Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell plays tracks from 'The Returner'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. Today, we hear from musician Allison Russell, who sings original songs in a powerful voice that rings out. Some of her songs are about a subject that many people feel they have to keep secret. She was physically and sexually abused by her adoptive father through her childhood until she left home at age 15. She has a song about one night when she was in high school and had to escape him. She ran to the home of her girlfriend, her first love, and tapped on her window, asking to be let in. As we learn in other songs, some nights she escaped him by sleeping in the park, in a cemetery or sheltering in a cathedral.
She also has songs about learning she's capable of being loved and reentering her body after having had to mentally detach from it to survive. Her mother is white. Her biological father is Black. And her adoptive father is a white racist. She sings about that, too.
After performing in bands for many years, she now records under her own name. Her first solo album, "Outside Child," released in 2021, won a Juno Award - the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy - for contemporary roots album of the year. Russell grew up in Montreal. Her latest album, "The Returner," is currently nominated for four Grammys. When we spoke in September, Russell sang some of her songs for us, but we started with the opening track of "The Returner." The lyric is about saying goodbye to her traumatic past. The song is called "Springtime."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPRINGTIME")
ALLISON RUSSELL: (Singing) So long. Farewell. Adieu, adieu. So long. Farewell. Adieu, adieu. To that tunnel I went through. To that tunnel I went through. And my reward, my recompense? My reward, my recompense? Springtime of my present tense. Springtime of my present tense. Well, I used to think that I was doomed to die young, to be consumed. All lullabies were violent. Those winters of my discontent. So long. Farewell. Adieu, adieu. So long. Farewell. Adieu, adieu. To that tunnel I went through. To that tunnel I went through. And my reward...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: That's "Springtime" from Allison Russell's new album, "The Returner."
Allison Russell, it is such a pleasure to have you on the show. I love your voice, and I love your songs. Thank you so much for being here.
RUSSELL: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: That song is about learning to live in your body again after having to dissociate from it when you were abused. How did you start writing such personal songs, sharing your story about being abused by your stepfather who became your adoptive father?
RUSSELL: Well, I think it's survival, in a sense. You know, it's - and it's also reclamation. And it's a way to - I was trained to silence, you know? I was conditioned to continually lie. And so, for me, breaking silence has been very healing and empowering, and I do feel that these cycles of abuse and violence flourish with our silence and that we need to get loud in order to break them.
GROSS: Did you keep it a secret because you wanted to, or did your father threaten you that if you said anything to anyone, you would face severe consequences?
RUSSELL: Yes. I was threatened. And I was also sort of brainwashed over many years. Things like playing court, where after a violation he would have me play court where he would pretend to be, you know, a police officer or a lawyer asking if I had been touched inappropriately. And I was to lie, and then I would be given a - what - in Canada, we have Girl Guides rather than Scouts. I would be given a Girl Guide cookie after saying the correct lie.
So it was - you know, this was ongoing from before I was 5 years old. You know, so that's a kind of a - I think it's difficult for people that don't have experience of chronic abuse within a family to kind of wrap their heads around the depth of the brainwashing that happens for a child under those circumstances. But it's a lifetime of decolonizing one's own mind. And I don't know that I'll ever be fully done with that process, but for me, writing songs, singing about it, speaking about an issue that affects, you know, 1 in 3 women, 1 in 4 men and 1 in 2 trans or nonbinary or gender expansive people, for me, speaking up about it and singing about it has been very, very healing.
GROSS: I have never heard a story like that where you were trained from the age of 5 to play court. And what's really interesting about that, too, is that later, you actually testified in court against your father after your parents took custody of your niece and nephew, who you were very close to, and you learned that your father was alone with them or at least with one of them. So after being trained to, like, lie in court, what was it like for you to actually testify against him so that he would not have custody?
