Folks like to say “music saved me,” and, in a way, they’re all correct – music can drown out the worst things in life, allowing you to walk on for one more day. But to be truly SAVED by music? Few can say that with the same absolute truth as Allison Russell. On her solo debut, Outside Child, the singer reviews, in heartbreaking detail, her perilous childhood and how she survived and made it to where she is today.
Russell grew up in Montreal, After spending time in a foster home, she went to live with her mother (who’s schizophrenic) and her new husband. At age five – before she entered kindergarten – her adoptive father began abusing her, a crime that continued well into Russell’s teens. The album’s first track, “Montreal,” is a hushed love song to her hometown and the time that she spent there during those teen years, trying to escape her abuser at home. Switching between English and French, she basks in the freedom and anonymity she finds while wandering the streets at all hours – “Your shadows felt like loving arms” – because sleeping in cemeteries and church pews was safer than being in her own bed.
During those teen years, Russell finds love with a fellow 15-year-old girl in “Persephone,” a country-tinged tune with gorgeous pedal steel work from Steve Dawson. Again escaping her abuser – her would-be father figure – she’s reminded of her own humanity in her lover’s arms – “My petals are bruised, but I’m still a flower.” Eventually, though, Russell needs to escape, a story which takes place during “The Runner,” a blues-tinged rocker featuring Yola. Now in Vancouver and suffering the emotional fallout from a decade of abuse, a snippet of music catches her ear, she begins to sing, and she sees a way out of her despair – “I was up above me, I was standing right beside me/And I saw my deliverance.” It’s that moment that led her to where she is today.
Outside Child is as autobiographical an album as you’ll find anywhere, but it’s anything but a dry retelling of a personal history. Like her bandmates in Our Native Daughters, Russell has the ability to tell a bleak story through beautiful, and sometimes even joyful, music, and that’s what makes the songs work. “Nightflyer,” with gorgeous harmonies from the McCrary Sisters, is eminently listenable, even as Russell sings of the conflict between dark and light. ”The Hunters” (more pedal steel) and “Poison Arrow” (with Russell playing a melancholy clarinet), both of which discuss the ghosts that still find the singer, are simply gorgeous. And “Little Rebirth,” with its instrumentation so subtle that the song is virtually Russell a cappella, is spellbinding because of that simplicity.
But the chronological nature of the record is its true gift, as listeners are able to see how Russell got from where she was to become who she is. “All of The Women” (one of the few songs with Russell’s trademark banjo playing front and center) shows the singer as an adult in her (true life) role as a mental health worker, helping women on the street. Their lives, like hers once was, are danger-filled – “I think of all of the women/Who disappear” – but they, like she, have forged an armor of grudging resilience. And when we reach the end of this volume of Russell’s life, we’re treated to “Joyful Motherf@ckers,” a buoyant tribute to her bandmate (in Birds of Chicago), co-parent (they have a daughter) and partner in life JT Nero. This “Joyful” resolution can – hopefully – help some kid, somewhere, envision a path out. Music CAN be a lifesaver.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Little Rebirth” – With its banjo and keys underneath, it puts Russell’s voice front and center – it’s a haunting showstopper.
Outside Child was produced by Dan Knobler, engineered by Knobler and Kevin Sokolnicki, mixed by Knobler and mastered by Kim Rosen. All songs were written by Allison Russell and JT Nero. Additional musicians include Knobler (guitar, slide guitar, banjo, synths, Mellotron), Nero (acoustic guitar, vocals), Jason Burger (drums, percussion, apple cider vinegar bottle), Steve Dawson (pedal steel), Jamie Dick (drums, percussion), Drew Lindsay (Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Mellotron, pump organ, organ, piano), Alfreda McCrary (harmony vocals), Ann McCrary (harmony vocals), Deborah McCrary (harmony vocals), Regina McCrary (harmony vocals), Chris Merrill (bass), Ruth Moody (harmony vocals), Joe Pisapia (acoustic and electric guitars), Erin Rae (harmony vocals), Jake Sherman (organ) and Yola (harmony vocals).
To order Outside Child, go here: https://store.fantasyrecordings.com/collections/allison-russell
Check out Allison Russell’s album release live stream on May 21: https://allisonrussell.bandcamp.com/merch/allison-russell-outside-child-release-concert
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