Banner image for Q&A With Singer-Songwriter Alli Russell

Allison (“Alli”) Russell is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in the acclaimed Americana band Birds of Chicago. Recently Alli joined forces with Rhiannon Giddens, Amethyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla for the powerful project Our Native Daughters.

Alli talked to us about being an empathy junkie, juggling motherhood with music, her forthcoming solo project, and digging into the painful past for Songs of Our Native Daughters. As Alli says, “It’s long past time for black womens’ voices to be heard and celebrated and I’m proud to be singing and testifying in solidarity with my sisters at this pivotal time of tragedy, reckoning and change.”

MC: You’ve described yourself as a “connection seeker.” I love that so much. Can you tell us what that means to you?

AR: Being a performing artist – particularly  since the advent of social media – can feel like a 24/7 exercise in self absorption. “Look at me!” “Listen to me!” “Do you think I’m worthy?!”  Everyone on social media is pretty much hooked on “likes” and ROI. It’s a dopamine stimulator – just like gambling. What makes it all worth it for me – is the possibility of real connection. The magic of art connecting and uniting us. Art reaffirming our common humanity, our frailties and our triumphs. I feel this especially acutely just now. I’ve been a hardcore touring artist since my first band Po’Girl — over 15 years now in various projects — and I’m grateful for every person and community that’s embraced my music and made me feel like family.

There are very few avenues left in these times of extreme partisanship – where  people of disparate backgrounds/ ideologies/ gender identities/ ethnicities etc. can come together and share an experience harmoniously. That’s the magic of live music — it reminds us that we’re all interconnected — there are universal vibrations we all hum and move to…Basically – I’m an empathy junkie. Billy Bragg once said, “A musician’s currency isn’t songs, it’s empathy,” and I think he was right…

MC: In addition to being a musician full-time, you are a mother! Tell me about what that’s like being a mom on the road?

AR: The road? What’s that?! We’ve been in quarantine since our shows with the Wood Brothers got cancelled on March 12th. Heading into our 4th month of quarantine, being a road mom feels like a lifetime ago. These days I’m a try-and-keep-the-family-afloat-when-all-of-our-shows-have-been-cancelled-live streaming-garden-growing-homeschooling mom. Turns out homeschooling is a pretty full time gig. Ida, our 6 year old daughter, is running circles around us. We learn more from her everyday than we could ever hope to teach her. 

MC: You have an incredibly powerful story: spending time in foster care, finding strength to escape an abusive home at such a young age and fighting through adversity to become the incredible musician — and woman — you are. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross once said “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” This quote makes me think of you. What helped you stay resilient during such difficult times? How did all that shape you, and what are some of those tools you continue to hold on to when things get hard – as a musician, and as a human?

AR: I’ve thought about this particular subject deeply and often. Why are some people more resilient than others when it comes to abuse and trauma? Why do some abused children grow up to be predators themselves and others come out of it with a heightened sense of empathy? I often feel survivor’s guilt. I believe the answers are complex and myriad. We are all inextricable mixtures of nature and nurture and mystery.

In my case, I think there were several stabilizing forces that enabled me to survive my childhood. I was an early reader and I would escape into books as often and as long as possible, because my reality was unbearable. The power of the written word, the refuge of the written word; the magic of living inside of someone else’s imagination — was and is —  an inexhaustible gift. I also had the child’s power of self-protective “double-think”: I would pretend I had loving caring parents, and while I was at school I could almost believe it… I had my maternal Grandmother Isobel, with whom I had a special rapport — I was parched for love — and drank up every last drop that came my way. I had music; writing and singing were always innate and always cathartic and healing for me. I would find and cling to mother figures wherever I could, usually my friends’ mothers. And I was very lucky to have grown up in Montreal; in many ways I feel the city herself preserved me.

I left home when I was 15 —  I was able to stay relatively safe during my homeless year — staying up all night playing chess with the old men and the university students in a 24 hr cafe on Rue St.Laurent in the winter, then sleeping in the student lounge of my alternative high school before class… I would sleep in the graveyard in the summer,  and listen to free concerts during Jazz Fest, and at the McGill Conservatory. I’ve come to understand that my ancestors were lifting me up all along, we all come from long lines of survivors who endured worse circumstances than we can fathom… All of it: the good, and the painful are part of me. I think I continue to have a healthy dose of self preservative escapism- writing songs and long distance running, playing make believe with my daughter…

I hold my chosen family, the loving community I’ve found, close. I try to focus on the many things to be grateful for, instead of focusing on what I don’t or didn’t have…

MC: Your path to music wasn’t handed to you. You truly had to move through a field of obstacles in order to do what you love. And, when you tried out for choir as a girl you (shockingly!) didn’t make it. It’s so easy for people to get deflated from an early experience like that, but you didn’t let that stop you. How did you then – at a young age – and maybe still now – push past rejection and disappointments as a musician?

