The release of Allison Russell’s debut solo album, Outside Child (Fantasy/Concord), in May 2021 could have been any other artist’s worst nightmare. Instead, it was the beginning of her dreams coming true.
After years of sharing spotlights as a member of other groups including Birds of Chicago [with her husband JT Nero] and Our Native Daughters [with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla], Russell was ready to step out of the shadows and into the light as a solo artist in her own right just as the COVID pandemic and resulting shutdowns came into full force.
Wasserman Music EVP and Managing Partner Jonathan Levine, along with VP Lynn Cingari, signed on as Russell’s agency representation literally sight unseen, on the basis of a recording of Outside Child that came with an essay penned by Russell that he’d received from Fantasy Records President Margi Cheske. Because of the quarantine, there was no opportunity to see Russell perform. They couldn’t even meet for coffee, a meal or to talk about philosophy.
In addition to her recording, Levine was sold by two songs Russell posted to Spotify: “By Your Side” and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” that Russell had recorded in French. “It was so stunningly beautiful,” he says. “Then there was the powerful recording of strength, hope and survival – Outside Child is an absolute, brilliant masterpiece.”
As live performance spaces began to reopen, Levine finally saw Russell perform at Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville and shortly thereafter in the Blue Room at Third Man Records. He knew his gamble had paid off.
“Allison’s first headline performance at Third Man’s Blue Room was one of the most incredible evenings I’d ever seen. I don’t say this lightly. It was like church,” Levine says. “You felt the presence, the artistry, the authenticity and the music coming to life in the most extraordinary way imaginable.”
Another thing that stood out for Levine was that Russell and Cheske had clearly chosen the Wasserman team.
“One of the things that truly humbled me was how determined they were to work with us,” Levine says. “They weren’t knocking on every door. Allison’s desire to work with us was equal to our desire to work with her and to strategically join forces.”
If Outside Child was Russell’s baby, the pandemic and loss of live promotion opportunities could have strangled it in the crib. Instead, Russell’s document of horrific childhood abuse and homelessness, survival, catharsis and redemption struck a chord with critics and fans old and new, taking Outside Child to the highest reaches of many influential “best of” year-end lists and awards shows.
The album earned three Grammy Award nominations, and Russell received another Grammy nod this year for her collaboration with folk artist Aoife O’Donovan on her track “Prodigal Daughter” from the album Age of Apathy.
Despite some of the dark and heavy themes underlying metaphorical lyrics and song titles such as “The Hunter,” “All of the Women,” “The Runner” and “Poison Arrow,” Outside Child also contains songs reflecting her truth and her new life like “Little Rebirth” and “Joyful Motherfuckers.”
Russell’s healing from years of mental, physical and sexual abuse and harassment from a white supremacist, adoptive father in Montreal, Quebec, began when she fled home at age 15. Russell attended an alternative school that leaned into the arts, and there she found the beginnings of what she calls her “chosen family” of artists, musicians and writers.
The largely self-taught guitar, banjo and clarinet player eventually made her way to Vancouver, British Columbia, learning skills of collaboration and sharing everything from food to floor space to music and philosophy along the way. She joined bands and other projects, forming a supportive network that would help elevate her own art, survive her transient life, and process her trauma through what she calls “circle work” – neither from the top down nor the bottom up, but shoulder to shoulder as peers.
“I think about the number of little misfits and weirdos and outcasts in high school that we found, who were able to hear our own inner calling into the world of thinking and creative collaboration and circle work,” Russell explains. “And we’re still doing it. Now, 20 years later, we’re doing it on bigger and bigger platforms. We found each other early on and continue to find each other and expand into circles of purpose and power, of creative harm reduction and problem solving. It goes hand-in-hand, I believe, with the creation and integrity of the art world.”
Russell is now preparing for the release of her second solo album, The Returner, and what finally will be her first solo, headlining tour in support of her own work, launching Oct. 13 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Returner, another powerful effort, also represents a next step in Russell’s career and life as she leaves her trauma in the past and steps forward in what she calls “fierce joy.”
