Allison Russell: ‘I was a severely abused child and hiding was safer’

Allison Russell: ‘It just took me a long time to feel worthy of putting myself forward’  (Marc Baptiste)
Allison Russell: ‘It just took me a long time to feel worthy of putting myself forward’ (Marc Baptiste)

To me it’s celebratory that we’re all nominated, because frankly, the tokenism in this industry is so f***ing crazy,” explains Allison Russell. Sitting in the sunny courtyard of a Pasadena hotel, the Canadian singer-songwriter is discussing the joy of being up for a Grammy in the same category as Valerie June, Yola and Rhiannon Giddens, for Best American Roots Song. “Most of the time they’re like, ‘We can only have one Black woman at a show,’ especially if it’s a roots, Americana, folk or country show, despite the fact that the Black diaspora is foundational to all of those idioms.”

After more than two decades of grind as a working musician, during which she was regularly on the road with her young daughter, Russell has finally been thrust into the spotlight thanks to her debut solo album, Outside Child. Alongside Grammy nods for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Performance, it’s the Best American Roots Song category that means the most, with the soaring, jazz-inflected “Nightflyer” tipped alongside tracks by a trio of Black female artists whom she refers to time and again during our conversation as her “chosen family”.

“When you have queer women, Black women, and queer and Black women – as I am – being nominated, intersectional identities that have been shut out for so long, that to me shows positive progression,” says Russell. “We can get really discouraged about various things, but that is a sea change, because in years past barely one of us may have been nominated. Definitely not all of us.” With previous winners including Jason Isbell and John Prine, this year, for the first time since its inception in 2014, the category features the work of more than one artist of colour. For Russell, that’s every bit as good as winning. “We’re not up against each other,” she says with a smile when discussing her fellow nominees. “There’s no losing.”

Born and raised in Montreal but now settled in Nashville, the 42-year-old has been making music for well over half her life. First was her “baby band” Po’ Girl, which she formed with Trish Klein of alt-country frontrunners The Be Good Tanyas. Then came Birds of Chicago with husband JT Nero. More recently, she joined Our Native Daughters alongside Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla. Founded by Giddens in 2018, the group was a response to the continued whitewashing of a music that owed just as much to Black women but regularly denied them a seat at the table. “She was so sick of her sisters not being welcomed into spaces,” says Russell of Giddens. “She was like, ‘We’re gonna force you to at least see four of us, and we’re different, we’re not interchangeable.’”

In every one of her projects, Russell has dug deep into the roots of traditional American music. Outside Child is no different. Released in May 2021, it weaves jazz and folk together with bluegrass and blues. Switching between French and English, her commanding, crystalline vocals soar through the album’s 11 tracks. It’s a truly glorious sound but such sonic sweetness never takes the listener too far from the album’s harrowing theme – the sexual abuse Russell suffered at the hands of her stepfather throughout her childhood. This bleak subject matter is partly why it took Russell so long to find the confidence to release her first record alone. “I was a severely abused child, and hiding was safer,” she explains. “And even when it stopped being safe, it was a hard hat. It just took me a long time to feel worthy of putting myself forward.”

Yet despite the songs’ brutal subject matter, Russell has found catharsis through them. “It’s become joyful, because I’m surrounded by the most wonderful group of women on the road,” she explains of her talented backing band. “To be in this circle of loving and in a creative coalition of trust has been so wonderful, even during the tough stuff. When you’re in the emotion of a song, you’re in the emotion of the song, but feeling our feelings is healthy.” Eleven tracks long, the album includes the dreamy “Persephone”, which reveals a 15-year-old Russell seeking sanctuary in the arms of her first ever girlfriend, as she sings “My petals are bruised but I’m still a flower”.

When you have queer and Black women – as I am – being nominated for Grammys, that to me shows positive progression

Alison Russell

Tracks like the strutting gospel of “4th Day Prayer” (“Father used me like a wife / Mother turned the blindest eye”) are just as potent, and when we meet in California, she’s just stormed through a powerhouse performance of it on the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! while preparing to record an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show the next day.

