In her solo debut album, Outside Child, Allison Russell finally gets around to telling her own story, in her own unique way. Previously in the Vancouver roots music group Po’ Girl, Russell migrated to the American midwest where she formed Birds of Chicago with her now husband JT Nero, mixing her roots, gospel and blues inclinations with his pop, indie rock, singer/songwriter inclinations. With three Birds studio albums under their belt, the first two produced by Joe Henry and the third with Luther Dickinson, the couple moved to Nashville, where Russell joined up with Rhiannon Giddens to explore the African roots of banjo music in Our Native Daughters, along with Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah, for their Smithonian Folkways release in 2019. It was on tour supporting that album that Russell began composing the songs for her debut solo outing, where she would tell the story of her difficult childhood with the courage and determination of a survivor of abuse.
Along with Russell’s soulful vocal stylings, her poetic lyrics that manage to gracefully tell a story that moves from cruelty and pain to an assertion of a survivor’s joy, her nearly effortless mix of musical roots genre that include folk, blues, and gospel with a subtle pop song awareness, but in addition to some banjo here and there, her main instrument is the clarinet. While that instrument is more commonly heard in the fast melodic lines of Dixieland jazz or Klezmer, the Jewish traditional folk music with jazzy leanings, in Russell’s music it’s often played in with gentle blues ruminations, rich with emotion. But Russell’s compositions tend to grow from her vocal melodies outwards, some feel like adaptations on the kind of nursery school rhymes one would sing to young children, but her lyrics carry the emotional depth, darkness and weight of one who reports “Father used me like a wife/Mother turned the blindest eye/Stole my body, spirit, pride/He did, he did each night.”
The album starts with “Montreal,” singing at times in French, and how the city became a refuge and a for biracial child to escape the abuse of her step-father, only to find comfort in the bed of a girlfriend, “Persephone.” She had to be a “Runner” to escape “The Hunters,” but she experienced a “Little Rebirth,” reclaiming her right to a full and happy life alongside a global sisterhood, “All of the Women.” On the journey to arrive as the “Nightflyer,” as an artist who is also a wife and “mother of the morning star/I am the love that conquers all.”
There as artfulness that runs through these 11 tracks, a deep musical connection that takes one woman’s story into a world of universal longing for love, acceptance and healing. Alongside the other Native Daughters, Russell has befriended others who share that since of being an outsider in Yola and Brandi Carlile, who helped introduce her music to a record company. Carlile also joined Russell and Brittney Spencer in a re-recording of “Nightflyer” as a benefit for the National Bailout Collective’s Free Black Mama’s initiative. I first heard this album’s songs when Russell performed at the Nowhere Else Festival, hosted in rural Ohio by the Over the Rhine duo, with her only supported by two cello players who provided background harmonies, one guitarist and her own clarinet and banjo playing. Even without a drummer or audible beat, Russell’s music was soulful, with R&B, Gospel, and blues coalescing effortless in a unique musical stew. It could be hypnotic at times, but routinely the energy rose as choruses repeated to create and anthemic feel of joyful celebration that culminates in the albums duet with her Birds collaborator and husband Nero in “ Joyful Motherf***ers,” with it’s heralding of “the fearless lovers, the rainbow shooters/the wild accepters, the hopeful sinners/the gentle teachers, the true forgivers.” These are the joyful survivors, allies and supporters, music lovers and believers that will walk alongside the Outside Child.
Key Tracks: “Nightflyer” / “The Runner” / “Hy Brasil”
Artists With Similar Fire: Yola / Rhiannon Giddens / Brandi Carlile