Jul 05, 2023

Allison Russell new album "Outside Child" about the journey out of abuse

In this second installment of Hallowed Sound, journalists from the USA TODAY Network examine the state of race in country music, scour the South in search of untold stories and shine a light on a new, eclectic generation of Black artists.

Editor's note: This story mentions suicide and abuse. If you are at risk, please stop here and contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support at 1-800-273-8255.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After she fled, a teenage Allison Russell often wandered into "The Mountain."

She found cover inside this expansive, wooded Montreal hill, sometimes spending summer nights sleeping on park benches or in a nearby graveyard. For her, it was safer than going home.

She was, and remains, an outside child.

The term refers to a person born out of wedlock, a way of saying bastard that "didn't have fangs," as described by Russell, a Nashville folk singer-songwriter.

Russell's been called an outside child before, and she embraces it — turning a phrase that could be alienating into something joyful.

She chose "Outside Child" to title her 2021 debut album, a work years in the making by a collaborator known for singing in folk outfits Our Native Daughters and Birds of Chicago, among others.

The album weaves an unimaginable tale, in which Russell wrestles with a decade of childhood abuse, describing her escape from a toxic upbringing and, ultimately, finding peace with her identity as an "Outside Child."

"Outside Child is a chronicle of my road map out of a very abusive childhood," Russell, 41, told the USA TODAY Network. "The record isn't about abuse, it's about the journey out of it. It's about art as a lifeline. It's about chosen family and chosen community as a lifeline. It's about the transformative power of love.

"But really, at the heart, [it's about] art. That's what got me through. Even in the worst days of my childhood, there was a little window of possibility and hope, and that was the art I was exposed to."

Russell was born to high school-aged parents: a Scottish-Canadian mother and father from Grenada, both studying in Montreal, Quebec. Without family support, her mom entered a home for unwed mothers.

Suffering from what Russell said was undiagnosed schizophrenia, her mother sometimes believed that her daughter was demon-possessed; she abandoned Russell for periods of time, the singer said. In a moment of clarity, her mother told a social worker what had happened — leading Russell to enter foster care.

"To have a white, teenage mother with a Black baby was a pretty intense stigma back then," Russell said.

Russell returned to her mother after she married an older man the singer described as a white supremacist raised in a so-called sundown town in White County, Indiana.

Beginning before her fifth birthday, Russell's adoptive father abused her physically, psychologically and sexually for a decade, she said.

She sings of her trauma on soul-stirring roots song "4th Day Prayer," offering: "Father used me like a wife/ Mother turned the blindest eye/ Stole my body, spirit, pride/ He did, he did each night."

That time "was a nightmare, but it was just all I knew," Russell said. "That was my life. That was my father. Sadly, I will never be able to change that."

But throughout her childhood, Russell connected with art. She obsessively read the Norton Anthology of English Literature, finding solace in children's poems passed down by oral tradition.

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She didn't realize it at the time, but Russell found herself in those stories. She turned the words into melody, often singing to her younger brother.

"I call it the hidden canon, women's canon," Russell said. "So many of these stories are cautionary tales told by women to other women about abuse.

She added, "Sometimes I would just make up poems about things he was into. That was how it started. Making up stories for him and creating an alternate universe that we would retreat to."

Years later, Russell has "every reason to put a middle finger to the world," said friend and Our Native Daughters bandmate Amythyst Kiah. But she didn't take that path.

"She chose to take the pain and the suffering that she's endured, and to try to make sure that no one else has to feel that way," Kiah said. "You can't really be any more of a top-notch human being than that."

Before turning 15, Russell left her parents' house after a blowout argument that ended in a physical altercation, she said. Russell ran barefoot into a snow-covered street.

She fled, in part, because her niece and nephew came to live with the family, Russell said. Russell began taking care of two children, which helped her break away from self-harm and suicidal thoughts, she said.

"The babies came, ... and I had to be healthy and strong enough to take care of them," Russell said. "It pulled me out of that tailspin and it awakened a motherly instinct. That motherly instinct extended somewhat to myself, as well. Suddenly I realized if I didn't leave, I was not going to survive.

"And, ultimately, maybe I didn't 100% want to die. Maybe this could get better. [The] dream of it getting better came from music and literature and friends that I met."

