Allison Russell is one half of the acclaimed Americana band, Birds of Chicago, along with her husband, JT Nero. Formerly a member of the Canadian roots act, Po’ Girl, Allison is a talented multi-instrumentalist, singer and song-writer. Birds of Chicago has released three top notch studio albums, including last year’s Love in Wartime, produced by Luther Dickinson and JT.
Paste Magazine called the band an “Americana gospel dream team” after hearing their 2016 Real Midnight album, NPR’s Folk Alley included the album in their top 10 favourite albums of the year. Here at Down at the Crossroads, we had both Real Midnight and Love in Wartime in our top 10 Americana albums of 2016 and 2018 respectively. We said of Love in Wartime, “JT Nero’s and Allison Russell’s vocals and rich harmonies meld wondrously, and the song arrangements are innovative and imaginative while, at the same time, warm and inviting.”
Allison Russell has recently been involved in another project, along with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla, with an album about to be released. Entitled Songs of Our Native Daughters, the thirteen-track album explores the history of slavery and its legacy, especially from the point of view of black women. It’s a stunning piece of work, a tour de force, musically, lyrically and thematically. Rhiannon Giddens, the driving force behind the album, has said that she sees this album “as a part of a larger movement to reclaim the black female history of this country.”
Gemma and Gary from Down at the Crossroads had a long chat with Allison Russell about Songs of Our Native Daughters. We asked her, first of all, who the major artists involved in the project are and what the album is about.
Allison Russell: Well, it’s a project that was envisioned and produced by Rhiannon Giddens and she invited myself, Layla McCalla, an absolutely fabulous cellist and writer, multi-instrumentalist as well, and Amythyst Kiah, a fabulous writer and multi-instrumentalist to join her for twelve days just outside of Lafayette, Louisiana in the bayou country. We went down to Dirk Powell’s studio there and it began with exploring some reclaimed minstrel tunes and slave songs that Rhiannon had. She really wanted to have modern women of black heritage, writers, to kind of delve into that material and see what came up. And it was really quite brave of her, because we all sort of took a leap of faith, in that we had none of the material for the original songs we wrote for the project. You know, we’d all had some ideas but everything was written in those 12 days, so we would be, you know, literally writing everything with the exception of Momma’s Crying Long. That’s a piece that Rhiannon had written previously but had not found a home for yet. And Amythyst had a couple of verses that were floating around to Blood and Bones but it hadn’t fully formed yet. And so, we had this kind of amazing experience of living together, working together, for twelve days and it was just kind of a creative explosion for each of us. And there are a lot of threads within each of our lives.
We’re all obviously very different musicians and writers with very different backgrounds, but we do have in common the experience of being, you know, visible minorities within a country that is still really struggling with the legacy of racial fear and a reactionary kind of backlash of hatred. Of course, the last couple of years especially, it’s become clear that that’s not laid to rest. That the legacy of slavery is not resting easily by any means yet, in America particularly.
And so, all kinds of things came up. All of us are artists who are working more within a kind of a folk or Americana framework, where we are not the majority within that framework. And so, we’ve each experienced people – usually, I think, meaning well and just not realizing – you know, like being taken for another artist of color, or, the assumption that, oh well we’ve already got one banjo-playing black so we don’t need another one at this festival – that kind of thing. And you think, oh my goodness, can you imagine if that same metric were applied to, you know, white gentlemen that play guitars – it would be ridiculous! You know, we don’t need Bob Dylan, we’ve already got Neil Young. It’s just so silly. It’s just so absurd when you extrapolate it to something that’s more commonly accepted.
So, it was really interesting, where we were all kind of delving into our own histories…I did a lot of reading leading up to it. The name of the project is Songs of Our Native Daughters. It’s a reference to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son which was his first non-fiction book that was published in 1955 and was, I mean, just groundbreaking. What he was writing was unimaginable back in 1955. Obviously, James Baldwin is a writer and a thinker, a vast influence, not just in America, but internationally. He was a sage of our times and he was so erudite and had this academic approach that made it digestible and understandable for people outside of the black community as well. And so, we were kind of rereading that and wanting to have a similar kind of discourse, if you will, or an exploration of that uncomfortable history within our times. But from a more kind of woman-centered and obviously musical perspective.