RUSSELL: Well, luckily for me, I never actually had to testify. I charged him, and the investigators did such an excellent job of finding, unfortunately, other women that he had abused. The case was not just my word against his. And so his defense attorney ended up advising him to plead guilty to get a lighter sentence, which, indeed, he did get a very light sentence. But, yes, I was able to charge him. And that was very cathartic and healing.
GROSS: I could imagine 'cause he told you here's what you have to say, and you totally defied him...
GROSS: ...And brought him down for that.
RUSSELL: Held him accountable.
GROSS: Yeah. Right. So I want to play another song, and this might be my favorite song on the album, although it's hard to choose a favorite with so many good songs. But it's called "Demons," and it's really about exorcising those demons and how they don't like sunlight. When you sing the word demons in the chorus, you sound possessed. Can you - before we hear it, can you describe writing it?
RUSSELL: Well, it was actually joyful to write it. It was quite playful to write it. I'm playing with a lot of different imagery. The idea that, first of all, Black women, queer women, queer people have been demonized, playing with that, but also, the idea that we can be light sometimes with our trauma. We can use humor to help us get through it.
GROSS: So let's hear it. This is Allison Russell from her new album, "The Returner." The song is "Demons."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEMONS")
RUSSELL: (Singing) Demons. Demons. Demons. Demons. Coming up from behind. Demons. Demons. Demons. Demons. Been there all my life. Demons. Demons. Demons. Demons. Surely can't outride 'em. Oh, turn around. Look 'em in the face. They don't like how sunlight tastes. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Standing on the corner waiting on a school bus. She said I had such bad luck. I got the bad hair and the bad skin. I just could not understand it. Demons. Demons. Demons. Demons. Coming up from behind. Demons. Demons. Demons. Demons. Been there all my life. Demons. Demons. Demons. Surely can't outride 'em. Oh, turn around, look 'em in the face. They don't like how sunlight tastes. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Demons in my three, in my six, in my nine.
GROSS: That was Allison Russell from her new album, "The Returner." And the song is called "Demons." I just love how you sound on that, and I love the song. So what was the meaning of "Demons" to you?
RUSSELL: To me, "Demons" is so layered. It's the inner demons. It's the ways that we are demonized unfairly. Moving through the world as a queer Black woman, I have experienced a lot of that. I've been, you know, called the N-word. I've been called an Oreo. I've been spat on in the street, you know, just refused bathroom service - those kinds of experiences that come from people demonizing one's identity and dehumanizing, you know, their fellow equal human beings under kind of a misapprehension and fear which turns into hatred. You know, of course, hatred is always just fear in a mask.
GROSS: To escape your abusive father, you slept in a cemetery, in - you shelter in a cathedral. You slept in a park. Did you feel safe?
RUSSELL: You know, strangely, I felt so much safer sleeping in the cemetery than I ever did in the home of the people that called themselves my family. And I was so lucky to be in Montreal. You know, that city has art at its heart. There are so many refuges. I was able to, you know, go to the free days at the Maison de Balzac. I was able to listen to the conservatory students and take a nap at the - in McGill students' lounge. My high school was an alternative high school, Moving In New Directions, and we had a student lounge, and I would go in there and sleep before class. There were 24-hour cafes where I would go and play chess till all hours with the McGill students or, you know, the older men that would just seem to always be there playing chess. I found ways to somehow be safe and warm enough in the winter.
And then eventually, when I met my first girlfriend, Persephone, I started to stay with her, and I found an apartment when I was 16 with three other girls from my class and started doing terrible telemarketing jobs. But it got me - you know, I was able to get the rent together, which was only $150 in our shared apartment. And I got through it. And I was able to get through high school and my first year of Cegep, which is sort of a junior college kind of thing in Quebec.
GROSS: I want to point out you grew up in Montreal. It gets cold there...
RUSSELL: Yes, it does.
GROSS: ...Really cold.
RUSSELL: Yeah. Exactly.
GROSS: So you can only sleep outside for a certain...
GROSS: ...Time of year.
GROSS: But really, when you were sleeping in a cemetery surrounded by graves - some people are just spooked in sunlight in a cemetery. Did you feel comfortable there? Did you have a hiding place?
RUSSELL: I felt so comfortable. I mean, the Mount Royal Cemetery is so beautiful. It's, like, a nature preserve, as well. So there's - you know, you are surrounded by trees and grass. It's incredibly peaceful. There are mausoleums you can shelter in the kind of nooks and crannies of. It's beautiful. There's a lot of - I'm actually fascinated by cemeteries. I love them. And I think it's a very North American fear, the fear of cemeteries. I've noticed when I travel in Europe that they're often used as a park. You know, you see young lovers making out, people having picnics. It's just part - life is going on in and around those who are no longer with us, but who are so beloved that we, you know, erected memorials in their honor. And there's just something so beautiful about it to me.
I'm not afraid of cemeteries. I quite love them, and I love reading the inscriptions, and I love thinking about the lives and the different times. It's sort of a time capsule, as well, a cemetery, in the different ways that, you know, as you go through the decades, the things that you notice that are different. I'm fascinated by cemeteries. I quite love them.
GROSS: All right. Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Allison Russell. Her new album is called "The Returner." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON RUSSELL SONG, "POISON ARROW")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Allison Russell. Her new album is called "The Returner."
Allison, your father - your biological father - was Black and from Grenada. You never met him until you were 30. Your mother was a teenager. She was 17 when she had you. And then your stepfather became your adoptive father after she married him when you were in foster care. Your adoptive father was a white racist. What message did he give you about being Black?
RUSSELL: That I was less than human and that I was lucky to be raised by him because I didn't have the disadvantage of being raised within Black culture. These are his words, obviously, not mine. You know, he was ideologically abused by his community. When we raise children with violent ideologies like white supremacy, it's abusing those children. That's my belief. And it is also - he was also abused by his family, you know? And so he brought all of that pain and anger and - with him when he moved up to Canada. And, you know, it's - we are all so closely interconnected. We want to compartmentalize things, and it's impossible to do so.
GROSS: I want you to play a song for us. You brought your banjo with you. It's one of the instruments you play. You also play clarinet and guitar. So "Eve Was Black" is about what we've been talking about. So would you - before you play it, would you talk to us about writing it?
RUSSELL: It started off as a poem and then slowly evolved into a song. And my dear chosen sisters, SistaStrings, help me with the first iteration of it. And it became clear to me that it lived in the world of "The Returner" and, in fact, is one of the backbone songs of that record. It's sort of a little trilogy backbone within the record of "Eve Was Black," "Demons" and "Snakelife." So "Eve Was Black" is really kind of an open letter of truth and reckoning, but also of forgiveness that there's always a way back to the circle, and my abuser has no power over me anymore, and I can begin to have some compassion and some pity for them at this point. But we can't hide from the truth, which is that we are one human family - inalienably, intrinsically, undeniably equal. And the work is really just to have that acknowledged, protected under the law everywhere.
GROSS: One of the lines in this song that we're about to hear is, do you hate, or do you lust? And I kind of think you gave us the answer...
GROSS: He did both.
GROSS: He hated, and he lusted.
GROSS: And he was able to fulfill that lust with you because of how much he hated Black people and saw them as less than human. So would you play "Eve Was Black" for us? And I'm going to ask you to just do an excerpt because there's so much I want to squeeze into this interview.
RUSSELL: Sure. Happy to.
(Singing) Eve was Black. Haven't you heard? The mother of all was dark and good. Eve was Black. Didn't you know? Is that why you hate my Black skin so? Is that why you hate my Black skin so? Do I remind you of what you lost? Do you hate, or do you lust? Do you despise, or do you yearn to return, to return, to return back to the motherland? Back to the garden. Back to your Black skin. Back to the innocence. Back to the shine you lost when you enslaved your children. What do you hope for as you tie the rope? What do you hope for as you hoist me up? What do you hope for as you watch me swing? Will the witness tree salvation bring? Do I remind you of what you lost? Do you hate, or do you lust? Do you despise, or do you yearn to return, to return, to return back to the motherland? Back to the garden. Back to your Black skin. Back to the innocence. Back to the shine you lost when you enslaved your children. Oh, my father. Oh, my mother. Oh, my sister. Oh, my brother. Oh, my cousin. All my pale kin. Can't wash this. Can't wash this. Can't wash this with more Black blood, with more Black blood.
