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  • Sue Shanahan

Allison Russell: Spinning Straw into Gold

Updated: May 11, 2023

"I'm an angel of the morning too

The promise that the dawn will bring you" - Nightflyer, Allison Russell / JT Nero

Singer/songwriter Allison Russel was born and spent her formative years in Montreal. She describes herself as a Canadian, biracial, queer woman. She is a surviver of horrific childhood abuse. If one were to look at a roadmap of her life, they would see that nothing has been wasted. Every experience that she endured or was gifted has brought her to where she is today.

Although her breakthrough solo album, “Outside Child,” documents her abuse at the hands of her racist, adoptive father, and mentally ill mother, amazingly it’s not a downer. It’s hope infused.

“That makes me so happy that you hear it that way. The abuse was just the circumstances that I had no control over, right? But that's not really what the record's about. It’s about breaking the cycle.”

As Allison tells it her mother, an unmarried, Scottish-Canadian, was only 17 when she gave birth to her in 1979. Her father, a black Grenadian student had already returned home. He was led to believe that their baby was given up for adoption.

Her mother did her best to parent Allison while struggling with postpartum depression and undiagnosed schizophrenia. In the 1970’s, there was still a stigma against children born out of wedlock and even more so for a white girl whose baby was black. That translated into no support for her mother and Allison being removed from the home before she was two.

“The truth is the physical abuse began with my mum. And that was why I was taken from her care and placed in a foster home for several years.”

After marrying a white supremacist 26 years her senior, Allison’s mother regained custody of her. Shortly after that her mother’s husband adopted Allison. From the age of five, until she struck out on her own at 15, Allison was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by him.

“People say to teenagers, ‘Oh, these are the best years of your life.’ Well, if I’d actually believed that, I would have killed myself. But somewhere deep inside I had an inkling that it wasn’t true.”

When Allison left, she made her way to Vancouver where she was hired as a mental health worker because of her lived experience.

“It was incredible because these things that I did not talk about, that I had been taught to feel shame about were suddenly useful. The abuse, my mother's addictions, her schizophrenia, they all helped me to be a good listener and have empathy. I was able to treat every single person in our community like the equal human beings that they are.”

Fleeing her parent’s home did not mean Allison lost touch with them. It was incredibly hard to leave her 8-year-old, half brother behind. His birth had sent her mother into a severe postpartum depression, so Allison took over his care. “Suddenly there was this little baby who needed me more than I needed to die, basically. I learned about love from him, you know. That love, in part, was what gave me the courage to leave.”

One day her mother called to tell her that she was going back to working nights and that her adoptive father would be watching Allison’s niece and nephew.

“I was on the floor because my niece was five at that time, the same age he started abusing me. And I just knew ... Up until then I had been doing a double think, like, he's not dangerous to anyone else, it's fine. But I could no longer lie to myself. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I did nothing, the same thing would happen to her.”

Allison realized she had to press charges against her adoptive father. That act resulted in him being sent to prison. With him gone her mother’s mental health deteriorated even more and she tried to kill herself.

“My brother found her in time, which was just awful. He was only 14. She ended up in a psychiatric hospital, being committed for about a year of the time that my adoptive father was in prison. And in that year, my brother came to live with me, and I became his guardian.”

“I'm the one who can't be counted out” - “Nightflyer,” Allison Russell / JT Nero

Allison recognizes that her survival was improbable and says that there were very specific things that allowed her to overcome her early life. The first was growing up in Montreal. She was surrounded by art. It was sustaining and preservative. It helped her to grow and thrive despite the abusive circumstances that she was trapped in. “I think, part of Outside Child is really a love letter wanting to acknowledge and to thank that city. And the people that I met there who showed me that there were other ways to live.”

Another thing she credits to triumphing over her upbringing was being an early reader. Allison lived inside of books. They opened up ways for her to process trauma early on.

“They helped preserve my spirit and psyche to a great degree. Because reading is an escape, right? Reading is also power. So you're able to go somewhere else in your mind, even if your body can’t. And all freedom starts in your mind.”

Allison’s earliest saving grace was music. She recalls it always being accompanied by a feeling of love and protection.

“I remember hiding under the piano to listen to my mother play because I knew if she didn't see me nothing bad would happen, and I could just listen. When I look back on that now, I think of it as like I was listening to her heart. Like, I could hear her heart, even though she couldn't express it in other ways to me.”

