In praise of the 'blessed unrest:' Allison Russell and Kaia Kater in conversation

Longtime friends and folk musicians dive deep into Black joy, kids, capitalism, art, money, and 'making it.'

Longtime friends and folk musicians dive deep into Black joy, kids, capitalism, art, money, and 'making it'

Allison Russell and Kaia Kater in conversation

1 year ago
Duration 1:04:59
In an epic conversation, the Montreal-born musicians and longtime friends discuss everything from motherhood, the pandemic and subverting capitalism to Black joy, community and how good it feels to finally bet on yourself.

It's been an incredible 13 months for Allison Russell. After more than two decades in the music industry (co-leading folk-soul band Po Girl, then Americana folk band Birds of Chicago, as well as one-quarter of the four-piece Our Native Daughters), Russell finally took a chance on herself and released her solo debut in May 2021.

The acclaim has been staggering, and the response life-changing. Outside Child was on numerous year-end best-of lists and was nominated for three Grammys, as well as two Junos (winning for contemporary roots album of the year) and several other awards in the U.K., Canada and America. 

"Surreal" is one of the words Russell uses to describe the events of the last few years. Friend and fellow folk musician Kaia Kater is here for it. "Surreal" is a good word that manages to both accurately describe and obfuscate the harshest edges of multiple pandemics and global emergencies happening everywhere all at once. Kater released her breakthrough album, Grenades, in 2018, to explosively enthusiastic reviews. Russell still listens to it all the time, she says. 

The two go back more than a decade, but even before they met they seemed destined to be friends. Both were born in Montreal, their fathers were born in Grenada, they're Black women who both excel at the banjo, they're activists and artists, and they're part of a tight-knit, intersectional, folk/Americana music community. So CBC Music invited Russell and Kater to talk about their lives, their music, surviving the pandemic and the things that mean the most to them right now.

In an epic conversation, the two discuss everything from anti-Blackness, isolation and subverting capitalism to Black joy, community and how good it feels to finally bet on yourself. 

Editor's note: the transcribed conversation below has been edited and condensed. For the full, unedited conversation, please watch the video below:

Montreal, Folk Alliance and first meetings

Kaia Kater: I was listening to your song "Montreal" and how you talk about the cathedrals, and you sing like half in French. You nailed the description and the feeling of Montreal so well, in that song.

Allison Russell: I've been missing it. You know, we've been talking about coming back and spending a couple of years there with Ida, our eight-year-old. Just because I want her to experience ⁠— she's a Canadian girl, too, you know. Her dad's American. But her mom is Canadian. We visited Montreal, but she hasn't spent real time there yet. And I think we need to do that before she gets too much older.

Kater: Are you wanting her to just kind of experience the city?

Russell: Yeah, and do some French immersion and just experience being — I just think it's such a special city. It's so unique. I don't know if you've had the same experience, but I really didn't fully appreciate that growing up, because I didn't know anything else. It was just all I knew. And it wasn't until I started travelling and living other places that I realized how magnificent Montreal really is and how much a part of my evolution as a human and a musician it has been.

Kater: I feel the same way. I grew up there, too. And we left when I was maybe 10 or 11. Enough to have picked up French pretty well, but not long enough to really understand what a cool place it was. And actually coming back and living here again as an adult is bizarre. I lived here up 'til 10, and then I came back when I was 18, and then I came back again when I was 28. So it'd been like, you know, all these different periods of your life. 

Russell: Are you 28? 

Kater: I am! I'm 28. 

Russell: I've arrested you in my mind, you're forever about 20 years old.

Kater: Yeah, roaming the halls of Folk Alliance.

Russell: I think you were still a teenager the first time I heard you at Folk. I still remember it was in Shawna Cooper's Sweet Beaver Suite and it was either Memphis or Kansas City Folk Alliance. You were there with your mom. I think you were 17, does that sound right?

Kater: That sounds right. I was definitely skipping school — gladly skipping school…. You were playing with JT [Nero] in Birds of Chicago and the Po' Girl era as well. And I remember when you had Ida because you brought her to the conference?

