By Dale Henry Geist
This is Part 1 of a two-part interview. Find Part 2 here.
From my perch, when Allison Russell’s debut solo album, Outside Child, arrived on May 21st, it dropped like an anvil: the effect was seismic. I recognized a dozen diverse musical strands, but they were woven so seamlessly that it sounded at once familiar and completely new. And the lyrics were shattering. If you’re asking me, I think it’s the most important album of the year.
A very strange part of my job is trying to discern whether an artist identifies as LBGTQ+. In the absence of a plain statement to that effect, I have to assume they don’t. I wanted to cover this record so badly that I was not only wondering but hoping Russell was family. I had reason to hope: Outside Child includes elements of same-sex love – indeed, the song “Persephone” takes this as its theme. She’d been following us on Twitter, so I hiked up my shorts, and with as much tact as I could muster, I DM’ed her and asked. And she graciously affirmed. I think I turned a pirouette when I read her response.
We Zoomed in early June. (Reader, it’s at this point that I must apologize for depriving you of Allison’s wisdom for the past six weeks. Events, as they say, intervened. But when I revisited our conversation to shape it up for publication, I truly felt I’d been withholding treasure.) When she showed up on my screen, Russell was as put-together as if the interview would be broadcast. She proved every bit as collected, focused, and bright in conversation as she was in appearance.
As you’ll see, Allison Russell…talks. At some length. And as you’ll also see: that’s just fine. More than fine. Come along for the ride.
I really appreciate you making the time for Country Queer. I know you’re getting a lot of media attention right now, and a lot of it is from places that have a larger readership, but our readers are big fans and really appreciate hearing from you.
Oh, I’m so appreciative of you and the work that Country Queer is doing. It’s been just such a joy and so uplifting to follow along with everything you all are doing. And I’ve been introduced to new artists. I’m really grateful.
I want to start by talking about Outside Child, but I want to talk a little bit about the music, less about the lyrics for the moment. Because in my mind, one of the reasons that Outside Child is so important, especially in the world of Americana and country-adjacent stuff, is because musically it weaves together so many disparate threads into a tapestry that holds together and is unique. So I want to hear a little bit about where those various influences come from. What was going into your ears as you were developing your musical self?
That’s a great question. And I think it’s really a reflection of my city of Montreal, because I was hearing music from all over the world every summer at the Montreal Iinternational Jazz Festival. And I was hearing the McGill conservatory students play all kinds of stuff. And I was hearing my friend Tara’s uncle play in the Bagg Street Klezmer Band. And the Bagg Street Synagogue was maybe the oldest synagogue in the country. And then I was hearing my Scottish-Canadian grandmother singing me ballads and lullabies, from her old world. And I was hearing my mum playing classical piano, and, you know, she and I had a very fraught relationship, but one of my earliest childhood memories is crawling underneath the piano to listen to her play. Because if she didn’t see me, then we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t dissolve into sort of violence. I would get to just listen to the music and that’s where I could hear her heart. You know, that’s where I could hear her, the love that she couldn’t show.
So I think all of those influences were mixing together. My friend Yola always calls herself “genre fluid.” And I love that term, that idea of genre fluidity, because as I’ve studied more about the roots of recording, the division of genres was very much something that was imposed from the outside. You know, Ralph Peer had a problem with color. That’s why he was dividing Black people from white people. That’s why he was saying white people were making country music or hillbilly music and Black people were making, you know, race records or blues music, but the music wasn’t segregated like that.
That’s why Elvis is as amazing as he is, because of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton, and that’s who he was listening to and being inspired by and directly copying a lot of the time. The music is the best of us. I feel like music pushes against bigotry, always. Music is not bigoted. Humans have that pandemic that we’re carrying forward, unfortunately still. I think of us as right now being at this intersection of three pandemics, COVID obviously, but bigotry and abuse far predated that, and they’ve been doing their harmful work as long as we’ve been our one human family, as far as I can tell.
And I think that the way that we’re now listening to music with the advent of these new technologies and every music under the sun being at our fingertips, literally, I think it’s breaking down some of those false divisions, and I just, I’ve never thought about music in a genre way. I feel like music is a spectrum. The same way gender is, the same way sexuality is, the same way, you know, color is. It’s like we hear what resonates for us is what ends up getting processed and coming out of the music. And it’s so hard for me to know, whenever someone asks me, like, “What are your influences?” I’m like, “How much time do you have?” I’ve listened to so much music and it all gets filtered through. None of us are springing out of a vacuum. We’re all building on what’s gone before and standing on those shoulders. And I think that is a beautiful thing. And I’m so glad that you can hear lots of different influences in the music because that’s the reality of how I listen. And I think it’s such an interesting thing, what gets called Black music and what doesn’t, and here we are in Black Music Month and Pride Month, this intersection that I love, where I straddle that intersection, but what does that even really mean?
We have genred music along color lines too often, and that’s still, I think, affecting the way we listen sometimes. Brittany Spencer told me an interesting story – Brittany Spencer, for those of you who don’t know, is just a brilliant, brilliant Black woman working in country music now, And I think she is one of the great stars of the future. Someone we’re going to be talking about for a long, long time. And she was in a writing room and she was the only Black woman in the room. And someone said to her that using the word “heavy” sounded like urban music or hip hop music. And I just thought, well, okay, if you were in that room with Dolly ,and Dolly said the word “heavy,” would you have that same reaction, or are you painting this whole assumption and bias and prejudice onto this woman because she’s Black in this country writing room? And I just thought like a word doesn’t have a genre.
