After two decades of playing in various bands, including Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago, and Our Native Daughters, Allison Russell’s 2021 debut solo album Outside Child was a breakthrough success, garnering universal acclaim for Russell’s grace and grit in writing about child abuse.

With Outside Child, Russell earned three Grammy nominations; a 2022 Americana Award; two International Folk Music Awards; a 2022 JUNO Award (she’s the first Black artist to win a Contemporary Roots Album of the Year in JUNO history); three Canadian Folk Music Awards; and two UK Americana Music Awards. She’s performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Ellen, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, CBS Saturday Morning, Austin City Limits, and The Kelly Clarkson Show.

In addition, Russell has made her Grand Ole Opry debut, appeared at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and performed at the 2022 Grammys Premiere Ceremony. She was also part of the “Joni Jam” Joni Mitchell performances at the 2023 Newport Folk Festival and at The Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington. Now, she’s back with The Returner, released Sept. 8, 2023, the second album of an intended trilogy.

Allison Russell, Returner

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Allison Russell song “The Returner”

Whereas Outside Child was about stopping the cycle of abuse, The Returner is about reclaiming the present despite one’s troubles. “It’s about being re-embodied,” Russell says. “It’s about embracing this human experience that we are all living right now, in the here and now, and understanding that our joy and celebration is also a powerful force against systems of oppression.”

The Returner is indeed a joyful celebration, consciously made through circle work – labour based on equality and power-sharing between participants. “I want people to know that this is very much circle work,” Russell says, “It took circle work to create this record. Every single woman on the record contributed above and beyond. There’s no such thing as a side player in this project or on this record, or when we’re playing live. We are always working in circle, standing shoulder-to-shoulder.”

The record features Russell’s “Rainbow Coalition” band of all-female musicians, and includes special guests Wendy & Lisa, Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, and Hozier. Russell took great joy in stepping into the role of co-producer along with Dim Star (the nom de plume of Russell’s real-life partner J.T Nero and Drew Lindsay), all of whom co-wrote the album’s ten tracks.

Russell says, “I really wrote these songs for the circle of women who could bring them to life. I knew they would be able to elevate the music. I knew what everyone was capable of vocally. I knew I wanted to do a lot of call-and-response and choral work on this record, to sonically reinforce that feeling of one-on-one. You know, we’re in this together.”

That feeling of togetherness is evident in the opening song, the warm and uplifting “Springtime.” It begins with Russell, joined by a chorus of jubilant voices, saying goodbye to the metaphorical darkness in favour of the transcendent light. In the title song, Russell bids farewell to her tragic past as she triumphantly sings about returning to her true nature.

“Our joy and celebration is also a powerful force against systems of oppression”

If ever there was an anthem for those sitting (or dancing) through their emotional pain, “Stay Right Here” is it. It’s a euphoric disco-esque dance number with an undeniable groove, and lyrics that speak to the power of resisting the temptation to dissociate. Says Russell, “It’s choosing every day to stay present, to stay here, to not need this siren song of oblivion and self-hatred, and not caving into the sort of brainwashing of hateful, toxic hierarchies and ideologies that have been pushed on all of us during various parts of our lives.”

Maybe I’m swimming in happiness
But it’s an ocean of tears in my mind
All that my body can never forget
Why do good things make me cry?
Oooh, they make me wanna fly on back
Through that Hole in the sky

One of Russell’s favourite moments occurred during the writing of “All Without Within.” “Drew [Lindsay] had sent me this wonderful kind of rhythmic track, and it just got me,” she says. “It just sort of opened the gates to the subconscious, and I was able to step into the slipstream, so to speak.” On a long walk with her dog in Shelby Bottoms, a nature reserve in Nashville, Russell wrote the lyrics “I love the smell of rain on dead leaves / Your arms ‘round me when I’m angry,” in response to the scenery around her. “It felt like that walk really became a part of the song, the lyric, and the rhythm,” she says. “We ended up making adjustments to the rhythmic approach based on what I wrote on that walk.”

In the haunting “Snakelife,” Russell sings about survivor’s joy, and overcoming her desire to shed her Black skin. She sings of owning her identity and wearing her scars and bruises like “Botswana jewels.”

Where Russell once escaped her trauma in a dreamland of her imagination, she now writes songs that strive to create a better world for herself and others. After all, she has a nine-year-old to consider. “My prime motivator these days is my daughter,” she says. “Things that I would accept for myself, I can’t accept for her.” The central message of The Returner is that resilience is worth celebrating. But Russell is not content to reap the rewards of healing just for herself. Rather, she wants us all to come along for the ride. As she says, “We are all returners.”

