has to do that.
Comparatively, this is almost a party album — although no one would call something as thematically loaded and dramatic as “Eve Was Black” a party song, and even the most upbeat, uptempo songs have some pretty heavy lyrics embedded in them. So it would be reductive to call it a good-time album. And yet…
Musically, it definitely has a more celebratory feel. And it’s more embodied overall. You don’t have to take the cerebral journey if you don’t want to. It’s certainly there…
Let’s talk again for a minute about making a record with strong grooves to it. There is a dedication to your 9-year-old daughter, Ida, in the liner notes, where you say she requested a change of pace. Is that something that literally happened?
Yeah, there’s a very funny story. JT and Brandi were in the studio with Tanya Tucker when she was recording that last gorgeous record that Brandi and Shooter produced. JT contributed a song to that record called “City of Gold,” and we got to be present while Tanya was cutting her vocals. Meanwhile, Catherine, Brandi’s amazing wife, was at the hotel pool with all the kids. And Eva (Brandi and Catherine’s daughter) was asking about where I was. And Catherine was explaining, “Oh, Ida’s mom does what your mommy does. They’re all at the studio today, so you’ll see them later.” And Ida cuts off Catherine and says, “Oh, no, my mom doesn’t do what your mom does. My mom just sings sad songs about her sad past.”
And Catherine was trying not to laugh and said, “Oh, well, Ida, your mom has such a lovely voice…” And Ida cut her off again, saying, “Yeah, she’s got a great voice, but let’s face it, she even makes ‘Jingle Bells’ sound sad.” I just howled when Catherine told us that story. And that is something that Ida’s taken me to task for a lot over the last couple of years. She’s like, “Why don’t you ever write a happy song? Why don’t you ever write any bangers?” So it was really important to me to not disappoint my daughter and to write her a few bangers for this record.
To talk again about this new record, there are some interesting aspects to the literal physicality of it. It has such great rhythms and switches them up a lot, but one thing that could be said pretty consistently through it is that is a record that makes you want to move. By the time you get to the groove of the third song, “All Without Within,” the sound of it hits you on a really basic, primal, even non-cerebral kind of level. And I was struck by a couple things that recur in the lyrics. You’ve got the line “I’m back inside my body,” which is something that people who have trauma in their past may relate to or aspire toward, if they have disassociated. Later on, in “Stay Right Here,” you touch on that again, saying “something that I learned when I was 3, how to leave my body.” And so the sound and feel of the record have this direct correlation to what you’re dealing with a little bit thematically as well.
Very much. No, that is very well-caught and astute. And of course in my specific trauma, it was not just mental and psychological and physical, it was sexual too. So there’s a real dissociation from your own physicality and your own body and your own sexuality. That part of healing has been reclaiming my own joy in my body, my own joy in sex, my own joy in sexuality, all of it. And I’m definitely digging into that, thematically and sonically, on “The Returner” — very much the coming back from the dissociation of, in order to survive, having to leave one’s body, and reclaiming it. Even with all the scars and with the pain, there’s also joy. There’s also resilience. There’s also the miracle that your body heals and gets stronger and that you can reclaim your own joy in yourself.
You’re dealing with some heavy things kind of playfully at times. In the song “Demons,” talking about those demons of the title, you sing, “So we put ’em on the bus, but we didn’t let ’em drive, turned them all to Freedom Riders.” It’s a light-hearted way of dealing with some tough stuff.
I love that. We need humor. I mean, the birth of humor is that we have to deal with hard and traumatic things, all of us, to varying degrees, and humor is part of what gets us through. All humor is rooted in pain, I think, initially. And that’s part of the transcendence and the alchemy of it. Yeah, definitely, “Demons” is playful…
And I can’t wait for you to see the video for that, which will be out in October. I went to Prague for three days with one of my oldest, dearest childhood friends, whose name is Ethan Topman. We’re actually birthday twins, born the same year in the same city, Montreal. He was in Beyonce’s camp for a long time on the visual side of things, doing set design for “Formation” and all those amazing short films that were part of “Lemonade.” Now he’s been in the Taylor Swift camp for the last three or four years. He did the art design and creative design for the Eras Tour. This video for “Demons” is Ethan’s first time in the director’s chair on an official music video, doing the concept and the visual narrative of it, and it was so much fun collaborating.
