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.”

The booklet Ian Janes created to accompany his latest album, Episode 5, isn’t just a nostalgic nod to the times when album cover art and liner notes were essential accessories for the listening experience. It’s also a way to circumvent the pandemic’s impact by engaging isolated and distanced fans more deeply with his music.

The lush 36-page “companion book” contains photos of Janes and the other musicians, lyrics, and insights on the songs’ genesis. “I think it captures something I love about old records, but in a different way,” he says. “Without artwork, chances are it’s a soundtrack to checking Instagram, which doesn’t build connection to the music. People get more deeply involved with songs when they know about how they were made – they get inside them. It’s all about finding ways to do my best in this era of floating attention spans.”

“Genre is the production and the artist, not the song. Great songs are great songs.”

In a way, the idea for including the songs’ back stories in a booklet came from the Nova Scotia singer-songwriter’s experiences working in a Nashville songwriting style. “Eddie Schwartz, the songwriter and SOCAN Nashville rep, told me that everyone in that town does what they call ‘Writing from a title,’ and most of my writing there has been done that way,” says Janes. “You go into a session and everybody‘s got a list of titles, and ways to spin a story around the title. And the beauty of it is that often another person will have a completely different idea that can be inspirational and change everything. That’s happened to me.”

Janes has had notable country music successes, including the co-write “Can’t Remember Never Loving You” being featured in the show Nashville, and another with singer Kylie Frey, “I Do Thing,” topping Texas radio charts. While you couldn’t call Episode 5 country – it’s more like soulful pop-rock – the opening song, “Amnesia,” grew from its title, in true Nashville style.

“I stumbled across that word, and I write groove-based music, so something rhythmic that feels good to sing is what I gravitate to,” he explains. “I realized that ‘Amnesia’ was a great title, and because of those great Nashville writers who got me writing with a title, I started to think about what the song could be.

“The record starts and ends with songs that refer to emotional states as if they’re characters. I’m speaking to amnesia as if it’s an old friend I need to help me forget this heartache. And in the last song, ‘Sleepless,’ [co-writer] Stone Aielli and I speak about someone – me – who’s having trouble sleeping ‘cause he misses home, and he wakes up in a hotel room and says, ‘Hello, 3 a.m., looks like it’s you and me again. Don’t take this personally, but you ain’t who I want to see.’ Being able to talk about the story you’re going to tell has been a welcome asset to my ability to notice those things, and develop them into songs.”

The sounds on Episode 5, which Janes produced at his Dartmouth home, are rich and varied, reflecting his upbringing listening to genre-benders like Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, and Quincy Jones. Some songs have guitars, keyboards, horns, and background vocals, recorded separately in each musician’s studio; some are sparse; and there are echoes of everyone from Chet Baker to Justin Timberlake.

“Genre is the production and the artist, not the song,” he says. “Great songs are great songs. If you put horns and Hammond organ on them, they’re soul, but if you use fiddle and steel guitar, they’re country. It’s like in the jazz era, when Broadway songs were interpreted by jazz musicians. John Coltrane doing ‘My Favorite Things’ was different from Julie Andrews’ version – and Ariana Grande’s. They all had career songs with it, because it’s a great song.”

Janes is hoping to play his songs live when venues open up, and keep writing for himself, and others. “Sometimes I sing them and sometimes other people do,” he says. “I’ll continue to balance my career as a writer and an artist. It’s one and the same to me.”

Hildegarde, Ouri, Helena DelandHildegard is a collision of two stars who’ve already established their place in the firmament of the most-followed Spotify playlists, a meeting of two musicians who’ve each cultivated an aura of mystery, almost in spite themselves. When Helena Deland and Ouri create together, the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. The result is nearly magical.

Enter Helena Deland, a folkie from the suburbs on the South Shore of Québec City, where one dreams of moving to Montréal as soon as possible. Ourielle Auvé, aka Ouri, also aspired to Old Montréal’s cobblestone streets, but from the avenues of Paris, where she grew up practising the cello, in the days when she played classical music. As a team, the two women create something as unclassifiable as it is deeply enchanting, at the junction of their respective, distinctive worlds. “I think our style of music is a bit of a question mark,” says Deland.

To her, it’s precisely this hybrid form that attracts attention beyond musical styles and city limits. Pitchfork, Stereogum, Nylon, Les Inrocks and The Fader have all noted their releases as a duo… Rare are the projects that make so many bloggers tap their keyboards from the moment they hear the first notes. “We’re lucky,” admits Deland. “I remember the moment when we released Day 2… It was really moving to see all the press it got.”

Vacuum-sealed since 2018, the songs on the album were written, and then recorded in demo format, in one go, between the four walls of a studio on the East side of the island of Montréal. It’s located above the Village des Valeurs, on the corner of Pie IX and Ontario Streets, an astonishing refuge that the girls’ managers had rented them for eight days. Eight days, and not a second more, to give birth to so many titles, pieces that seem to have kept their original minimalist identification codes. “Jour 1,” “Jour 2,” “Jour 3,” etc.

But why wait so long before sharing them with the world? Ouri says, “We both have our solo careers, and this is a project that came about so unexpectedly that it was important, I think, to let it bloom in our minds slowly, to find ways to bring it into the world. There was also a label structure that was created, and from which we were able to benefit.”

That young label is Chivi Chivi, home to Robert Robert (an amazing lyricist with house leanings), Valence (the next big thing from Québec City), Lydia Képinski (a well-established free spirit), and, now, Hildegard. “I think we wanted to have a special relationship with the label and not feel like we were just another project,” says Ouri. “We have a genuine connection with the team. It’s a first time for everyone, there’s definitely a special energy flowing.”

Hypnotic, undeniably sensual, and almost meditative, the songs of the Deland-Auvé duo are dignified heirs of their source of inspiration. Their muse? Hildegard Von Bingen. A German composer of the 12th Century, she was the architect of the Canticles of Ecstasy; an artist with feminist propensities who also devoted herself to being a lady of faith; and a nun of the Benedictine order. A fascinating character that Helena and her colleague bring to light through their own production.

“What we share with Hildegard is our feminine self-sufficiency, our stance on femininity,” says Deland. “I’m aware that we read her work through a modern lens, but at the same time… that’s what her work was about! She did after all found an abbey for women. She was incredibly ahead of her time.”

Beyond the name they give themselves, real medieval references are fluidly combined with their avant-garde musical setting. “It’s an influence you can hear a little bit in the album, even if it’s not extreme,” says Ouri. “There’s definitely a part of me that thinks about the possibility of doing a kind of modern medieval album. It would be quite an extraordinary musical adventure!”

Until then, they promise, Deland and Ouri continue their explorations without specific aesthetic intentions, carried by their intuition – which serves them and suits them so well.