GROSS: Thank you, Allison. That is a powerful song. And I should mention that the recorded version of that song is on her new album, "The Returner." So your adoptive father was from a sundown town in the U.S., and a sundown town was a town where Black people are told you can't be here after the sun goes down. Where did he grow up? Like, what city? What state?
RUSSELL: He grew up in Indiana. In White County, Ind. I'm not sure of the exact - I know the family moved around a lot.
GROSS: There's just one other thing I want to mention about him - is that I don't know when this was, but after you had moved far away, a woman came forward and accused him of sexually assaulting her, and he did time for it. I think he was sentenced for three years.
RUSSELL: Well, so I charged him. And during the investigative process, the reason I didn't have to go to court was because the investigator did a very thorough and good job and found other women that he had abused.
GROSS: Oh, that's how it happened. So it was through you.
RUSSELL: Through the investigation. Correct.
GROSS: Good for you.
GROSS: So did he serve the whole three years?
RUSSELL: He did. He could have been out in nine months with - if they had granted his first parole, but the prison psychiatrist believed that he was a high risk of reoffending and so recommended that he serve the full sentence.
GROSS: Do you know if he has, in fact, reoffended?
RUSSELL: I really hope not. I know that he is now - you know, he is on a list of sex offenders. He has to check in with the police. He's not allowed to be unsupervised with children. So I have high hopes that he's not able to do to any other child what he did to me.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Allison Russell. Her new album is called "The Returner." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RETURNER")
RUSSELL: (Singing) Now I let go everything that I've known. Let it go on. Let it roll out with the tide. I can't think of a thing that hasn't been shot through with pain. Like a nightingale's song in the dead of the night. Goodbye. So long. Farewell. All I've been. Oh, oblivion. Throw me in the ocean. Oh, see if I can swim. I'm wild again. I'm a star child again. I come 10 million miles. Oh, I'm burning. I'm a summer dream. I'm a real light beam. I'm worthy of all the goodness and the love that the world's gonna give to me. I'm gonna give it back 10 times, people, are you ready?
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to one of our favorite interviews from 2023, my interview with songwriter, singer and musician Allison Russell. Her first solo album, "Outside Child," was released in 2021 and had several songs about being abused by her adoptive father throughout her childhood. She left home when she was 15. Her first album, "Outside Child," won the Americana award for album of the year. Russell's latest album, "The Returner," is currently nominated for four Grammys. The album has several songs about healing from the pain of her childhood and casting out the demons.
I want to play another song, and this is another of my favorites, and this is from your first album - your first solo album - and that album is called "Outside Child." The song is called "Persephone." And this is a song about a night you had to escape your adoptive father when you were in high school. And so you tapped on the window of your girlfriend, your first love, and asked her to let you in because if you stayed home, you thought your adoptive father may have killed you. And in the lyric, you sing, blood on my shirt, two ripped buttons, might have killed me that time if I let him. Nowhere to go and had to get away from him. So these - I'm quoting these a little out of context, but those are things - some of the things you say in the lyric. So let's hear it, and then we'll talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERSEPHONE")
RUSSELL: (Singing) Blood on my shirt, two ripped buttons. Might’ve killed me that time, oh, if I’d let him. He’s slow when he’s drunk, and he lost his grip on me. Now I’m running down La Rue St. Paul trying to get out from the weight of it all. Can’t flag a cop ’cause I know he won’t stop. I’ll go see Persephone. Tap tap tappin’ on your window screen. Gotta let me in, Persephone. Got nowhere to go, but I had to get away from him. My petals are bruised, but I’m still a flower. Come runnin’ to you in the violet hour. Put your skinny arms around me. Let me taste your skin. Mouth to mouth…
GROSS: That was "Persephone" from my guest Allison Russell's first album, which is called "Outside Child." That is such a catchy song and so troubling at the same time. And I'm wondering, did your father know you had a girlfriend?
