In times of deep sorrow or joy, humans have always turned to music. Archaeologists have found evidence of instruments among very early civilizations. Spiritual communities have centered on music for centuries. We teach our children their ABCs and how to brush their teeth with songs. We dance out our feelings and cry along with sad tunes. What is it about music that enables it to work so powerfully on our bodies, minds and emotions?
That is one of the core animating questions of this conversation with Allison Russell. Russell is a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter whose debut album, “Outside Child,” was named one of the best albums of 2021 by critics at NPR and The Times.
Russell has played in bands including Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters, traversing folk, rock ’n’ roll, Celtic music, the blues and other genres. But alongside her powerhouse vocals and gorgeous melodies, Russell infuses a deep scholarly curiosity into her songs — not just about the nature and power of music, but also what it can teach listeners about our world.
Digging into archives and family history, she explores themes like generational trauma, our relationships to diaspora and migration and how music can build empathic bridges between us in times of deep division. But above all, her songs testify to the sheer human capacity for resilience: our capacity to transcend our darkest times if we hold on, reach out to one another and seek out art that helps console.
In this episode, Russell performs four songs with a full band, so listeners can enjoy her infectious art. And then we use those songs as jumping-off points to explore the deeper ideas embedded in her music: why we fall into melodies so soon after our births; how music moves us differently from how books or speeches do; how sound can help regulate our emotions, slow our breathing and rewire our neural networks; how Russell’s melodies and vocal performances come together in her mind; why songs can at times be more persuasive than nonfiction; why our unwillingness to divulge painful secrets goes back to the Victorian era; how generational trauma like the Middle Passage connects to personal trauma in the present; how Russell structures her songs to help people transcend profound pain; what message Russell would send to people who are struggling and much more.
This episode contains references to sexual abuse.
“The Transmogrification of Trauma into Art” by Allison Russell
“Barley” by Birds of Chicago
“Real Midnight” by Birds of Chicago
“Songs of Our Native Daughters” by Our Native Daughters
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot
“Take Em Away” by Old Crow Medicine Show
“The Art of Disappearance” by Hanif Abdurraqib
Music and Book Recommendations:
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib
Breaking the Thermometer by Leyla McCalla
Carry Me Home by Mavis Staples and Levon Helm
This episode was guest hosted by Annie Galvin, the associate producer of “The Ezra Klein Show.” Galvin has covered books and music for almost a decade and hosted a season of “Public Books 101,” a public-scholarship podcast she co-created.
Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at email@example.com.
You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker and Kate Sinclair; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Carole Sabouraud and Isaac Jones; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin, Kristina Samulewski and Erika Duffee. Russell’s band is Monique Ross, Chauntee Ross and Mandy Fer. Additional thanks to Jeff Gruber of Blue House Productions and Allison’s touring engineer, Ross Collier. The songs Russell performs in this episode were written by Allison Russell and Jeremy Thomas Lindsay.