I used to dream but now I write
I wield my words like spindles bright
To weave a world where every child
Is safe and loved
Is safe and loved
Is safe and loved
And Black is beautiful and good


Kevin Drew doesn’t mince words when discussing his love of film.

“I’m such a lover of cinema,” declares the co-founder of Toronto alt band Broken Social Scene (BSS) and owner of the Arts & Crafts record label. “All I wanted to do is be a director – and then I started out in an instrumental band to make soundtracks. A couple of guys told me to start singing  and then I went off on this journey [with BSS.]”

The Movie Man, Trailer

Select the image to play the Vimeo video of the trailer for The Movie Man

So, it’s really no surprise that when the opportunity came to score the Matt Finlin documentary The Movie Man – which profiles Keith Stata, a Kinmount, Ontario, entrepreneur who built his own, unique, six-screen cineplex 40 years ago called Highland Cinemas, on his farm – Drew welcomed it with open arms.

And he discovered Stata is quite the character. “He adopts cats,” says Drew. “He looks after about 40 cats. So you’re watching this movie, and suddenly he starts talking about his love for cats, and how he has about 40 cats on his property. He takes in strays and lost cats, and you just think to yourself, ‘Oh my God! Who is this person?’”

Despite Kinmount’s relatively small population of 500, Stata managed to make a go of it for 40 years, supported by the nearby communities of  Minden Hills, Trent Lakes, and the City of the Kawartha Lakes. Finlin’s film documents the fragile status of Stata’s business once the pandemic hits.

Drew says he initially met director Finlin when the latter invited Broken Social Scene to participate in a telethon he was arranging on behalf of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and his wife Jill, benefitting research to combat EB (epidermolysis bullosa, a group of  genetic disorders that makes the skin tear, blister, and erode from even minor abrasions).

“I sort of said, ‘Why do you want us in the show?,’” Drew says with a laugh. “And he just spoke to the appeal of the band, and the idea of trying to be hopeful amongst everything that’s around you, and community, and all this… so that’s how Matt and I met.

The Movie Man, Keith Stata

The Movie Man: Keith Stata

“And we started talking a lot, and started to bond, and talked about both of our mothers who were unwell at the time. And we spoke of our love of cinema, and I got to know more and more about what he was doing, and what he was producing. He told me he had made this doc.”

After watching a cut of The Movie Man (which was co-executive-produced by Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson), Drew was asked by Finlin to score the film, as he wasn’t happy with the original music.

“When I watched that film,” says Drew, “I felt that melancholy aspect of not only watching this man and the 30 years of his love of cinema, and creating this crazy theatre for people to come to, but I also saw what was speaking to the times of right now;  how the analog world of appreciating things had depleted, and even with the [actors’ and screenwriters’] strikes that are going on out there, I just thought it was brilliant.”

He agreed to provide the score, and called in Do Make Say Think‘sOhad Benchetrit to lend him a helping hand. “He’s a producer I’ve worked with throughout my career,  and I told him I’m doing a favour for a friend of mine, but because it’s a really beautiful film,” says Drew. “I wanted to use harmoniums and pianos – just make it very analog,  with, of course, the drones that everyone can rely on. I’ve been droning since I was eight: ambient music, and just texture and tones, have been something that has been in my life since I was a little kid.

“And I’ve seen it just take off viciously in the cinema and television,” he continues. “It makes me happy, hanging on notes and spacing out is a beautiful way to display emotion. And melancholy is the simplest form of music; you know, writing sad songs is very, very easy. Writing happy, upbeat pop songs I think is extremely difficult.

“So, when Matt told me, ‘Look, I just need to tap into a little bit of the sadness around it,’ I thought ‘OK, let’s go,’” says Drew.  “I sent him some stuff. He liked it. Once a director tells you that they like what you’re doing,  you do more. So, I started to create more themes. It was very lovely. It was very organic and simple.”

Going from “a kids’ record” to Aging

Kevin Drew insists that his fourth solo album, the eight-song Aging (out Sept. 22, 2023, in physical format, and Nov. 3, 2023,  digitally), started out as a totally different type of record before things took a twist: namely, the loss of good pals like Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie – and recently, Drew’s own mother.

“I started it out as a kids’ record,” says Drew. “But there’s always people who are ill… people that we lost… And as you get older, you find yourself starting to circle around what really matters, and [living] through the pain of watching your parents get older. My mom, unfortunately, just started to become unwell. It was a five-year process, and I lost her a month ago.”