Gemma: Yeah, well I love the album, Allison, and it was really powerful. But I appreciated about hearing women’s voices and writing women back into history.
Allison Russell: Yes, exactly.
Gemma: I was listening to Polly Ann’s Hammer for the first time when I was walking into work and I just burst into tears in the streets, literally. It was so emotional just thinking about women’s strength in the way that they have been written out of history, and for black women especially. It was very powerful. It just moved me.
Allison Russell: Oh, I’m so glad you brought up that song. That’s an example of what I’m talking about. So here we’re in this process and we’re all kind of bouncing ideas off each other and we’re all writing madly. You know the night before we’d be madly finishing three songs and then recording the next day! We finished all the recordings in about ten days and then just did a few harmonies and things like that, overdubs, but most of it was done live and in real time with the Smithsonian videographer there capturing some of the process – it was just everything happening at once! And that morning, it was our last day in the studio with some of the other musicians that were involved – Jason Sypher who was playing bass and Jamie Dick who’s playing drums. And we were doing interviews with the Smithsonian as well. Rhiannon was on her way out the door from our shared Airbnb, and she said, “Oh you know it occurred to me maybe we should write a song from Polly Ann’s perspective.”
And it was like a bolt from the sky! Amythyst was in the middle of doing her interviews and I started madly scribbling lyrics because I just thought, that’s brilliant!
She’s been there all along, hasn’t she? In those John Henry legends and songs there’s this castoff line – he had this woman Polly Ann who, you know, picked up a hammer and drove steel – and you never hear about her again!
And John Henry dies. He’s killed by this backbreaking labor. And I just started thinking, well Polly Ann didn’t die. As usual, the woman did the job of the man, and then got on with raising the kids! Kept the family together after he died. And so, I was sort of envisioning – here’s this heroine that has been hiding in plain sight all along. She kept the family going and somebody had to to keep the legend going, you know. And it’s Polly Ann! She survived. She did the work, and she helped the kids to go beyond the life of labor they had had. Yeah. Oh, I’m so glad you brought up that song.
Gemma: Yeah, it’s just phenomenal. But there’s another strong woman, of course, in the song Quasheba, Quasheba which is which is really moving and I knew that you wrote that one. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Allison Russell:] I can. I was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec in Canada and I didn’t know my biological father, growing up. I had a French foster family for several years, and then I was raised by my mom and her husband. My mom is a Scottish Canadian. It’s a troubled family and she married a very abusive man, and so the father who raised me, my adopted father, was this very abusive, racist character, and, you know, I just didn’t know what it was to have a real father.
And then when I was 30, I got very curious about my other side – because I was always not like the others. I was always having to explain, yes that’s my mother, yes, she’s my biological mother. In a branch of the family who weren’t particularly accepting of her, you know, born-out-of-wedlock brown child. But my uncle, my mom’s older brother, helped me find my biological father because my mother and he were in high school when she got pregnant. My father had been finishing high school in Montreal from Grenada. Grenada is a tiny little island nation – three little islands very close to Trinidad and Tobago and the West Indies. My father finished his education in Canada, but he and my mom had already broken up and he’d gone back to Granada by the time my mother realized she was pregnant. So, I never met him. Grenadians, it’s such a tiny, tight knit community and there’s only about 350,000 Grenadians in the whole world. And two thirds of them are abroad making their livings. So, my uncle had a girlfriend in high school who was Grenadian and he was able to track her down through Facebook and ask about my father.
And lo and behold, this old girlfriend’s aunt went to church with my father’s sister-in-law. So, within 24 hours of me saying, “I’m interested in meeting my biological father,” I got a phone call and it was my father!
Yeah, it was quite amazing. And so that was, gosh, that’s eight years ago now. And we have had a wonderful relationship. Now it turns out that he had quite an intense early adulthood, because he was sort of on the wrong side of the Cold War. There’s a lot of people don’t know that history, but in ‘82 Grenada was invaded by the U.S. because they had received money from Fidel Castro to build a commercial airport – not a military airport, but the cold war was so intense in the early ‘80s that that was seen as sort of a provocation, and Grenada was invaded. And my dad was a young idealistic socialist and was on the wrong side of that line and lost his job. His wife also lost her job and they ended up having to move to make a better life for themselves elsewhere and they wound up in Toronto, Ontario. And I have two siblings on that side, a little sister and a brother.