RUSSELL: Yes, because he would tap - wiretap the phone in our house. And this was, you know...
RUSSELL: ...Back in the day...
GROSS: As if things...
RUSSELL: ...When we had landlines.
GROSS: ...Weren't bad enough.
RUSSELL: Yeah. So, yeah, he knew. I - it's funny - to me, it's a joyful song. You're right. It start - the first stanza is disturbing because it is being, you know, clear about the abuse that was occurring. But to me, the joy of that song is first love and is a sexual awakening that is consensual. You know, she was the first person to teach me what it feels like to be loved consensually and freely and without pain and duress and misery. You know, it was this incredibly regenerative healing, life-saving, really, life-saving relationship. And when you have your whole life believed yourself to be unlovable and lesser than and to have someone love you just as you are is transformative.
GROSS: What was your father's reaction - your adoptive father's reaction to knowing you had a girlfriend?
RUSSELL: Fury. And I left home very shortly thereafter.
GROSS: I can imagine the fury was on two levels. One, that he had competition 'cause he probably felt like he owned your body but also competition from a girl.
RUSSELL: You know, I think that, yeah, he certainly is someone who his violence is directed at women. But also, I wasn't fully human to him. I mean, this was a man raised in a sundown town, born in 1936, who believed what the Constitution of the United States wants - you know, he's an American ex-pat born in a sundown town in Indiana and believed that Black people are three-fifths human beings. I mean, he absolutely thought that he owned me. You know, he went to court to get me back out of Child Protective Services and adopted me. And in his mind, absolutely, I was a piece of property.
GROSS: Were you in foster care? Is that what you're talking about?
RUSSELL: Yeah. I was in foster care for three years before I went back to live with my mother and her new husband.
GROSS: And why were you there?
RUSSELL: Because my mother was a teenager when she had me and had no support. And in those days of the early '80s in Catholic Quebec, to be an unwed mother - to be an unwed white mother with a Black child was quite a severe stigma. And she also was suffering quite severely from postpartum depression after my birth and, I believe, her first psychotic break. She is - she has quite severe schizophrenia, and that's something that she has struggled with, you know, her whole life and been on and off of medication and goes in and out of psychosis. So she went through a period of being harmful to me in the - in sort of the first depths of psychosis.
GROSS: What kind of harmful?
RUSSELL: Hitting me. You know, burned a cigarette on my skin one time. You know, doing things that were inappropriate, leaving a baby alone for hours and hours.
GROSS: Was she abused by your adoptive father?
GROSS: Is that, do you think, why she didn't intervene? 'Cause she was such a victim, too?
RUSSELL: I think I - you know, I think there's a lot of layers. I think she was suffering from sort of a doublethink, as well. And yes, she was also a victim herself. She was not - she's also not - you know, I think of my mom as my sister. I don't - she has - she does not operate in the world as a fully realized adult and has not had the opportunity to do so. There's a lot of - I've read a lot - even in situations where there's not severe abuse but of women who have children very young when they're still children themselves, there's a - kind of an arrested development that can happen. And I think that certainly happened for my mom.
GROSS: Are they - are your parents still married?
RUSSELL: They are. Yep. She still lives with him.
GROSS: Do you keep in touch with them at all?
RUSSELL: I keep in touch with my mother, but I don't have contact with my adoptive father.
GROSS: How did you survive being traumatized by both of your parents?
RUSSELL: Music, I think.
RUSSELL: Music and art. I mean, my earliest childhood memories that don't involve trauma involve music. And music was always how I felt love and how I felt safe and how I translated anything that was scary or difficult.
GROSS: I'm sorry. This is so horrifying. I'm so glad you survived it. And you're also giving us the gift of your music. It's remarkable.
