A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to see Allison Russell perform at the Third Man Blue Room for Nashville Forward, a project seeking a basic universal income in North Nashville. She was brilliant. But I knew she would be.
Earlier this year, she released her debut solo album, Outside Child. It’s brilliant. But I knew it would be. The Montreal native first began her career two decades ago. She eventually created Birds of Chicago before moving to Nashville where, in 2019, she formed Our Native Daughters with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah. The group is nominated for Duo/Group of the Year at this year’s Americana Awards, while Russell and Kiah are nominated for Emerging Act of the Year. Both will open a night of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s annual Ryman residency this October.
There is a movement within country and Americana, and it began with Our Native Daughters.
“I’m grateful that people are listening so generously,” she said. “That’s never assumed or given or taken for granted. I don’t even have words for it yet, really. So many people have been listening all the way through to the record and sharing it so widely and writing about it with so much care and thoughtfulness. I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
I talked to Allison about the importance of Our Native Daughters, the warmth of being recognized by the Polaris Awards in her native Canada and the push for inclusivity in Americana when “country” has been such a difficult path.
You were recently nominated for the Polaris Awards in your native Canada. I know that you’ve been stateside for a while now, but how cool was it to see that kind of recognition back home?
I still can’t believe it! It’s such a tremendous honor. Some of the artists that I am in company with on that list are absolutely foundational to my understanding of writing and music. To be named alongside them is better than any award I can imagine. I’m beside myself since the New York Times piece came out. “What is happening, even?” [laughs]
But it’s so welcome and for a Canadian to even get on that long list is such a big deal. It’s about artistic merit and the way that it has resonated with one’s community and one’s peers; fellow artists and journalists and broadcasters and people that just put their blood, sweat and tears and creativity into sharing artists and music and making sure that Canadian artists have a platform. It’s something else. Basically, I just cried. That’s what I do the most of right now. [laughs] I do a lot of really grateful crying.
Who were some of those artists that were foundational to your musical development that are beside you on that list?
Daniel Lanois comes to mind. His album, Acadie, was an album that I listened to so much; and I related to it so intently because I was a child that had grown up speaking French and English who moved to a more Anglophone environment when I was getting into my music career. But that album opened my mind to the idea that you don’t have to pick; you can go back and forth. You can sing in whatever the emotion and the poetry feel right to you; whether it’s French or English or a mixture of the two. It’s a record that probably isn’t as well known to Americans, but it’s beautiful.
There’s an artist on there that I didn’t grow up listening to–in fact, she’s younger than me–but I just adore her. I discovered her music during the pandemic and she’s one of the voices that got me through the pandemic. Her name is Dominique Fils-Aime. She’s Haitian-Canadian, I believe, and from Montreal as I am. I’ve been loving her record, so I was thrilled to be with her on that list.
There are so many artists on the list that I’ve loved for a long time. I’ve been listening to Kathleen Edwards for years. Kind by Thanya Iyer–she’s another newer artist to me that I discovered during the pandemic that I’ve been loving. The Weather Station–I think Tamara is such a wonderful writer. We’re more contemporaries. We started putting out music around the same time. The Besnard Lakes are fabulous; I’ve been listening to them for years.
The list has also allowed me to discover some artists I hadn’t known before. Artists like Rochelle Jordan and Julian Taylor. Lauren Niqay is incredible. There are so many remarkable artists on this list and to be named alongside them means a lot to me.
Our Native Daughters really felt like the beginning of the movement we are in right now. I don’t know if the gravity of it all hit everyone at the time it was happening, but it certainly feels like the moment that things changed given hindsight. Did it feel that way for you at the time?
It very much did. The shift that we had by uniting in that band and in that project kind of forced folks in the predominantly white spaces that we had been working in recognize that there’s more than one of us. We’re not exchangeable. We’re each relevant artists with something to say in our own right. We’re not token. More than one of us can be appreciated at the same time.
