Singer-songwriter Allison Russell has signed a deal with Flatiron Books to write a memoir that will cover some of the same territory as her solo debut album “Outside Child,” a lyrical accounting of her journey out of an abusive upbringing and her salvation through music and community. The album was heralded by many critics as one of the best musical efforts of 2021 and is currently up for three Grammys.
Russell’s proposal attracted quick interest when her literary agent, Meg Thompson, took it to publishers on Jan. 4. Within a week, Bryn Clark, an editor at Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, had made a pre-empt offer to take Russell’s book off the table.
“There have only been a couple of times in my career where I’ve known I wanted to work on a book from the very first sentence, and reading Allison’s proposal was one of them,” Clark says. “Her lyrical writing and deeply evocative story lit my heart on fire. The whole Flatiron team was equally moved by her talent and greater mission to help others and bring healing to this world.”
Russell tells Variety she was impressed not just that Clark seemed to have listened to or read every interview she did about the “Outside Child” but by the company she will be keeping as an author at Flatiron. “They just put out ‘Unbound’ by Tarana Burke, who founded the MeToo movement. They just put out Ashley C. Ford’s ‘Nobody’s Daughter.’ These are such beautiful books, and writers that have helped me feel in community in the world and empowered, and so to get to be in the same publishing house as them is really extraordinary.”
Working on the book will take the place of a U.K. tour that Russell just had canceled. She is still doing spot appearances to promote “Outside Child,” like her performance Thursday night on Stephen Colbert’s show of “Persephone,” a song from the album about how a teenaged romance with another girl in her native Montreal was one pathway out of the deep darkness she was experiencing at home.
The “Outside Child” album already felt like an autobiography; Variety‘s initial review even referred to it “a musical memoir nonpareil… Russell’s solo debut reaches back into the details of an unspeakably abusive upbringing for an almost indescribably rewarding album.” So it wasn’t a stretch for multiple literary agents and publishers to begin wondering last year if there was a book to be had out of her story. In extensive track-by-track liner notes for the vinyl and CD editions of the album, Russell went into the literal details behind the sometimes symbolic language in the lyrics, in an eloquent fashion that might have almost rendered a book proposal superfluous.
“That’s right, you might get a book deal,” laughs Russell, agreeing that artists might do well to up the game on their liner notes. “Well, you know, I’ve always been the word nerd. That’s it. I have very few things that I can do — I can use my words, and I can use melodies, and that’s about it. So I’m finding new ways to use my words.”
The “Outside Child” album includes some harrowing recollections of or allusions to the trauma Russell experienced being sexually as well as emotionally abused growing up. She knows that recounting it at greater and more literal length will be a different experience than putting it into song was, as challenging as that was, too. “It’s definitely more emotionally harrowing, and I can feel already that it will demand a lot of me emotionally and will be tough. But I also feel ready and compelled to undertake it.”
Says Clark: “Allison opened herself to the world when she shared bits of her coming-of-age story in her album, leaving everyone wanting more. Now, she will tell the rest: growing up as an outsider in an abusive white supremacist household, running away from home at 15, and saving herself through music and the legacy of her Black ancestors. It’s every editor’s dream to find an author whose writing both captivates and encapsulates humanity.”
Thompson, who heads up the Thompson Literary Agency, recalls, “In May of ’21 when ‘Outside Child’ launched, I was sitting outside with my wife and our pod of pandemic friends, and a Spotify mix started playing ‘Nightflyer.’ The conversation stopped, everyone listening, wide-eyed, with jaws dropped. A quick Google search pulled up her story, and I was immediately attracted to the way that Allison could turn such unthinkable trauma into stunning lyrics… poetic, nuanced, playful, even joyous. … I went straight to the record store in town to buy ‘Outside Child’ … and the liner notes showed me immediately that she was just as fluid in prose as she was in song. The transmutation of trauma into joy is no easy feat, and I wanted to know more about how Allison had found survival through song, and moreover, how she has such a joyously optimistic view of the world, where BIPOC, queer folks and allies can band together to change the world.”
Thompson says the response to Russell’s proposal “was the swiftest I have ever witnessed as a literary agent. Meeting requests flooded in from more than 10 editors in just two days, but Bryn was the fastest and the most passionate, and we knew she was the one. With authors under her care such as Tarana Burke and Ashley C. Ford, I had a feeling Bryn would recognize Allison’s talent immediately, and her potential to make the world a better place with her words.” (Clark’s other projects include “The Three Mothers” by Anna Malaika Tubbs, “Hiding in Plain Sight” by Sarah Kendzior, “What Happened to You?” by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, and “Is Rape a Crime?” by Michelle Bowdler.)
The book deal helps Russell out at what she calls “a precarious time for performing artists. This pandemic is showing us how vulnerable we all actually are. When the walls came crashing down, both JT (Nero, her partner in life and in the duo Birds of Chicago) and I realized how vulnerable we were as subsistence-touring, working-class musicians, and that we didn’t have reserves that could carry us through one or two or three years of no work. So we both just really dug in on writing and on strategizing around how we could do that in more ways and support ourselves and our daughter and provide for our family. One of my goals was to write a book, but also to find a music publisher that I could be writing for in different ways, for other artists or for soundtracks,” which was fulfilled when she signed with Concord Music Publishing last year, keeping it in the family after signing with Concord Records.
