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Home » Allison Russell Announces Second Solo Album, ‘The Returner’

Allison Russell Announces Second Solo Album, ‘The Returner’

Allison Russell had one of the most acclaimed records of 2021 with her solo debut, “Outside Child,” in spite of — or because of — the fact that reviews described just how tough much of the subject material was. But she’s taking a break from “harrowing” with her second release, “The Returner,” which has just been announced as coming out Sept. 8. With its increased twin focus on grooves and celebration, it might not be inaccurate to call the album a party, albeit with the understanding that the celebration is a hard-fought party.

“I thought about returning, and what that means to me,” Russell tells Variety, offering a preview of what to expect from the end-of-summer release. “And I thought about survivors’ joy, and how we don’t talk about that enough.”

A taste of the 10-track album on the Fantasy label is being offered via the just-released title track. This time, Russell joined in the production duties, co-producing and co-writing everything with Dim Star, the duo that consists of Drew Lindsay and JT Nero, the latter her partner in life as well as music. Apart from those two collaborators, nearly everyone involved with the record on the musician and tech levels is a woman, many of them part of her touring band … and some that aren’t, like Wendy and Lisa, along with the illustrious Sista Stings ensemble.

The album title isn’t just about this being her second solo record, although it’s at least inadvertently an apropos moniker for a sophomore effort. Russell says the name of the album was actually sparked by her thoughts about Joni Mitchell, who she’ll be joining this Saturday at the Gorge in Washington state, along with doing her own set opening for Brandi Carlile the night before.

“It’s so appropriate that we’re having this conversation right now, because I’m about to head out to the Gorge,” says Russell. “The first time that word really came to me was when we did the surprise Joni Jam at the Newport Folk Festival last summer. I wrote a poem about Joni, and in the poem I called her ‘Our Lady Returner.’ I thought about how much grit and grace that she has as a human being to be able to come back from death, not once, but three times, and to relearn not just how to sing and play, but how to walk and talk. That was such a moving, intense experience that had many layers to me. Obviously there was just the joy of hearing and seeing her play again for me, the first time ever in my life, live, when nobody thought she would be able to be up there for an hour and a half, singing songs and playing guitar like that, ever again. But also, I was listening to her my whole existence; my mom, as a so-called unwed teenage mom in Montreal in 1979, was listening to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ and ‘Clouds’ nonstop.

“But it’s a word that, for me, has layers that are shifting continually, and I think for a listener who it resonates for, it will have different meanings and layers that shift continually for them, too.”

The album is less strictly autobiographically focused than her breakthrough, which had extensive liner notes explaining the elements of her life story that went into the lyrics. With “The Returner,” in contrast, she says, “You can take deep dives on these songs if you want to, but you don’t have to. You can just feel them, too. You know, these songs move. This is about being back in your own body and celebrating that. It’s like a celebratory soundtrack for getting tired of hating yourself and deciding you’re worthy. … I hope people feel some of the joy in this record.”

Russell had plenty of reason to come into the recording of “The Returner” with great confidence. “Outside Child” was multiply Grammy-nominated and won the album of the year trophy at the Americana Honors & Awards in 2022, after landing atop or near the top of many critics’ 2021 top 10 lists, including the New York Times’ and Variety‘s. It’s fair to say she became one of the stars of the Americana genre with just one album (after previously being part of many album projects with bands or duos involving Nero) — a record that was undeniably lovely but also uncompromisingly tough in its themes of childhood abuse and finding health, freedom and community as an adult.

“The way that this record was born was so joyful and so intentional, whereas ‘Outside Child,’ I kind of backed into it,” says Russell. “And even in the studio, I was in denial about the fact that I was making a solo record, because I still had so much of my own mind colonized with thoughts of my own unworthiness that I couldn’t really imagine stepping forward into my own name yet, and into my own story. It took a global pandemic and no work for almost three years, along with a massive racial and anti-bigotry reckoning, for me to even really sit with my own work and decide it was worthy of trying to put out in the world. And so coming into this record, ‘The Returner,’ we’ve been for the last two years having people celebrating the music, and me finding my community and chosen family and a Rainbow Coalition circle growing bigger and bigger. It’s been unprecedented in my life, all these magical secret garden doors opening.”

