Today, acclaimed singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Allison Russell, a founding member of Our Native Daughters (with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah) and Birds of Chicago (with her husband/musical partner JT Nero), has shared two new covers songs, intimate and imaginative versions of Sade’s “By Your Side,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” sung entirely in French.
Both tracks hold special meaning for her.
“I grew up afraid and ashamed all of the time,” says Russell. “I learned to make myself very small and very quiet in order to survive. My adoptive father – my primary abuser – was intensely controlling of all aspects of my life and of our constantly shifting households. He was particularly tyrannical about what we were allowed to listen to. Almost anything written after 1820 was banned. Anything not written or appropriated by a white man was banned. I ran away at 15 to escape his violence…and a whole new universe of sound opened up to me. Music saved my life. I learned that women could write music too. I discovered that I was a musician; that I was a writer. But, I was a listener first. Every time I listen to a modern song that moves me it feels like resistance. These brilliant artists – Sade, Stevie Nicks – powerful writers all, make me feel brave and fully human. These songs each create a world that I want to visit and revisit. They sound like freedom to me. I have tried to do them some justice while finding my own truth within the songs. I have taken loving liberties and translated some of their poetry into French. I have been missing the language of my Montreal childhood, trying to reclaim those broken years. May these interpretations bring some comfort. Here’s to Hope and Healing for this New Year.”
“Sade’s “By Your Side” is an “endlessly expansive and inclusive song of love,” says Russell. “It could be the love between lovers, the love of a parent for a child, the love for an elder who is not long for this world. It feels like it has always existed and always will. It feels like an expression of our collective unconscious. It comforts me and invokes a melancholy yearning all at once. I was singing this one to my seven-year-old daughter, Ida, like a lullaby. I couldn’t get through it without crying. This pandemic has been devastating for our little ones. I’ve returned to this song almost daily during these hard months. ’By Your Side’ may have lost the Grammy back in 2001 but it has won the test of time. Sade lights the way for so many of us. I remember how electrified I felt the first time I heard her and saw her on television; a mixed heritage black woman like me, not fitting easily or neatly into any box, transcending them all. A living, breathing Goddess. I sing this in homage and gratitude. I hope to have the privilege of meeting her one day. Sade’s voice gives me strength and hope.”
Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” was a song Russell was “terrified” to touch at first. “It is such an iconic classic and has been covered by so many,” she says. “But then I thought: what would Stevie Nicks do? If she hadn’t written it she’d find a way to make it her own. So, I found my way in, through translation. Little snippets of the lyrics started coming to me in French. I pondered how difficult the art of poetry translation is and I decided to accept the challenge my subconscious was throwing down. The song deserves no lesser sacrifice. I agonized over this translation of Stevie’s luminous lyrics. I tried to remain completely faithful to her meaning as I understand it. I tried to reproduce the beauty, inevitability and sadness in French. In order to do so I had to take some poetic license with the vocabulary. It is an offering of love and acceptance for what cannot be changed. ’Landslide’ or ‘L’Avalanche’, this enduring melody, this human experience, speaks for itself. Thank you, Stevie Nicks.”
Russell will release her first ever solo album via Fantasy Records this spring.