Debut solo album from Birds of Chicago co-founder Russell is filled with defiance, grace

·3 min read

Jun. 23—Outside Child.

Allison Russell. Fantasy Records

Allison Russell has a pure, sweet, and tender quality to her voice, and — before you say a lot of singers do — let me stop you right there and say not like her.

There's something unique and irresistible about the sheer texture of her voice.

Outside Child is her first solo album.

It's filled with personal insights of her life, strong lyrics, and good storytelling.

It examines her traumatic childhood, the abuse she said was inflicted upon her by an adoptive father whom she says "took 10 years of my childhood" and eventually plead guilty to charges she brought against him.

There are many moments of both defiance and grace, with Russell demonstrating her ability to cope through art.

It's an album of self-discovery, motherhood, and the ability to rise above and conquer life's challenges, as difficult as they may seem.

Russell weaves together an inspiring and brutally honest musical tapestry, one without pity and a lot of perseverance.

The album has a multinational, multi-instrumental vibe to it, with Russell, who grew up in Montreal, singing in both English and French. She also performs on clarinet and banjo.

Her opening number, "Montreal," is beautiful and haunting. In her liner notes, Russell said she was a teenage runaway and believes "the City herself protected me."

She explained how she wandered a mountain, slept in a graveyard during summertime, and "haunted the Cathedrals and slept in pews," sometimes even staying up all night to play chess with old men in 24-hour cafes.

Poet-songwriter Joe Henry says that Outside Child "draws water from the dark well of a violent past" with exultant songs "exercising haunted dream-like clean bedsheets snapped and hung out into broad daylight, and with the romantic poet's lust for living and audacity of endurance."

Now living in Nashville with her longtime partner, Toledo native JT Nero, Russell is herself a poet and co-founder of Our Native Daughters.

She is perhaps more recognizable to area residents, including those affiliated with the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, as Nero's musical co-partner and co-founder of the folk-Americana group Birds of Chicago, which in 2019 paid a special visit to the mosque en route to a concert in Ann Arbor.

Nero, a 1989 St. Francis de Sales High School graduate whose birth name is Jeremy Lindsay, caught the mosque's attention when he included a nod to it in a lyric near the end of a poetic, 2017 song called "American Flowers," which looks at things Nero said are "quintessentially American" to him.

That song, written in response to the angst of America's troubled times, offered a vision for a better country explained through the metaphor of flowers coming back into bloom.

The Islamic Center's imam, Ahmad Deeb, was so pleased by the message of inclusion that he invited the Birds of Chicago to the mosque for a special tour on Nov. 23, 2019. Nero and Russell accepted, and were accompanied by their frequent collaborator, guitarist Steve Dawson.

Nero and Russell announced a few months ago that the Birds of Chicago are on what's described as a temporary hiatus, to help Russell focus on this and other albums as a solo artist.

Russell said her goal was to make her songs on Outside Child "live and breathe in the most honest way."

"We were laughing, we were crying," she said. "And the communion between musicians, I hope people can hear that on the record. It felt like magic."

The message comes through strong and clear, Allison.

First Published June 22, 2021, 7:33am

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting