Caught mid-flight: An Interview with Birds of Chicago's Allison Russellby Ryan A. Bunch
Birds of Chicago is a collaboration between JT Nero (aka Jeremy Lindsay) of JT & the Clouds, and of his own solo career, and Allison Russell of Po' Girl. Both artists and their respective acts are acclaimed in their own right, and each has racked up a solid roster of critical acclaim at home, and much more so overseas in the UK and Europe. With their new side project, Birds of Chicago, the artists explore a new sound, yet steeped in the same old tradition that's inspired them each their own respects. With a mixture of soul, folk, roots, and top-notch singer-songwriter chops, the music they make together is all at once sweet, sincere, haunting, thoughtful, and gets right to the heart and the stomach of what good songwriting is supposed to do for a body.
Toledo.com was lucky to catch up with Allison Russell in advance of the Birds' upcoming performance at Manhattans this Saturday. Russell, Canadian born, hailing originally from Vancouver, and more recently from Toronto and Montreal, recently relocated to Chicago, which is the place JT calls home. Amidst listening to mixes for a new record, she took time to exchange emails with us and discuss working with JT, the nature of North America roots music, getting it on with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and how she hopes Prince might be in her future.
Birds of Chicago play Manhattans Restaurant in the Union Square Lounge (1516 Adams St.) on Saturday, May 12. Old State Line opens. Doors at 7 p.m. Admission is $12 advance, $15 at the door. www.manhattanstoledo.com www.birdsofchicago.com
How is songwriting different with this project and working with JT than with Po' Girl? Are there different challenges? Different methods?
Well so far JT does the majority of the songwriting for Birds of Chicago -- we arrange the tunes together, and finesse them together...but we haven't gotten into co-writing territory yet- though we're not ruling it out for the future. JT is so prolific (and one of my favourite living writers) that I don't have to stress about writing songs just for the sake of needing more material -- which allows me to only present and work on the songs of mine I really feel are ready and suit the dynamic of Birds of Chicago. I contributed a couple of songs to our upcoming debut album which I wrote for this project and which felt like they fit the rest of the body of work -- JT wrote some songs specifically for me to sing -- I get to delve into the nuances of being a song interpreter – which I very much enjoy and delve deeper into bringing the songs to life instrumentally... n Po'Girl I write half of the material, Awna and I also do a fair bit of co-writing. There's really no one method or process. In both projects I get to collaborate with a singer/songwriter/ musician who inspires me -- I find myself tapping into different musical wells with each project. JT and Awna bring out different musical responses in me. It's a good thing. Variety is the spice of life!
Having grown up in Canada, what enamored you about American roots music? Who introduced you, or how were you introduced to it?
I guess I perceive it more as North American roots music than specifically American -- the Band were as much Canadian as American, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, the McGarrigle Sisters all Canadian – are among the most influential roots musicians of our times...I grew up in Montreal which is home to the famous Yellow Door Folk Club -- where the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell – and my auntie Janet Lillian Russell – used to play back in the 60's and 70's. Montreal and Toronto were hotbeds of roots /folk/rock n' roll innovation..and still are in my opinion with great bands like The Sadies, Neko Case cut her teeth there, Feist, The Arcade Fire, Bahamas, Sarah Harmer etc...and even going way back during Prohibition Montreal was the Northern-most stop on the chitlin' circuit and played host to many many traveling roots and blues musicians.
Oscar Peterson – born and raised in St. Henri, Montreal -- is a national treasure whose roots were in the country blues and whose music spanned so many generations and genres...My first exposure to the folk/roots tradition was via my grandmother Isobel Rodger Robertson – she knew many lovely old Scottish ballads -- and via my aunt Janet Russell -- she's a beautiful singer and songwriter and was on the coffee house folk music circuit in Canada. She also wrote phenomenal children's songs. She used to sing me her songs and expose me to all kinds of music.
