Grammy nominee Allison Russell discusses strength, survival, and joy ahead of performance at Englert

Musician and writer Allison Russell discusses her ties to Iowa City and her new album ‘Outside Child’ before her upcoming performance at the Englert Theatre on Nov. 6.


Andrew Nelles / v

Allison Russell performs her song Nightflyer during the Americana Music Association Awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

Charlotte McManus, Arts Reporter

Allison Russell’s first studio-length solo project features sweet, folksy guitar lines, powerful vocal ensembles, and winding, introspective lyrics. 

On Nov. 6, she will perform at the Englert Theatre while touring her debut album Outside Child. The Englert performance falls between a preceding performance at Carnegie Hall in New York and a succeeding performance at the Troubadour in California.

“It worked perfectly to come to Iowa City in the middle,” Russell said. “That’s the middle of those dates, in the middle of the country.” 

Russell will perform songs from her debut album, Outside Child, which recently earned the Americana Award for Album of the Year and a total of 3 Grammy nominations — including one for the performance of “Nightflyer,” her most-streamed track. The album also holds great personal significance for Russell. 

“This is just one kid’s — one survivor’s — roadmap out of abuse, into a more loving, abundant life,” Russell said of the album. 

She said that becoming a mother, in part, inspired much of the album.

“We are all responsible and beholden to the ones who come after us,” she said. “It hit me that I needed to do more to use whatever platform I have to reduce harm in the world, and this was my first concerted attempt to do that in album form. And that’s what Outside Child is.” 

Her songs evade genre, with the contemplation of folk, the power of roots, and a spirit entirely her own. Upon learning that a quick Google search says she belongs to soul and rhythm and blues, she laughed: 

“Does it really say that? That is so weird,” she said. “Everyone knows I’m a weird little rootsy-folksy-Americana-ish nerd.” 

Russell said that the notion of calling her a soul singer is “ridiculous” because she does not claim the faith and conviction that soul singers might. However, divine ideas do permeate her music. 

“I think we’re all divine forces,” she said. “I think of ancestral reserves. I’ve been feeling a deep gratitude for the many survivors of my ancestry, both on the Black diaspora side and on the Scottish diaspora side, and I think that is our human birthright. I think that resilience and hope, through the bitterest of circumstances is part of our human birthright.” 

She sees Americana as a community rather than a genre, one that honors many cultures and histories.

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“I think of Americana as all the music that’s grown out of the melting pot of the Americas,” she said. “And when I say Americas, I mean the Caribbean, up through South America, Central America, North America, including Mexico and Canada. I’m thinking of it [Americana] in a much broader way maybe than what some people may interpret it as.” 

Russell has close ties to Iowa City. Before her Englert performance, Brix Cheese Shop and Wine Bar will host a wine-tasting party at the theater in honor of their 10th anniversary. Ten years ago, Russell played Brix’s opening with her band, Birds of Chicago, which is currently on hiatus. 

Brian Johannesen, the Englert’s senior programming manager, said he is looking forward to Russell’s performance. 

“She is such a dynamic and powerful performer,” he said. “I’m excited to see how she’s able to uplift our community with her performance.” 

Russell also has friends with “deep roots” in Iowa City. She and her partner are close friends with Constie Brown, a musician active in the Iowa City area and daughter of Iowa folk music legend Greg Brown. 

She’s excited to perform at the Englert, which she says is a “beautiful theater.” For her, these performances are a kind of worship.

“It’s a beautiful sacred circle of human communion, creative communion,” Russell said, “And when it works, it means that for a short spell, we are feeling things together in real time, no matter what our differences are. And that to me is healing and I’m hooked on it. And it’s fun, obviously.” 

That’s much of what music is for Russell: healing. While Outside Child might be inspired by a painful past, it is mainly a cathartic celebration of survival and strength. 

“I am, myself, a survivor of severe childhood sexual, physical, and psychological abuse for over a decade,” she said. “The worst has already happened. It’s already happened. So, nothing that will be thrown at me from now on can stop me. I’m trying to become the superhero of my own story in the way that I’m processing the past and leaning into survivor’s joy now.”