But I think at a certain point it doesn’t serve us or the music. And I follow my ears. Also what you’re hearing on Outside Child is my community, my chosen community of musicians that I resonate with and not just musicians – chosen family, chosen community. Everyone who plays on that record, the McCrary sisters, Yola, Aaron Ray, Ruth Moody, Dan Knobler, who produced it, J.T. Nero, Chris Merill on the bass, Drew Lindsey on the keys. Joe Pisapia came and played. Two drummers, two incredible drummers. Jamie Dick, who’s my dear brother, and Jason Berger. This community of musicians, I wouldn’t dream of telling any of them what to play. I presented the songs we gathered together and we figured out arrangements on the spot.
As we were recording, we recorded each of those songs three times. I think “Fourth Day Prayer” we had to record four times and we chose the fourth take. Most of them, we recorded three times and we chose the second take because that was that magical moment where the communion and the communication was happening and the song had coalesced, but it hadn’t been beaten lifeless yet. I have a hard time with the, you know, when you play a song over and over and over again, to me, it just feels like all the emotion and all the heart is – it’s hard to retain that with endless repetition.
What I loved about this experience was I was really trepidatious about making a solo record. I was in denial about the fact that I was even in the studio it was my community rallying around and saying, we love these songs. We love you. And yeah, let’s just play. And that’s what you’re hearing at the end of “Hy Brasil.” I played all the clarinet on this record live in the room with the band. I would be still out of breath from singing and then pick up the clarinet and play. And it was a conversation, it was a joyful conversation that I was having with some of my favorite humans and musicians on the planet. And I’m so grateful for that. And I hope that that sound is coming through.
So you’re talking about all of our influences really. It’s not just mine. Yes, the melodies and the words came from my heart and my partner J.T.’s heart, but that music that you’re hearing, the way it went down, that’s the whole community creating that together. And it’s greater than the sum of the parts. And it’s more than I could ever have created by myself.
Well, you’ve answered all my questions. Thank you very much.
You did hit a lot of the things I was going to ask about, but there are some things that I want to talk about in what you just brought up. Let’s go back to Montreal for a second. Through my reading of Leonard Cohen biographies, I know that in Montreal, in the fifties and sixties, there was a scene around poetry, art, and music, around McGill University, like a Greenwich Village North. And I wonder if there were elements of that, that still continued while you were in your musical apprenticeship in Montreal?
Definitely. I mean, the Yellow Door is so huge in folk history. Montreal is fascinating because it’s like all these – it was also the Northernmost point of the chitlin circuit. You know, the so-called chitlin circuit of the blues trap line. It ended in Montreal. And of course we had a crazy heyday during the Prohibition era in the U.S. because all of the artists were coming up to play where people could drink and there were bootleggers going back and forth and all that, but you’re right, that scene in the sixties and seventies was so vibrant, everybody was there. I mean, Dylan came through, Joni came through, Odetta came through, you know, everybody was there.
And actually when I was a kid, I got to go, my friend Genevieve’s family took me – they were very close with the McGarrigles [a well-known Canadian folk music family] and the Wainwrights [as in Loudon III, Rufus, and Martha] – – in fact, her mum was the dancer on the cover of the dancer with the, with the dirty knees? Is that what it’s called? [Ed. – “Dancer With Bruised Knees,” the second album by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, released in 1977.] Anyway, they took me to the Yellow Door and – I think I was about eight or nine – I got to hear Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, his sister, do a set together and it blew my mind. I think I was nine because I had heard Tracy Chapman for the first time, and then I went to this incredible show at the Yellow Door, with my friend and her family. And I was just blown away by the music. The stories, you know. Rufus is so irreverent and hilarious, and was shocking all the parents. And it was so amazing.
And my aunt, Janet Lillian Russell, who was the first person to bring me into the studio – and that happened years later in Vancouver – but as a teen, she had been very much entrenched in that Yellow Door folk scene. And so when I moved years later to Vancouver, it was like meeting that Yellow Door scene, but they ‘d gone west – so it was really interesting. It’s been very much a part of it.
And also Rose’s Cantina was a really special spot. I got to hear Penny Lang there, and she is hugely influential as a writer and a thinker to me in my life. And she used to play at Rose’s Cantina all the time. And that was in Morin-Heights in the Laurentian mountains, just outside of Montreal, which was a part of that greater scene.
And, you know, folks like Leonard Cohen and the McGarrigle sisters and people like that were all around and playing. And also, I got to hear when I was coming up in the nineties, I was deeply influenced by Lhasa de Sela, who was an incredible Latina Canadian. She she died very young of breast cancer and I’m still in mourning for her. But I think Lhasa is one of the greatest artists that that Canada has ever produced.
I left home at 15 and I had a rough time for that first year, but when I was 16, I moved. I got a really horrible telemarketing job, but it allowed me to move in with some other women and pay rent. And that experience of living with these three other women was so healing and powerful and Lhasa actually lived – we lived on Du Buillon St. In Montreal, which was in the Plateau Mile End, right near that. So there was like McGill Ghetto, Plateau Mile End, kind of a triangle. And it was in that region. Just off St. Laurent St. And Lhasa lived two doors down. And I used to hear her. There’s these brick buildings and spiraling metal staircases. It’s sort of like, I always tell people it’s the cheapest Parisian vacation you’ll ever have. Because there’s so much of that beautiful Parisian influence there. And she lived two doors down, and I used to hear her singing on a balcony. And I would just, like, sit on my doorstep just to listen to her sing. And I was still in the closet as a musician at that point, but I was absorbing everything and I was writing songs and I was singing where no one could hear me and sort of gestating, you know. I didn’t come out of the closet as a musician fully until I moved to Vancouver.
Go here for Part 2, where Russell talks about her concept of a “Rainbow Renaissance,” the transformative power of art, and the role that sexual orientation plays in her music.