I met a fiddler named Gerry O'Neil from County Donegal when I was 15 or so -- he would play every week at a local Irish Pub in Montreal called Hurley's Irish Pub -- I started singing there with him regularly (under aged!) -- mostly Stan Rogers and Archie Fisher tunes and some of the old ballads I learned from my Gran. I moved to Vancouver, BC when I was 17 and it was there that I started really playing publicly with different bands. This was at the turn of the last century/millennium -- there was a thriving roots music/folk music scene there -- the Vancouver Folk Music Festival is internationally renowned and exposed me to the likes of Odetta, Eric Bibb, Utah Phillips, David Francey among others... and there were many artists in my Downtown East Side community making their own front porch music... I formed Po'Girl there in 2003 and wound up touring all over the world meeting wonderful and inspiring roots musicians in different cities and countries. JT was one of them -- and I knew from the first time hearing him back in 2001 with the Capital Sun Rays that I wanted to work with him.
Reception, as I understand it, for the kind of music you play, and for American roots music in general, seems to be stronger in the UK and Europe. You've recently been well received there. Is this perception true? If so, do you have any idea why that might be?
I think that media is much more accessible for bands like ours over there -- and that makes all the difference. If Whispering Bob Harris at the BBC likes your album - then he'll play it and just like that a million plus people in a relatively small country have been exposed to your music – and lo and behold they come to the shows! We've done National TV in Holland but so far have never succeeding in doing that in our own home countries -- Canada and the US....mass media is definitely much less accessible to us here...I do think there's an element of exoticism that works to our advantage when we play over there... and of course our North American Roots tradition really comes from the blending of European and African influences in our unique immigrant founded North American melting pot...The Old World is fascinated by the New -- they're obsessed with cowboys and indians over there too! ha! And we in turn are fascinated by the Old World -- so many young North Americans will make pilgrimages to Europe as a coming of age right of passage for that very reason... I'm happy that the interest and curiosity flows both ways.
You recently worked with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, how did that come about? Is there anything from them or that experience you picked up that might influence the Allison Russell we'll know in the future?
Yes, Awna and I opened up 3 sold-out shows for them on their Mid-West tour this past week -- Minneapolis, Madison, and Chicago. It was a blast. They're a great band, great people, and they've become good friends. I met the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the Canadian Folk Festival circuit in 2007 -- we were all out at the Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver Folk Festivals together. In Vancouver we all wound up being roomies in the artist housing -- epic jams ensued of course. We all had the sense that we'd like to work together in the future... I sang and played on and wrote a tune for an album called the Uptown Strut with their Sankofa alter-ego in 2009 - which also featured the great John Sebastian of Loving Spoonful fame, Ndidi Onukwulu, Sule Greg Wilson and Professor Louie. That was just released this March on Kingswood Records. I also worked with them on a musical theater piece called Keep a Song In Your Soul: the Black Roots of Vaudeville which also featured Reginald Robinson, Reggio "the Hoofer" McGlaughlin, Lalenja Harrington, Katherine Davis, Sule Greg Wilson and Angela Wellman which debuted at the Old Town School of Folk Music last November. All 5 shows were sold out and it got rave reviews -so we'll definitely be remounting that show and possibly touring it in 2014/2015... and Rhiannon and I have been putting our heads together about a new recording project.
I find the CCDs to be both inspiring and educational. They're not just serious musicians -- they're serious musicologists and historians too. I've learned a ton of "new" old material from them – they've been single handedly preserving and building upon the black string band traditions of the Piedmont region in North Carolina and reclaiming the great songs of the once wildly popular now politically uncomfortable vaudeville and minstrel show era and making them relevant to modern audiences. So, yes, I've definitely been musically and personally enriched by the experience of working with them -- and my clarinet chops have definitely improved as a result -- Rhiannon even got me singing semi-operatically on a ragtime tune called "Sweetie Dear" during the Keep a Song In Your Soul shows -- way outside of my comfort zone in a good way! More to come....Their new video Country Girl is number one on CMT. com right now by the way which makes me very happy -- breaking through to the mass media!
You seem pretty hip on experimentation and collaboration. If you had your pick of someone who you've never worked with before to collaborate on songwriting, performance, etc., who might that be?
That's a hard question. We love collaborating and there are so many people we'd love to collaborate with...I think I would die of happiness if we got to sing with Emmylou Harris or Mavis Staples or John Prine....or if Prince wrote a song for us to sing!
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