Holler Country Music

Allison Russell is Building a More Inclusive, Expansive Americana

September 14, 2023 9:29 am GMT

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The Returner, French-Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell’s sublime second album, begins with a goodbye.

“So long, farewell, adieu adieu / To that tunnel I went through” Russell sings overly jangly percussion on ‘Springtime’, as a chorus of women’s voices rises to meet her. The song continues at a gentle, unhurried pace before drums, bass and guitar explode into the mix along with an ecstatic string arrangement, the song crescendoing into a dauntless jam. Here and elsewhere on the album, Russell and her all-female Rainbow Coalition band extol the virtues of a hard-won rebirth, that "springtime of [her] present tense".

Coming two years after Russell’s widely acclaimed solo debut Outside Child, a layered folk-rock masterpiece that addressed her childhood abuse at the hands of her stepfather, The Returner is not a departure so much as an expansion.

The second entry in a planned trilogy, The Returner takes up the glorious present rather than the fraught past. Across 10 tracks that she co-wrote and co-produced with Dim Star, (the team made up of her husband, JT Nero and his brother, Drew Lindsay) Russell revels in a sense of personal and creative freedom, vanquishing the demons of historical trauma and anti-Blackness with intricate poetry and irresistible grooves.

In keeping with the spirit of liberation, the album shifts thrillingly between different musical modes, drawing from folk traditions one moment and funk and soul the next. The banjo-driven ‘Eve Was Black’ wouldn’t sound out of place among the rootsier compositions on Outside Child, while ‘Stay Right Here’ meets somewhere at the intersection of Chaka Khan and Gloria Gaynor. This is Americana at its most mind-expanding and genre-defiant.

In conversation as on stage, Russell is effusive and generous, heaping praise on other Americana artists and always careful to give credit to each of her collaborators. She spoke with Holler about resisting external pressures around her work, reclaiming her joy in the face of political attacks and pushing back when people apply the country label to her work.

With Outside Child, you wrote fairly comprehensive liner notes explaining the background of each song. With this album, it seems like you’re letting the songs speak for themselves. Is that fair to say?

Absolutely. With Outside Child, I felt the need to walk people through the album, in part because it is difficult material. I mean, just the circumstances of my childhood are difficult for a lot of people to think about. But I definitely felt and feel that The Returner can speak for itself and that people can take whatever journey they want to with it. In terms of the sound, I wanted the music to be really expansive. I wanted it to resonate for people whether or not English was their first language. I didn’t want to do a lot of shaping of the narrative.

It’s been a wild couple of years for you: Grammy nominations, Juno and Americana Awards, Newport Folk Festival and ‘Love Rising’. Did you find it harder this time around to drown out some of the noise?

I think because I'm an artist who has devoted two decades to following the Muse and making art in various projects, I'm a little bit more impervious to any kind of noise. It’s a gift when awards and accolades drop out of the sky, but Outside Child was released two years ago. So it’s only in the last two years, out of a 20-year career, that I’ve had that experience. It’s wonderful, and it’s a gift, and I’m grateful for it, but that’s not why I make art. The compulsion to make art and to reckon with the mystery of existence has not changed for me in two decades.

I also think it’s the death of creativity and art to worry about how it will be received. And it’s such a delicate thing to try and get out of one’s way to begin with. I talk about this a lot when I’ve done workshops with songwriters. I just did one with NYU earlier this year, and one of the things I always talk about is that we have a critical editing voice that harms our ability to express and create in the first place. Obviously, that editing voice has an important role to play, but we can’t let it come in too soon.

How has your lyrical approach changed over the years?

I've always been a word nerd. I've always been obsessed with language, specifically the ways that it can be very specific and precise and also sort of amorphous and hard to interpret.

