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Five questions with 3x Grammy-nominated Americana singer and writer Allison Russell

Brix 10th Anniversary Party: Allison Russell w/ Sam Rae

Englert Theatre, Iowa City, 2:30 p.m. party, 5 p.m. show, $20-100



New today! Nov. 2: Allison Russell’s music video for “You’re Not Alone,” (Ft. Brandi Carlile)

One of the most powerful, impressive voices in the Americana world is making a stop in Iowa City on tour for her debut record. Montreal-born Nashville resident Allison Russell is performing at the Englert on Sunday, Nov. 6, sharing songs from her May, 2021 acclaimed album Outside Child. Russell’s record courageously speaks about her journey out of trauma and a dark childhood. At its core, it’s about hope, love, finding community and chosen family.

Little Village chatted with Russell ahead of her show, about her eventful past few years — releasing a three-time Grammy nominated solo album, balancing touring with motherhood and beginning to write a memoir.

You’ve toured extensively in the past with former bands Po’Girl and Birds of Chicago. What has it been like embarking on a solo tour this year?

It’s been wonderful. Solo in name only, because I’m surrounded by a coalition of brilliant artists, goddesses and chosen family. We’ve done a lot of opening stuff this year. We’ve opened for folks like Brandi Carlile, Jason Isabel and have played incredible festivals like Farm Aid, the Outlaw Festival and Newport Folk Festival. 

I’m very grateful for it all and it has all come about under the auspices of my chosen family: sisters like Brandi Carlile and Rhiannon Giddens. Next June, in 2023, it will be 20 years since the first Po’Girl record came out. I’ll be able to say I’ve been a professional musician for 20 years, which feels totally surreal.

What was the process like creating Outside Child? How long did you spend working on the album?

In a sense, I suppose, my whole life. That’s the way it always is with a debut of any sort, especially one of an autobiographical nature. The actual writing of Outside Child happened in a span of about three months. It started on the Our Native Daughters tour in July 2019. I was writing on the bus and my partner, JT, was doing a writing retreat in New Hampshire. We realized that we were writing parts of the same songs, and that’s what became the material. JT and I co-wrote nine out of 11 of those songs. The remaining two I wrote on my own. It’s the most intensive, creative co-writing work that we’ve engaged in. It was painful but also cathartic to write.

The reason I was able to record Outside Child was because a friend of ours, her mum, was doing grant work for the Canada Council and let me know that I was eligible for some of the grants. I was awarded a grant and it was enough to pay for four days at one of my favorite studios here in Nashville called the Sound Emporium. I was in denial about the fact that I was making a solo record, because that was such a terrifying notion to me — because I’m very rooted in collaboration as an artist. And also because of my history with abuse, I’ve never felt safe putting myself forward. I had to get braver. 

Then the lockdown happened. I had time to sit and process. I had a finished record to try and find a family for. That’s when I started doing some initial outreach and getting out of my own way a bit. Since then, everything started to snowball in the most surprising and mystical way. 

Outside Child speaks on the journey out of trauma and acknowledges the abuse you endured in your childhood. How did you know now was the right time to share your story?

It’s in our faces — you can’t avoid the trauma of our times right now. In my case, because my compulsion is to use my words in whatever ways I can to process and reduce harm, I felt compelled to. That compulsion got more urgent when I became a mother myself. When I was writing Outside Child, it became clear that the intention was a roadmap. Here’s one child’s roadmap out of a bad situation, finding community, chosen family, love and a much more abundant kind of life through the grace of music. 

We need to know about people’s hopeful underground railroad exits from bad situations. I’ve learned so much from others, so I wanted to pay that forward and write about my experience. For me, music and literature have not just been comforts, they’ve been lifelines. I wouldn’t have survived my childhood without them.

I’m curious what it’s like balancing touring, writing and the music world in general with parenting? 

It’s very challenging and very hard for my daughter Ida and I. This past year has been some of our biggest separations in our whole life. We were so lucky to have Ida on the road with us for her first five years of life. This year, I’ve been constantly on the go and it’s challenging to manage time. I’m very lucky that JT is a very present, loving father. He is working in town more while I’m on the road. I’m missing my family a lot, so Iowa is going to be very special. We’re picking our spots where we can be together — Ida came and did Red Rocks with me when I was opening for Brandi. 

I’m trying to be as transparent with her as possible. She knows that this is the work that is helping keep our family afloat right now. She’s starting to understand these things. I think it’s so important to be emotionally honest with our kids when things are hard for us, too. Not burdening them with it, but letting them know that they’re not alone in it. We’re all making tough choices everyday.

LV: You’re in the process of writing a memoir: How is that process going for you?

Particularly during the early phases of the lockdown, I realized that I was using writing as a therapeutic measure. When Outside Child came out, a really wonderful literary agent got quite enchanted with the record and she felt that it was already far along toward being a memoir. She reached out and asked if I would consider writing a memoir, and I loved her so much and as we talked through the process it felt right to do so. So, I learned how to write a book proposal and wrote my first chapter. She began to put out feelers for the book and we got an instant, very positive response from every publishing house that she reached out to. 

About three days after she sent it out, we were about seven or eight meetings in and I met Bryn Clark who is a senior editor at Flatiron Books. I fell in love with her and the work that she has edited — books that have been very influential and important to me. She picked up my memoir in a pre-empt and three days later we had a book deal. It was shockingly fast. 

Juggling the touring, the various projects that have come along, the book writing and being a present mother has been challenging. I’m a little bit behind on where I hoped to be, but I’m getting closer. I’ll be spending most of November and December finishing my book manuscript and finishing the writing of the next record. I’m immersed in that right now.

 

Russell will be performing at the Englert Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 6 at 5 p.m. Russell mentioned that she was genuinely excited for this stop on the tour — Russell was invited to play for Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar’s 10th Anniversary Party because her former band, Birds of Chicago, played at the shop’s opening event 10 years ago.

“It just worked out that I was able to fit it in between Carnegie Hall and the Troubadour in LA,” Russell laughed. “I’m bringing the family: my daughter Ida, JT, maybe our dog, we’ll see.”

Tickets for the show are $20-30, or included in the $100 tickets to Brix’s anniversary party.


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