And so that’s where I got to meet them when I was 30 years old. They were in Toronto while I was in Montreal. They were only a few hours away for all those years. But I didn’t know!
Anyway, my father’s eldest sister, Denise, decided to hire a historian to help her put together a history of the family. And they were able to discover records of Quasheba, sold off the coast of Ghana and traded hands many times. She eventually wound up in Tobago, and then Grenada and then had – we don’t know how many children she had. But there’s a record of a daughter also named Quasheba, who was actually kidnapped by a plantation owner in Grenada, but she had somehow or other learned midwifery skills and she was able to make somewhat of a life for herself that way – I guess the owner would sell her to other plantations, would sort of rent out her services to other plantations, and so the story of this woman Quasheba…there was this oral kind of thread as well within our family. There was, like, the mystery of this woman.
But the historian my aunt Denise hired was able to track down more information about her, and it was so powerful to learn her name and a little bit about her story. And I am grateful to have that knowledge and I’m grateful for her resilience because literally our entire family and this huge George clan (that’s the last name of my father’s people) wouldn’t exist without her. There’s so much of the narrative around slavery understandably focuses on how horrific it was, and it was obviously. But it’s kind of like taking away a little bit of the everyday heroism of surviving that.
You know we don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the strength and the resilience. And that’s a gift that gets passed on to subsequent generations. That’s part of it too. But that’s not a story unique to slavery in North America. I mean, on my mom’s side you know, they were Scottish crofters and were turfed out by the Lairds when the clan system fell. On my mom’s side, my great grandfather came over and lied about his age – he was 16 and his brother was 14 and they were basically begging in the streets in Edinburgh, and then they got on a ship. Lied about their ages and got on the ship and wound up in Saskatchewan. Which I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Saskatchewan, but I can’t imagine surviving the winter there when you’re a child from Scotland! But somehow, they did. He and his brother got a land grant and they somehow survived and made the farm thrive enough to make a living. But his little brother wound up dying at the Somme.
Gemma: Well I’m glad you brought up resilience because that was something I wanted to ask you about. Because that’s a very strong theme in the album as well, despite all the harrowing stories. That theme of resilience…and joy is there as well. And it struck me that joy is a form of resistance.
Allison Russell: Yes, it is. It is a form of resistance and love in a time of war or hatred is a form of resistance.
Gemma: And it’s necessary right now.
Photo: Terri Fensel
Allison Russell: Yes. Yes, I feel it is. And my adopted country of America – I am Canadian but my husband is American – I’ve married into this country, my child has been born here. It’s a very, very intense time here, a lot of hidden turmoil and pressures that have come to the surface.
You know, with this character in charge, he’s kind of doing the whole reactionary fear-mongering, us and them nonsense that tries to divide people, and so I feel like it wasn’t an intentional reaction to that, but you can’t help but kind of dig in. All that we know how to do is write songs, you know, and commune with people, but more and more I’m realizing it’s so important, there are so few avenues left where people with differing political views, or religious views, or social views, or socio-economic backgrounds, or cultural backgrounds can get together in a room and be decent to each other.
And music, live music, is one of the few avenues where that still happens. And it can change people’s ideas about things and it can lessen their fear and make them feel more connected. And when you feel connected and empathetic, then you’re not going to lock children up at the border. You know you’re not going to do it.
So, I do feel like, you know, singing songs and writing songs that hopefully people can connect to and with and feel our common humanity – that’s not nothing, that’s something I cling to.
Gemma: And it’s a very intimate experience.
Allison Russell: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.
Gary: Yes, the album certainly felt to this non-American very important, right at this particular point in time in history with all this going on, Allison.
Allison Russell: Yes. We all felt a kind of urgency, I think. Aside from we were under the clock timeline – we only had 12 days together. But there was a feeling of urgency. We have to respond to some of the poison in the atmosphere here. If just to dig in on the beauty and the connection. You know, another theme in the album that really emerged, I noticed, was this idea that the separation based on a superficial visual trigger like someone has darker skin and someone has pale skin is so false.
