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Allison Russell Displays A Bursting Range Of Music On 'Outside Child'


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review of Allison Russell's debut album called "Outside Child." On it, she details a traumatic childhood riven with sexual abuse and homelessness. But much of that troubling material is set to music that's calm and beautiful. Ken says the music Russell makes is beyond classification and deeply moving.


ALLISON RUSSELL: (Singing) Poison arrow, be kind to me, and I'll be kind to you. It's not just your poison, it's the bow, the string, shaft and feather, too - the rush of the wind, the blue sky and the rain that soaked the ground to give the oleander love.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Allison Russell's lovely voice draws in a listener the way you lean in to catch someone confiding a secret. She possesses a warmth that can give you goosebumps upon first hearing a song like that one, called "Poison Arrow." Another alluring song on this debut album is "Nightflyer." This time, the lyric sets the tone that will occupy much of the rest of the collection, the candid confessions of a woman who's gone through many hellish experiences and come through it with uncommon grace.


RUSSELL: (Singing) Yeah, I'm a midnight rider, stone bona fide night flyer. I'm an angel of the morning, too, the promise that the dawn will bring you. I'm the melody and the space between every note the swallow sings. I'm 14 vultures circling. I'm that crawling, dying thing. I'm the smoke up above...

TUCKER: I'm a violent lullaby, Russell sings deep down in that song. She knows much about violence. Russell's mother is Scottish Canadian. Her father was from Grenada. She grew up in Montreal and speaks French as well as English. As a child, she spent some time in foster care. Then, she was returned to her mother, who had married a man who began sexually abusing Russell when she was still a little girl. As she became a teenager, Russell spent most of her time out of her house, living on the Montreal streets or with friends.

One song here, "Persephone," is about a girlfriend she had as a teen who provided a refuge from her miserable home life. The upbeat nature of the melody complicates the emotions of the song, acknowledging that even in the midst of terrible times, there are moments of happiness and carefree release.


RUSSELL: (Singing) Blood on my shirt, two ripped buttons - might have killed me, 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...

TUCKER: For many people, their introduction to Allison Russell was her presence on "Songs Of Our Native Daughters," a 2019 collection of string band music. Russell was one member of the quartet led by Rhiannon Giddens, but this solo debut is called "Outside Child" for a reason. Russell's upbringing has positioned her as an instinctive outsider, one who, at the age of 39, is now coming to terms with her past. On "4th Day Prayer," she tells a horrible history - a stepfather who, in her phrase, used me like a wife. The song's Memphis soul beat gives the details a relentless inevitability.


RUSSELL: I was the queen of Westmount Park. It was all mine after dark. Old willow tree, it was my throne till I, till I went home. Father used me like a wife. Mother turned the blindest eye. Stole my body, spirit, pride, he did, he did each night.

TUCKER: One of the glories of this album is the bursting range of its music. Russell's base of operation these days is Nashville. You can hear that in the pedal steel that punctuates the music. And country, soul and the blues are foundational for her. But there's also a pop and rock 'n' roll side to her sound, as can be heard on another song about escape and freedom called "The Runner."


RUSSELL: (Singing) Oh, I had to run, to run, to run from Mont Royale. Aux Portes des Lions. But no freedom would come my way. Yeah, no freedom from what he'd done to me. Then I heard that rock 'n' roll outside the South Hill candy store. Felt myself walking in. I was up above me. I was standing right beside me, oh. And I saw my deliverance.

TUCKER: Allison Russell cut this album in a scant four days, pouring a lifetime of experiences into it. This is the most interesting French Canadian singer-songwriter music since Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Beyond that, it's unlikely any writer this year is going to tell stories as harrowingly vivid as the ones Russell has decided to share here.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed Alison Russell's debut album called "Outside Child." On tomorrow's show, we'll speak with reporter Simon Schuster about Andrii Derkach, an alleged Russian operative and seven-term member of the Ukrainian Parliament who's the subject of a federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2020 election. Simon's article in Time Magazine profiles Dakich and examines his work with Rudy Giuliani. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.