One thing that has changed about my relationship with language is that I've been trying to lean more deeply into its inherent musicality. The meaning of a word is one thing, but the sound and the way it feels in your mouth when you sing it or say it is another. And both things have to align, I think, to fully integrate in a song. That’s something I’ll probably be chasing for the rest of my life.

reviews STAFF PICKS • Allison Russell - The Returner

The kind of record that only comes around once in every generation.

There’s a line in the liner notes about “merg[ing] the celebration and the battle cry.” It’s interesting, because much of the album is really celebratory, but then there are moments like ‘Eve Was Black’ and ‘Snakelife’ that sound to me like points of rupture. Can you talk about what “the celebration and the battle cry” means in the context of the album?

It has to be both at the same time. It’s interesting that you hear those songs as rupture, because to me ‘Eve Was Black’ and ‘Snakelife’ are points of conjunction. You’re right in the sense that I’m facing iniquity head-on, but in a way that’s almost like casting a spell. I’m saying, “You have no power over me.”

With the last stanza of 'Snakelife', if the album had a thesis statement, then I suppose that would be it:I used to dream but now I write / I wield my words like spindles bright / To weave a world where every child / is safe and loved / is safe and loved / is safe and loved / and black is beautiful and good.

We started singing that one live at festivals over the last few weeks, and it's just evolved naturally where at the end of it, I sing, “And Black is beautiful and good. Queer is beautiful and good. Trans is beautiful and good.” It’s become a mantra. And it’s the truth. It’s my truth. It’s my community’s truth. It doesn’t matter how much legislative terrorism is leveled at us; that’s still our truth.

We have to celebrate our identities that are under attack, that are demonized, that are criminalized and being scapegoated by an oppressive - and, in this case, theocratic and completely delusional - so-called majority. Because the people attacking us are not a majority. They’re a minority that is only holding onto power by disenfranchising and suppressing voters. If we allow them to steal our joy, that’s a victory for them. And they don’t get to have that victory.

A celebration becomes a battle cry when you have people telling you that you don’t deserve to exist, that you’re an abomination in the Lord’s eyes. “My God loves me but he hates you.” That kind of bullshit. And it’s like, no. We’re going to celebrate who we are, loudly and proudly. That is a big part of the battle.

Did you feel any apprehension about breaking out of roots music with the sound of this album? I mean, obviously everything is roots music…

I was going to say, to me it’s all Americana. The country label I’m very uneasy with, for I think pretty obvious reasons. Because mainstream country has been so politically allied with far-right, white supremacist and misogynist and homophobic beliefs, it's really, really difficult for me to want to embrace a label like that.

I’m incredibly proud of and aligned with artists like Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, the Black Opry collective, the Highwomen, Adeem the Artist and Mya Byrne, who are very much country but also trying to shift what that label means. I have endless respect for them.

But at the same time, I have a lot of built up trauma around the label of country, whereas Americana I feel so differently about because that is a broad enough umbrella. Also the community is doing such hard work of self-awareness, of self examination of opening wide the doors to make sure everybody feels welcome. For example, Tressie McMillam Cottom is one of the most brilliant, incisive thinkers tackling inequality in America, so for her to be unanimously appointed to the board of the Americana Music Association speaks volumes.

I’m really proud of the All Americana movement within Americana music that has been declaring unequivocally that all are welcome here. That is very different from what is happening in mainstream country, and I feel a lot of pride, kinship, alignment and connection with the greater All Americana community.

That also reflects the way I think about America. In my reflection, and in the minds of many brilliant historians like Sam Haselby, “America” is not just the United States. America is the Caribbean to Canada, it’s Haiti to Nunavut, Mexico to South and Central America and everything in between. It’s this unprecedented global story of cultural clash, cross-pollination and creative innovation that comes out of all of that. It’s a global story because there have been waves of immigration from all over the world, and it influences every genre of modern song. To me, Chaka Khan is as much Americana as Emmylou Harris. And the Roots are as much Americana as the Band, and so on and so forth.

