The folk-roots queen on her formative musical encounters: “We did an interpretative dance performance to Sinead O’Connor!”
Ladies Of The Canyon
There’s so many Joni records that have been deeply formative and influential for me as a musician and a writer and a human, but the reason I picked Ladies Of The Canyon is because that’s tied to my first musical memory. It was my mum’s favourite record when I was in foster care, and I would go for these brief visits with my mum at my grandma’s house because she wasn’t allowed to be unsupervised with me at that point. I would be hiding under the piano, listening to her play along to Ladies Of The Canyon. I was electrified by the clarinet coda of “For Free”. And then, of course, I ended up being a clarinettist – and getting to play clarinet onstage with Joni at the Gorge and at Newport!
When I was nine years old, my uncle took me on a road trip to Banff, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth. He played me the tape version of Tracy Chapman, and I remember unfolding the insert and poring over those lyrics and looking at this photograph of this beautiful black woman. Meanwhile, I was being raised by a white supremacist, abusive adoptive father, and so to hear “Behind The Wall”, it was like she was singing about my family. It was revelatory. That was a huge part of my development as a songwriter, or even the idea that I could become a songwriter. For me, as this abused kid, it was like seeing myself and going, ‘Maybe I could do this too’.
THE STAPLE SINGERS
After I’d run away from my abusive home, that’s when my musical world started to really open up. While it was scary to be on my own at 15, I was incredibly lucky because I was in Montreal, a city that has so much free public art and music. I first heard about The Staple Singers through a group at McGill [University] that were covering their songs, then I found Freedom Highway at Sam’s record store. There’s so many classic gospel songs that they’ve made their own, like “Wade In The Water”, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”, “Jacob’s Ladder”… Mavis’s voice is the sound of freedom to me. I’ve been lucky enough to get to collaborate with her in recent years and she’s as wonderful as you would hope.
Sweet Petunias: Independent Women’s Blues, Volume 4
ROSETTA RECORDS, 1986
It’s a compilation of rare ‘race’ recordings from the Library Of Congress that I was given as a tape in my teen-hood. It’s black women singing their stories that were recorded, some of them on wax cylinder in the ’20s and ’30s: people like Ella Johnson, June Richmond, Bertha Chippie Hill, O’Neil Spencer, Victoria Spivey. One of my early songs in Po’ Girl was an adaptation of a song on Sweet Petunias Volume 4 by a group called the Bandanna Girls – their song “Part Time Papa” was about a cheating, no-good man and I adapted the lyric to be about my abusive adoptive father. So my early forays into writing were using this template of these brilliant women that I heard myself in, and felt I could inhabit in some way.
I went to an alternative high school in Montreal, and we did an interpretative dance performance for our graduation ceremony to Sinead O’Connor’s “Thank You For Hearing Me”! And “Fire On Babylon”, I felt that song in my bones – it helped me work through some of my anger toward my own mother for not protecting me. I’ve long since forgiven her, because she was really a child as well in the situation. But at the time I had a lot of anger I was working through, and Sinead helped me channel that in a powerful way. She’s a prophet of our times, as far as I’m concerned. She paid a heavy price for it, but she’s directly a part of my survival. The fearlessness of her writing is foundational to everything I do.
THE BE GOOD TANYAS
Around 2001, I moved into this shared house in Vancouver. You could see daylight through the front door, there were toadstools growing in the bathroom, it probably should have been condemned. But rent was $100 a month and we would have these monthly jam sessions, and that’s where I met The Be Good Tanyas. I remember being in awe of what they were working on: reviving songs from the American Songbook like “Oh! Susanna” or “…Pontchartrain”, then writing their own songs inspired by that songbook, that were extraordinary. Every song on Blue Horse was a classic. I went back and listened to that record when y’all asked me to do this, and it’s as fresh and beautiful as the day it was recorded.
The Dusty Foot Philosopher
He is an amazing Somali-born artist who became a refugee to Canada because of the horrific war in Somalia. I met K’Naan when I was in Po’ Girl and he had broken out with The Dusty Foot Philosopher, which remains to this day one of my favourite albums. It’s very much a memoir of a record. This is someone who lived trauma and tragedy of a kind that I’ve never been forced to endure – living in a war zone, seeing many of his friends and family killed, coming as a refugee and learning to speak English listening to recordings of Nas. And he’s documenting these things with such empathy and unflinching clarity. It’s a brilliant record, it really is. Undersung, in my opinion.
Songs In The Key Of Life
Some of my earliest favourite memories are dancing around to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. My mum adored that record – she has a really adorable, quavery, slightly out-of-tune voice, and so I just hear her singing along with it. I thought they were songs written for us, you know? Stevie is an artist who can sing about really difficult things and you don’t even realise it, because you’re bopping along to this jam. You don’t even realise that you’re processing that he’s actually singing about really intense and hard human things. Songs like “Village Ghetto Land” or “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” I took very much to heart. It’s something I’m often playing with, those juxtapositions of a joyful-sounding song that’s dealing with heavy topics.
Allison Russell plays Lafayette on January 30 as part of a month of music in London in association with The UK Americana Awards powered by Sweet Home Alabama, which takes place at Hackney Church on January 25; more info and tickets at theamauk.org