There’s a lot of life within the music Allison Russell painstakingly created on her astonishing solo album Outside Child, a soulful collection of songs that can in no way be contained by the term usually applied to her genre, Americana. The Montreal native spent two decades working in a variety of roots-oriented groups including Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago, and the collective Our Native Daughters alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Amythyst Kiah. However, there’s no question she has delivered the most potent and moving work in her career with her latest recording.
Russell has not had any easy life. Her father was a Grenadian student living and Montreal, but she was raised by a single mother. When she was five she was routinely abused by an adoptive, white supremacist stepfather until she ran away from home at age 15 and moved to Vancouver, where she attended Dawson College and began to perform. She confronted this harrowing past in the songs that ended up on Outside Child, which has garnered widespread plaudits since it was released in 2021. It’s hard not to wince at admissions like “Father used me like a wife/Mother turned the blindest eye/Stole my body, spirit, pride/He did, he did each night,” from her song “4th Day Prayer,” but in evoking the classic sound of Memphis soul she manages to unburden herself and touch the listener with her resilience and grace.
“One of the things that I think we don’t talk about as survivors is the extreme joy that comes when you are over on the other side,” she told Jon Pareles of the New York Times. “Part of putting this record out is just wanting to show that there’s a road map. You are not defined by your scars. You are not defined by what you’ve lost. You are not defined by what someone did to you. Yes, that’s a part of the story. That’s a part of who you become. But it doesn’t define you.”