RUSSELL: Well, music is the healer, you know? And children, I think, are incredibly resilient. And we find - we look and find goodness. And I was lucky in that I had a grandmother who was loving. You know, I had music. I had teachers in schools where I felt safe. One of the tragic things for me as a mother raising my child now in the U.S. in Nashville - I've been able to break cycles of abuse in our home, but my daughter has nightmares about being shot to death at school. And that was not - that was - school, for me, was a refuge. School, for me, was a sanctuary. You know, school was the healer from what I had to endure at home. And it absolutely breaks my heart as a mother now to have been able to stop the cycles of abuse in our home but to be powerless, so far, to get our legislators to do anything about the gun violence that's just killing our kids.
GROSS: When you left Montreal to get away from your parents, you moved to Vancouver, which is kind of as far away as you can get in Canada from where you grew up.
GROSS: And you started, I think, like, in the folk music scene. And one of your instruments, as we heard, is banjo. Did you feel like that was going to be your home, more, like, folk-oriented music?
RUSSELL: Well, you know, to me, I have a broader definition of folk and Americana probably than most people. I think that it is a kind of - such a vast umbrella. It encompasses every genre of song, really. And so to me, it's all just sonic explorations that naturally lead one to the next. And the reason I play banjo is because of Kermit the Frog, you know?
GROSS: What (laughter)?
RUSSELL: Kermit the Frog. I didn't know anything about the Black diaspora, growing up with white supremacists. I didn't know anything about the cultural heritage connection of the banjo being, you know, the - America's African instrument. I didn't know any of that. When I first fell in love with the banjo, I fell in love with it because of "The Rainbow Connection" and Kermit the Frog.
GROSS: Right. And your band is called the Rainbow...
GROSS: The Rainbow Coalition. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RUSSELL: Yeah. It's a nod to both...
GROSS: Is that...
RUSSELL: ...Jim Henson, Kermit the Frog and, of course, Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, who were able to form an incredibly healing, harm-reducing coalition between the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, who were a Latine group, and the Young Patriots, who were white Appalachians, formerly white supremacists, many of them, who found common cause in the '60s in the South Side of Chicago to help one another with after-school programs, with medical programs. And it was incredibly successful. And that was what, of course, eventually led to Fred Hampton being assassinated - was the fact that he was very, very successfully building this multi-ethnic, multi-heritage coalition to help disrupt the poverty cycle.
GROSS: Congratulations on probably being the only person ever to bring together Fred Hampton and Kermit in one tribute.
RUSSELL: (Laughter) I think that they're very closely related in spirit. I really do.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Allison Russell, and her new album is called "The Returner." We have more music and conversation coming up after a very short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON RUSSELL SONG, "THE RETURNER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Allison Russell, a great singer and songwriter whose new album is called "The Returner."
So you write songs with your husband. And I'm interested in what that process is like. And I should say, in case people are confused, you identify as queer and eventually married your husband.
RUSSELL: Well, I think, sometimes, people get confused about orientation and commitment.
RUSSELL: You know, it's like, when you - when a straight person gets married, they're still straight. When a queer person gets married, they're still queer. You know what I mean?
GROSS: Well put.
RUSSELL: That's just what it is. But it turned out - no one was more surprised than I when I ended up falling in love with a man - a straight man - a straight white man.
RUSSELL: All of these things were surprising, but JT has a very strong inner goddess, so...
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. I want you to sing another song for us, if that's OK with you.
RUSSELL: I'd be happy to.
GROSS: And it's a song called "You're Not Alone," and it was released as a single with Brandi Carlile. And to me, this sounds like a song that's, in part, dedicated to your daughter but also dedicated to everybody who is a survivor of abuse and to all the children who are enduring it now.
RUSSELL: It is all of that, but it's really for all of us. In fact, we're all survivors. We're all returners of some kind. There's not a human on the planet that gets out of this life without experiencing trauma. You know, being born is traumatic. So we - that's the mother of empathy, in many ways, I think, for each other.