Russell spent some summer nights sleeping inside Montreal's Mount Royal Cemetery. During wintertime, she found shelter in the pews at St. Joseph's Oratory or Notre-Dame Basilica, towering local churches.

She sometimes stayed up all night, playing chess in 24-hour cafes. She began sharing art with others — performing streetside comedy and singing inside Hurley's Irish Pub.

"I remember very specifically the first time I sang publicly," Russell said. "I had requested a Stan Rogers song patterned on Scottish ballads, called 'Maid On The Shore,' which I was obsessed with. I requested that song and the fiddler, Gerry O’Neill, said, ... 'You come up and sing it.'

"I was terrified and I cried. And he was like, 'Well, now the worst thing has happened. You might as well sing.' I sang and everybody really liked it and they kept inviting me to sit in with them."

And Russell found her first love. On the album, she sings of "Persephone," painting a picture of escaping home to crawl through a window into open, accepting arms.

On the song, she sings: "Tap-tap-tappin' on your window screen/ Gotta let me in Persephone/ Got nowhere to go, but I had to get away from him/ My petals are bruised, but I'm still a flower/ Come runnin' to you in the violet hour."

"She's a big part of my survival," Russell said, "teaching me about unconditional love and consensual love and seeing me as a person of value."

Russell moved to Vancouver, started a career in social work and plugged into the local folk scene with help from singer-songwriter aunt Janet Lillian Russell.

At age 20 — after hearing that her niece and nephew moved back into her parents' house — she pressed charges against her abuser, Russell said. Others came forward and he pleaded guilty to lesser charges, receiving a three-year sentence, according to The New York Times.

Now, Russell shares her story in hopes of showing her 8-year-old daughter, Ida, that "the buck stopped with me. The intergenerational abuse stopped with me. It's never going to touch you."

She said, "There's a story of intergenerational trauma. But there's also a story of intergenerational resilience and strength and ability to survive. I wanted to amplify and uplift that."

Russell's now a tenured folk artist in Nashville who toured extensively with outfit Po’ Girl’, launched duo Birds of Chicago with her husband, JT Nero, and worked to reclaim musical history for Black women in supergroup Our Native Daughters. She's tackled her past in song and show before, but not like "Outside Child."

The album plays like a musical autobiography, with Russell building a healing world with her words. At one moment, she weaves a traditional folk tale of Scottish lore escapism ("Hy-Brasil") and she finds rock 'n' roll freedom ("The Runner") in the next. She invites listeners to hear her find wilderness power in escaping trauma on "The Hunters," and extends an olive branch in the jazz-tinged "Poison Arrow."

Deciding to tell her story grew out of motherhood, Russell said. She wanted to show that survivor's joy exists, and she's proof of it.

"There's a dehumanizing of survivors," Russell said. "A flattening, like you're not a full person. Like, no. We have joy. We have loving, happy sexual relationships. There's life after this. Once you've survived, there's a possibility of a good life."

Once Russell decided to tell her story, music began to flow, said Nero, who collaborated on "Outside Child."

"Alli [has] remarkable, rarefied bravery just in her choice to be a loving person, to follow the light," Nero said. "Before she explicitly told this story, she was telling the story of triumph and escape just by being alive and being a beam of light in the world."

Russell cut "Outside Child" in three days at Nashville's Sound Emporium, enlisting Americana breakout Yola and gospel staple the McCrary Sisters. Dan Knobler produced the album, released by Fantasy Records.

And no song may encompass her journey more than "Nightflyer," a swinging soul song where she sings: "I crawled back in my mother's womb/ Came back out with my gold and my greens/ Now I see everything/ Now I feel everything good."

Russell said, "I will struggle with shame and self-hatred for my whole life. That is ... one of the legacies for me of surviving 10 years of very, very severe abuse. Your body heals, the physical wounds heal, but the psychological wounds go very, very deep.

"They never fully heal. But that doesn't mean you're defined by them forever."

Meet the new, eclectic generation of Black country, roots and Americana artists who are blurring genre lines and forcing change within the music industry.

Hallowed Sound, Vol. 2

Hallowed Sound, Vol. 1

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