Allison Russell “The Returner” cover art

That acceptance probably didn’t hurt as far as influencing the more rhythmically based tone of the new music. “It was so much fun to kind of bust out of the roots ghetto that I sometimes get lost in. My default is often to go the murder ballad route or something,” she laughs. “And having Drew imagine these grooving tracks for banjo-driven pieces that I had written was so exciting and freeing, and it took my imagination in different places.”

But the record was already headed toward making a more joyful noise. The last song on “Outside Child,” after so much solemnity, was practically a teaser for a sequel, asking the rhetorical question: “Where are all the joyful motherfuckers?” The answer is that they’re all on her follow-up. The album begins with “Springtime” and the lines, “Adieu, adieu, to that tunnel I’ve been through… My reward, my recompense, springtime of my present tense.”

“We were already imagining this record, early on in the campaign for ‘Outside Child.’ And it’s very much a sequel, but also can stand alone. You know, people don’t have to have taken the journey of ‘Outside Child’ or even know anything about me to get this record. Whereas ‘Outside Child,’ of course, is so deeply autobiographical, it’s essentially like a musical memoir. And now I’m working on the memoir-memoir” — a book she’s still in the process of penning for Flatiron Books — “which is, I have to say, much more harrowing than writing a musical memoir.”

The coming record is “an album about being here now, and being consciously celebratory of the fact that we get to be here now, that every single one of us breathing and present on the planet has survived the pandemic, has survived all kinds of things, and we’re here and we’re together and we can dance and we can have joy. Now, as we all know, we are in a really scary cyclical revival of fascism, not just in this country, but globally, and that’s the time when we have to get the loudest and the most celebratory and hold each other’s hands. When everybody is telling us we’re supposed to hate one another for our differences, that’s when we celebrate even louder our glorious differences, which are our riches.”

Allison Russell (Photo by Dana Trippe)

Russell is proud that the album was done with “my circles of chosen sisters,” which includes, as musicians, Chauntee Ross and Monique Ross, aka SistaStrings, plus Elenna Canlas, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker, Ganessa James, Joy Clark, Kerenza Peacock, Larissa Maestro, Lisa Coleman, Mandy Fer, Meg Coleman, Meg McCormick, Wendy Melvoin and Wiktoria Bialic. The closing track includes background vocals from her biggest booster, Carlile, plus Brandy Clark and Hozier. Among the handful of male contributors, Russell is excited to have discovered Brandon Bell, who recorded and mixed the album, and has worked previously with both Brandi and Brandy.

Vinyl will be day-and-date with the digital release — which she says had a big impact on the recording schedule.

The album “has really got this in the moment, urgent, joyful, making-it-together (feel), and we only had six days, and that’s what we did, you know? Because those were our constraints of people’s time and budget and just time, in order to get the record in before the deadline so that we could have vinyl this year.” Because of the vinyl deadline, “we ended up moving up all of the sessions by almost three months and doing them at the end of December. And it was this sort of accidental move where we ended up recording over the winter solstice, and the last day of tracking was Dec. 22. It felt so powerful and resonant, how our little witchy circle conjured up this record together in six days.”

The album can be pre-ordered here. The “Returner” track list:

1. Springtime (04:11)

  2. The Returner (03:51)

  3. All Without Within (03:13)

  4. Demons (04:29)

  5. Eve Was Black (06:04)

  6. Stay Right Here (04:10)

  7. Shadowlands (04:13)

  8. Rag Child (03:04)

  9. Snake Life (04:38)

 10. Requiem (06:14)

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