GROSS: Would you sing "You're Not Alone" for us?
RUSSELL: Yeah, be happy to.
(Playing banjo, singing) Hey, my little evening star, how bright you are. Anywhere you go, you're not alone. Wish that I could keep you from sorrow and harm. None of us is here for long, but you're not alone. In the cradle of the circle, all the ones who came before you, their strength is yours now. You're not alone. Sparrows in the morning, crows at dusk. Singing with your mom is both - we have love. We have love. We have love. We have love. You're not alone. You're not alone.
GROSS: Thank you for doing that. Did you write that with Brandi Carlile, who duets with you...
GROSS: ...On the recording?
RUSSELL: ...I wrote it on my own, and I actually wrote it during the "Songs Of Our Native Daughters" sessions. And it was originally - I originally recorded it with Our Native Daughters - Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla - back in 2019.
GROSS: ...OK. You know, when I first heard you sing, I thought of Rhiannon Giddens because I felt like there was a similarity in your voices. And then I learned that you had actually performed together and recorded together.
RUSSELL: Yeah. She's my chosen sister. I love her deeply.
RUSSELL: We've been friends - very, very close friends and chosen sisters since 2006.
GROSS: Good, good, good. So you're the mother of a daughter named Ida who is how old?
RUSSELL: She's 9 years old now.
GROSS: Did you always want to be a mother, or growing up with the parents that you did, did you not want to have a - you know, a nuclear family?
RUSSELL: I never, ever, ever thought I would become a mother. In fact, I emphatically believed I would not. And Ida was a joyful accident. She was a birth control pill fail. I'm here to tell all of you that birth control pills are not 100%. They are 99.999%. And Ida is that 0.000. After seven years of being together, we found ourselves shockingly and surprisingly pregnant. And she is the greatest gift that has ever come into my life. And I - because I treasure being her mother so much, because it is such a sacred role, I feel even more strongly about choice, how important it is. No one should ever, ever be forced into that sacred role against their will.
GROSS: What were your fears about becoming a mother?
RUSSELL: That I would have a psychotic break, that I would, you know, somehow repeat the abuses of my childhood, that I wouldn't be able to break the cycles of abuse, that I wouldn't be a worthy mother, that I wouldn't be able to protect my child, that my child might be born with the same kind of very, very severe and painful schizophrenia that my mom suffers with and that runs in my family. You know, all kinds of - and I didn't know, you know, when I - before I met my biological father, I didn't know any of my Black diaspora heritage. I didn't know what was on that side of my family. So I was also afraid of paying forward mysterious things that I didn't even know what they were, you know?
GROSS: And none of that happened?
RUSSELL: No. No. It was the most joyful pregnancy. I am very, very - it was very - it was a joyful birth. You know, we - it was - and she's just a miraculous being. And I'm so grateful to be her mother.
GROSS: You met your biological father, who is Black and from Grenada, when you were 30. What was it like to meet him?
RUSSELL: It was really surreal. And in the end, very, very joyful. I look very much like him. I sound very much like him. We have similar personalities. It was a really - a real lesson in nurture, sure, but nature, oh, my goodness. It's a big part of it.
GROSS: And is he, like, a really big contrast to the father who raised you?
RUSSELL: Complete contrast. He is the furthest thing from abusive. He is loving. He has a wonderful wife. I now have a wonderful stepmother, Ida's Nana, Tessa, who - they've been together since I was 2 years old. I have two siblings on that side, my sister Nikki (ph) and my brother Kino (ph). And it's a very, very loving, non-abusive family. So it's been really, really healing to meet my Black family and, of course, to learn about my lineage and the journey of the Black diaspora that I am a part of.
GROSS: My understanding is, from what I've read, that your mother, when she became pregnant, never told your biological father.
RUSSELL: Not right away, no. Not until it was too late, I guess. And she told him that she'd given me up for adoption, which was not true. When I went into foster care, she told him that she had given me up in a closed adoption.
