By Dale Henry Geist
This is the second part of an in-depth conversation I had with Allison Russell shortly after the release of Outside Child, her astonishing solo debut. (Russell has previously enjoyed some niche success as a member of Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago, and, most recently Our Native Daughters.) In Part 1, Russell spoke at length about the myriad ways that her hometown, Montreal, influenced her development as an artist and as a person.
You’ve used the hashtag #RainbowRennaissance in some of your Twitter responses to us. And in your response to my first question [about Russell’s musical influences], you alluded to this idea that there may be a spirit afoot. This reminds me a little bit of the final chapter of Brandi Carlile’s memoir [“Broken Horses”], which she wrote during the pandemic [Russell turns around, picks up a copy, and shows it to me] – there you go! – and she expressed a conviction that there was a cosmic turning point, a chance for a rebirth, after, to mix a metaphor, a very dark night. Can you talk a little bit about this?
I think it’s all of those things that you touched on and what Brandi touches on in her book. That is exactly it. I really think of humanity almost as if we’re in our adolescence right now as a species, and adolescence is tough and not everybody survives it. And I feel like we’re on a precipice with our human species of, “Are we going to pull together and solve the many, very serious problems facing us, and make sure there are trees and clean water and abundant food for our generations to come, or are we going to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and for many, many other species?”
And I also feel like there is a critical mass. That’s what I mean when I’m talking about the Rainbow Renaissance, or the Rainbow Revolution, or the Rainbow Coalition – coalition might be an even more appropriate word, because I think what I’m starting to see happen are coalitions forming across what used to be false lines of division.
And, you know, the notion that somehow queer rights are separate from Black rights or Asian-American rights, or disabled rights, that these things are somehow separate concerns, when that’s simply false. In my opinion, it’s the same, the struggle against the kind of white supremacist heteronormative, patriarchal, neuro-normative kind of beast that we’re trying to dismantle collectively and globally in order to survive. Literally to survive as a species, for all of us. These are not separate special interest groups. It’s the Rainbow Coalition. We are trying to build empathy, is what is what it comes down to. The dehumanization of others comes from a lack of empathy, at its heart.
I think, if we are feeling true empathy, if we are truly identifying with and recognize an equal humanity of the person facing us, we are not going to try and deprive them of their rights. And you’re not going to try to prevent them from adopting a child, and you’re not going to try to prevent them from swimming in a pool.
For me, as a poor kid, growing up in the inner city of Montreal, the public pool was like, it enhanced every aspect of my life. And I found out that Centennial Park [in Nashville] used to have a public pool. And lo and behold, when desegregation came around, rather than allow Black folks in the pool or Jewish folks in the pool, they shut the pool down. And that’s why we have no public pools in Nashville to this day. There’s a piece of history that needs to be healed.
And that is how I feel: that we are reaching this critical mass. And it is really easy [to forget that] in this time of 24/7 nonstop loops of bad news of the worst that humanity is capable of. That is what gets the clicks. We’re skewed toward every negative aspect of our humanity right now that gets amplified.
You know, why did 45 get amplified so much? Even people that were not trying to amplify his message ended up inadvertently doing so because nobody could stop saying his name. It gives us a skewed perception of the reality of this situation that we’re in. In fact, we have made incredible progress.
The fact that we have a term “human rights,” you know, human rights, that’s new! That is new in our human history. We have been getting less violent, less abusive and less bigoted exponentially over time. It’s hard to see it when there’s still so far to go, but I think it’s important that we do look back and we do understand how far we’ve come. You know, when I wrote this song, I wrote a song called “Quasheba” for Our Native Daughters about my own ancestor who was enslaved, who was born free, who was kidnapped, who was sold into slavery, who survived multiple enslavers, who survived multiple horrific violations, who survived her children being stolen – stolen, and also enslaved.
And I really connected with her and with this notion that what happened to me as a child didn’t spring out of a vacuum. That it’s part of this continuum of intergenerational trauma, intergenerational abuse and bigotry that plagues our entire species, but that we have made this incredible progress because I was able to leave my abuser. I was able to eventually charge my abuser. He got a slap on the wrist sentence and he went to jail for three years, but it was acknowledged. At least even if it was only lip service, it was acknowledged that what happened to me was wrong.
What happened to her was legal in that day. It was not only legal. It was considered righteous back then.
We have come a long way and we have farther to go, but I do feel that we are getting to this critical mass tipping point of a coalition of the loving, the willing and the consciously anti-bigotry. All of us suffer from unconscious bias and sometimes conscious bias. Every single human on the planet does. We can’t pretend otherwise, but many of us are striving for greater consciousness and to break down those biases and to not treat people poorly because of them.
We used to say, “Let’s be tolerant.” I’m not interested in tolerance. Tolerance is for mosquitoes. Humans require love. We require love as a species, and all the other species on our planet require love, all the plants on our planet require love. Our planet requires love if we are going to survive. And I think that’s where artists have a really important role to play.
You know, we live in a culture that kind of dismisses the arts, like arts funding is the first thing to get cut in schools. And then we wonder, “Why are so many teenagers not surviving their adolescence?”, whether it’s because they killed themselves in despair, or it’s because they go on a violent rampage and kill a bunch of other people and then kill themselves in despair. And we wonder about that. Well, how are we embracing them with art? How are we helping them express the things that feel overwhelming and unlivable? How do we help them express that? And art does that. Art helps us work through the darkness. Literally.
I believe that art can transmogrify. That the creative process can transform trauma into art. Into connection. Into community. You know, when we tell our own stories, in our own words, whether it’s through paint or through poetry or through music or through film or through whatever we’re going to use, whatever media – journalism [Ed. – here Russell is clearly throwing us a bone] – this can change outcomes for people. And it can build understanding and empathy and community, and it can help start to break down those walls and those divisions and that shame that is the root of so much destruction and harm. I believe really strongly in harm reduction.
