- 21 Nov 23
Allison Russell has registered an Album of the Year contender in the supremely soulful shape of The Returner. She’s also on the social justice frontline with America’s lurch to the far-right, the whitewashing of country music, gun control and fellow fighters of the good fight Hozier, Hayley Williams and Margo Price all up for discussion when she meets Stuart Clark.
“He has one of the nicest audiences I’ve ever experienced. There are tonnes of women and tonnes of queer folks, which being both of those things makes me feel very at home and welcome. The audience comes knowing, ‘Oh, these are people Andrew’s picked because he likes their songs.’ They trust his curatorship and are really prepared to give you a chance.
“It’s testament to Andrew and his whole camp that they’ve created such a sense of community and family with everything they do.”
As anyone who caught the Montreal-born, Nashville-based singer supporting the Wicklow superstar at Malahide Castle will know, Russell is a soul maven of the sweetest variety, albeit one who’s first in the queue when it comes to addressing social justice issues.
The dictionary definition of a human dynamo, Alison immediately launches into the story of how she met Hozier when we find a quiet-ish backstage spot at Malahide Castle.
“It was at the Newport Folk Festival in 2019,” she recalls. “I was there with my other project, Our Native Daughters, which is a group featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and myself. We’d done a record for Smithsonian Folkways called The Songs Of Our Native Daughters, and were being followed around on this mad tour by a documentary film crew.
“We had our six children – Rhiannon has two, I have one and Leyla three – with us who poor Amythyst had to put up with,” she continues. “We arrive in Newport in this derelict bus that should’ve been retired twenty years prior, it was a boiling hot day and the kids were melting down. We did our set on the fourth stage while Andrew was on the main one, so we didn’t get to see each other. It was the Sunday and they were ending the festival with a big jam during which Andrew and Mavis Staples got to sing ‘Eyes On The Prize’ together. They invited us to come and sing harmonies with them. It was my first time meeting Mavis who is the Queen of my world, a goddess, and Andrew was kind enough to open up his air-conditioned trailer for us all to rehearse in. He saw the state of us and the kids and, this being indicative of the person he is, said ‘Just take my trailer.’ Andrew’s a very good ambassador for Ireland!”
Together with Jason Isbell, Russell managed to recruit the heavyweight likes of Hayley Williams, Julien Baker, Maren Morris and, natch, Hozier for this year’s Love Rising, a Nashville riposte to the new Tennessee state law banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender teens and drag shows.
“America is in the early stages of a very frightening fascist takeover of democracy,” Allison insists. “Tennessee has become the Ground Zero for the neo-fascist far-right. It’s the state with the lowest voter turnout. That’s not by accident, it’s by design and involves decades of gerrymandering and the oppression of black, immigrant and queer communities.”
There have been times recently when the discourse in the Tenneesee General Assembly has resembled a pre-civil rights movement Klu Klux Klan rally.
“We have a ‘supermajority’ of very far-right legislatures who actually represent a tiny minority of the people. To give you an example, 70% of Tennesseans are in favour of stricter gun controls, but that’s ignored while these guys keep passing laws, which I can only describe as legislative terrorism. Bill after bill has been proposed that has demonised, dehumanised and robbed people of their rights. It’s not just Tenneesee; across the US there have been 525 of these human rights abuse bills. They’re coming for marriage equality next.”
Whilst subscribing to John Lydon’s philosophy of anger being an energy, Allison says there was also a lot of joy at the Love Rising event.
“Asia O’Hara from RuPaul’s Drag Race hosted and was absolutely brilliant,” she enthuses. “Hozier was so kind to take part and Hayley from Paramore flew back from supporting Taylor Swift on tour to appear. She said, ‘I’m not going to miss this, I’m going to be here for my community.’ We also had Maren Morris, who’s one of the very few people in or adjacent to the country mainstream to go ‘This is wrong’, and video messages from all sorts of activists and RuPaul himself who’s an incredible advocate.”
Allison has also contributed to Black Opry, an organisation seeking to reverse the whitewashing of country music.
“It’s wonderful the work that Holly G and Tanner D are doing and we’ve collaborated many times,” she resumes. “The country music establishment is extremely conservative and whitewashed by design. Country music was never white music. The roots and foundations of every genre of American song have been enriched, uplifted, influenced and, in many cases, created by African diaspora influences, of course merging with European and indigenous diaspora influences. All of the waves of immigration or forced migration have brought with them their own culture which needs to be recognised and celebrated.
“It’s not that country music doesn’t like politics,” Allison adds, “it’s that they don’t like progressive politics or anything they consider leftist.”
Another ruffler of country music feathers has been Margo Price.
“I adore her! Margo’s the daughter of a working-class farmer, she grew up shooting guns and still owns one, but is out there on the frontlines with us saying, ‘Yeah, we need gun safety.’ She’s straight, white and from a Christian family – all the things that they love – but she’s a complete anti-bigotry activist and endlessly compassionate and empathic.”
Meanwhile, those contributing to Nashville’s re-emergence as a creative hub, for not just country but all types of music, is Jack White who’s based his Third Man Records operation there. Has Allison ever run in to him?
“Yeah, absolutely,” she nods. “He’s a very kind, lovely guy who’s really involved in community efforts like Equality Nashville. As with many American cities, there’s very little safety net for people who’ve fallen into poverty over the course of the pandemic. Jack is really into giving back as is Ben Swank, another musician who’s responsible for the day-to-day running of that organisation.”
The drum-stool in Allison’s band is currently occupied by former Wyvern Lingo member Caoi de Barra.
“I love Caoi so much,” Russell coos. “She’s got such a quick, sarcastic sense of humour. Caoi’s been telling me about the whole Wicklow connection and how her band were invited to play during the interval at a school talent contest that was won by Hozier.
“This is my first tour with Caoi and Caoimhe Hopkinson who’ve been teaching me Irish slang. We have a ‘lads, lads, lads!’ chant now whenever something good happens. They’re two peas in a pod; meeting them has been so joyful. We’ve been having the best craic! What I love to do as a band leader is create a circle of trust and chosen family who I don’t need to tell what to do because they can do it better than I can.”
Which brings us neatly to The Returner, Russell’s second solo album which is a joy from jazzy doo-wop start (‘Springtime’) to country-ish choral finish (‘Requiem’).
“Brandy Clarke, Brandi Carlile and Andrew were kind enough to join our rainbow coalition choir for the last song on the album, which otherwise was sixteen women recording ten songs in six days at the old A&M studios in LA where Joni Mitchell made Blue and Carole King did Tapestry! They also did the ‘We Are The World’ song there, so it was the experience of a liftetime.”
• The Returner is out now on UMI.