For Allison Russell, 2023’s been a big year for heroes. Last summer, she performed alongside Joni Mitchell at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington, just one of many recent Russell appearances with the folk legend. The night before speaking with Eugene Weekly, Russell also helped honor John Prine at the songwriter’s posthumous Austin City Limits Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
As for many, Mitchell and Prine are foundational songwriters, Russell tells EW in a phone call. In addition to her Prine and Mitchell-related dates, Russell’s touring in support of her latest album, The Returner, released this year. She performs Nov. 7 at the Hult Center.
Although The Returner is Russell’s second record under her own name, she’s hardly a newcomer. The Canadian-American musician’s solo debut, Outside Child, came out in 2021, earning Russell both Grammy and Juno Award nominations in folk, Americana and roots music categories.
Before that, Russell was in the group Our Native Daughters with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah, musicians seeking to amplify the Black female experience in the folk tradition. Another early Russell project was Po’ Girl, a Canadian group that performed in Eugene around 2010.
Our Native Daughters were “four women who play banjos and descend of diasporas that have been harmed by enslavement and intergenerational trauma,” Russell says. “In my case, childhood sexual abuse and trauma.”
It was during her time with Native Daughters that Russell decided to step out on her own. “The songs I wrote and co-wrote for that record opened a floodgate, and the Outside Child songs started coming through,” she says.
The Returner is the second installment in what the always-eclectic Russell says will one day be a trilogy. It continues her roots and gospel style, this time with triumphant disco flourishes.
With Returner, Russell says she hopes to celebrate “our brief and beautiful time that we have as human beings, as mortals on this planet,” as well as “the children and families that make life worth living.”
In her solo career, Russell adds, “it was very important to me to break cycles of silence and violence, and be a part of reducing harm whatever way I can.”
These days, Russell performs with a group of backing musicians called the Rainbow Coalition, referencing the Black Panther-related social justice organization founded in the late 1960s by Fred Hampton, as well as something much more whimsical: Kermit the Frog’s classic song, “The Rainbow Connection,” which she has said inspired her to learn the banjo.
According to Russell, Rainbow Coalition is less a band and more like an ensemble. “It’s circle work,” she says, describing how she interacts with her fellow musicians on stage. “No one is less important than anyone else.”
“I’m hooked on the creative communion,” Russell adds. “That continues in my solo work; I’m not up there on that stage by myself.”