Allison Russell Is a Grammy Insider After Releasing the Bold ‘Outside Child’

·10-min read

Allison Russell’s debut solo album, “Outside Child,” explores the trauma she experienced being sexually and emotionally abused until the time she was 15, and how she learned to choose her own family and channel the power of music and art to escape and thrive. Triply Grammy-nominated, it’s the kind of album the Recording Academy can proudly point to as something that not just embodies excellence but could actually save a life. It’s not a stretch for Russell to imagine her music having that power, anyway, because it happened to her.

“My uncle played me Tracy Chapman when I was 9 years old on a road trip — he’s my hero,” says the Canadian-born, Nashville-residing Russell. “That redefined the world for me, hearing her sing ‘Behind the Wall’ when I was 9, and I understood for the first time that it’s not just me this is happening to. This beautiful queer Black woman is singing about this thing that I thought was this most horrible, shameful secret of my life. There’s others.” At that and other subsequent points, music “my underground railroad — my path to freedom.”

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At 39, Russell is willing to count herself as a new artist, despite having made music professionally for years as a member of the groups Birds of Chicago and Po’ Girl. “To get nominated was a shock to me because that’s unprecedented for me in the 22 years I’ve been making art and albums and touring professionally. I’m only new in the sense that I have finally overcome my fear of making a record in my own name.

“‘Outside Child’ is a true debut record in that I’m facing one of my deepest fears, which is to be completely visible and out in the open and myself. That is a fear that is inseparable from the kind of childhood I had, where it was self-preservation to hide, for a long time. I’ve had to step into my own name for the first time, and it felt like I had to do that because if I really want to be part of stopping these cycles of violence and bigotry and abuse from flourishing, then I have to break my silence with intention and with bravery.”

Russell is too gracious to really complain about any of the press she’s gotten, which has been almost uniformly positive, but she does try to modestly correct the notion that the album is “about” the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, even though that subject or subtext is unmistakably at the core of many songs on the record. “The reason I’m always saying it’s not about abuse and trauma is because those were just the circumstances of my life that I had no control over it in the early part of my life. And as soon as I had enough agency and self-awareness to make change and to escape and to find a loving community, I did, you know, and that’s what it’s about to me, more than the circumstances that none of us get to choose.” Even in framing the album in terms of courage and not suffering though, she admits that “even when we were recording it, I was still in a fair bit of denial about what I was actually doing.”

Russell is grateful for the support of contemporaries like Brandi Carlile, who heard the album shortly after it was recorded and knew it needed a bigger platform that it seemed destined to get. “Finding my label home was because of Brandi having the intuition that Margi Cheske needed to hear ‘Outside Child.’ We were on the point of signing with someone else, and Brandi was like, ‘Just hang on, let me give Margi a call,’ and we got a call from her the next day, and that started the conversation. And now Fantasy is not just my label home but they are artists on the other side of the curtain that I deeply resonate with, and who care about community building and harm reduction, too. It’s a mission beyond music. And that’s the only reason that ‘Outside Child’ got nominated, I think, is because I have this incredible team amplifying the music and the message and using their networks to say, ‘Look, please listen to this.’”

But maybe the biggest leg up was provided by Rhiannon Giddens, who just happens to be one of her competitors for best American roots song, and who enlisted Russell into Our Native Daughters, a side project for four banjo-playing Black women who also happen to be acclaimed singer-songwriters in their own right. “Her platform got elevated long before mine did, and always, she was finding ways to bring her sisters to the table with her,” Russell says of Giddens. “She’s done that for Amythyst (Kiah), she’s done that for Leyla (McCalla) and for me and many, many other artists.”

Allison Russell - Credit: Marc Baptiste
Allison Russell - Credit: Marc Baptiste

Marc Baptiste

Russell’s solo record was, indirectly, an outgrowth of a song she wrote for the Our Native Daughters album called “Quasheba,” named after an ancestor who was enslaved and sold to a sugar plantation in Grenada. She found touchstones connecting what she knew of Quasheba’s story and her own, up to a point.

