Although the specific name may not be immediately recognizable, Allison Russell, who plays Campbell Hall on Wednesday, November 16, is no stranger to Santa Barbara stages, if folded into various monikers/projects. The Montreal-bred and for years Vancouver-based singer-songwriter has been a critical part of several bands in the general Americana zone, including Po’ Girl and Birds of Chicago — both of which have appeared at the Lobero’s “Sings like Hell” series and the “Tales from the Tavern” series at the Maverick in Santa Ynez.
Russell was also part of the collective Our Native Daughters, whose members included current cultural hot property Rhiannon Giddens. The project released an acclaimed album on Smithsonian Folkways and was part of a Smithsonian Channel documentary, Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters.
All of that important backstory and side story aside, the real Allison Russell stepped formidably out on her own with the 2021 release of her powerful personal statement Outside Child, on Fantasy Records. Delving deep into a turbulent, abuse-filled past, Russell has created something of a masterpiece of self-exploration and transcendence over adversity and stigmatizing memory.
Her mother suffered depression and schizophrenia and married a white supremacist, who regularly abused young Russell from the ages of five to 15, when she ran away from home. She married her Birds of Chicago partner Jeremy Lindsay in 2013 and had a daughter a year later, while identifying as being “in the middle of the spectrum of orientation,” sexually.
With potently penned songs, set into a range of genres moving from her folk-rocky “Americana” style into more R&B, gospel, pop, swampy turns, and rock turf, and with French lyrics peppering the mostly English lyrics, Russell faces the subject of her sad youth, and comes out the other side.
In “4th Day Prayer,” she sings “father used me like a wife/mother turned the blindest eye/stole my body-spirit pride/he did, he did each night,” in the verse. She then alludes to the pain and eventual hint of cathartic triumph in the haunting chorus refrain: “One for the hate that loops and loops/Two for the poison at the roots/Three for the children breaking through/Four for the day we’re standing in the sun.”
From the perspective of solidarity with others going through similar journeys, Russell engaged in a stirring duet with Brandi Carlile on “You’re Not Alone.” In turn, Carlile championed the album project and secured her deal with Fantasy. The rest is an unfolding history, and herstory.
Next Wednesday’s live Russell show promises to be one of the best and emotionally depth charge-filled concerts of the year in town, and in the UCSB Arts & Lectures series.