Russell: Oh, yes. And she was tiny. That was February of 2014 and she was born December 30 of 2013. The first place we went was the Netherlands when she was less than four weeks old. But we had no choice. You know, people were like, "That's amazing!" It's not amazing, it's necessity. We're providing for our family. We had no plan B and we had our little baby girl and she just came everywhere with us for four years 'til she had an intervention with us. She sat us down on the couch, like, "Mom, Dad, love you, love the band. Always gonna sing with you but I need to go to school full time." She still picks and chooses. She'll be out with me for some of the festivals this summer. And she decides when she wants to come and when she wants to sit in with the band. 

Kids, community and care on the road

Kater: I was gonna ask you how you found it being a mom on the road, like a parent on the road, 'cause I think you and a few other people were my first examples of parents, and especially mothers, who were working artists.

Russell: Rhiannon [Giddens] was my example. Her daughter Aoife is 11 now, maybe 12. But you know, she was my first example that it could be done, where it even occurred to me that that was possible. Just having a sister, a chosen sister, I could talk to about the challenges of that. It was tough in one way, because being a new parent I think is just hard no matter what your circumstances are. And it's a huge learning curve. And there's no manual. And it's different for every family. And it's different for every mother and child or caregiver and child. I was so lucky, though, to be surrounded by a really supportive community on the road. I was never isolated. 

Our tour manager for the first four years of Ida's life was my best friend, Suzi Boelter, and she was, and still is, married to Chris Merrill, who was the bass player in Birds of Chicago. Ida's first word was Dada, her second one was Mama and her third one was Ama, which is what she called Suzi, that was her special word for Suzi, because she was another mother figure. And now Suzi has a daughter who's half Ida's age, and they're like sisters. It does take a village to raise a child; it takes more than a nuclear family. It really takes an extended community, I believe, to raise children and for children to feel loved, and seen and heard by many different adults in their community and kids in their community is just crucial for healthy development, I think.

[Our] industry tokenizes Black and brown people and queer people and trans folks all the time.... We're all different, we all have different things to say, and we all deserve to play the same stages at the same festivals.- Kaia Kater

Kater: Just hearing you say that gives me so much hope. Because I definitely want to have a kid. But I think some of the ways in which I've chosen another path in my life — the path of an artist and the path of being self-employed — sometimes in my own moments of anxiety, and especially through the pandemic, I've definitely had these flashes, too, like, "Have I made a mistake?" Am I not going to get to these financial goals that I have in life and be able to, I think, have conviction in what I do? And one of those things is like, "Well, can I ever be a mom if I don't follow the path of the nuclear family?" And so it's just really incredible to hear you say that there is support on the road and that there is this community that knows you and will see you at your worst times and be there to support you. That's just amazing.

Russell: I understand completely. I mean, I was the opposite of you where I was convinced I would never, ever have a child, never be a mother and partially that's my history. You know that there's so much intergenerational abuse and violence in my family that I just was terrified of somehow passing that forward. So I just thought motherhood wasn't for me, for years and years and years, really, until I met JT. And then, as we grew closer as a couple, it started to bloom as even just a little remote possibility in my mind, because, you know, he knew he wanted to be a parent at some point. And it was sort of like, well, if I love this person, and we're together, then either I'm going to be open to this, or we're going to change the nature of our relationship. But it was something where it never felt like we were ready. I was 33 when we got pregnant with Ida and she was not planned. I had been on birth control pills for seven years, and they had never failed me. And I did not miss a day, people are always like, "Oh, you messed up." And I'm sorry, if this terrifies any person with a uterus listening to this — I got pregnant whilst taking birth control pills. So it is not 100 per cent, it's 99.9. And that's Ida, you know, she's like, "I'm coming, whether you're ready or not."

Money, music and motherhood

Russell: We had been together for seven years by the time we got pregnant. And so we were grownups, I was 33. And JT was 42, I think, at the time. We didn't know what we were going to do, but we just thought, well, we're gonna go for it. And we didn't have very much. We were not in a financially stable position. We didn't have savings, we didn't have a plan; we were just essentially subsistence touring for years, and always thinking the big break is going to come and it's all going to coalesce, and things are gonna get less hand to mouth. And that didn't happen for us. For four years, we were hand to mouth with our child. And those were some of the best years of my life, you know, and I don't regret it. Finding a bit more stability and security has really only happened in this last year, since there was just the unprecedented and shocking response to [Outside Child] the record I made. 