“I wrote ‘Outside Child’ coming off of the songs of Our Native Daughters, the record that Rhiannon and Leyla and Amythyst and I wrote together. And that was the first time I really connected my personal experience with a bigger historical picture and specifically of my ancestral lineage history, when I learned about and wrote about Quasheba, and started dreaming about her and understanding how closely paralleled my life and hers were, particularly the first 15 years. But I lived in a world where ultimately what had happened to me was deemed wrong. I charged my abuser. It was a slap on the wrist sentence” — three years — “but he did go to jail. I was able to have a level of agency and resolution in my life that was impossible in her. She died still enslaved. She died with the men that did that to her having the law on their side. And so there was this sense that I’m part of this unbroken chain of really horrific intergenerational trauma and abuse and bigotry. But I’m also a part of this incredibly powerful chain of resilient, strong, hopeful women. Because how did she survive what she did for as long as she did to even found our family line — I don’t know, but she did, and I’m grateful.”

In the present day, “we also have these narratives that if that happens to you, that’s it — you’re wrecked, you’re ruined for life. There’s no joy, there’s no happiness. It’s just shame and misery. And in fact, the stats are horrible. The stats are that if this happens to you as severely as it did to me for 15 years, then you statistically are much more likely to commit suicide, to become severely addicted, to become a sex worker, to be killed. It’s one in three women (who suffer attack or abuse), one in four men, one in two trans or intersex or non-binary folks. I mean, it is a pandemic of such epic proportions, and we’re in total denial about it.

“I had a different story because of music and art, because of finding a community that didn’t reinforce these abusive patterns that I had been trapped in, that helped me break them. And I wanted to write the journey out of abuse, but not just that – to write about joy, about love. In a lot of ways, the whole record is a love song to my daughter: ‘You don’t have to carry any of this forward. You’re free from this now.’ And it’s not just for my daughter. I wrote it and put it into the world because that’s my hope for our world, that we can heal from these collective traumas that we are all affected by, whether it’s directly happen to us or it’s one of our family members or someone we love that it’s happened to. None of us is free of it, unfortunately, because the numbers tell us that none of us is free of it.”

Allison Russell - Credit: Marc Baptiste
Allison Russell - Credit: Marc Baptiste

Marc Baptiste

The record has been classified as Americana, and certainly been embraced by that community, but “I wasn’t thinking about genre,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking about anything or specific topics other than it had to feel true to my experience of moving through and out and into agency and love and community and coalition. I also wanted to push back, I guess, in a way on that very toxic narrative of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Nobody does that. We all have folks who help us along the way and who are the reason we’re alive. And a lot of that record is just giving thanks. I’m alive against all odds because of the people I met along the way who saved me, because of music that saved me, because of my city that saved me.”

That would be Montreal, which she found a sheltering place when she ran away from home. “I slept safely in that graveyard and nobody violated me there. I slept safely on this park bench by the Notre Dame basilica, and in the St. Joseph’s oratory and in the McGill Conservatory students’ practice rooms. I lived in a city that loves art so much that we shut down major public thoroughfairs and fill the city with world-class music from everywhere. You know, I got to hear Oscar Peterson, who wrote a song for one of the neighborhoods I grew up in, St. Henry. I got to hear, for free, the Montreal symphony and the McGil Conservatory students. I went to the public library and read for hours called up in the corner and nobody kicked me out. I got to escape my unbearable reality through books, through other people’s imaginations.”

The idea of art as a lifesaver “only feels like hyperbole to people that haven’t experienced it, but a lot of us know firsthand that music saves lives, you know? Because I wouldn’t be here without it.”

Her goal, perhaps needless to say, is to pay that forward, as part of a community that is partly centered in Nashville. she is also grateful for the plethora of Black women who have suddenly emerged as a whole brigade in the world of Americana or folk music, many of whom are nominated alongside her. Russell has been keeping a keen eye on what’s been happening with the Grammys since Tina Chapman led a diversity task force in 2018, and unexpectedly now, she’s caught up in the change.

“I’m really impressed at what feels to me like a real pushing back against tokenism in terms of who was nominated this year. There was a time when only one of us could be seen at a time because of how intensely entrenched tokenism of Black women’s contributions was — like they, they couldn’t see all of us at the same time, literally, you know?” she laughs.

“It’s a joyful thing to need to be nominated alongside Yola, alongside Valerie (June), alongside Rhiannon — not just my peers, but my chosen sisters, and people whose art has uplifted me and inspired me for years. The nomination is the win, just to be named in the same category as some of my sisters. That’s really hopeful and beautiful, and I’m happy that I get to go to this big family reunion shindig in January. And now the question is what to wear.”

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