Russell’s openness, not just in her lyrics but on social media, means many people who’ve suffered similar exploitation reach out to her. Is it something of a burden to take on somebody else’s trauma as well as her own? “I knew what I was signing up for,” she says. “I listen, mainly, and if someone wants advice, I can talk about what my experience has been, but everyone’s journey is going to be different.” It’s the global prevalence of sexual abuse that compels Russell to share her story. “I know I’m not alone in this experience. I’m one in three women who’s experienced this kind of abuse; one in four men; one in two trans, non-binary or gender-expansive folks,” she explains. “It’s a pandemic of epic proportions, and it’s ancient, and it’s ongoing, and it’s not going to change unless we actively seek to change it.”

Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Channel/AP)
Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Channel/AP)

After taking her stepfather to court, Russell has seen a kind of justice. “Charging my abuser was a healing step,” she explains. “He got a slap-on-the-wrist sentence. He went to jail for three years and was out immediately. But he’s watched now. He’s not allowed to be alone with children any more. So that, to me, was worth going through the horror.” Like many women who press charges for rape and sexual assault, the process for the victim is often akin to reliving the abuse. “It dragged on for three years, and you are treated like you’re the criminal,” says Russell. “But we see this play out all the time, particularly if it’s a rich or famous man who’s being accused of something.”

Last year, when the actor Evan Rachel Wood took to Instagram to name her own alleged abuser, the rich and famous Marilyn Manson, Russell was one of the first to support her. “I’m a great admirer of the work that she does, which she’s doing at great personal cost – the toxic backlash I’ve seen on the part of his fans is really sickening,” says Russell. Wood’s story was close to home for another reason. Russell’s record label, Fantasy, are part of Concord Music Group, who also used to look after Manson but released him from his contract when the allegations became public. “I am proud of them for dropping him as an artist,” states Russell firmly. “It was the right thing to do.”

‘I can talk about what my experience has been, but everyone’s journey is going to be different’ (Marc Baptiste)
‘I can talk about what my experience has been, but everyone’s journey is going to be different’ (Marc Baptiste)

At the same time as touring Outside Child, Russell is now also writing a memoir. The book will in part detail the time she spent as a frontline mental health worker in Vancouver, a job Russell started when she was just 19. Hired based on her own life experience, Russell would work with sex workers and drug addicts, using music therapy and helping out at needle exchanges. “It was about meeting people where they are,” she says of her work, which had sensitivity and harm reduction at its core. “It didn’t matter if you had backslidden and you were doing drugs or sex work again, it didn’t matter if you were in and out of jail,” explains Russell. “We didn’t punish people for their trauma and it was transformative. People get this idea that you’re enabling people, but no, all you’re enabling is somebody’s humanity, you’re not enabling their disease.”

Russell managed to stay involved with frontline work for more than a decade, returning to it whenever she was off the road. Now her activism has an even wider platform. In January, she joined a number of well-known voices in calling out country music institution the Grand Ole Opry over Twitter after singer Morgan Wallen – who last year was caught on camera using a racial slur – performed on their Nashville stage. “I don’t want to centre that guy,” she says now. “I have nothing to say about him, but what I do have to say about that organisation is that in their history, they have had two Black members, Charley Pride and Darius Rucker – and Charley Pride is dead.”

Russell was invited to play at the Opry last year and did so happily, but is adamant that they still have a lot of work to do. “I had a lovely experience playing there,” she says. “I’m not saying they’re all terrible people, but they are trapped in a very deeply biased mode of operation and it has to change.”

Such change is vital, not just for the music industry, but for humankind itself. “If you are telling America’s stories,” she says, “then you need to represent America.”

‘Outside Child’ is out now. The Grammys take place on Sunday 4 April