Allison Russell has placed her hometown of Montréal at the heart of her first career solo album. The singer-songwriter, now based in suburban Nashville, has overcome her writer’s block to deliver the sublime, often painful, but redemptive Outside Child, in which she reclaims her story of being an abused child who found her “lifeline” in the Québécois metropolis.

Allison Russell“I’m happy to be back in Montréal,” says Allison Russell, born there to Scottish and Grenadian parents. “Today, my adoptive father – who was the source of the abuse I experienced as a child – and my mother have moved to Ontario. My ghosts have left town, so when I go back, it’s with my family, my musician friends, and it’s always nice to go back, really,” says the musician, who insists on conducting this interview in French. “I try to practise as much as possible with my daughter, who loves to speak in a language her father doesn’t understand!”

It’s also a language that she sings in, with the same ease as she answers our questions. On Outside Child, several songs have stanzas, even full verses, in French, as on “The Hunter,” a song recalling her youth in Quebec: The heart of the child is the heart of the universe, golden love / Like many springs, generous, warm / But never innocent / Nor completely painless.

“That’s why the album starts with the song “Montréal,” she says. “This record is really a tribute to my city. Montréal was my mother when my mother couldn’t take it anymore. In a way, the identity and cultural activity of Montréal saved me. The outdoor concerts at the Jazz Festival saved me, as well as my visits to the Museum of Fine Arts,” says the musician, who was fleeing the house to avoid her attacker.

On the powerful “4th Day Prayer,” she sings: I was the Queen of Westmount Park / It was all mine after dark / Old willow tree it was my throne / Till I, till I went home. Russell says that Montréal protected her, “with its coffee houses open all night, I would go there to play chess until the wee hours of the morning. I think back to all those places where I could go, where I also received a form of education, an artistic training, where I met a lot of nice people. I think that in my misfortune, I was really lucky.”

Russell moved to Vancouver when she came of age, where she had her first experiences as a professional musician, co-founding the band Po’Girl. With her daughter’s father, JT Nero, she founded the folk/gospel/Americana duo Birds of Chicago in 2012. At 42, she’s finally releasing her first solo album, after overcoming the writer’s block that emerged after the birth of her daughter.

“For four years, I hardly composed anything,” she says. “I deduced that I wasn’t a singer-songwriter, only a musician. I think it was because of the weight of the responsibility of becoming a mother: what I write, what I sing, I thought that one day my daughter would listen to it and interpret it in her own way.”

It was through another musical adventure that Russell found her voice: her friend Rhiannon Giddens, one of the most brilliant musicians on the folk/Americana scene, recruited her for the Our Native Daughters project. “We had 10 days to write and record an album, which was very intense, and forced me to start writing again. Once the floodgates of inspiration opened, I couldn’t stop. I had a lot of songs that needed to be released,” says Russell, who writes mainly on banjo and guitar.

“I do a lot of running, marathons, stuff like that, it’s therapeutic for me,” she says. “Songs often come to me while I’m running, and then I decide if it’s better suited for the banjo or the guitar. Sometimes it’s the melodies that come to me first, sometimes it’s just a phrase. A fragment of a song, from which you have to look around to find the rest. Sometimes a song idea comes to me just by reading; when a phrase strikes me, I try to figure out why.”

All of the songs on Outside Child were written during the Our Native Daughters tour, beginning in July of 2019. In September of that year, Russell invested her Canada Council grant to book four days in the studio with her Nashville musician friends, who bring these powerful songs to life. “I felt an urgency to write,” she says. “It became important to me to express vocally what I’ve been through, to end the cycles of violence – racism, sexism, sexual violence. It’s also very important to me to write my own story, and be able to tell people that it’s survivable.”

When Steph Copeland was 16, her father booked some time at a local recording studio so that she could record four of her own songs. Copeland, who’d been making her own music since early childhood, had a clear sense of how she wanted her songs to sound. “I knew what I was looking for,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to make it massive.” Disappointed by the end result, Copeland decided that she would have to figure out how to do things herself. Getting her hands on an 8-track digital recorder, she read the manual and steadily taught herself the skills she needed to generate the sounds she wanted. “It was a long learning curve,” she recalls.

But for Copeland, it was one that paid off. For the last two decades, she’s let her musical interests guide her – from scoring for film, television and commercials, to touring as a back-up singer and musician (including for Ria Mae from 2016-2018), writing songs, and producing her own solo releases. And teaching herself what she needs to know along the way. Fortunately, she likes being busy. “I think I might be a bit of a workaholic,” she confesses, admitting that people do have trouble keeping up with her various projects.

