Roots Music Roomies Allison Russell And Yola Worked To Get Somewhere In A Year of Staying Put

2020 was a year of many unexpected firsts for musicians. For singer-songwriter Allison Russell, one of those was planting a garden behind her brick ranch rental in Madison.

The bottom half of her face hidden behind a golden mask, she gave an outdoor tour of the premises, pausing to point out a success story: a small blackberry bush. “We just planted her at the beginning of quarantine in March,” she noted. “She’s grown so much.”

That’s not to say that the growth came painlessly. Russell looked up which fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers thrive in the climate and soil of Middle Tennessee, only to watch the tender, young squash and watermelons that sprouted in the yard soon after they were planted become a buffet for wildlife.

“So then I started researching,” she recalled, striding toward another cultivated patch. “It turns out that kale is very hardy. That’s what I have growing over here. Mostly deer ignore kale. Woodchucks still like it, but if you plant lavender around it, they don’t like the smell of lavender. So I have lavender planted all around the kale there.”

Russell shares the kale, and the house, with her husband and Birds of Chicago band mate J.T. Nero, their 7-year-old daughter Ida and their friend and fellow artist Yola.

Yola, who soon appeared on the concrete back deck toting lawn chairs for a socially distanced sit-down, has added her own touches to the yard, including an archery target and a secluded nook surrounded by greenery. “I’ve made my little secret garden at the back,” she explained, “so I’ve got a lot of privacy, because I used to live alone for five years.”

This living situation was an improvised solution to the upheaval brought on by the pandemic. Yola, who’s British, hadn’t anticipated a long stay in Nashville. Her schedule was packed with touring and a film shoot, and whatever scant time was left she was supposed to spend at home in the U.K. Russell, who’s Canadian, had planned to be on the road too.

The two of them are distinctly different artists — Russell, a poet steeped in the forms and social consciousness of folk music who sings with feathery finesse and plays banjo and clarinet, and Yola, an accomplished songwriter and riveting, rapidly rising voice of sumptuous, soul-inflected classic country-pop. But they do share certain experiences in common when it comes to moving through the spotlight, due to being acutely aware of the assumptions they defy as Black women from outside the U.S. claiming space at the vanguard of the roots music scene. So they decided to also ride out the disruption of their careers as a shared household.

“All of us gig workers, and especially those of us who are gig workers from abroad, it’s not like we can apply for relief here,” Russell points out. “We’re just having to fly by the seat of our pants and figure it out.”

“Mmhmm, very much so,” Yola seconded.

Russell and her family had been renting part of the house from Rhiannon Giddens, her band mate in Our Native Daughters. And when Giddens needed to sell it this year, she found a buyer who wanted to make it affordable for Yola, Russell and her family to stay. “Our dear friend Barbara, she’s actually a wonderful music promoter in Connecticut, but she likes to invest in real estate and she likes to help out musician families,” said Russell. “So we’re very lucky that she’s given us a stable rent that hasn’t crushed us completely during the pandemic.”

With their housing settled, they had to figure out what they could actually accomplish from home. It was easy enough to convert their garage into a safe rehearsal space, with a padded floor—Yola’s idea—and air flowing through open doors. But doing seemingly casual livestreamed and filmed performances for media outlets and virtual festivals and fundraisers was another matter entirely.

There’s a perception that an artist singing and strumming from the comfort of her abode is an informal affair, and therefore requires little effort. In reality, Yola and Russell had to instantly become their own engineers, videographers and stylists.

“I suck at all these jobs, and these are real jobs that people do and train for years to do,” Russell emphasized. “They’re their own level of art and science that we are not masters or mistresses of by any means. The painful, painful learning curve just to get something halfway decent out there.”

After an entire day’s worth of attempts to film Yola’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert for NPR Music in the house with Russell’s production assistance, an effort that failed to yield any usable footage, Yola and guitarist Jordan Tice resorted to sitting on benches beneath a tree in the backyard to capture the clip.

At least outside, they could rely on sunlight. Making videos indoors required extra steps, a reality that Yola wanted to make clear. “OK, so Ali hasn’t said this,” Yola launched in, “but she went really deep into [researching] lighting.”

“I did,” Russell confirmed, “because nobody knows how to light Black people, it turns out. We have no hope unless we bring our own light basically… I did these deep dives. I found tutorials from videographers and photographers of color. And then [had to ask], ‘What can we do with our budget?’ So then it’s like whittling down, whittling down: ‘What are the basics?'”

But neither Russell nor Yola were content to find temporary fixes while awaiting the return of status quo. For both of them, adaptation transcended basic problem-solving. They’ve reshaped their careers in significant, and potentially lasting ways, zeroing in on and advocating for what matters to them artistically and professionally.

Before lockdown, Yola’s commitments had her traveling so much that she didn’t always know what continent she was on. So, she took control of her schedule and cleared space for creativity.

“Being in one place has been so healing for my ability to write, my ability to feel like I’m self actualizing,” she reflected. “And as much as I’m looking outwards at everything that’s happening, I realize that self-care, as a Black woman, is one of the most dramatic and rebellious and important things you can do.”

No less rebellious was the way that Yola began to address the racial segregation of the Nashville songwriting community, an industry ecosystem in which the lion’s share of opportunities still go to white men. She insisted on seeking out collaborators who looked more like her, something she hadn’t had the opportunity to do when she made her 2019 debut album, Walk Through Fire.

“That’s been something I’ve had to actively work against, actually, and work to fight and to rectify,” she said. “And not just so I don’t feel so token and alone and isolated in situations, but also so that I can talk about things when I’m writing. …That’s been a really important thing, to put my money where my mouth is and make everyone else do that as well.”

That spirit of following through carried over to benefit projects Yola agreed to take on. For the nonprofit Global Citizen, whose mission is alleviating extreme poverty, she sang alongside PJ Morton in syncopated unison and eruptively improvisational call-and-response on an O’Jays funk-pop cover. And for the BBC charity Children in Need, she joined the likes of Cher, Lenny Kravitz and Kylie Minogue in the over-the-top spectacle of a celebrity-packed rendition of an Oasis pop ballad, a single that topped the charts in the U.K.

Russell has accomplished a striking amount during this time too. She and Nero secured individual publishing contracts, a source of non-touring income for their family, and they finally found a manager. And after almost two decades of serving as a wholehearted collaborator in bands, beginning with the Canadian group Po’ Girl, Russell worked out a deal to release her debut album under her own name in 2021.

“I had made this solo record that I didn’t know what to do with,” she explained. “Like Yola said, sometimes you need just time and space to stop and think and decide what makes sense to do next. I realized that stepping into my own story and being open about it became very important to me.”

Russell wasn’t used to being offered speaking engagements or, for that matter, treated as a thinker whose perspective on the world beyond music was worth hearing, but she was well prepared when it began to happen. She filmed a brief backyard Ted Talk on witnessing and experiencing cycles of abuse and gave a speech on the importance of mobilizing marginalized voices at Nashville’s women’s march, with Ida looking on, clutching her own homemade protest sign. Russell later shaped the speech into a spoken word piece and captured it with a studio recording.

Russell has been reconsidering how much time she’ll be willing to spend on the road apart from Ida, even when it becomes safe to head out again. “I feel like now I’m building something intentional that I can feel good about,” she reflected. “I’ll be able to be very specific about my boundaries of what work is worth it to me to do and what isn’t.”

It’s not like she and Yola are simply going to forget about all of the changes they’ve worked so hard to put in place and go back to the old, inadequate normal.