In a recent interview, you said of this album, “I was going into it very intentionally wanting to be taken out of my own folk ghetto.” You are at an interesting point in terms of sound and image where things are changing a little bit. Obviously you’ve been tagged as Americana, and people associate that with dressing down, kind of, whether it’s musically or fashion-wise…
I disagree with that so intensely. I don’t think Americana is limited to sort of a stripped-down thing. For me, Americana reflects more the way I think about American history — and when I talk about American history, I don’t just mean the lower 48. It’s a much older, deeper story that spans Haiti to Nunavut, Caribbean to Canada and the Arctic Circle. To me it’s all of the landmass and the waves of immigration and cultural clash and influence and cross pollination. That is the story of this so-called new world that, of course, from an indigenous perspective, is at least 15,000 years old, and it’s not all one story, either. The indigenous people crossed over the Bering Strait during the Ice Age, but now there is incontrovertible DNA evidence that many indigenous people also came from the Pacific Islands and were part of that great seafaring tradition 15,000 years before Columbus and the Spanish and the French and the English and the Portuguese and the Dutch and the Vikings and everybody else shows up. So to me, there’s this oversimplification of what we think of as America and, by and by, what we think of as Americana.
I think it’s so much broader, and I think that’s part of why I love and I feel comfortable identifying as Americana, because it is so expansive. It really goes beyond genre. Of course it’s a paradoxical thing where, yes, it is treated as a genre, say, within the Recording Academy. But to me the Americana community and the history of the music and the music that has come out of this vast and unprecedented cultural experiment that is the melting pot of the Americas is such a bigger story. Chaka Khan is as much Americana as Lucinda Williams, to me. Hip-hop and jazz and R&B and soul and those offshoots are as much Americana as country-and-Western and folk — which all have, of course, diasporic African foundations. It’s just such a deeper, more expansive and more interesting story that goes beyond someone putting on some cowboy boots and some jeans to get on stage.
There were a couple of interviews I read where I got… not frustrated, exactly, but they misinterpreted what I was saying. I wasn’t saying that I’m leaving Americana. I’m saying that everything that I’m doing can be embraced within that. Mike Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger and I were having that conversation about what has been sort of the sound of Americana, and how that’s just one little tiny branch of the tree…
You have strings throughout this album, which is a real switch. Combine that with the more rhythmic nature of a lot of the songs, and there have been some reviews that actually mentioned the word disco. It really doesn’t feel like that, per se, maybe you could say there is a feel to some of the use of strings that harks back to some funky moments of the ‘70s more than anything anybody would consider, like, chamber pop, which is the other big association people have with string sections.
I really don’t think in eras, and I don’t listen in eras, you know? I will say, definitely, I have been getting really into the oeuvre of Roberta Flack, specifically a record called “Quiet Fire.” And so I suppose in that sense, you could say it’s an era. But she spans so much… as do all of the writers and artists and interpreters that I really love. None of them can be pigeonholed to just one era. And I feel like that’s sort of a bit more of an outside imposition, of needing to break it down in that way.
For me, it’s really much, much more about the circle of artists that inspire me who populate this record. It’s the fact that Larissa Maestro is one of the great string arrangers and string arrangement composers of our time, as are SistaStrings, and that they are, by just who they are, so far outside of any box. They all came up in the classical world, but they were rejected by the classical world, frankly, because of racism and sexism and not because they weren’t brilliant genius players. Larissa went to Berkeley on scholarships. SistaStrings [the collective name for sisters Monique and Chauntee Ross, on cello and violin] were homeschooled, genius classical players from the time they were 3. They’re virtuosic players, but they are listening so much more broadly and existing in the world so much more precariously than, say, your average classically trained person whose identity doesn’t force them to prove why they should be in the room every day. And their voices are present on this record, and it’s not me dictating to them, “This is what you should play. This is what you should do.” That’s the circle work of this record. … Those string compositions are authorial and they’re not dictated by me going, saying, “Let’s get this era or that era.”
And I totally understand why people feel the need to frame things within that, when I would posit that the way we play together hasn’t been heard before, because we are individuals who haven’t existed before. Of course we’re influenced by everything that we’ve ever listened to, which is wildly, broadly eclectic. In the case of SistaStrings, in the case of Larissa Maestro, in my case, for that matter, all of us were deeply steeped in listening to Baroque music and listening to romantic and classical music in our childhood. I was literally not allowed to listen to pop music in my childhood, so I’m always approaching things kind of obliquely and, in a way, playing catch-up with pop culture references.