When it was finally time to share the truth of her past with the world, it was natural that it came out in song. Allison describes the creation of her album, Outside Child, as dam bursting open.

“I had spent more than two decades as a professional musician strictly and solely in collaborative projects. I've never wanted to put my art forth under my own name in my whole life. I think that’s a remnant of the kind of abuse that I lived through. There’s an impulse in me always to hide to some extent. Telling my own stories in my own name was terrifying because the way I learned to survive as a child was to hide, to be self-effacing, to be very quiet, to make myself small.”

She acknowledges that something too big to label has brought her to where she is today. Growing up in survival mode helped Allison to hone her connection to something greater than herself. To keep herself safe she learned to quiet her mind so she could hear the whispers of her heart.

“I believe in intuition deeply. And I think that our whole modern life sets us up to mistrust it, or not to be even able to hear it in the first place. The pace and the noise of life, the expectation of immediate response doesn’t leave any room for our inner guidance system to send us its messages. Not only is it okay to not respond immediately, it's absolutely necessary if we're going to hear our inner guidance, you know?”

If Allison is asked what faith she subscribes to she responds, “I’m a hopeful agnostic.” She does a lot of studying of religions. She says she is fascinated by organized religion and quite often frightened by it.

“I think music is the communion and church for me. Making music with my chosen family community is as transcendent a spiritual experience as I've had.”

Allison’s life looks very different from the direction she was pointed in as a child. She has been married to musician, collaborator, and love of her life JT Nero for over 15 years. Together they have a daughter, Ida Maeve.

“I think about this all the time. I'm the first of my female descendants on both my Grenadian side and my Scottish side, who has a partner that treats them as an equal, and that is equally invested in caring for their child. JT supports my career completely. He believes in me when I don't believe in myself. Having that kind of true equality in a partnership, that's unprecedented in my entire lineage of women.”

Hiding no more, Allison Russell, is a modern day alchemist. She has used the transformational art of music to not only heal herself, but heal all those who listen to her songs. The generational cycle of abuse has been broken.

All rights reserved.

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

* To understand the portrait I painted of Allison it’s best to read the lyrics of her song Nightflyer. The free association lyrics were inspired by an ancient poem, Thunder Perfect Mind. Allison came across it in the Nag Hammadi Scriptures when she was fifteen.


Yeah, I'm a midnight rider

Stone bonafide night flyer

I'm an angel of the morning too

Promise that the dawn will bring you, you

I'm the melody and the space between

Every note the swallow sings

I'm fourteen vultures circling

I'm that crawling, dying thing

I'm the smoke up above the trees, good Lord

The fire and the branch that's burning, Lord

Maybe you were sleeping, Lord

But Mary she's not weeping no more, no

Yeah, I'm a midnight rider

Stone bonafide night flyer

I'm an angel of the morning too

Promise that the dawn will bring you, you, you

I'm the sick light of a hurricane's eye

I'm a violent lullaby

I'm six fireflies, one streetlight

I'm a suffocating summer night, mm-hmm, mm-hmm

I'm each of his steps on the stairway

I'm his shadow in the door frame

I'm the tap tap of a lunar moth

I'm the stale beer on his breath mm-hmm, mm-hmm

His soul is trapped in that room

But I crawled back in my mother's womb

Came back out with my gold and my greens

Now I see everything

Now I feel everything good Lord

What the hell could they bring to stop me Lord?

Nothing from the earth, nothing from the sea

Not a God almighty thing

Yeah, I'm a midnight rider

Stone bonafide night flyer

I'm an angel of the morning too

The promise that the dawn will bring you, you, you

I'm the wounded bird, I'm the screaming hawk

I'm the one who can't be counted out

I'm the dove thrown into battle

I can roll and shake and rattle mm-hmm, hmm

I'm the moon's dark side, I'm the solar flare

The child of the earth, the child of the air

I am the mother of the evening star

I am the love that conquers all

Yeah, I'm a midnight rider

Stone bonafide night flyer

I'm an angel of the morning too

The promise that the dawn will bring you

Yeah, I'm a midnight rider

Stone bonafide night flyer

I'm an angel of the morning too

Promise that the dawn will bring you, you, you, you, you, you, you

Songwriters: Allison Russell / JT Nero

*Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

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1 Comment

Apr 03, 2022

I am so relieved that Allison is free and safe now. That even if life gets hard for whatever reason now, the old shadows remain in a past that can never reach for her again.

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