“We are better than what we have been, but less than what we could be.”
Allison Russell is delivering the Keynote Speech at AMA-UK’s AmericanaFest 2023 in London and heads in the crowd are nodding. But hearts are also fluttering, stomachs are tightening, empathy is rising and souls are singing. “Music is a sacred practice,” says this most articulate of artists. “Americana is a reflection of a global experiment that continues to reflect on us all… it’s not a question of ‘what is Americana’, but ‘who is Americana?’. It’s all of us.”
Those gathered here today are doing it for love. The love of music. The love of song. The love of community. The love of connection. What makes people gather? Love. A wedding, a funeral, a birthday… a music festival? Yes, yes, yes… that’s why we’re here and it’s why Black Deer-bound Allison Russell has crossed the Atlantic and agreed to be woken up at silly o’clock (for a musician) to deliver a speech that is shining as bright as her future.
“Songs and stories saved my life,” she says. “I’ve been a touring musician for 20 years and a song maker for all that time, too. But being a song chaser is important in Americana: this is music that’s not about chasing hits, but chasing songs.” And so say all of us. How refreshing to hear an artist not limited by their grasp, but elevated by their reach. That’s Russel for you… an artist to whom the destination means as much as, if not more than, the journey.

Po’ Girl came first for Canadian Russell, a band that evolved from a series of jam sessions at the turn of the century into a swinging roots outfit that delighted concert and festival-goers across North America, before the acclaimed Birds Of Chicago debuted in 2012.
Releasing three albums, Birds Of Chicago toured constantly and received rave reviews in the roots music press and beyond. Russell was joined by musician JT Nero in Birds and made what they referred to as “secular gospel music”. In 2019 the ‘Songs Of Our Native Daughters’ LP arrived and announced to the wider world the existence of Allison Russell as a creative tour-de-force. Collaborating with Rhiannon Giddens, Amethyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla, Our Native Daughters released their self-titled debut album via Smithsonian Folkways and started conversations within and beyond the music industry that are still happening right now. A pioneering record of great songs and singing, the stories these tunes tell reclaimed a part of history and the crack the album made in the foundation of American and roots music will be reckoned with for a long time yet.

Russell followed Our Native Daughters with her best work yet, when her first solo release ‘Outside Child’ was set free into a post-pandemic world in 2021. Nominated for Grammys and various awards alike, it’s a progressive work that has broken ground and barriers on its march so far, and one we can’t wait to hear live in the deer park this summer.
“Never underestimate a song,” are the words of wisdom Allison Russell leaves the stage with at AmericanaFest 2023. “Art builds empathy.”

Thanks to AMA-UK and Hackney Picturehouse.
Allison Russell plays Black Deer Festival 2023 – get tickets here.