We were fortunate enough to hear the wonderful voice of Allison Russell singing live a few years ago in Elsecar, a small South Yorkshire village immersed in an economic and social crisis ever since the coal mining industry was closed down back in the 1980s. A village abandoned to its fate by the authorities in power and suffering from many social problems, dysfunctional situations, and a high rate of unemployment … but also a community of people who are fighting to get things back on track. Some years ago they converted many of the old mine buildings into sites for local shops, craft workshops, and tea rooms as well as using one for concerts. It was there that we attended a small folk festival in 2013 and by chance chose to see the (then relatively unknown to most of us) Birds of Chicago. We were, as they say, gobsmacked! The magical combination of the voices of the group’s leaders, Allison Russell and her partner (on and off stage) JT Nero, led us through a treasure trove of country, soul and folk music. As soon as the concert had finished, we dashed over to congratulate the singers, buy the CD and, of course, ask for their autographs!
Ever since then we have tried to keep a track on their work. Last year they announced that the group would be left on standby so they could concentrate on a solo project that Allison was working on, with the collaboration of JT Nero and a host of great musicians.
The resulting album Allison has created, Outside Child, is one of the best LPs we have heard in a very long time. Part of the inspiration behind the songs lies in the horrendous years of abuse Allison suffered as a child and teenager. But somehow, she has managed to transform this pain and suffering into a magical piece of art, a cry to resist and overcome. As we listened to the album, and read a few interviews with her, a variety of mixed feelings took over – impotence and helplessness, sadness and anger, but also surprise and hope in seeing how Allison has the strength to not just survive and overcome events which virtually destroyed her life, but to lay out a path of resistance in life, an example to give power and hope to other people trying to survive difficult situations.
Allison was born to a single mother with mental health issues. She spent her first years in foster care, I think, before returning to live with her mother at the age of 5 when the mother found a new partner. The “person” filling this role which should have provided love and stability was in fact an evil beast and he sexually abused Allison for the next ten years. Eventually, at the age of 15, in an act of bravery and self-determination hard to comprehend in one so young, Allison managed to flee the household and her attacker. A few years later, at the age of 20, she went back home to save her brother and report the ‘father/rapist’ (a white supremist, as she explains) to the police, managing to get him sent to prison for a few (too few) years.
The horrors of her childhood form the seed behind this work of art, but it is much, much more than a simple biography of Allison’s life. The songs bring together clear and forceful, no holds barred, lyrics with mystical and dream-like images, poetry and hope. As Allison states in interviews, rather than simply explaining the physical, psychological and sexual abuse she suffered, she aims to relate how she survived. The strength, optimism and hope within her, and how this all connects to the stories her grandmothers would tell her: her Scottish gran, explaining legends and traditional tales, and the mother of her biological father, from Grenada, with her stories of the generations of slaves dragged over from Africa. The result is an album full of tears and pain, magic and light, hope and resilience. At this moment in history, where we are talking more and more about the rights of minority groups, of women, of the LGBTI community, and serious problems such as racism and mental health, this is an album which deserves to be listened to with calm and attention. I would also add that, like certain novels, given the scope of the issues it deals with, perhaps as the listener grows older and more experienced, they may find more and more layers to these songs.
Musically, it is a breath-taking blend of soul, country and folk presented with the voice of an angel and lyrics which become pure poetry expressing raw feelings and emotions in a mixture of French and English. And the original touch of Allison’s clarinet solos add a pensive side to some of the songs.
The record has won plentiful praise and awards as well as three nominations for the Grammys and a mention in Barack Obama’s annual list of favourite albums! It looks like Allison is about to reap the success this record deserves but I’m also pretty sure that simply by creating this album and putting her thoughts into song, she has already succeeded.
A record to listen to from start to finish as it takes you up and down the rollercoaster of Allison’s life, through her suffering and the inner strength which enabled her to carry on. An album worth buying on vinyl or CD to read the lyrics and the introductions she has prepared for each piece. Nothing is out of place, every song is a gem. I won’t go over all of them here, though, as it’s best for you to discover them for yourself but if anyone’s interested in a little sample, here goes…
In 4th Day Prayer Allison sings about the days she left the hell of her house and managed to spend a few hours in the park, away from her adoptive father-rapist…
Old willow tree, it was my throne, till I went home,
Father used me like a wife, Mother turned the blindest eye,
Stole my body, spirit and pride,
He did, he did each night...
“These are the best years of your life”,
If I’d believed it, I’d have died.
The myth of the goddess Persephone symbolizes the story of how her life and mental health were saved. When Allison was 15 years old, she managed to spend nights away from home in the arms of her first lover, a girl from her high school class (I believe). The song shifts from the violence of the jackal (as she refers to the animal who mistreat her) to the tenderness of the first person to show her love, to return some sense to her young life. Eventually, the same year Allison managed to flee from home and the rapist forever, even if it meant sleeping rough...
Blood on my shirt, two ripped buttons
Might've killed me that time, oh if I'd let him
He's slow when he's drunk, and he lost his grip on me
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 running to you in the violet hour
Put your skinny arms around me, let me taste your skin.