In that sense, the way that we’re being more sonically expansive and exploratory on The Returner has just grown naturally out of who we all are as artists and the very eclectic way that we listen to and approach music. It’s a genre-fluid approach.

Also, Americana goes beyond genre. Americana is a community, and it’s a community that is very purposefully defining itself by inclusion and expansiveness. And that is really exciting to me. When someone calls me an Americana artist, I say, “Yes.” And proudly. I would not be able to say “yes” to someone calling me a country artist. I’d have to say, “Not so much.” I think Americana is so broad that all of the sounds that we're experimenting with fit within that broad umbrella.

It’s always interesting to talk about genre in interviews. I find that a lot of artists are really resistant to the idea that their music fits neatly into any one category.

Yeah. It's fascinating to be in Tennessee, where you think about those Bristol sessions, which essentially marked the beginning of the recording industry. Which, by the way, is not very old; it’s 100 years old. But it has gone through so many intense changes in those 100 years.

I think about the rigidity of the original definitions of “genre,” which were literally racist. They were divided along so-called “race” lines, or color lines, where albums that were marketed towards white folks were called hillbilly music and albums that were marketed towards Black folks were called Race records.

I think about the absurdity that often the best players were Black folks at that time. And so the session players on all of those sides were Black artists, but the ones that had a white front person and that were aimed at white people were called hillbilly records. It's so absurd, when you start to dig into the history and learn about people like Lil Hardin, who played for everybody, and start to understand how twisted and informed by bigotry the construct of genre originally was.

And even now, when you think about the way that institutions like the Recording Academy have had to grapple with how racism is baked into genre. Why do we call certain categories “urban”? Even the notion of calling a genre “country”. It doesn’t just intimate ruralness. It intimates that this is the music that represents the nation. This is the music of a country and it is so whitewashed. Not only did early country music refuse to acknowledge any of its Black diasporic foundations, but actually purposely excluded Black folks from things like concert fiddle competitions. Naming itself the music of a country while only rewarding heterosexual white males who also identify as Christians—and cisgender, obviously—is a very dangerous hubris. And it in no way represents the actual country.

Yeah. I find when interviewing people from the more mainstream side of things that they tend to be very tight-lipped about anything that could be seen as “political”. And also maybe a lot of them just don’t really care. It feels like we’re living in two different worlds.

That's the part that makes me sad, because we're not living in two different worlds. I think about Miranda Lambert, who has a queer sibling but is afraid to speak on it because of the repercussions that could happen because the far right wants to be hateful to absolutely everything. It makes me sad when an artist as powerful or established as Miranda Lambert - and I’m not throwing her under the bus in any way - is afraid to speak up. Or an artist like Dolly.

I know that Dolly famously doesn’t speak about politics, but it’s like, if you're not going to stand up for the drag community now - and the queer community has always had your back - when will you? What do you have to lose?

These artists who are like industries unto themselves, who have so much power, who have so much money and who have been so richly rewarded - and I’m not saying unrightfully, they’re brilliant artists - what are they afraid of? That’s the part that’s hard for me, but then again, I've never had anything to lose. Maybe I can't understand, because I've never been in their position, you know?

I do wonder if they would actually change anything by speaking up. I have people in my life who are completely on the opposite side of things, and there’s just no reasoning with them. I’ve given up.

I have the same in my life, people that’ve been radicalized to the far right. They've been sort of brainwashed, and that's where they're living right now. But I feel it's even more important for me to speak up. Even though I may not be able to convince them, I'm going to be able to be in coalition and community with other people who need to feel loved, seen, supported and heard in this time.

When the government and establishment is criminalizing us and saying that we don't deserve to exist equally in society, it's even more important to speak up, in my opinion. Yeah, there might be some cost to that, but there is a far greater cost to not speaking up. Silence has costs too. To be silent isn't neutral in these times.

The Returner is out now via Birds of Chicago / Fantasy Records. Read our 10/10 review here.

Written by Will Groff
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