He also said he felt very connected to Finlin and his mission. “Fortunately, it wasn’t a difficult film to score without cues,” says Drew. “Normally, it can’t be done, but there’s a way where you can say, ‘Okay, I’m looking for this theme,’ and Matt was very descriptive in how he wanted this film to go, so… I’m not saying it was easy to make music , but there was a connection that was easy to tap into to get a result for him, and he was very happy with it.”

Drew created and delivered the film’s music very quickly. “I don’t like to spend a lot of time anymore,” he says. “I think you cannot sell, or put a price on, intuition.  You cannot sell, or put a price on, first instincts.  And we’re at a time where you have so many chances and shots, and you can change, and add to it, and do so many things that, as an old guy, I’ve taken away from that.

“So, people who work with me on videos, soundtracks, or producing, or writing with them, they know that I want to do it quickly. I don’t like the idea of pouring in your whole life and identity into a project, because I’ve done it.  I’m out of that era.”

With this article, Words &  Music introduces a new series, Music for Good, telling the stories of organizations and initiatives aimed at improving our world.

When one door opens, 10 more appear. After a trio of songwriters listened to Canadian women from coast to coast share their corporate workplace experiences, that message came back, on repeat, in story after story.

“There is no real glass ceiling,” singer-songwriter Jay “Your Hunni” Galluccio explains. “It’s more like a revolving door. You get a promotion and think, ‘Now everything will open up’ – only to find 10 more obstacles in your way. It feels like you’re walking down this never-ending hallway.”

During these deep listening sessions, rising non-binary artist Your Hunni, along with fellow Torontonians Madelyn Kirby and Meagan De Lima, were flies-on-the-wall. Hearing these stories was a part of their participation in Lunar Studios’ Artist-in-Residence program and the grassroots national research project HeARTwork — aimed at advancing women in leadership positions. Lunar Studios’ annual residency provides emerging Canadian artists with the opportunity to use their music as a tool for social change. Conscious Economics chose the trio for this residency after working with them on previous projects.

“Changing” – a stirring song Your Hunni co-wrote with Kirby and De Lima – is the culmination of the year-long residency. Serena Ryder produced it, and Brian Kobayakawa mixed the song, which the trio created in two quick co-writing sessions. Many of the lyrics are direct quotes taken from the focus groups; the chorus is a rallying cry for women’s empowerment:

I’m not yours to break this time
I’m taking back the fire I had when I started
Like the burning sun I’ll rise
I am trying, fighting, changing

Lunar Studios, Changing

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Lunar Studios project song “Changing”

“It was heavy,” recalls Kirby of this rewarding, eye-opening experience. “Listening to women across Canada, in every province, talk about their experiences. And then taking all this information, [these] feelings and emotions, and paring [them] down into one song was hard, but also easy at the same time.

“We had the chords and wrote the first verse, chorus and part of the second verse in our first writing session,” she adds. “The lyrics came quick. Before going into the studio, we each had notes we had circled and underlined, of what women actually said. We just manipulated these to fit the rest of our lyrics, and the story we were trying to write.”

Hearing these women’s stories felt frustrating. And, initially, they left Your Hunni feeling hopeless. “They were doing something new in a system that wasn’t built for them,” they say. “On the other hand, I saw this ridiculous resilience and ‘bad-assery’ from them as they each found creative avenues to work their way up despite all the roadblocks.”

By coincidence, the empowering song was recorded on International Women’s Day (March 8) 2023, which added to the energy and vibe of the final cut. “Changing” was released as a single in the summer of 2023. Ryder, as producer, made a few minor edits to the words, the harmony, and the melody. “It made our point come across more clearly,” says Kirby. “It’s nice when you work on a song to have an outsider give their perspective.”

Adds Your Hunni, “Serena listened to the song and edited our lyrics based on her career. It was empowering to learn from someone in the music industry who’s lived those experiences.”

“There is no real glass ceiling. It’s more like a revolving door” – Jay “Your Hunni” Galluccio

To illustrate the subtle type of change the seven-time-JUNO-winning singer-songwriter made, check the following line: “Gonna burn this rulebook you made for them.” The rulebook here comprises the inherent workplace guidelines written by – and for –men. The original lyric was: “Gonna burn this rulebook you made for us.” Ryder explained to the songwriters that these rules were never written for women.

The artists are grateful they were a part of the making of this song; they also hope it gets in front of as many people as possible, to inspire change and create more inclusive and equitable workplaces for women to advance their careers.

“As a creative, I try to write music from my heart,” says De Lima. “If there’s no heart in it, what are you doing an emotional thing for? When I write a song, if it’s helped me in some way, my goal is that when I put it out into the world, it can create a ripple effect and maybe help somebody else… That’s my hope with this song.”