AR: For me musical expression is a compulsion, so I really didn’t have a choice. And despite the early rejection – I’ve experienced enough affirmations along the way to keep at it. Ultimately whatever your path is, whatever your passion – it’s really not about what others think of you (though of course positive feedback feels good, and can be helpful and encouraging). I think it’s about following your muse with bravery and honesty. For me being part of a music community, being part of various bands has been a deeply rewarding and inspiring part of my journey. There are few things that I love more than contributing to creating a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts…

MC: Let’s chat about Our Native Daughters! You’re part of this super group consisting of women of color, and the name was inspired by James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. I’d love to hear any stories about what it’s meant to you, to be a part of such a special project like this during such a pivotal time in our history?

AR: I feel empowered, loved and supported by the sisterhood of Our Native Daughters (OND), which is Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and I. What began as a one off recording project for Smithsonian Folkways (brought together by Rhiannon), has become a real band. We’re stronger together, and together we’ve been excavating and exploring the painful history of chattel slavery and minstrelsy from the perspectives and experiences of black women, digging into the past as present, using our banjos as primary mediums of revelation and resistance.

None of us expected the overwhelming response our project received: Grammy nomination, Americana UK International Album of the Year nomination, Americana Music Association Group of the Year nomination, 5-star reviews in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and on. We just found out yesterday that we’ve been nominated for Duo/Group of the Year again by the Americana Music Association! It’s long past time for black womens’ voices to be heard and celebrated and I’m proud to be singing and testifying in solidarity with my sisters at this pivotal time of tragedy, reckoning and change.  

MC: Your tour with The Wood Brothers came to a halt as lockdown began, but you’re still been keeping busy! Tell me how you pivoted your energy into other projects, and what you’ve done to keep your spirits up during such a heavy time. 

AR: I actually recorded my first solo record before the lockdown began, so I’ve been really focusing on starting to build a “solo” public identity. For many years I was not comfortable or confident enough in myself to make art under my own name, to put my own name forward… I’ve been slowly but surely growing into self acceptance. The support of my OND sisterhood has been a big part of it. I’ve been building a team, and beginning the long process of finding the right partners to help me release my album. I’ve been writing a lot of new songs and also a book… I’ve been distance writing and collaborating with other artists. That has been so rewarding. I’ve been homeschooling, of course, and that is an ongoing adventure with a steep learning curve. We’ve been growing our first family garden, led by my green thumb chosen sister, Awna Teixeira. Ida is a green thumb too! Nothing beats eating greens from your own garden. Ida will actually eat salad now because she grew it herself!

We’re starting to work on the writing of the next OND record. Awna and I have been learning some of our dear chosen sister/housemate Yola’s songs and being her back up band for various “live from home” quarantine recordings. We’ve been playing some live stream shows to keep a roof over our heads and we’re about to launch a Birds of Chicago Patreon. There has been a hilarious learning process with becoming our own DIY broadcasters, videographers, lighting directors etc…

MC: What are you most excited – or energized – about in your life right now?

AR: All of the above and I’m feeling energized by the anti-bigotry movement. It starts with racial justice, but it doesn’t stop there… 

MC: Who are some lesser known artists that you love?

AR: All of my sisters in OND, Yola, Awna Teixeira, Kaia Kater, Raina Rose, Demeanor AKA Justin Harrington, Ava Earl, Nickel & Rose, Lisa Sanders, Maya de Vitry, Sunny War, Lady B AKA Lady Bantu, William Prince, Leela Gilday. There are so many wonderful artists I have yet to discover! 

Songs of Our Native Daughters is out now. For more info on Allison and Birds of Chicago, visit their website.

Stay tuned for a full conversation with Alli and JT of Birds of Chicago on a NEW CD Baby podcast; launching next month! We’d love to include some of your questions for Alli and JT. Drop one in the comments below!