And, you know, you just have to scratch the surface of America. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers, he had an entire black family. And a black mistress, by all accounts. This was probably the half-sister of his white wife. I mean it just goes on and on, and he ends up emancipating the children from that union later, and eventually, finally, Sally, his, you know, well if someone can be called a mistress when they’re an enslaved person – yes, the black mother. You know, this is at the heart of America. And nobody talks about it. One side had darker skin, one side had paler skin and one side was exploiting the other. But it’s the same family. It’s not a different family; it’s one big dysfunctional family and that is something that gets hidden and glossed over too often. I mean that was that’s why I was so thrilled when the Hamilton musical came out because you know finally someone is talking about – this is a mixed-race person. This was not a white person.
Gary: So, tell us about when you were making the album. When you were collaborating, the four of you together, how did you decide on who was going to sing on what songs and what the arrangements were going to be?
Allison Russell: You know it all kind of happened very organically. I’d say that the obvious delineations of leads were, if you wrote the song, generally you sang it. But for the co-writes, on a couple of them, we were sort of trading verses. Or in the case of Blood and Bone, that was just so clearly Amythyst had that chorus – I just want to hear her voice on that song! It’s strong in the sense that we co-wrote it, but it was just very clear to me that she should be the one to sing it, and it ended up just very natural. It wasn’t an orchestrated, “OK, now you sing this and I’ll sing that” – it just kind of happened naturally, very organically, as we just sort of worked on things. And we’d try things a couple of different ways sometimes and then it would feel really good one way and less good the other, so we’d do it the way it felt really good!
Gary: But of course, you were four very talented musicians and artists. And one thing I noticed is that the banjo features quite a bit on the album. All four of you are banjo players?
Allison Russell: Yes, we are! And we all play different banjos which is amazing actually. That was all Rhiannon. One of the things that she wanted to do is really feature the banjo. And part of that goes back to the unfortunate kind of tokenism that sometimes happens or novelty, like, oh it’s a black girl playing the banjo. How sweet! But it’s a deeply American instrument which could not have existed without Africans being brought to this land. And so, it’s a unique union between African and European and enslaved traditions. And it’s just beautiful. It rises above, sort of tapping into that idea of joy and resilience and beauty coming out of horrific things. And the banjo is a shining example of that. So, it felt powerful and emblematic to all of us and we’ve all used it a lot.
Photo: Terri Fensel
It’s my second instrument that I primarily write on. I am by far the poorest banjoist of the group. But I write a lot on the banjo. But I’m not the shredder! That’s Amythyst. She can rip a beautiful solo and I’m more of a rhythm and textural player and I use it for writing predominantly. I’m more of like a songwriter who also happens to play the banjo and write songs on the banjo.
I loved the way our banjo voices sounded because they’re all quite different. Rhiannon plays this incredible minstrel banjo from the eighteen hundreds, which is a fretless, gut string banjo with a very deep voice. Amythyst plays a steel string, a five-string, smaller sort of sharper-voiced banjo which is gorgeous. Layla plays a four-string tenor banjo which has totally different voicings and sounds. And then I play a kind of a hybrid. Sort of an open G kind of claw hammer style banjo. But I converted mine to be closer to a gut string. It’s called Nylgut and it won’t be as affected by temperature and altitude and things. And it has a kind of fiber skin as close as a synthetic skin can be to the original goat skin. And so, these four banjos have such different voices and it was really lovely. There were a couple of pieces where we were all playing the banjo at the same time. Just something about the harmonics of it. and it just felt like the spirits were gathering or something. It was really affecting and beautiful.
Gary: Who knew there were so many types of banjo!
Allison Russell: Oh, there are so many!
Gary: And we detected your clarinet coming through a time or two as well!
Allison Russell: Yes, I was the one woodwind player in the group and they let me play the clarinet a couple of times.
Gary: We like the clarinet and it’s lovely to hear it coming in now and again!
Allison Russell: Oh, I’m so glad. I love the clarinet! You know if I’m at a jam session or something that’s my axe to jam on! Yeah. To me it feels like an extension of voice. I always have loved the sound of it. I didn’t come to playing instruments until later in my early 20s. I was sort of trapped in what I call the singers’ ghetto before that, where people say, oh you’re a musician and you say, yes I sing, and they’re like, oh you’re a singer, you’re not a musician! So, I decided I’ve got to get out of the singers’ ghetto, I’ve got to learn some instruments. I started actually with guitar which I don’t even really play anymore, and then found the clarinet and then the banjo.