And I think that that’s the work of the Rainbow Renaissance, the Rainbow Coalition, the Rainbow Revolution.
Okay. Wow. So do you see yourself as a living example of the possibilities of of our moment and the redemptive power of art?
In a sense, yes. I mean, I think that the fact that I survived my childhood was improbable, and I survived because of art and because of the community that I found through art and music, the chosen family that I found who uplift me, who keep me here every day.
And also just the fact — it’s shocking, the response to this record that is the most vulnerable, terrifying thing I’ve ever done. To have this be the thing that, out of everything that I’ve been involved in, that people have responded to the most, is remarkable to me. And I don’t know that that would have happened prior to the pandemic, prior to the reckoning that is ongoing in the aftermath of the violence that is occurring to so many other Black people in this country, and that has been globally now recognized because of the bravery of the young woman who filmed that police officer murdering George Floyd.
It sparked a new conversation that has — it’s a long and an ongoing conversation, but I noticed a shift right after that. You suddenly have people reaching out to me and being interested in what I had to think or say about things, that had not occurred to them before to reach out. And I don’t shame anyone ever for — late is always better than never. There’s no such thing as too late. In my opinion, it is always time to begin anew, it is always time to try and do better and see each other more clearly. And I would never shame anyone for their past ignorance any more than I want to be shamed for my past ignorance.
You know, we do as best as we can with the information that we have, and a lot of folks had very different information that they were operating with.
To go through the trauma that you went through and emerge, to see it through to the point where you could tap into your creativity and continue to live and thrive, when I’ve seen other examples of that, people were able to sort of tap into a faith in something, whatever it was. What do you have faith in? Would it be the redemptive power of art, or is there something else?
I think that I would call myself — if we’re alluding to sort of spiritual matters, I am not a religious person — I would say that I’m a hopeful agnostic. But yes, art is where I felt if there is mystery and divinity and transcendence in this world, I have felt that through art, I have felt that through musical communion.
For me, it’s like I’m hooked on it because there is this mystery and beauty to the musical communion of playing music, of not knowing quite what you’re going to sing or play or write. There’s an element of mystery to it. Just like there’s an element of mystery to conception, it’s not just cut and dried, you know?
There’s mystery to all of it, and I think, yeah, that is where I feel like — it’s in the spaces between the notes that I hear the Goddess or the Creator or whatever it might be. I don’t feel the need to define it. I get very, very nervous. I find it hubristic. In fact, when people tell me that they know who God loves and who God doesn’t love, things like that, I can’t hang with that scene. If you think God made a mistake with all of us, then that feels very hubris-filled to me, and very ignorant.
But yeah, I think I have faith in human creativity and that we have it within us to be magnificent and expansive and loving, and non-violent. I know that we have that within us, and I feel that when I’m in a room full of people playing music, there’s just so much joy there. And there is that sense of the eternal. Of this impulse toward creation and connection. That is what I have faith in and what gives me hope.
As you know, much of our audience identifies as LGBTQ+. And subsequent to the release of your album, I discovered that you also do. What role has your identity as a queer person played in your art, in yourself as an artist?
I think it just informs everything. It’s part of the Outside Child. I was outside a lot of things. I was in the middle of the spectrum color wise. I was in the middle of the spectrum orientation wise. I mean, I’m cis gender, but in most ways I was always sort of in the middle of a spectrum where I could not easily fit into any particular group.
It’s an interesting thing to be in the middle of the orientation spectrum, because you have straight folks or folks who identify as straight who have a problem with you. And then there are also, unfortunately, some queer folks who are more on the absolute, always-the-same gender end of it, who are like, “Really you’re lesbian and you’re just afraid to be a lesbian,” these assumptions that this isn’t a valid orientation, you know.
And I think in my younger days, I might’ve called myself bisexual, but my understanding of the spectrum of gender, it has evolved since then. And people that I’ve loved are trans, are non binary are, you know, so I suppose if I had to like use a word other than queer, I would have to say pansexual, I suppose. It would be the most accurate.
But it does inform everything, because the closest people in my life inform who I am — informed my survival. I mean, “Persephone” is about my first love. We were both 15, but she was a person without whom I would not be living. I literally wouldn’t be alive. I would’ve probably frozen to death, first of all, just physically. She saved my life, and not just physically, but teaching me about love, teaching me about unconditional love.
She was the first person that I got to choose to have a sexual relationship with. I didn’t know what consent was before I met her. I had experienced only rape up until that point, you know, and that can destroy your humanity. It can, and there are people who have very similar experiences to mine who the next person they met was also abusive. And so it reinforced what they had experienced before. And outcomes can be very different, you know. You can go fully down the path of self-destruction when you’re constantly having the same lie told to you convincingly that you are worthless, that you don’t deserve to have agency over your body, that, you know, the world is better off without you, essentially. Because I met, I’m calling her Persephone — obviously it’s not her real name — but she changed my outcome.
She saved my life, that first relationship – that first chosen relationship – and the joy of getting to transform what had been only essentially bondage without consent, into something beautiful and shared and loving and uplifting. And she helped me see myself as a person of value in some way, she helped me survive. I was a deeply self-destructive person at that point. Unsurprisingly, many, many survivors of abuse are, and my story started to change because of the love and chosen family that I found.
And so it’s informed every aspect of my life. I’m alive because of it basically.
I hope that we can continue this conversation forever. I really appreciate you so much, and I appreciate the contributions you’ve made to our community, and thanks for your time. It’s valuable to me personally.
Thank you so much, Dale. It was just a joy talking to you today. Thanks for having me.