Allison Russell’s music isn’t about abuse. It’s about her journey out of it

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

“The album is not about abuse. It’s about the journey out of abuse, the transformative power of art and love and community,” says singer-songwriter Allison Russell. Photo Credit: Marc Baptiste

Musician Allison Russell became a breakout star in Americana music this year with her first solo album “Outside Child.” It tells a story of finally finding joy after being severely abused as a child. The Canadian singer-songwriter spent nearly 20 years touring and playing with the bands Po’ Girl and Birds of Chicago. Now she’s performing on Tuesday at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, riding a wave of critical success, including the naming of her latest record as album of the year by the Americana Music Association. 

Russell wrote many of the songs that later became “Outside Child” while she was touring with Our Native Daughters, an Americana/folk group that includes Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Rhiannon Giddens. And through a grant with the Canada Council for the Arts, she was able to travel to Nashville to record the music. 

Initially, she told herself the songs would be used by one of the many musical groups she was a part of. 

“We had written all of these songs, and I couldn't close the floodgates back up, and more and more songs were coming through,” she tells KCRW. “I was in quite a bit of denial about the fact that I was making a solo, personal record and statement, but all of my musical community around me realized what was happening and gently guided me into it.”

The outpouring of emotion came after years of trying to process the abuse Russell endured as a child at the hand of her adoptive father. For a decade, she was physically, psychologically, and sexually abused by him. 

As a Black woman of mixed heritage, Russell says processing her pain happened as she shed her mind of the societal trauma that led to her abuse.  

“The toxic hierarchical forces … that tell people of color we’re lesser, that tell anyone who's on the queer spectrum are lesser than, who tell new immigrants are lesser than, or women that they're lesser than and shouldn't be in charge of their own bodies — those same forces are why my American expat father believed he could do what he did to me. He was raised in a sundown town in Indiana. There are still sundown towns in our country. We're not past it.” 

Russell says her father was indoctrinated by those beliefs.

“He was an abused child. He was abused, not only physically by his family, but also ideologically. I believe that indoctrinating our children in hateful and violent ideologies is a form of child abuse,” she says. “I was raised in a white supremacist household to believe that I was worth less literally less than other humans in the world. And I believed that story for years and years.” 

On “4th Day Prayer,” Russell talks about her father’s abuse, singing, “Father used me like a wife, mother turned the blindest eye. Stole my body, spirit, pride.” 

At the time, Russell’s mom struggled with postpartum depression and severe schizophrenia. 

“She was often altered on substances and he encouraged that. She worked nights a lot. She literally turned a blind eye because that man was, unfortunately, in my bed almost every night. And she did nothing.”

She, however, sees her mom as another one of her father’s victims. 

“My mom is almost 30 years his junior. She was barely out of teenhood when she met him,” Russell says. “In some ways, I view my mom more as an older sister in the situation that we were in — who never left, whose mind was so thoroughly colonized and brainwashed that she never left, and she has not left him to this day. And it absolutely breaks my heart.” 

Russell’s journey out of abuse

As a mother, Russell had the revelation that she wanted to use her talents to bring good into the world. 

“It took finding a group of sisters. It took finding a musical community that uplifted me and accepted me as I was,” Russell shares. “I'm always telling my child [to] use your words. But what am I doing to use my words to reduce harm in the world?”

She adds, “I believe that I need to try and do everything I can with what I have, what gifts I have, meager they may be, to reduce harm in the world right now. … I don't want my daughter to have to carry the same burdens. The album is not about abuse. It's about the journey out of abuse, the transformative power of art and love and community.” 

Russell also credits what she calls her “ancestral, resilient strength” for getting her through hardships.

“That's the other side of the coin of all the abuse and bigotry that every branch of the human family has been plagued by. The other side of that coin is resilience and strength. That's our birthright.”

She says music also helped her process, which was introduced to her by her mother, a piano player and singer. Russell remembers hiding under the piano while trying to listen to her play. 

“I felt connected to her through music, even when she couldn't show me love in any other way. … I knew if she saw me, there would be confrontation. It would be yelling and scary, but if I just hid and was very small and quiet, I could just bask in the music. … The sound felt warm to me. It felt like love. It felt like her love manifested in the only way that she could.” 

Russell acknowledges that while she suffered as a child, everyone has experienced trauma.

“There's no trauma Olympics. Trauma is trauma. None of us is getting out of this life without experiencing it or by the way alive. So savor and hang on to these goodnesses and each other while we have each other,” she explains. “Music is transformative and it really is through art and the community of people that I met through art — that is why I'm relatively okay.”