Gary: Fabulous. Now Songs of Our Native Daughters is on the Smithsonian Folkways label. What’s the background to that?
Allison Russell: Well, that was already in place before Rhiannon invited us. I mean that was part of why she was able to invite us all to do it, because the Smithsonian very generously supported and funded the project for us.
And I think it was very important for her to have been involved with the Smithsonian, because so much of the source material that she has researched and delved into has come from the Smithsonian archives. Rhiannon’s like a musicologist, you know; she’s really gone in deep with the archival material in a way that I’ve just scratched the surface. And in fact, most everything that I’ve learned about early American and African-American music has come from Rhiannon. She has really gone in deep with the archives and the research and piecing things together. The inspiration for this project came when she was walking through the new museum of African-American History and Culture. And she was struck by a quotation of William Cowper’s, which was a kind of a satirical poem about the slave trade. He was a great abolitionist, of course, and was horrified by the slave trade and was doing everything he could to get it banned. But Rhiannon was so struck by this poem and how it correlated to our modern times and the kind of hidden slavery that occurs off our shores. You know – people in factories in Sri Lanka being paid nothing and having the factory collapse on their heads so that we can have clothes or cheap watches or phones or whatever it is.
So, she was really drawing that line from the past to the present, so that just kind of got the whole idea percolating to do something like Songs of Our Native Daughters. So, she wrote the Smithsonian a proposal and they got on board. I think they’re really making a point of not just having the archival source material and recordings – they really want to support modern artists who are continuing these traditions. And I think it’s so wonderful because very few places are left that that do that. We’re very grateful to them.
Gary: So, have you any plans to tour this album Allison?
Allison Russell: Well, it’s funny, Rhiannon and I were just talking about that this morning. We were talking about how tricky it is, because of course everybody’s juggling their individual projects as well. But we all want to very much. We did kind of a little preview of Songs of Our Native Daughters. Rhiannon had a residency at Symphony Space in New York City for four weeks and we did two shows where we previewed a lot of the material and it was so well received. People there gave us such great feedback about it. And there’s been such a lovely response from some journalists and wonderful music sites like yours. So, we all want to do some sort of touring around it. It’s just going to be tricky to figure out the timing. But certainly, this summer I think we’ll be doing some festivals together and we’re trying to figure out a time perhaps in the Fall to do a little run.
Gary: You definitely need to do that because it’s a fantastic album! The music’s great and of course the themes are so very important. So, you definitely gotta do that. Now, I know that you’ve been touring hard with The Birds of Chicago, Allison but you’ve another project coming up in March, playing a number of venues with Luther Dickinson and Amy Helm. Now that is some line up!
Allison Russell: Luther and Amy have become like family to us. Luther and his wife and their daughters are here in Nashville and we’ve relocated here within the last year. Our little girls have a band together and they all love each other and they go to the same school, and it’s just become, you know, it’s become quite a family affair! And Amy as well. The record we’re supporting with that tour in March is coming out on New West on March 22nd, Sisters of the Strawberry Moon. But we actually recorded it three years ago! And that’s how we really got to meet. Got to know Luther and got to know Amy and the last few years we’ve become friends and all of these projects have grown out of it. And JT and Amy have started writing a lot together and there is this kind of happy collaboration and deep friendship has ensued. But we all sort of thought about the record, it’s not going to come out. But then, lo and behold, there they’re releasing it in March. So, we were all so pleased to have an excuse to tour together you know!
Gary: And your Birds of Chicago Love in Wartime is a fantastic album which gone down really, really well. You must be delighted with the way that’s been received.
Allison Russell: Oh, we were thrilled about it. We feel so grateful. And we’ll be coming up on a year since it was released at the end of May, and it’s just been such an inspiring year of getting to connect with people all over the world. We came to Ireland and Scotland and England and the Netherlands, and a little bit in Germany, and Canada, and of course in the U.S. It’s been really lovely and we’re so grateful for people listening and coming out to support the shows and, you know, we definitely don’t take that for granted and we’re so grateful for it.
Gary: Allison, thank you so much, you’ve been very generous with your time. Thank you for being so open with us.
Allison Russell: Yes, thank you. It’s been a pleasure!
Songs of Our Native Daughters is released on February 22nd.