GROSS: He must have been very surprised to hear from you.
RUSSELL: I think that, you know, it's an interesting thing. My siblings - my paternal siblings grew up knowing that I existed. He talked about me to his whole family. You know, they grew up knowing they had a big sister out there somewhere. I didn't know anything about them, of course. And so it's been a really - I wasn't a shameful secret to him and to their family. It was a sorrow that there was this child that was lost.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Allison Russell. Her new album is called "The Returner." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPRINGTIME")
RUSSELL: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey, hey.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Allison Russell. Her new album is called "The Returner."
You probably don't know the answer to this, but what do you think your adoptive father's reaction is to your songs about how he abused you?
RUSSELL: I don't know if he's listened to them or not, and I have never inquired from my mother. I don't - I'm not that interested, to be honest. And, you know, there's - I'm struggling right now with what true forgiveness means. You know, he has no power over me anymore. Do I go see this man on his deathbed? Do I speak to him at some point? Do I tell him I forgive him? I'm still struggling with those things.
GROSS: Right. I guess you can forgive him without contacting him, forgive him in your heart...
GROSS: ...But not have to talk with him.
RUSSELL: I think I do have forgiveness and understanding of the fact that this is also - I mean, everyone is still a child in their spirit, right? He was a very severely abused child himself, and he paid that forward in the worst way. You know, he became what he hated. And that's a tragic, tragic thing. And what we do know - and something that I think we need to talk about is we know that men are more vulnerable to becoming abusive when they have been abused. And we need to talk about the fact that 90% of violence in the world is perpetrated by people who are male. And that is not to demonize men at all. It is to say clearly there is a fragility that we're not addressing and that we're not protecting, you know?
GROSS: I want to close with a song that's the final track, and that seems fitting, from your new album, "The Returner." And this is called "Requiem." And would you tell us about writing it?
RUSSELL: Yeah. JT and I wrote this one. We were very much feeling rocked by the violence in schools - the gun violence in schools. We were thinking about the parents that have to survive their children, which is a parent's worst nightmare, and have their children taken from them by gun violence and the fact that we have not been able to pass any legislation to mitigate or prevent it yet. And we wrote a kind of a lullaby of hope but also of sorrow.
GROSS: And the backup singers on this track include Wendy & Lisa, famous from Prince's band, and Brandi Carlile.
RUSSELL: Brandy Clark and Hozier, as well.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
RUSSELL: And, of course, all the women in the Rainbow Coalition.
GROSS: Right, right. Your band. Well, before we hear it, I just want to say thank you.
RUSSELL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Thank you so much. It was so great to talk with you and to hear you sing in our studio. And your music's just wonderful, and I'm grateful for it. Thank you so much.
RUSSELL: It's such an honor speaking with you. Thank you.
GROSS: So here's Allison Russell from the final track of her new album, "The Returner." And the track is called "Requiem."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REQUIEM")
RUSSELL: (Singing) Oh, I know your way is hard to see today. Bullets, they fly faster than mother's lullabies. And the sparrows cannot sing, for it is theirs to bring the souls of those lost babies back to the sky. So it is yours to sing, my child, my wild brightling (ph), with the love born in the cradle of time. And fight and fight and fight in the dying light for all lost and gone forever clementines. Requiem, requiem. The question is not if. It was always when. But go on, go on, my child. Hope is a prairie fire. Set your embers on the summer wind.
GROSS: That's "Requiem" from Allison Russell's new album, "The Returner, currently nominated for four Grammys. The awards ceremony is February 4. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our holiday week series featuring same our favorite interviews of the year. We'll hear Tanya's interview with Brooke Shields. She reflected on how she was sexually objectified as a child and teenager in films like "Pretty Baby," in which she played a child prostitute, "Blue Lagoon" and in ads for Calvin Klein jeans. The 58-year-old actress is the subject of this year's documentary "Pretty Baby." Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REQUIEM")
RUSSELL: (Singing in French). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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