Being able to put some savings away for Ida. That's only happened in the last year, and I'm 42 years old, you know, and so, and I'm very open about this stuff, because I think we need — especially as women, we don't talk about it enough, we don't talk about the career and financial struggles in conjunction with motherhood, in conjunction with taking a creative path, there's so much pressure on women to give it up right now. I can't tell you the number of people, when I got pregnant with Ida at 33 were like, "Oh, so you're gonna get a real job, now you're gonna get off the road." It really wasn't an option for me, because this work isn't just work for me. It's also what keeps me alive. It's my calling, it's my career, it's my personal chosen therapy, it's all of it. So giving up wasn't an option for me. 

What did I really have to offer as an artist and as a human, as a cultural worker in the world? How am I using my words? That's all I really have, my words and melodies. And how am I using them effectively?- Allison Russell

We have these rigid notions of what we need or what our children need in order to thrive. And what they really need is us, they need us to be present in their lives and loving in their lives. They don't need monitors. We never even had a stroller, you know, I carried Ida on my body in a little ErgoPack. We were always in airports. We were on the road, probably, I don't know, 300 days of the first three years of her life. We learned, I learned, that you can be a nomadic parent. And in fact, historically, we were on the move as a species for most of our evolution in history. When I would sort of study motherhood and child rearing through the millennia of human existence, it is a very new notion, this idea having a nuclear family and you have to have a house and 2.5 cars and a picket fence and all of these things — that's a very new idea. And it doesn't have a good track record for children, for adult happiness or for the sustaining of loving relationships.

Kater: Yeah, and it's built on purchasing power really. It's accumulate, accumulate, accumulate, and insulate.

Russell: Exactly. Of course, poverty is an extreme hardship when you're in dire poverty. We were very privileged in that...none of the people in our circle of poor artists are starving. Even though we were working poor, in a sense, for the last many years, we were also so unbelievably privileged, and could do everything that our daughter needed. I gave birth in Wisconsin, and they have an incredible mother-centred healthcare system there. I gave birth at the Columbia Birthing Center, just outside of Milwaukee. It couldn't have been more nurturing and wonderful. And, you know, I had a doula. And we were able to afford her. And we were able to raise money through touring to have our child. So I just think about how we think about the sort of wealth that is needed to have a family and how skewed that is.

The complicated success of Outside Child

Kater: I remember, we were talking — I think this was back in the fall — but you had been chuckling about how at the Grammys you're considered "best new emerging artist," and you're were chuckling, like, "I've been doing this for a long time." And I was just wondering, how has that been for you? Outside Child is an unbelievable record, and you're so deserving of all the success that you've gotten. But I was wondering how that has felt after so many years in this kind of subterranean space that all of us artists are in, and community and that joy and once that is recognized, I guess in the way that Outside Child has been recognized — I was curious about how that's been? Any emotion and all emotions welcome.

Russell: It's very surreal. So much is just timing, and chance, because as we all know, as Kaia's referring to, we've been in this kind of underground to semi-underground, close-knit, international roots community and flying below the radar of a lot of the industry, really the Music Industry, capital M, capital I. We've been just flying below that radar. I certainly have for many years…. For me, it started during the lockdown when I was forced to stop, when I was forced to get off the hamster wheel of subsistence touring that we'd been on... It was this period of deep, kind of mourning and reckoning and self-reflection for me as well, you know, of questioning my choices and questioning whether I could continue on the path that I was on. What did I really have to offer as an artist and as a human, as a cultural worker in the world? How am I using my words? That's all I really have, my words and melodies. And how am I using them effectively? 

I had made this record, Outside Child, and I didn't know what to do with it. And that's when JT and I really started thinking about, well, we need to find a publisher. I realized that I didn't want to release it unless I had the right partner. I didn't want to do another indie release and have it become a part of my sort of endless subsistence touring cycle. And we were afforded this time because of great, terrible tragedy. We met our manager, and then we started to reach out to different labels. And we had some absolutely horrific — I had some appalling Zoom meetings with some labels and folks who shall remain unnamed, but like, just things being said to me that were so deeply discouraging. 

