Allison Russell on Breaking Free, Tokenism and Once & Future Sounds

Dean Budnick on October 25, 2021
Allison Russell on Breaking Free, Tokenism and Once & Future Sounds

Photo credit: Francesca Cepero

“I hope people can hear the joy in the record because something that I think about a lot is survivor’s joy. Nobody experiences joy like a survivor because you know how bad it can be, and when it’s good, you really don’t take it for granted,” reveals Allison Russell, while reflecting on her first solo record, Outside Child.

But, though her new record is a poignant exploration of an abusive childhood, Russell never yields to despair.

The artist—who also tours and records with her husband JT Nero in Birds of Chicago and is a member of Our Native Daughters with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla—brought a similar dignity and grace to Once and Future Sounds, the headlining set that she curated at the Newport Folk Festival’s Sunday Folk On event this summer. She guided the proceedings to a rousing conclusion alongside Chaka Khan, Yola, Celisse, Kam Franklin, Joy Oladokun, Sunny War, Caroline Randall Williams, Daisha McBride, Kiah and other performers whose “vision, presence and oeuvre is a fulfillment and expansion of the promise of the foundational Folk mother, Odetta, and the anti-bigotry origin (and Herstory) of Newport Folk Festival.”

As she explains, “I wanted to bring together a coalition of BIPOC, queer and ally voices. It was a very healing coalition.”

How would you describe the animating principle behind Once and Future Sounds?

 I wanted to build upon what Brandi [Carlile] began so beautifully in 2019. Her set focused on and featured all these women with an intergenerational connection. She also had Dolly Parton—a surprise, beloved musical elder who is timeless and just so influential.

I wanted to shine a light on the way that the music industry has been for a long time. Unfortunately, Black women’s contributions are so often devalued or unacknowledged. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the mother of rock-and-roll, yet many folks didn’t even know her name until recently.

There has been an unfortunate tendency to tokenize Black women’s contributions. We know this is a problem across the board, particularly in country music where there’s an absurd feeling that radio stations can’t play more than one woman every hour. It’s even more extreme if you’re a Black woman. So I wanted to show, and to experience, the richness of what happens when we don’t tokenize, when we say that we know that we need more than one. Everybody is so intensely individual and powerful and beautiful and has something important to say.

The set included three poetry interludes from Caroline Randall Williams. What led you to incorporate that element?

I felt strongly that I wanted poetry to be part of the journey for Once and Future Sounds. I wanted that to be a connective tissue. Particularly, I wanted there to be a poetic homage— a kind of monument in words for some of the incredible women whose shoulders we’re standing on, like Odetta and Vera Hall. Caroline was the first person I thought of because she’s a brilliant poet and has such a musicality to the way that she approaches her poetry.

I also wanted the modern inheritor of poetry—hip-hop and rap—to be part of it, which is why I invited Daisha McBride to collaborate with us. There’s something so ancient and connected about the rhythm of language—the way that we tell stories and the way that we receive stories. I wanted there to be an element of ceremony or ritual. I wanted all of us to feel that we were going on a journey together. Caroline’s contributions helped create that atmosphere.

Speaking of stories, did Outside Child’s subject matter first present itself when you began writing the album or had you slowly been collecting these songs throughout the course of your career?

These songs were all written in the span of three months. It actually started on the Our Native Daughters tour bus on the way to Newport in 2019. I began writing “4th Day Prayer” in a tour-bus bunk. I knew that I had to step forward and tell this story in my own name for the first time in my life. I’ve been an active musician for almost 20 years now, but I’ve always been in collaborative projects, in bands. I was terrified of solo work, really. In some ways, what is so compelling about music is the conversation with other artists—that’s what I’m hooked on—and going places you would never go on your own. It’s about something being greater than the sum of its parts.

To me, playing music with people is like holy communion. I’m not a religious person. I’m a hopeful agnostic, but making music with other artists sort of takes the place in my life of what a religious ceremony might be in somebody else’s life. After making the Songs of Our Native Daughters record and understanding that I was part of a whole continuum of intergenerational trauma— that my story and my abusive childhood did not spring out of a vacuum—I felt really compelled to tell this story. I know that we’re dealing not only with the pandemic of COVID. We’ve been dealing for much longer with the pandemics of bigotry and abuse and violence, and those pandemics flourish with our silence.

I’m a mom now as well—my daughter is 7—and I knew that I had to do whatever I could to reduce the harm of those other pandemics. I knew that it began with being honest and speaking and singing openly about my experiences. It also felt very important to record my experiences—this one child’s journey out. It’s not a record about abuse. It’s a record about breaking that cycle and it’s a record about breaking free. And it’s a record about the power of art and chosen family and community and how that helps us heal. When I was a despairing, self-harming suicidal teenager, the only thing that kept me alive was the spark of hope that I received from art—that things could be different and maybe get better. It’s so important to me to provide those kinds of sparks of hope in some way.

The material on Outside Child carries a deeper resonance if someone pieces together the overarching narrative. How conscious were you of creating songs that could connect with a listener who didn’t contemplate the larger context?

Yes, that was by design. It is a whole narrative story and a journey, if the listener chooses to take that journey. But my hope was that each song could also stand on its own and be its own world. I still wanted people to take from it what they wanted because that’s the magic of song. The writer might have some notion that “This is what I’m trying to convey,” but, once you let it out into the world, that song is no longer even yours, in a way. Every listener can develop their own relationship with the song, and it will take on special meanings for them based on their lives and experiences. Listening is collaborative and I love that about music. That, to me, is the magic, the alchemy of art—not just music, but all art. The person who experiences the art changes the art or the art changes for them.