“If I can dream the sound, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make it”

In her 20s, Copeland, who grew up an hour from Windsor, got into the Detroit electronic music scene, and began performing, both as a solo artist under the name Perilelle, and in collaboration with other hip-hop and techno artists. She soon realized, however, that she was more interested in perfecting her sounds than in building an onstage persona, and moved her career into the studio. In time, she landed the opportunity to score an independent horror film when a director heard her dark, electronic music. “I’d never scored to picture,” she says, “and had to learn really quickly, updating my whole studio.”

It was a gamble worth taking. The film did well, resulting in an eight-picture deal, with Copeland hired to score seven of them. “It was a really wonderful bit of luck,” she says. “I always knew I had a cinematic thing going on with my music.” Copeland has since scored for a slew of dramas, thrillers, and darker genre films (Vicious Fun, The Oak Room, and I’ll Take Your Dead, among others), as well as television series (The Wedding Planners, Turning the Tables) and commercials (NBA Canada, The Pan Am Games and The North Face).

But Copeland, who’s been singing since childhood, still carves out time for her own songwriting. “I can’t ever decide what I want to do,” she explains. “I’m still drawn to the performing side of things and songwriting, so in between scores I’m always making releases and working on albums.” The release of her first solo LP Public Panic, in 2015, saw her sign with a New York-based music publisher, and led to writing and producing for international artists, and to song placements in films and series, including Tiny Pretty Things on Netflix. She still manages to put out a couple of her own releases each year. Her latest single (with Brigit O’Regan), “Gas Light,” is accompanied by a video.

And she continues to seek out new challenges. As a producer, Copeland oversaw the all-female orchestra performance that opened at the 2018 SOCAN Awards, and has twice adjudicated the SOCAN Foundation Young Audio-Visual Composer Award. This year, she’ll be participating in the Women in the Studio program offered by Music Publishers Canada, a national accelerator for female-identifying producer-songwriters, and recently produced a song for Oleyada and KINLEY as part of Music PEI’s 2021 Canadian Songwriter Challenge. “Every time I work on another person’s track, I learn something, and then want to explore that in my own world and see what happens,” she says.

When she thinks about her future, Copeland lets her curiosity be her guide, always chasing the sound that she’s after, just like she did as a young girl. From continuing to produce for others, to scoring films, Copeland allows herself to dream big, pushing her own boundaries in the process. “Now that I’m aware that there are larger, more intricate sounds out there – like the orchestra – I want to go grab that,” she says. “If I can dream the sound, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make it.”

The numbers

  • 150 Million YouTube views
  • 950,000 YouTube subscribers
  • 65 million streams across Spotify, Apple, Amazon
  • 1.2 million monthly listeners on Spotify

Ever since Alex Porat was a kid growing up in Vancouver, she did everything she could to make it as a pop star. She spent her childhood going to auditions for kids’ talent shows, and her Saturdays singing Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera hits in the food court of the local mall, where there was a small stage and microphone set up for impromptu karaoke. In high school, she started posting cover songs on YouTube as a way to build an audience. “When you’re young, you don’t really know how to get your voice heard,” says Porat. “YouTube was a way for people to hear my voice.”

It wasn’t until she was in university, though, that Porat got her big break. In a Glamour magazine video, Shawn Mendes watched Porat’s emotional YouTube cover of his “In My Blood.” “Alexandra,” Mendes says in the video, “you are incredible, your voice is awesome, and you sang it perfectly.”

“That moment for me was this realization that being a musician is actually attainable,” Porat says. “Suddenly it felt like if I kept doing music, maybe things could keep growing.” At the time, Porat had just finished her second year of university, and was already considering not returning in the fall. That video gave her the final push to pursue music full-time.

Since then, she’s been working non-stop. In 2020, she released her debut EP, bad at breakups, which she recorded during the pandemic. A collection of catchy, alt-pop songs about heartbreak, loneliness, or seeing your exes move on over social media, it’s like the sonic precursor to Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour. Her most recent single, “Dimension,” is a spacey, synth-driven pop song fit for the club. Porat’s also ready to hit the stage later in 2021: “The first song of my EP dropped the weekend before everything shut down in Canada,” says Porat. “To finally be able to sing my songs live is seriously a dream.”