Sure, that sounds like…”Of course.” But no. Not “of course.” In my own career, I have had record companies not sign my old band. “Oh, we already have a Black woman that plays banjo.” Like there’s only room for one. And I think that Rhiannon [Giddens] was very intentionally pushing back against that kind of tokenism. I know it was frustrating for her for a number of years because she felt tokenized in a number of spaces. She was constantly trying to kick the door in and bring her sisters with her; and she did that very forcefully with that record. Rhiannon invited us all in to that Smithsonian project and it became something greater than any of us could have imagined.
It was. It was part of a tipping point, I think, for people to understand how foundational Black contributions are to every genre of American song. They’re foundational to all of the roots to American music. And Black women, in particular, who have been purposely erased from that story. And there’s now a kind of happy reckoning occurring and an unearthing of these foundational roles; people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When Rhiannon Giddens recorded “Up Above My Head” on her 2015 record that T-Bone [Burnett] produced, a lot of people didn’t know who Sister Rosetta Tharpe was; including me. Rhiannon educated me about that. The fact that she is 100% the mother of rock and roll; there’s no Elvis without her; there’s no Little Richard without her. There’s no distorted electric guitar in rock and roll music without her. We think of rock and roll as white guitar gods–not me, but that’s how it has come to be painted. And that’s not the case. The roots of rock and roll are just as Black and female as every other genre of American music.
It felt very empowering to be standing alongside my sisters and saying, “We have a place in this story.” We don’t have to apologize for our presence here; in the rock scene, in the roots scene; in the Americana scene. We belong here.
How far have we come since you put that record out?
It’s been two steps forward; three steps back. But I think we are continually making demonstrable progress. I am just looking at the Americana radio charts and my dear sister Yola is currently number one on the singles charts. My other dear sister Valerie June was in the number one spot for seven weeks at the beginning of 2021. I believe it is the first time that a record by a Black woman has enjoyed the number one spot as the most played song in Americana–I think–ever in history. Amythyst Kiah, myself–there is much more than one Black artist–and much more than one Black woman artist represented on that most played list. That is new. I can tell you. That’s a sign of progress. A sign of opening. A sign of DJs going, “Oh, gosh. Maybe I had a bias that I didn’t even realize I had.” There’s no shame in that. I never want people to feel shame for some unconscious bias that they never realized they were carrying. We’re all unpacking and decolonizing our minds. Including me, a person of color. We’ve all unfortunately grown up in a white supremacist and patriarchal paradigm, and it’s so insidious and we’re not always aware of how it’s affecting us; how we hear things or how we see things.
Once we become aware, we can start to make really beautiful changes and those little changes have giant, exponentially beneficial ripple effects. And I think that we are in that time of some giant, exponentially beneficial ripple effects. I’m really encouraged to see it.
You mentioned Amythyst. The two of you–the entire collective–you’re all over the Americana Awards. How important is to see such acceptance within that community which has become a huge institution of its own over the past several years?
It is so uplifting. I’m so proud of the Americana community. The very intense, regressive ideas that are plaguing the country music community–there’s a greater spirit of openness and willingness to learn and grow.There’s an expansiveness in music education and acknowledging the incredibly diverse roots of those foundations of American music. It’s not just European influenced; it’s African influenced; it’s indigenous influenced; it’s Asian influenced; it’s Haitian influenced. It’s all of these things mixing together, and that’s what enriches these idioms and these traditions. We’re all standing on these shoulders of the artists that came before us; these names that we know and those names that we don’t.
I’m very proud of the Americana music community. They launched the “#AllAmericana” initiative, and I’m so proud of them for doing that; for very intentionally opening up that space so that everybody feels welcome. Music resists bigotry, always. Music is anti-bigotry. Our various societies and periods in history–right up until today–we struggle with it. But music is one of the great antidotes. Art is one of the great antidotes. It is natural anti-bigotry. It promotes empathy and understanding. And it breaks down false lines of division.