Four years ago, Smithsonian Folkways released an album by four American women of colour who formed a kind of banjo supergroup called Our Native Daughters. Of the quartet, Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla needed little introduction as former alumni of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. Amythyst Kiah, an alt.country blues singer from Tennessee, was less known and a genuine find – but in many ways the record’s real revelation was Allison Russell.
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Born in Montreal in 1980 to a Canadian teenage single mother and an absent Caribbean father, she endured a troubled upbringing of foster care and abuse. At 15 she ran away and went to stay with a folk-singing aunt in Vancouver with whom she started performing in the local clubs.
There followed two decades of dues paying with folk-roots outfit Po’Girl and latterly as Birds Of Chicago with her life partner JT Nero, touring in a tiny van with their daughter and playing up to 300 gigs a year. Then came 2019’s Songs For Our Native Daughters, to which she contributed perhaps the album’s two most powerful songs. In the devastating “Quasheba Quasheba”, she sang about a matriarchal family ancestor sold into slavery from the coast of Ghana who survived the ocean passage, horrific violation and her children being sold – the catharsis made more potent by the realisation that Russell only existed because of what Quasheba had endured. By contrast, “You’re Not Alone”, written for her daughter, cast the story optimistically forward to the next generation.
Our Native Daughters proved to be a career turning point. She moved to Nashville and with the aid of celebrity fan Brandi Carlile landed a record deal with Fantasy. Her 2021 solo debut Outside Child took up where “Quasheba Quasheba” left off and built movingly upon its themes of survival and resilience with tales of social injustice and racial reckoning that sometimes told of harrowing oppression and abuse but were shot through with hints of transcendence and the saving grace of community, connection and family. It garnered three Grammy nominations and won the Americana Music Association’s Album Of The Year award.
Rather like Giddens’ recent You’re The One, the follow-up finds her breaking out of the Americana stockade to emerge as a restless and versatile creative spirit who refuses to be confined. She hasn’t totally abandoned her folk roots, nor has she turned her back on the struggles at the interstices of race and gender which informed the Our Native Daughters project. On “Eve Was Black”, she demands “Is that why you hate my black skin so?” over keening banjos and fiddles, delivering the lyrics with a soulful intensity that makes it the funkiest folk song you’ve heard since Roberta Flack sang “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” or Nina Simone reinterpreted “Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair”.
However, this is an album about redemption and resilience and the key lies in its title. “Being a returner is stealing joy from the teeth of turmoil,” Russell explains and after chronicling her own pain and abuse on Outside Child this is the sound of her saying goodbye to suffering and standing tall and proud as a fiercely joyous black woman proclaiming her survival.
The sound of studio laughter punctuates the opener “Springtime” as she sings “So long, farewell/Adieu, adieu to that tunnel I went through.” Then on the gospel-like “Rag Child” she exhorts us to “sing until you love yourself”, adding that she “didn’t know the joy I was living until I rose to my feet”.
Sonically, The Returner celebrates a long, groove-rich legacy of African-American popular song. Bouyed by a female chorus, there’s the jazzy sassiness of the Pointer Sisters all over “Demons”. On “Shadowlands” she somehow manages to fuse a touch of stringed Philly soul magic with a syncopated Meters-inspired hint of New Orleans. “Stay Right Here” even has a disco beat and a tune not a million miles from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”.
She ends gloriously and upliftingly with the six-minute “Requiem”, a universal and redemptive hymn for our times, like a secular 21st-century equivalent of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” or “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as Russell and the all-star heavenly choir she dubs The Rainbow Coalition sing “the question is not if, it was always when”. It’s a mantra that could be applied to her own career. From the moment you heard her with Our Native Daughters, you knew it was only a matter of time before she made her album for the ages. The Returner is that album.
Read a Q&A with Allison Russell in the October 2023 issue of Uncut, out now