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Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell. Credit: Marc BaptisteMarc Baptiste

The first single from Allison Russell’s breakthrough 2021 album Outside Child is about perseverance, grace and the power of new dawns. “Yeah, I’m a midnight rider,” she sings, “stone bona fide night flyer.” A metaphor, of course. Or is it?

On Saturday, July 23, the Montreal-born Russell and the American sibling duo SistaStrings finished a nighttime headlining set at the Calgary Folk Music Festival and were rushed to a car waiting to take them to the airport for a red eye to Boston. “We just barely made the fight,” Russell told The Globe and Mail.

From Boston they drove to Rhode Island for the event of the summer festival season on Sunday evening: Joni Mitchell’s unannounced appearance at Newport Folk. The highly emotional performance by the 78-year-old icon blew away the festivalgoers who witnessed it in person and blissed out the many who caught the set later on YouTube. Brandi Carlile, who curated and hosted the surprise festival-closing tribute to Mitchell, gave the blueberry-beret-wearing legend centre stage, with the beaming singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Russell on clarinet behind her.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it before,” said Russell. “Joni’s joy was palpable. She was laughing after every song, and she was feeling a wave of love and appreciation of the 10,000 people gathered there and her 10,000 new best friends.”

The Newport set marked Mitchell’s first public performance since she suffered a debilitating brain aneurysm in 2015. And while it was big moment for Russell to participate in, it was just one of many bucket-list appearances the Nightflyer singer checked off this year.

After performing at Toronto’s historic Massey Hall as part of the Juno Songwriters’ Circle, Russell won the Juno Award for contemporary roots album of the year for her country-souled solo debut Outside Child. In Texas, she taped a performance for an upcoming episode of PBS’s iconic Austin City Limits and also performed at Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July Picnic. She played the 60th-anniversary edition of Canada’s Mariposa Folk Festival. Her uplifting set on National Public Radio’s taste-making Tiny Desk Concerts was a hit.

In September, Russell performed with the Grammy-winning Carlile at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for the Americana Music Honors and Awards gala. Accepting the trophy for album of the year that night, Russell tearfully spoke about the support of her community and musical family after spending her early years in foster care in Canada. “Music saved me,” she said. “Music saves me every day.”

Russell’s excellent year continues with a concert at Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Oct. 28, followed by shows at Carnegie Hall and the famed Los Angeles Troubadour club in November. The robust touring follows an autobiographical album reflecting on her troubled upbringing

The daughter of a Grenadian student and a Scottish-Canadian mother, she fled her Montreal home and the sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of an adoptive father. Eventually Russell made it to Vancouver, where she performed with the groups Fear of Drinking and Po’ Girl before forming Birds of Chicago in 2012 with songwriter JT Nero, now her husband. In 2018 she joined the collective Our Native Daughters with fellow banjo-playing racialized women Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah.

Despite that musical pedigree and productivity, the international success of Outside Child is next level. Speaking from her home outside Nashville, the 43 year old said “every good thing that has ever happened to me happened under the auspices of other musicians,” and that the “queen unicorn of all unicorns” was Carlile.

“So many of these incredible opportunities I’ve had lately can be traced directly back to Brandi and the very intentional door-opening she’s doing for a lot of us,” Russell said. “She made very specific calls and conveyed very specific feelings on those calls on my behalf, I later found out.”

Carlile pressed Fantasy Records president Margi Cheske hard, going so far as to describe Russell as this generation’s Joni. The lobbying worked: Outside Child was issued on the Fantasy label on May 21, 2021, preceded by a full-page spread in the Sunday New York Times. Three Grammy nominations later, Russell was an overnight sensation after two decades in the business.

This summer Carlile joined Russell on a re-recording of Russell’s You’re Not Alone, a celestial song about guidance originally released in 2019 by Our Native Daughters. An artist’s impassioned advocacy for another is under publicized but not uncommon in the industry. Someone with Carlile’s clout can bypass midlevel gatekeepers and get to the ears of an executive. One of the more famous stories of the kind involves Buffy Sainte-Marie’s championing of an unsigned Mitchell in the 1960s.

Sainte-Marie doggedly played a Mitchell demo tape for appreciative friends and musicians but couldn’t get any interest from the almost exclusively male movers and shakers. Finally, a young talent agent agreed to see Mitchell play at a Greenwich Village coffee house. He was Elliot Roberts, who would go on to shepherd Mitchell (and Neil Young and others) to singer-songwriter stardom.

For her Tiny Desk Concert performance, Russell placed a portrait of the Saskatchewan-raised Help Me singer nearby for added inspiration. “If you want to talk about pure grit of the human spirit,” Russell said, “look no further than Joni Mitchell.”

Game recognizes game. Russell’s own history is marked by resilience and the transcendence of circumstances. If her hit album was not autobiographical enough – “Blood on my shirt, two ripped buttons,” she sings on the song Persephone – Russell’s experiences will be further explored in a forthcoming memoir. “I’m close to finishing the first draft,” said Russell, who is signed to Flatiron Books, a division of American publisher Macmillan.

She’s also deep into the writing process for a follow-up album with a team of collaborators that includes her husband and his brother, along with what Russell calls a “rainbow coalition of brilliant goddesses who have been building the songs with me.”

It takes a village to raise an outside child.

Allison Russell plays Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Oct. 28.

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