Saying no to terrible offers is really healthy and it's really hard to do, because we're constantly told to devalue ourselves as artists.- Allison Russell

And then, in quick succession, it was Breonna Taylor, and it was a Ahmaud Arbery and it was George Floyd being murdered. And it was a shift, at least among white executive culture of suddenly realizing, "Oh, maybe we need to be listening more deeply to what Black people in general are saying," and "Oh, wait, we have no Black artists," or, "We've been tokenizing and didn't realize we've been." Suddenly, we were starting to get calls back. But it really wasn't until we started following our intuition more and I started following my intuition. When I reached out to Brandi Carlisle, we didn't know each other that well. I sent her my record, but I just had this instinct of, maybe she'll get it and even if she doesn't get it, I respect how she conducts her career. And not just music, it's also the Looking Out Foundation, it's also always using whatever platform she has to amplify other marginalized artists. It's always community-based and that's how I have operated on a much smaller scale with a much tinier platform but how I want to try and grow a solo career. 

I was also terrified of that my entire life. I have been much more comfortable kind of withdrawing, dissolving into the collective, into the collaboration. I've never wanted to put myself forward in my own name. And that's residual from an abusive childhood really. And that was something that I realized I had to change. If I'm going to live in fear like that, how does that get passed forward to my child? I don't want it to be. And so it was a lot of learning curve steps, but mostly listening to intuition and then reaching out to people based on that, and not listening to executives who told me that I was worthless. Deciding that they weren't right to work with; I might be worthless to them, but I'm not worthless to myself, and the record won't be worthless to every person that hears it....We just decided to hold out. And we were able to do that because we also had community and friends who were helping us. A friend loaned us money in the pandemic, we were able to do an online concert that got us our rent for a few months. Yola [English country-soul singer-songwriter currently starring in Baz Luhrman's Elvis film] and my sister and our family all hunkered down together through the pandemic. We were able to share expenses and support each other through it. 

I think it just took me this long to grow into it. It really did. Some of us are late bloomers.- Allison Russell

Saying no to terrible offers is really healthy and it's really hard to do, because we're constantly told to devalue ourselves as artists. And we're constantly told, "Oh, you should be so lucky as to take this crappy offer, you should be so lucky to pay to play, or play free," we've all been there…. And then suddenly, there was this coalescing of all these different elements. And it was fine. It was Brandi listening to the record, and just loving it and having all these ideas of immediately saying, "I gotta call Margi Cheske at Fantasy Records, she is going to get this, she's going to get you." Then we had this meeting and that was the case, but all of this was happening over Zoom remotely, you know, and we built these relationships slowly over the course of a year. And then it was Joel Amsterdam, who's the publicist at Fantasy Records, had an intuition, 'We've got to bring in Meg Halsell, who is a publicist with Grandstand Media.' And she has been the secret weapon for this record, the reason any, that New York Times profile, all of the things that changed, and the fact that she got that out of the gate, that was the first thing that she got. Jon Pareles not only wrote a review, but he went into — he listened to my entire back catalogue, he listened to Po' Girl records, and noticed when I was playing with a lyric that ended up on an Outside Child song, like that depth.

Kater: That's a great journalist.

Russell: Our publicist also had this strategy and this passion for the record. And she knew that it would be difficult to get people to listen, because no one knew my name. No one knew who Alison Russell was. And it's a record that on paper, a lot of people want to avoid listening to, like, "Oh, it's about her journey out of childhood sexual abuse and trauma. No, thanks." Like, "I don't want to listen to that. That sounds depressing." You know, I've had people very candidly tell me that they avoided listening to the record for a long time, worried that it would be depressing or triggering or you know, and I really appreciate when people tell me that because I understand it's hard.

Black curators, festivals and Once and Future Sounds

Russell: The most exciting thing that has happened in conjunction with this sort of doors opening around Outside Child was being invited to curate at the Newport Folk Fest, and getting to curate the Once and Future Sounds set. 

Kater: Yes, and a great name, by the way.

