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 solo debut album “Outside Child,” a lyrical accounting of her journey out of an abusive upbringing and her salvation through music and community. The album was heralded 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 her literary agent, Meg Thompson, took it to publishers on Jan. 4. Within a week, Bryn Clark, an editor at Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, had made a pre-empt offer to take Russell’s book off the table.
“There have only been a couple of times in my career where I’ve known I wanted to work on a book from the very first sentence, and reading Allison’s proposal was one of them,” Clark says. “Her lyrical writing and deeply evocative story lit my heart on fire. The whole Flatiron team was equally moved by her talent and greater mission to help others and bring healing to this world.”
Russell tells Variety she was impressed not just that Clark seemed to have listened to or read every interview she did about the “Outside Child” but by the company she will be keeping as an author at Flatiron. “They just put out ‘Unbound’ by Tarana Burke, who founded the MeToo movement. They just put out Ashley C. Ford’s ‘Somebody’s Daughter.’ These are such beautiful books, and writers that have helped me feel in community in the world and empowered, and so to get to be in the same publishing house as them is really extraordinary.”
Working on the book will take the place of a U.K. tour that Russell just had canceled. She is still doing spot appearances to promote “Outside Child,” like her performance Thursday night on Stephen Colbert’s show of “Persephone,” a song from the album about how a teenaged romance with another girl in her native Montreal was one pathway out of the deep darkness she was experiencing at home.
The “Outside Child” album already felt like an autobiography; Variety‘s initial review even referred to it “a musical memoir nonpareil… Russell’s solo debut reaches back into the details of an unspeakably abusive upbringing for an almost indescribably rewarding album.” So it wasn’t a stretch for multiple literary agents and publishers to begin wondering last year if there was a book to be had out of her story. In extensive track-by-track liner notes for the vinyl and CD editions of the album, Russell went into the literal details behind the sometimes symbolic language in the lyrics, in an eloquent fashion that might have almost rendered a book proposal superfluous.
“That’s right, you might get a book deal,” laughs Russell, agreeing that artists might do well to up the game on their liner notes. “Well, you know, I’ve always been the word nerd. That’s it. I have very few things that I can do — I can use my words, and I can use melodies, and that’s about it. So I’m finding new ways to use my words.”
The “Outside Child” album includes some harrowing recollections of or allusions to the trauma Russell experienced being sexually as well as emotionally abused growing up. She knows that recounting it at greater and more literal length will be a different experience than putting it into song was, as challenging as that was, too. “It’s definitely more emotionally harrowing, and I can feel already that it will demand a lot of me emotionally and will be tough. But I also feel ready and compelled to undertake it.”
Says Clark: “Allison opened herself to the world when she shared bits of her coming-of-age story in her album, leaving everyone wanting more. Now, she will tell the rest: growing up as an outsider in an abusive white supremacist household, running away from home at 15, and saving herself through music and the legacy of her Black ancestors. It’s every editor’s dream to find an author whose writing both captivates and encapsulates humanity.”
Russell met up with Thompson, who heads up the Thompson Literary Agency, through their mutual friend, the singer’s publicist Meghan Helsel. Says Thompson, “In May of ’21 when ‘Outside Child’ launched, I was sitting outside with my wife and our pod of pandemic friends, and a Spotify mix started playing ‘Nightflyer.’ The conversation stopped, everyone listening, wide-eyed, with jaws dropped. A quick Google search pulled up her story, and I was immediately attracted to the way that Allison could turn such unthinkable trauma into stunning lyrics… poetic, nuanced, playful, even joyous. … I went straight to the record store in town to buy ‘Outside Child’ … and the liner notes showed me immediately that she was just as fluid in prose as she was in song. The transmutation of trauma into joy is no easy feat, and I wanted to know more about how Allison had found survival through song, and moreover, how she has such a joyously optimistic view of the world, where BIPOC, queer folks and allies can band together to change the world.”
Thompson says the response to Russell’s proposal “was the swiftest I have ever witnessed as a literary agent. Meeting requests flooded in from more than 10 editors in just two days, but Bryn was the fastest and the most passionate, and we knew she was the one. With authors under her care such as Tarana Burke and Ashley C. Ford, I had a feeling Bryn would recognize Allison’s talent immediately, 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 out at what she calls “a precarious time for performing artists. This pandemic is showing us how vulnerable we all actually are. When the walls came crashing down, both JT (Nero, her partner in life and in the duo Birds of Chicago) and I realized how vulnerable we were as subsistence-touring, working-class musicians, and that we didn’t have reserves that could carry us through one or two or three years of no work. So we both just really dug in on writing and on strategizing around how we could do that in more ways and support ourselves and our daughter and provide for our family. One of my goals was to write a book, but also to find a music publisher that I could be writing for in different ways, for other artists or for soundtracks,” which was fulfilled when she signed with Concord Music Publishing last year, keeping it in the family after previously signing with Concord’s Fantasy Records.
The timing was also good in staving off any feelings about the Grammys being put on hold. “It’s so funny that we had the meeting with Bryn the day that we all found out the Grammys were indefinitely postponed. Of course we were all disappointed. I was really excited about the family reunion, more than anything — seeing my friends. But I just wasn’t obsessing on it in the way I would have otherwise, because (with the book) I did have a huge whale to catch. I feel like I’ve just touched the tip of her tail. And I was so joyful from that meeting that I just sat down and wrote 20 more pages, not even thinking about the Grammys.”
Russell is also hoping to move into more speaking engagements, particularly at colleges, after finding her wings with that, speaking at a recent women’s march in Nashville and at AmericanaFest. “The airwaves have been dominated by a single sort of a demographic for a very, very long time. And I’m really interested in being part of finding a better balance and problem-solving more creatively using all the minds. We really can’t afford to leave any minds behind, or to devalue any minds based on something as ridiculous and superficial as skin color or gender or sexual orientation. I would love to be getting more involved with connecting with students and young activists. I love the idea of thinking laterally and of connecting different disciplines — cross-pollination is incredibly important — and so I hope to be able to do that through now connecting the literary world and music world.”
Book-writing may become a family business. Her and Nero’s 8-year-old daughter caught the bug. “Ida first was a little bit like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you writing for hours?’ But she’s into the idea of it now. And she’s been writing this fan fiction for a series of dragon books that she loves called ‘Wings of Fire,’ basically designing these graphic novels, and the stories that she’s writing are great. So she’s telling me about what’s happening in the book that she’s writing while I’m writing mine, and it’s just very joyful.”
Speaking of joy, Russell is promising greater dollops of that on her next album, which she expects to maybe release at around the same time her book comes out. “I think what comes next musically is going to be a departure,” she says. “I’m still in the midst of it, but I’m having a lot of fun writing right now. It’s been great to leave the ‘Outside Child’ story behind in the way that I’m writing for this next record. So the book will definitely be more of a companion for ‘Outside Child.’ The next record is going to be its own world.” So maybe a bit more of the “Joyful Motherfuckers” that “Outside Child” ended with, on an up note? “It’s going to be digging into the joyful motherfuckers, for sure,” she laughs. “Not sonically, but yeah, that idea of finding the coalition of the loving and just celebrating riotously together.”