You have your husband and brother-in-law as coproducers, but nearly everyone who plays on the album is female, or gender-nonconforming, which is true of your live band too. Of course we have to ask about that, even though artists rarely get asked, “Why do you have an all-guy band?” At least we could guess there is an intentionality behind it, in your case, that doesn’t necessarily exist in the opposite circumstance.
These are some of the artists we respect the most in the world. It’s not a gimmick that all these women are on this record. It’s because they are the most inspiring artists I know. I’ve been in community and growing into community with each of them in particular depth over the last two years since “Outside Child” was released. … Why I have populated the record the way I do isn’t just because there’s an imbalance in the industry. Nobody bats an eye if it’s all dudes on everything all the time. That might have been the first impetus of why I wanted to present women, say, for “Once and Future Sounds” at Newport (Folk Festival) when it was my “Outside Child” debut, and it was my debut as a curator in July 2021. It might have started as an impetus of, “Oh, there’s this imbalance, and I want to represent Black women and queer women and women of color and allies on the stage that Mother Odetta built.”
What ended up happening was just this deep sisterhood and communion and being wildly inspired by not just by what everybody plays, but by the way that we show up for each other in community as well… and the things we don’t have to say, and the ways we don’t have to prove ourselves to one another. None of us questions our right to listen to or play any kind of music we want. That has not been a given for any of us, in our histories and the way that we came up. I mean, it’s sort of extrapolating from what happened for Rhiannon, Layla, Amythyst and I with Our Native Daughters. It’s a growing of that same kind of circle and understanding and all the things that we don’t have to say because we are not biased and prejudiced against each other. We, unfortunately, in more male-dominated, white-dominated, straight-dominated spaces, have had to explain our presence and prove why we should be there at all. When you’re not having to waste a bunch of time and energy with that sort of bullshit, the creative expansion possibilities are just sort of endless, and it’s joyful and it’s empowering.
And the men that we choose to let into that circle, like JT, like Drew (Lindsay, the album’s co-producer with Nero), like Brandon Bell (the recorder and mixer), get it. They’re deeply feminist, open-minded, unafraid of their own internal feminine sort of divine. There’s this openness that’s possible and trust that’s possible so that you can take musical and creative risks in a way that just simply isn’t possible when you’re actually having to keep your shields way up because someone might say something horrific like “You people are so soulful” or “I just love Black women’s voices” or “Can I feel your hair” — the shit that has been said to us in different circumstances.
And I think that that’s being born out outside of this record. SistaStrings are an integral part of Brandi Carlile’s band now. Everybody and their dog is clamoring for them to sit in, and it’s not because of some kind of “Oh, we need better representation.” It’s because they’re fucking bad-asses. And Larissa Maestro is now a part of Hozier’s touring band, heavily involved in arrangements of the new stuff. It is brilliant. That show is extraordinary, and what she’s doing within that band is so powerful. She’s not just playing in the background. She’s frontline, singing, playing synths, playing guitar, playing cello, singing and part of all of the really, really beautiful and intricate arrangements of those songs. And she’s writing scores for soundtracks for films. She’s collaborating with all kinds of artists like Wendy and Lisa.
At (the Joni Jam at the Gorge), that was all of our first time working with Wendy and Lisa, but not the last, and they’ve already played on Joy Clark’s new record, and Joy just got signed to Righteous Babe Records. There is palpable shifting, frankly, of power and access happening because of the ways that we are, within our own circles, rejecting the divide-and-conquer narrative that there’s only room for one or two of us and we’re all interchangeable. We’ve called bullshit on that and we’re building our own tables and our own circles. The ones of us who got their foot in the door and got platforms and leverage earlier, like Rhiannon Giddens and Brandi Carlile, have been knocking the door open for the rest of us. Each wave of us continues to do that. And of course, Wendy and Lisa were knocking open those doors long before we ever were. Annie Lennox was knocking open those doors, Chaka was, Joni was, Mavis Staples was and continues to. To me, that is the underlying truth of it: These amazing, brilliant women have always been there. And I think of someone like Sinead O’Connor, who was 30 years ahead of a curve, so there was this circle to catch her. But we’re all her spiritual children and debtors, and Joni’s and Mavis’ and Lucinda’s and Tracy Chapman’s and Roberta Flack’s. Think of people like Christine McVie kicking open the doors for all of us.
