“You can expect that it is going to be joyful circle work, where the audience is as much a part of the show as we are,” says Canadian-born/Nashville-based singer/songwriter and activist Allison Russell of her band’s current live show. “I came up in roots music/Americana music, and it’s always been music for the people. And, to me, consent is everything. It’s our job to create the circle where everyone feels safe and comfortable and welcome,” she adds, during a recent phone chat. We actually had Russell in our neck of the woods not too long ago, when she played a rainy, five-song set that went on to be a highlight of this year’s XPoNential Fest in September, which served as the final stop on more than a month of festival dates for her and her band.
Allison Russell – previously known as a member of Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago, and Our Native Daughters — is currently in the middle of The Returner Tour, a headlining jaunt which kicked off in mid-October and resumes this coming Wednesday, November 29th, with a sold-out show at The Music Hall at World Café Live. The tour eventually wraps mid-January in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but come April, Russell will find herself opening amphitheaters for Hozier on more than a month of dates, in addition to a handful of shows supporting Tyler Childers on equally large stages.
On her current run, Allison Russell is touring in support of her sophomore LP, The Returner, which dropped September 8th on Fantasy Records. The album is the follow-up to her solo debut, 2021’s Outside Child, which serves as a celebration of survivor’s joy. The Returner – whose title was inspired by a poem Russell wrote about Joni Mitchell, who she recently befriended through mutual musical friend Brandi Carlile, who had the two of them join her as part of her “Brandi Carlile & Friends” set at last year’s Newport Folk Festival, before they all reunited onstage this summer for the Joni Jam at The Gorge — was co-produced by Allison, dim star (JT Nero, her partner and the other half of Birds of Chicago, and Drew Lindsay), and Dan Knobler, who produced her debut.
While The Returner is a second chapter of sorts to Outside Child, and Nero, Lindsay, and Knobler all feature on the first album, Allison tells me that the experience of working on the follow-up was a new one: “I really backed into my solo debut. I was in denial that it even was a solo album, so this one was very different. I was joyfully taking the reins!” The album also features what Russell refers to as the “Rainbow Coalition” [Elenna Canlas, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker, Ganessa James, Joy Clark, Kerenza Peacock, Larissa Maestro, Mandy Fer (Sway Wild), Megan Coleman, Meg McCormick , SistaStrings (Chauntee & Monique Ross) , Wendy & Lisa (Wendy Melvoin & Lisa Coleman aka The Revolution) and Wiktoria Bialic], who she characterizes as, “This beautiful circle of women who brought this to life.” “The most important part of co-producing for me was casting the room well, so I don’t have to micromanage anyone,” Russell explains of her collaborators.
The Returner Tour is Allison Russell’s first headlining jaunt, and she tells me that, a little more than a month in, it’s been going better than she could have imagined: “I have been shocked and thrilled that at almost every single show people have known the words to all of the new songs. We’ve been playing sold-out shows, with people knowing every single word to all of the songs!” She also reemphasizes that the audience are just as important to the experience as the band: “We are half of the circle, and they’re the other half.” And fans have apparently been more than happy to participate, requesting songs (Allison promises me that they’ll play at least one request every night.), contributing to the stage set (“We have this altar onstage with Mavis Staples, Prince, and Joni Mitchell, and people are leaving things on the altar, like flowers and crystals.”), and an undeterrable determination to dance: “People have been dancing their asses off! Some of the wildest ones have been at the seated venues. Like, we sold-out an 800-person theater in Eugene, Oregon, and they all got up and danced!”
Earlier this month, The Returner was nominated for four GRAMMYS (bringing Russell’s total GRAMMY nominations to eight), with the album up for “Americana Album,” the title track up for both “American Roots Song” and “Americana Performance,” and “Eve Was Black” up for “American Roots Performance.” I ask Allison if this is the kind of thing that she cares about, and she tells me that she does, but not necessarily for the same reason that a lot of people seem to value awards.
“I care about it a lot. Some people get caught up in the slight misconception that it’s a weird competition, but it’s not. Just getting nominated amplifies the whole community… It’s no less of a win for our whole community if Joni Mitchell wins, if Brandy Clark wins, if Brandi Carlile wins, if Rhiannon Giddens wins… Getting these four nominations this year was uplifting for our whole circle, especially these performance awards, which feature the Rainbow Coalition, the entire circle of women who brought this to life.”
Russell explains that the GRAMMYS, above all else, is really just a collection of peers expressing admiration for each other, and the awards themselves are always secondary: “No artist that I know makes art for awards and for accolades, but it’s nice when they come.” She also tells me that she has a deep respect for MusiCares (which she refers to as, “the philanthropic side of the GRAMMYS”), who have done much to support musicians in their mental and physical health, in addition to enabling them to live sustainable lives while bringing their music to the world, something that she considers to be profoundly important.
“It reaffirms for the world that art is important, as important as STEM. We see how dangerous it is when we remove art from schools, and what happens to students who don’t get to work with the arts, compared to students who do… It allows them to work through their emotions and their traumas and think laterally. I mean, I wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t found the outlet of music.”
In addition to her current live dates, which presently run into August, with two sold-out dates at Hayden Homes Amphitheater in Bend, Oregon, supporting Tyler Childers, Allison Russell is also currently working on her first book, a memoir based on her life and the themes highlighted on Outside Child and The Returner. The book is set to be released by Flatiron/MacMillan. Russell admits that constantly being on the road provides relatively little time to work on this: “It has been so intense. I’m behind deadline, of course. I’ve been on the road and have not been home for more than two weeks at a time since Outside Child came out [laughs].” However, she tells me that she has managed to find a way to work writing into her daily routine: “I’ve gotten better about writing on the road. After my morning run, I sit down and write for one or two hours.” She’s currently about three-quarters of the way through her first draft, but tells me that she has total faith in Flatiron Books and their abilities to not only bring this work to life, but make it something incredible: “I’m working with Bryn Clark, who edited Unbound by ‘me too’ founder Tarana Burke, Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford, and Elliot Page’s Pageboy memoir. She’s an extraordinary editor, so I’m in great hands!”