Unveiling Allison Russell: The New Face of Americana Music
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.
Building a Beloved Community
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.
A Seasoned Musician
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.”
A Conversation with Allison Russell
The day before the rapturous “The Returner” came out, Russell got on the phone with Haber Tusba 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.)
Exciting Times for Allison Russell
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.
Transition from “Outside Child” to “The Returner”
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 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.
A Celebration of Life
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…
The Influence of Ida
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.
The Transformative Power of Music
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…