And when we’re lucky enough to get to work with the amazing pioneers who are still with us, like Wendy and Lisa, like Joni Mitchell, like Mavis Staples, like Chaka Khan — like Willie Nelson, for that matter! — it is so galvanizing and empowering and there’s so many things coming out of it. I’m very excited about SistaStrings’ new record that they’re working on. There’s a vast creative wave that is coming out of these overlapping circles of intersectional artists and allies who are doing this work outside of what mainstream told us was possible, outside of what genre-bound, narrow ideas of what genre is or should sound like or should look like. It’s a really exciting time and even from within it I can sometimes step back and look around and marvel at the sheer creative force and and holistic-ness of this community. It’s really exciting to be part of it and it’s an honor to have these these artists be in close creative community and communion with me, but also to watch what they’re doing individually and what they’re doing in other configurations. It’s really exciting.
In the past couple of years you’ve gone from someone who needed to be championed by others, like Brandi, to get a foot in, to someone who is doing the championing. This is the second year in a row where you’ve had a big look at the Americana Honors & Awards. It maybe a little early for you to do any torch-passing, but you have an interest in paying it forward.
I’m very excited I’ve been lucky enough to get to collaborate with people like Sunny War — her new record is extraordinary — and with people like Peter One. There are young artists like Julie Williams who I think are so promising. Joy Clark’s first single for Righteous Babe drops October 5, a gorgeous song called “Guest.” Megan McCormick just dropped a new record called “Are and Be” that is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in ages. You know, Elenna Canlas from my band — or not my band; I don’t own anybody, but the Rainbow Coalition, the ensemble of loving, chosen family who moved each other — she’s got a new project called “Lupa” that’s just exquisite. The whole Black Opry collective, the work that they’re doing…. Ganessa James, who plays bass on this record, has a brilliant record coming up. Kaia Kater, who I just think is an absolute genius, is working on a new record — a Canadian/Caribbean banjo player and just brilliant writer, activist, artist.
I mean, I hope I’ve been paying for it all along as I go, and absolutely, I’m grateful for the recognition from the Americana community, and I’ll be just as excited to be cheering on whoever else gets nominated for Artist of the Year next year, and all my fellow nominees. My theory of all of that is it’s so much about community building and it’s so much about music patronage, those gatherings. Of course it’s thrilling to win something and it’s fun to be celebrated, but I’ve never made art to do that. For 18 years, I was uncelebrated. For 18 years, nobody gave a shit about what I was doing, and I still made art. The only thing that is different about having it be recognized is that it means maybe a few more people will listen to me when I continue to crow about these brilliant artists that I get to be in community with. I’ve always been doing that, but no one wanted to listen to me 18 years ago, and now maybe a few more people do. Hopefully that’s all to the good of increasing awareness for more artists within our all-Americana, greater kind of genre-fluid communities of artists and activists, cultural workers and cultural ambassadors.
You announced some time ago you were working on your memoir, covering a lot of the traumatic events that were covered in the “Outside Child” album. Do you get annoyed by people asking, “How’s your book coming along?”
No, no, I don’t get annoyed. I went through a period of feeling really overwhelmed with it, but I’ve gotten to a much better place. Of course I’m behind deadline. It was just inevitable when we had to move up the date of the record and just the intensity of the outward-facing work that’s gone on over the last two years. Time has been at a premium, and it’s been really tough to carve out unbroken time to work on the writing.
It’s a learning curve for me. I liken it to songwriting, where, when you get to the recording of it, you have the comfort of your community that you’re building the songs with in the studio, and even in the writing, you have the solace of immediate melody and music. Whereas it’s much harder to hear melody over the course of a book. And it’s brought up so many things I thought I was OK with or that I was healed from, and of course I’m realizing: No, not, not done, not healed, back to therapy. You know, all of the layers of just self-reckoning that go into memoir work. It feels like you’re flaying yourself and eviscerating yourself at the same time, you know? It’s not pretty and it’s not easy, but it’s necessary.
