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Allison Russell Named Billboard Canada Women In Music Breakthrough Artist of the Year

The Nashville-based musician from Montreal has been having a huge year, including her first Grammy and her first Hot 100 appearance. Accepting the award on June 19 at the iHeartRadio Canada studio, she talked about her LGBTQ+ advocacy work and the importance of playing with underrepresented musicians.

Allison Russell accepting the Billboard Canada Women in Music Breakthrough Artist of the Year award

Allison Russell accepting the Billboard Canada Women in Music Breakthrough Artist of the Year award

Marc Thususka Photography

It was a special Juneteenth for Allison Russell.

Not only did she serve as the special Toronto opener for Sarah McLachlan on the Canadian icon’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy 30th anniversary tour, but she earned another big honour: Billboard Canada Women In Music Breakthrough Artist of the Year.


“It’s an honour to be acknowledged for the work that I’m doing and that we’re all doing together,” said the singer-songwriter when she was presented with the award in an interview with iHeartRadio Pure Country host Shannon Ella on Wednesday (June 19).

“There's still such an imbalance in our industry, and it’s [an important moment] to be here speaking with you on Juneteenth [the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in America], which is a significant date because I’m not just a woman, I’m a queer Black woman.”

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Born and raised in Montreal but living and working in Nashville, Allison Russell has been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and a vital voice for the representation of Black women in country, roots and Americana music. She's no rookie, but as her platform has gotten bigger, she’s used it to benefit her whole community.

This year, Russell won her first Grammy for Best American Roots Performance for her song “Eve Was Black” and performed on the ceremony playing clarinet and singing with none other than Joni Mitchell. She also made her Hot 100 debut with her song with Hozier, who she’s also been touring with. She’s played with major names from multiple genres, from Tom Morello and Jake Clemons to Brandi Carlile, Orville Peck and Beyoncé collaborator Rhiannon Giddens.

On those big stages, she’s often playing The Rainbow Coalition Band – a talented ensemble of Black and POC, queer and historically marginalized musicians.

“I make a point of playing with all women and gender-diverse folks on stage," she says. "They are some of the most brilliant artists I know, who are also women. I do that because there is such an imbalance. It’s still a remarkable, unusual thing. No one says it's so crazy that it's just a bunch of dudes up there.”

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She’s used to seeing festival lineups dominated by men and radio playlists that rarely play two female artists back to back, and she says that default position needs to be challenged and changed. “It’s absurd, but we’ve been conditioned to think of it as normal.”

In Tennessee, Russell has been an outspoken advocate for the right to abortion and queer rights, which has earned some backlash from Republican politicians but a devoted fanbase that even includes Barack Obama. She says her goal in speaking out is not political but human, aiming for the survival of basic rights across beliefs and party lines – extra pertinent during Pride Month and during the week of Juneteenth.

“Maya Angelou taught us long ago that no one is free until we’re all free,” she says.

The interview, co-presented by iHeartRadio Canada, is an insightful and emotional discussion. In the video, Russell talks about her advocacy and musical work, her breakout year, and tells stories about playing with legends like Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan. The full video will be released soon.

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Allison Russell is the second Billboard Canada Women in Music. Earlier this month, The Beaches were awarded Group of the Year at a special announcement event and acoustic performance.

More Women In Music interviews and sessions will continue throughout the summer in collaboration with iHeartRadio Canada, culminating in the Billboard Canada Women In Music celebration on September 7.

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