“It’s understandable that people focus on those past aspects because I was being candid about that part of my history,” Russell says. “None of us gets to choose the circumstances of our childhood. But we grow through them and that is what [the music] really is about. For me, it was a natural lifeline. And the community that I’ve met through art and music and their lives – they all helped me to see myself in a different way.”
One of her “chosen family,” singer Brandi Carlile, tapped her network and introduced Russell to Cheske who, in turn, made connections to what would become her team.
“I worked with Brandi via her producing the Tanya Tucker record [While I’m Livin’], which we had a lot of success with,” Cheske says. “And Brandi started talking to Allison, saying, ‘You should meet Margi.’ … The record was fully done, and [Russell] had created this amazing document to go with it that talked about the narrative of the record. And it was pretty incredible. I’ve never had an artist do that before.
“We tend to find career artists; artists that are going to have careers as musicians, songwriters and bands. We’re not looking for the latest trend,” Cheske says, emphatically. “We are so excited to be able to work with Allison because we think she’s at the beginning of a very long career.”
Also working to that end is Russell’s agency team at Wasserman Music, which went to work booking her at festivals and in carefully chosen opening slots for other marquee artists including Carlile, Lake Street Dive, Jason Isbell, Sheryl Crow, Yola, Nathaniel Rateliff, Iron & Wine and others as well as festival plays and benefit appearances. Among the latter is Farm Aid, where Russell made her debut in 2021.
During that show, Farm Aid Executive Director and co-founder Carolyn Mugar “came up to me following her performance and said that in 38 years of Farm Aid, [Russell’s] was one of the most powerful performances they’ve ever seen,” Levine says. Russell returned in 2022 and will be back for a third time Sept. 23 in Noblesville, Indiana.
Russell also made a splash in 2021 at Newport Folk Festival, curating an all-female stage called “Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution,” including Chaka Khan, Brandi Carlile, Adia Victoria, Joy Oladokun, Margo Price, Yola and Amythyst Khia. So powerful was the performance that Holly G (see Leadoff on page 4) was inspired to create Black Opry, a community of and supporting Black country music artists.
Russell was also the key organizer behind “Love Rising: Let Freedom Sing (And Dance),” a March 20 event at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in support of LGBTQ+ rights and opposing legislation (since stayed) that would have banned drag performances in public spaces in Tennessee.
Manager Nicki Loranger of Vector Management, the latest to join Team Ali, points to “Love Rising” as an inflection point.
“Allison is human-forward, and the business really is the second part of it,” Loranger says. “‘Love Rising’ is one of the most recent examples of when a client calls and they’re like, ‘I have this idea.’ It’s impossible as a manager to not have a moment of pause. ‘How the heck are we going to make that happen?’ But Allison was in the trenches as much, if not more, than anyone.”
Russell’s a tireless advocate for causes she believes in. She’s joined Wasserman’s newly established Speakers division and the board of directors of the Americana Music Association after winning the organization’s Album of the Year in 2022 for Outside Child.
Without skipping any steps in her music career, Russell finds time to do it all: activist, organizer, artist, teacher, force for good. Her time will be at a premium in the coming year.
Russell embarks on her 32-city tour in support of The Returner Oct. 13 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that will run into 2024 before a UK and possible European leg, followed by a full Canadian tour.
“The idea is to go sell out all these shows,” Cingari says. “People discovered her through Outside Child and now there will be a really fun pivot into her artistry, coming right from her heart. It’s interesting to see her growth. We know that people need to see her do a headline show because we know they’ll be focused on her once they see her live. There’s no possible way they won’t come back.”
Loranger sums up this moment in Allison Russell’s new chapter: “I do think that part is her taking ownership of herself, because it is a necessary component of being a successful artist. But I think that she has finally stepped into the light and taken ownership over Allison Russell. People are finally seeing her for everything she is.”