And I feel really lucky to be with Bryn Clark, my editor at Flatiron Books. Bryn just edited Elliot Page’s brilliant new memoir, “Pageboy,” and she is Tarana Burke’s editor and Ashley C. Ford’s editor. She’s been so patient with me, helping me free myself from my own guilt about how I wanted to be able to turn in a chapter a week and I couldn’t.
I feel like I’ve had actually some real breakthroughs over the last couple of months. I’ve realized that the story of the book needs to move further forward into the future, because I want to tell more of the joy of the present as well in this book, and not be so mired in the worst parts of my history. Of course I have to tell that part too, and figuring out how to navigate that, it’s not wholly linear. There’s a sort of a musical approach to the writing of memoirs that I’m still finding my voice within. But I’m feeling re-galvanized, and I’ve been writing a ton over the last couple of months, so I’m feeling good about having a finished manuscript by the end of this year. I think it actually works really well, in that initially I was thinking the memoir would come out before “The Returner,” but it feels right for ”The Returner” to come out first, and for the memoir to probably be arriving more in conjunction with the third installment of this trilogy.
It did seem interesting that you were writing this book about a traumatic past at the same time you were kind of writing the new album as a whole subsequent chapter to that.
I think it was a breakthrough, in doing this record, to make me realize memoir doesn’t have to be trapped in the worst parts of your past. Memoir is also reminiscing about the miracle of playing Joni Jam. It’s also about the miracle of meeting Annie Lennox and absolutely falling in love with her and feeling the sense of kinship and almost like a bizarre, long-lost family connection. It’s getting to sing with one of my oldest crushes, Norah Jones, getting to sing “Seven Spanish Angels” with her for Willie Nelson [at his 90th birthday show at the Hollywood Bowl]. That’s all part of the memoir for me now too, which is so joyful.
Allison Russell’s 2023-24 tour dates:
Sept 15 – Harvest Music Festival – Fredericton, Canada
Sept 16 – CityFolk Festival in Ottawa, Canada
Sept 22 – FreshGrass Festival – North Adams, MA
Sept 23 – Farm Aid – Noblesville, IN
Sept 24 – XPoNential Music Festival – Camden, NJ
Oct 13 – The Ark – Ann Arbor, MI
Oct 19 – Terminal West – Atlanta, GA
Oct 20 – Princess Theatre – Decatur, AL
Oct 21 – Toulouse Theatre – New Orleans, LA
Oct 25 – 3TEN ACL Live – Austin, TX
Oct 28 – The Lensic – Santa Fe, NM
Oct 29 – MIM Music Theater – Phoenix, AZ
Nov 01 – El Rey Theatre – Los Angeles, CA
Nov 03 – HopMonk Tavern – Novato, CA (sold out)
Nov 04 – Sweetwater – Mill Valley, CA (sold out)
Nov 05 – The Center for the Arts – Grass Valley, CA
Nov 07 – Hult Center for the Performing Arts – Eugene, OR
Nov 09 – Mississippi Studios – Portland, OR (sold out)
Nov 10 – Admiral Theatre – Bremerton, WA
Nov 11 – Tractor Tavern – Seattle, WA (sold out)
Nov 13 – The State Room – Salt Lake City, UT
Nov 15 – Boulder Theater – Boulder, CO
Nov 16 – Bluebird Theater – Denver, CO
Nov 17 – Roaring Fork Sessions – Aspen, CO
Nov 29 – World Cafe Live – Philadelphia, PA
Nov 30 – Music Hall of Williamsburg – Brooklyn, NY
Dec 02 – Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts – Katonah, NY
Dec 03 – Infinity Hall Hartford – Hartford, CT
Dec 07 – The Sinclair – Cambridge, MA
Dec 08 – Portland House of Music – Portland, ME (sold out)
Dec 09 – Levon Helm Studios – Woodstock, NY (sold out)
Jan 11 – The Basement East – Nashville, TN
Jan 13 – Sheldon Theater – St. Louis, MO
Jan 14 – Thalia Hall – Chicago, IL
Jan 16 – St. Cecilia Music Center – Grand Rapids, MI
Apr 27 – Stagecoach Festival – Indio, CA
May 27 – CFG Bank Arena – Baltimore, MD (opening for Tyler Childers)