Russell: I'm keeping it going... I want you to be involved with some of them, I want to make it into a Last Waltz-style film. And I also want to make it a travelling festival, sort of similar to Afro Punk….I'm not afraid to try now, to do it. And I think stepping into these curatorial roles, especially as artists with intersectional identities — in my case, as a queer Black woman — it's really important, because so many of these curatorial roles are still cisgender, heterosexual, white men of a certain age. A lot of those men are wonderful, open-minded and, you know, trying to have equity in the way that they're booking, but it's really skewed, it's really imbalanced. I think about that every night when I play with my band, and people are just freaked out that it's all women onstage. And they're never freaked out when it's all men in a band, which is 90 per cent of the time it's assumed. It shouldn't be remarkable for a stage full of women to make music, or a stage full of non-binary folks to make music. It just shouldn't be.

Getting the opportunity to provide music underneath someone else's story brought me back to life a little bit- Kaia Kater

Kater: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's incredible. I mean, one thing with the pandemic is, like the isolation I felt, at the beginning, let's say March and April. It had me really worried that I was deeply alone and I think I struggled with feeling alone. Once we moved through it, I met so many [people] online. Through Zoom I met so many people, and especially Black folks, who I forged these friendships with over the internet, and who I've felt such a feeling of kinship with and community with, and coming out of the lockdown here in Montreal and flying to do a few gigs. I played the Fort Worth African American Music Festival, which is run by Brandi Waller-Pace, who also runs Decolonizing the Music Room. I'm sure you've heard of Brandi or know her.

Russell: So amazing. We haven't met yet, but I'm a huge admirer of her work.

Kater: It's the first time I've ever played to an audience at a festival that was geared towards Black folks. White folks were free to come in and enjoy the music and enjoy the workshops. But the level of scholarship and of understanding of history and politics and art and poetry — it just started at a graduate level and it was incredible....We all jammed at the end and I realized that it was my first string band jam that was all like Black and mixed people. And that was really, really cool. I was really thankful to Brandi....The whole level of the thing just goes up and it's like for us, by us. And the joy! I don't have to worry that I'm being tokenized and should I say yes to this gig or should I require the presenter to have more Black people on the bill because I can't be the — you know, like all of these questions that float around. I'm sure you've had them as well. 

Refilling the well, late-stage bloomers and the blessed unrest

Kater: I have been getting into film scoring and songwriting, which was something that I always wanted to do, but I finally went to school for it during the pandemic. I was able to score this film called Believe in Ghosts. It's a short film, and it's available online. And it's about this woman named Samantha, who is a Black farmer in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and she's also a master beekeeper. She's just an all around badass, and she posted recently, I think she's a falconer now, just to add to her list of incredible skill sets.

Russell: Can we go be her apprentice?

Kater: I know. She's incredible. Her farm is called Mother's Finest Urban Farm. The film, it's about her, but it's also about her talking about the lack of grants for Black farmers. And the statistics are just so depressing…. In the pandemic, I just didn't want to focus on my own stories at all. I was very exhausted and would cry every time I tried to write and it just wasn't happening for me. And so getting the opportunity to provide music underneath someone else's story brought me back to life a little bit. And it was such a way to learn and observe. Just to kind of witness someone else and try to do their story justice. I think that's all I did for two years.

Russell: Amazing. It also means when you go back to doing your more personally based work, you're gonna have refilled the well, because that's what it's about. I don't even think about it as writer's block anymore. I did for so long, but I feel like that's a very almost, like, capitalistic way to think about art. That you're supposed to have this level of production that increases exponentially, forever and ever. And that's just not how the creative process works, and sometimes we have to lie fallow. And sometimes we have to sow a different kind of seed in that field. It's more like you're rotating the fields, you know, your creative farming that you're doing. And you know that, for me, it was for years, I was afraid to sow the solo field, and I finally did. I think there's something so powerful about cross-pollination, of different disciplines, artistically, and exactly as you say, getting inspired by other stories, inhabiting them, and tapping into that vein of your creativity, finding some melody you wouldn't have on your own to help uplift her story or amplify a specific part of her story. That work is so powerful and important.

Martha Graham described it as a 'blessed unrest' that artists have that is necessary because that's what keeps us creating, and that's what keeps us dreaming.- Kaia Kater

Kater: How did you find the difference between your role in Birds of Chicago and Po' Girl and your role as Alison Russell? I will preface this by saying from my vantage point, the grace and command of a stage that you have looks to me to be so natural and so generous. You have a generous energy as a bandleader onstage. And everyone's collaboration just feels so potent. And I know you said you had a fear of stepping into that. So I was wondering how it was for you?

