Singer-songwriter Allison Russell has signed a deal with Flatiron Books to write a memoir that will cover some of the same territory as her debut solo album “Outside Child,” a lyrical account of her journey outside of an abusive upbringing and of his salvation through music. and community. The album has been hailed by many critics as one of the best musical efforts of 2021 and is currently up for three Grammys.
Russell’s proposal attracted quick interest when his literary agent, Meg Thompson, pitched it to publishers on January 4. Within a week, Bryn Clark, editor of Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, had made an early bid to take Russell’s book. off the table.
“There were only a few times in my career where I knew I wanted to work on a book from the first sentence, and reading Allison’s proposal was one of them,” Clark says. “His lyrical writing and deeply evocative story set my heart on fire. The entire Flatiron team was also moved by his talent and his greater mission to help others and bring healing to this world.
Russell tells Variety she was impressed not only by the fact that Clark seems to have listened to or read all of the interviews she did on “Outside Child”, but by the company she will keep as a writer at Flatiron. “They just released ‘Unbound’ by Tarana Burke, who founded the MeToo movement. They just released “Somebody’s Daughter” by Ashley C. Ford. They are such beautiful books and writers that have helped me feel part of the community in the world and empowered, and so to be in the same publishing house as them is truly extraordinary.
Working on the book will replace a UK tour that Russell has just cancelled. She still makes one-off appearances to promote “Outside Child,” such as her Thursday night performance on Stephen Colbert’s “Persephone,” a song from the album about how a teenage romance with another girl in her native Montreal was a way out of the deep darkness she lived at home.
The album “Outside Child” already looked like an autobiography; VarietyThe initial review even referred to it as “an unparalleled musical memoir…Russell’s solo debut harkens back to the details of an unspeakably abusive upbringing for an almost indescribably gratifying album.” So it was no exaggeration for several literary agents and publishers to start wondering last year if there was a book to be drawn from his story. In numerous track-by-track liner notes for the vinyl and CD editions of the album, Russell went into the literal detail behind the sometimes symbolic language of the lyrics, in an eloquent way that would have almost made a book proposal redundant.
“That’s right, you might get a book deal,” laughs Russell, agreeing the artists would do well to up the game on their liner notes. “Well, you know, I’ve always been the word nerd. That’s it. I’ve got very little that I can do – I can use my words, and I can use melodies, and that’s pretty much everything. So I find new ways to use my words.
The “Outside Child” album includes heartbreaking memories or allusions to the trauma Russell suffered from being sexually and emotionally abused growing up. She knows that telling it longer and more literally will be a different experience than putting it to song, as difficult as that was too. “It’s definitely more emotionally taxing, and I already feel that it will demand a lot of me emotionally and it will be difficult. But I also feel ready and compelled to undertake it.
Clark says, “Allison opened up to the world when she shared snippets of her coming-of-age story on her scrapbook, leaving everyone wanting more. Now she will say the rest: growing up as an outsider in an abusive white supremacist home, running away from home at 15 and saving herself through the music and legacy of her black ancestors. It is every publisher’s dream to find an author whose writing captivates and encapsulates humanity.
Russell met Thompson, who runs the Thompson Literary Agency, through their mutual friend, the singer’s publicist Meghan Helsel. Says Thompson, “On May 21, when ‘Outside Child’ launched, I was sitting outside with my wife and our group of pandemic friends, and a Spotify mix started playing ‘Nightflyer.’ , everyone listening, eyes wide, jaws dropped. A quick Google search found her story, and I was immediately drawn to how Allison could turn such unthinkable trauma into stunning lyrics… poetic, nuanced, playful, even joyful….I went straight to the record store in town to buy ‘Outside Child’…and the liner notes immediately showed me that it was as fluent in prose as it was in song. Transmuting trauma into joy is no small feat, and I wanted to know more about how Allison found survival through song, and moreover, how she has such a cheerfully optimistic view of the world. , where BIPOC, homosexuals e t allies can band together to change the world.
Thompson says the response to Russell’s proposal “was the fastest I’ve ever seen as a literary agent. Meeting requests poured in from over 10 editors in just two days, but Bryn was the quickest and most passionate, and we knew it was her. With writers under her care such as Tarana Burke and Ashley C. Ford, I had a feeling Bryn would immediately recognize Allison’s talent and her potential to make the world a better place with her words. (Clark’s other projects include “The Three Mothers” by Anna Malaika Tubbs, “Hiding in Plain Sight” by Sarah Kendzior, “What Happened to You?” by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, and “Is Rape a Crime? by Michelle Bowdler.)
The book deal helps Russell through what she calls “a precarious time for performers. This pandemic shows us how vulnerable we all are. When the walls crumbled, JT (Nero, his partner in life and in the Birds of Chicago duo) and I realized how vulnerable we were as working-class musicians on touring subsistence, and that we had no reserves that could allow us to go through one, two or three years without work. So we both really dug into the writing and strategizing about how we could do this in multiple ways and support ourselves and our daughter and support our family. One of my goals was to write a book, but also to find a music publisher that I could write for in different ways, for other artists or for soundtracks”, which was achieved when she signed with Concord Music Publishing last year, keeping it in the family after signing with Concord’s Fantasy Records.
The timing was also good to avoid any feelings about the Grammys being put on hold. “It’s so funny that we met Bryn the day we all found out the Grammys were postponed indefinitely. Of course, we were all disappointed. I was really excited about the family reunion more than anything – see my friends. But I wasn’t obsessed with it like I otherwise would have been, because (with the book) I had a huge whale to catch. I feel like I’m touching the tip of its tail. And I was so happy about that reunion that I sat down and wrote 20 more pages, without even thinking about the Grammys.
Russell also hopes to move on to more speaking engagements, particularly in colleges, after finding her wings with it, speaking at a recent Women’s March in Nashville and at AmericanaFest. “The airwaves have been dominated by one type of population for a very, very long time. And I’m really interested in participating in finding a better balance and solving problems more creatively using all minds. We really can’t afford to leave spirits behind or devalue spirits based on something as ridiculous and superficial as skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. I would like to get more involved in connecting with students and young activists. I like the idea of thinking laterally and connecting different disciplines – cross-pollination is hugely important – so I hope to be able to do that by connecting the literary world and the music world now.
Writing books can become a family business. She and Nero’s 8-year-old daughter caught the virus. “Ida was kind of like, ‘What are you doing at first? Why are you writing for hours? But she’s into the idea now. And she wrote this fanfiction for a series of books about the dragons she loves called “Wings of Fire” basically designing these graphic novels, and the stories she’s writing are awesome so she’s telling me what’s going on in the book she’s writing while I’m writing the mine, and it’s just very joyful.
Speaking of joy, Russell promises bigger dollops of it on her next album, which she expects to drop maybe around the same time her book comes out. “I think what will follow musically will be a departure,” she says. “I’m still at it, but I’m having a lot of fun writing right now. It was great to leave behind the story of “Outside Child” in the way I write for this next album. Thus, the book will definitely be more of a companion to “Outside Child.” The next record will be its own world. So maybe a bit more of the “Joyful Motherfuckers” that “Outside Child” ended with, on a high note? “It’s going to be digging in the happy motherfuckers, that’s for sure,” she laughs. “Not sonically, but yeah, this idea of finding the coalition of love and celebrating together in a riotous way.”
“Outside Child” has made appearances on VarietyLists of the best albums and best songs of 2021. For more on Russell talking about the album and his road to the Grammys, read here.