Grammy-nominee Allison Russell to make her Aspen debut Friday
Russell's music is unflinchingly joyful and optimistic while acknowledging the hell she's been through
For Allison Russell, it took several musical ventures, 20 years, and two deeply personal solo albums for the singer-songwriter, musician, and activist to become a recognizable tour de force in Americana music, nabbing eight Grammy nominations in 2022 and 2023, as well as a nomination for artist of the year at the 2023 Americana Awards.
It’s a journey she doesn’t take for granted.
“The fact that I am now an eight-time Grammy nominee for two, let’s face it, weird little folk Americana records is a miracle. That would not have happened 20 years ago,” she said. “Anything that’s ever happened for me in this industry, it was because of my fellow artists, women and men, but especially other women, lifting me up.”
On Friday, she will make her Aspen debut as part of Roaring Fork Sessions at Harris Hall in support of her new album “The Returner.”
Born to a Grenadian father and a Scottish-Canadian teenage single mother, the Montreal native had a rough start to life, spending time in foster care at a very young age and only allowed to see her mother during supervised visits at her grandmother’s house.
- What: Allison Russell: The Returner Tour
- When: Friday at 7 p.m.
- Where: Harris Concert Hall, 960 North 3rd Street, Aspen
- Tickets: Aspenshowtix.com
She said despite the hardship, music was a guiding light in her life, with her earliest musical memory stemming from one of those visits when her mother would put on Joni Mitchell records and play along.
“I was 2 and would hide under the piano to watch her feet on the pedals. I remember her playing along to ‘Ladies of the Canyon,’ and there’s a deeper cut called ‘For Free,’ and I remember hearing the clarinet and that it physically touched me – I was electrified,” she said. “My mom and I had such a fraught relationship, but I could feel her love in the way she played music. It was a broken relationship to a degree where she could not say those things to me, but I could feel it through the music.”
It’s a memory that would come full circle when she was invited to sing vocals and play clarinet with Joni Mitchell at a surprise performance at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 2022.
“I was just thrilled to play and be on an album with Joni,” she said. “She’s the reason I play clarinet. So yeah, it’s joyful and surreal.”
When Russell’s mother married, she was returned to her and a stepfather who would physically, emotionally, and sexually abuse her from the age of 5 to 15, at which point she ran away. She eventually landed in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was there that she discovered her musical calling, falling into the folk revival scene which led to her forming the band Po’ Girl and putting out her first record in 2003.
Over the next 18 years, she would go on to perform and record with Po’Girl, Birds of Chicago, and Our Native Daughters before releasing her first solo album “Outside Child” in 2021, catching the attention of fellow musician, friend, and mentor Brandi Carlile.
“It’s what she (Brandi Carlile) would say when I wasn’t in the room. The way she championed ‘Outside Child,’ fiercely advocating for it was why I was able to find a label home that that sees and hears me as an artist of value,” she said. “You know, she kicked that door open relentlessly for me.”
The album explored her childhood trauma and recovery, garnering her three Grammy Award nominations, four Canadian Folk Music Awards nominations, the long list for the Polaris Music Prize, and a nomination for Emerging Act of the Year at the 2021 Americana Honors & Awards.
For Russell, acknowledging trauma is not just a way to heal individually, but also a path to our collective humanity. And it’s a theme that she repeatedly taps into throughout her four-time Grammy-nominated sophomore album, “The Returner.”
“I think that our personal experiences reflect the macro experiences of our one human family; none of us are getting through this life without trauma,” she said. “So many of the songs on the record are playing with that note, like how do we wear our trauma? How do we come through, how do we use it? Trauma to me is the mother of empathy.”
“The Returner” is the second in what she described as a trilogy of albums dealing with her past, present, and future and is unflinchingly joyful and optimistic while acknowledging the hell she’s been through to get to the present.
She said she wrote most of the album while walking her rescue dog around her Nashville neighborhood and was particularly excited about recording with her favorite musicians and paying it forward in any way she could. In fact, the musicians on the album, and the musicians on tour with her, are all female-identifying and non-binary, a collection of artists she dubbed “The Rainbow Coalition.”
It’s a decision she said she made due to the lack of representation in the industry.
“It’s so male-dominated. It’s the norm for 90% of bands at any given festival. Look at the complete scandal with the former head (Jann Wenner) of Rolling Stone. According to him, Joni Mitchell has nothing to add to the rock lexicon. Chaka Khan isn’t a philosopher of rock ‘n’ roll. Sister Rosetta Tharpe doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in a book about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s absurd. But that is why I feel strongly about presenting the show the way I do. It’s been really gratifying and thrilling to watch the circle of women who are part of ‘The Returner,'” she said.
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.