Russell: I think it just took me this long to grow into it. It really did. Some of us are late bloomers. I started playing music in different bands when I was 17. But I did not feel the kind of confidence or self-worth to step into the role of band leader in that way until very recently. I mean, with Po' Girl and with Birds of Chicago, that was like a co-leadership role. Po' Girl I started with Trish Klein, and then when she left the band, my partner at the time, Awna Teixeira, who's now like, chosen family, basically, we went from being lovers to being sisters…. It's been scary, in a way, to step into the bandleader [role]. I've learned a lot in different situations, too, I've collaborated with various — it was not always the healthiest situations, but I learned what I didn't want to do. I learned what didn't feel good for me. So I think coming into the role of bandleader  two decades into my career, there's a lot that I've learned that hopefully I can bring to bear in this role now, you know, and I'm so glad that you experience it as feeling that collaboration because it is.

I think it's linked to what I think of as the very unhealthy aspects of celebrity worship where it's like, this person, it's all about them. It's their name. But there's a whole huge, massive team of collaborators that say, someone like Beyoncé works with. She's amazing, obviously, she's incredible, charismatic, brilliant, multifaceted, multitalented artist and everything, but when we hear "That's Beyoncé," that's actually the work of scores of people, right? Scores of artists and creative people. And she is someone who's very good at acknowledging and talking about that, and showing her community onstage and showing all of that stuff, she does that beautiful job of that. But I think because our culture is so celebrity-worship obsessed, we only want to hear or see one person at a time, and it devalues art. It devalues how art works and how art is a model for good citizenry, too. 

Kater: Something that you said [earlier] reminded me of this. Agnes de Mille, she did the dance in Oklahoma!, and she was sharing with Martha Graham how dissatisfied she was with her work in Oklahoma!. Feeling like she could have done so much better and sort of ragging on herself, which is  a common thing with artists. Martha Graham had an incredible response: it's you in the world and your expression is such a unique expression that will only come through you in this one fairly short time. And so who are you to block that from yourself? Who are you to judge that? Your only role as an artist is to keep the channel open, you don't even have to think the work that you're making is groundbreaking. You don't even have to involve your ego in it. But just keep the channel open. And just be open to receiving whatever it is that you make, and know that it's yours, and that there will be nothing else like it in the world.

Martha Graham described it as a "blessed unrest" that artists have that is necessary because that's what keeps us creating, and that's what keeps us dreaming. And in my conversation with you, I'm hearing so many ideas and so many dreams, and it's inspiring me to have more ideas and more dreams. Whenever I move into a judgment place, I'm like, this is not my job. I just wanted to kind of leave [us] with that, because I feel it's pertinent to our conversation. I've so enjoyed talking to you, Alli, as always, whether it's backstage at the Cambridge Folk Festival —

Russell: Are you doing some of the festivals this summer, too?

Kater: I'm tracking my record this summer so I'm off the festival circuit for now.

Russell: I can't wait to hear what you do. And yeah, just thank you for this conversation. Thank you for leaving us with that blessed unrest. I love that so much. And you're right. We get so caught up in ego and insecurity. I mean, they're two sides of the same coin of judging, judging, judging everything. And you can judge yourself into not ever creating anything. You're right, keep the channel open like we need. And each artist is totally unique. We need all the voices; nobody's interchangeable with anybody else. And nobody's replaceable.

Kater: Especially in an industry that tokenizes Black and brown people and queer people and trans folks all the time. I have to keep reminding myself that we're all different. We all have different things to say. And we all deserve to play the same stages at the same festivals.

Russell: And be played back-to-back on the radio without there being some ridiculous rule that you can't play three women in a row, let alone three Black women in a row. It's just so absurd. There's no such problem with three white men, you know? Here's to bringing some balance to all of it. Getting noisy, being as noisy as we want to be. 

Kater: Yes! A joyful noise. Unrestful noise. 

Russell: Wonderful to connect with you today, Kaia, I can't wait to hear your new record. I'm so excited that you're tracking this summer.

Kater: Thank you for all your support and your love. And I'm so excited to see you shine.

Russell: I feel the same way about you.

'I love to see you shine.' (Kaia Kater photo by Todd Cooper; Allison Russell photo by Marc Baptiste)