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American Routes Shortcuts: Allison Russell

Allison Russell
Francesca Cepero
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Allison Russell

Singer Allison Russell is a native of Montreal with what she calls “Grenadian Canadian” roots of Afro-Caribbean and Scottish ancestry. You may know her recent recordings with Our Native Daughters and the Birds of Chicago. Or back when with Po’ Girl.  Now, in a first solo recording, Outside Child, Russell addresses family abuse in her youth, her ways of coping, followed by escape to the road: Vancouver, San Francisco, Chicago. Those early life experiences led Allison years later to make new, compelling songs, expressing freedom from trauma, to love and hope for better times. She lives now with fellow musician JT Nero and their young daughter in Nashville, but Allison Russell began the journey’s narrative in her beloved Montreal.  

Allison Russell: My first memories are my mother singing and playing the piano. We had a troubled relationship, and my mom was very young when she had me and did not have family support. I also think that my birth was the catalyst that triggered a full psychotic break for her, but she played and sang all the time; I think it brought her some relief. And I remember crawling under the piano and hiding under there to listen to her play. If I could just be really quiet, I felt like I could hear her heart. She couldn’t express her affection in appropriate ways, but I could hear it when she played.

AR: Early on I rejected playing piano, or learning piano sort of formally, I would say, because my primary abuser was my adoptive father. One of my little rebellions was to refuse to learn piano if I had to learn it from him. Which I am now rectifying; I am now as an adult learning piano alongside my seven-year-old daughter, and it’s really, really joyful. And I play guitar here and there but it doesn’t call to me in the same way that banjo and clarinet do.

Nick Spitzer: How did you get to the banjo? AR: Honestly, my first exposure to the banjo was Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie, and I’ve loved it ever since. (laughing)

NS: (Laughing) Credit where due.

AR: It’s so ridiculous but that was my first exposure to the banjo. And then when I moved to Vancouver BC when I was seventeen, I met kind of a whole community of roots musicians, and it was a group called the Be Good Tanyas that I got to me friends with, and Trish Klein in that band is a really beautiful banjo player. And she taught me my first few chords on the banjo, and I was sort of off to the races with it, and that’s become my primary writing instrument.

NS: Now you were in this band Po’ Girl. What was Po’ Girl’s aura? What were you trying to do in that band when you start getting together with a group and going public? AR: Well in the beginning it was just Trish Klein and I–Trish Klein from the Be Good Tanyas. So we would just get together and kind of have these jams where she was working on her banjo and I was working on the clarinet. Then we started writing songs just very naturally and thought, “Well why don’t we try recording them?” I became kind of a supporter of her writing, and then she in turn became a supporter of mine.

NS: You’ve really stepped forward as a solo artist, addressing the pains with new songs. Let’s talk about “Fourth Day Prayer” because it does take place in Montreal, it looks like.

AR: That is, I think, one of the deep central stories of this record. The escapism of art is what preserved me through the violence and pain and misery of my childhood. You know, I would sort of literally leave my body and go somewhere else in my mind when what was happening to my body was just unbearable.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.