The timing was also good in staving off any feelings about the Grammys being put on hold. “It’s so funny that we had the meeting with Bryn the day that we all found out the Grammys were indefinitely postponed. Of course we were all disappointed. I was really excited about the family reunion, more than anything — seeing my friends. But I just wasn’t obsessing on it in the way I would have otherwise, because (with the book) I did have a huge whale to catch. I feel like I’ve just touched the tip of her tail. And I was so joyful from that meeting that I just sat down and wrote 20 more pages, not even thinking about the Grammys.”
Book-writing may become a family business. Her and Nero’s 8-year-old daughter caught the bug. “Ida first was a little bit like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you writing for hours?’ But she’s into the idea of it now. And she’s been writing this fan fiction for a series of dragon books that she loves called ‘Wings of Fire,’ basically designing these graphic novels, and the stories that she’s writing are great. So she’s telling me about what’s happening in the book that she’s writing while I’m writing mine, and it’s just very joyful.”
Speaking of joy, Russell is promising greater dollops of that on her next album, which she expects to maybe release at around the same time her book comes out. “I think what comes next musically is going to be a departure,” she says. “I’m still in the midst of it, but I’m having a lot of fun writing right now. It’s been great to leave the ‘Outside Child’ story behind in the way that I’m writing for this next record. So the book will definitely be more of a companion for ‘Outside Child.’ The next record is going to be its own world.” So maybe a bit more of the “Joyful Motherfuckers” that “Outside Child” ended with, on an up note? “It’s going to be digging into the joyful motherfuckers, for sure,” she laughs. “Not sonically, but yeah, that idea of finding the coalition of the loving and just celebrating riotously together.”
“Outside Child” made appearances on Variety‘s lists of both the best albums and best songs of 2021. For more of Russell talking about the album and her road to the Grammys, read here.
From Streamers to Newspapers, Nonfiction Shorts Offer Awards and Audience Recognition
Back in the 1980s, former HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins saw an opportunity in the nonfiction short format.
“I was watching the Academy Awards one night and there was this category called best docu short and the people who made them were getting Oscars,” Nevins says. “At the Emmys, docus were kept hidden and given out on a special day. Docs were all by themselves in a corner at the Emmys, but at the Oscars doc filmmakers went up on the stage and they won. So, when I learned that we could qualify for this thing called a short and play with the big boys, I did it.”
In March 1989 HBO garnered its third Academy Award for “You Don’t Have to Die” — a 27-minute doc about 11-year-old Jason Gaes’ successful bout with cancer. It would be the first of 15 Oscars HBO nabbed in the documentary short nonfiction category during Nevins’ 38-year tenure at HBO.
If there had not been an Oscar category for short nonfiction content, Nevins says she would not have invested in them.
“It was a form to capitalize on,” says Nevins. “Certainly not share. I didn’t mean to share it.”
At HBO and in her new role as head of MTV Documentary Films, Nevins has had to “share” the Oscar category with numerous media platforms that see the opportunity the doc maven saw in short form content more than 20 years ago. Those platforms include Netflix, Disney Plus, MSNBC Films, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, A&E and ESPN.
Traditionally, doc shorts are made by up-and-coming directors looking to get their foot in the nonfiction filmmaking door. But the proliferation of platforms that are distributing short subject films has drawn established documentary feature helmers including Errol Morris, Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney to the format.
That said, the payday for a short doc is generally well below six figures because, in part, they are not moneymakers. But if a doc short receives an Oscar nom, or better yet, wins an Academy Award, both newbie and veteran filmmakers benefit career-wise.
So, what’s in it for the platform? Brand equity.
In 2017 Netflix garnered its very first Academy Award for Orlando von Einsiedel’s nonfiction short “The White Helmets.” The campaign to win that Oscar likely cost the streaming service more than it did to make “The White Helmets,” but it was a worthy investment. For one, it served as a signal to the entertainment industry’s creative talent circles that Netflix was legit. It also gave the streaming behemoth clout, which in turn increased subscription numbers.
Since 2016, Netflix has scored seven Oscar nominations in the documentary short category. This year the streaming service has four short docs on the Oscar shortlist: “Audible,” “Camp Confidential,” “Lead Me Home” and “Three Songs for Benazir.”
“I do think there is an element of prestige that’s certainly attractive for many platforms,” says Ryan Chanatry, general manager of Topic, First Look Media’s video streaming service. In 2018, Topic received their first nom in the Oscar short doc category for “Edith + Eddie.” While the streamer’s most recent short “Meltdown in Dixie” did not make this Academy Award shortlist, two nonfiction shorts from Topic’s sister company Field of Vision did: “The Facility,” which aired on MSNBC Films and “Terror Contagion,” which was released theatrically by Neon.
In addition to prestige, Chanatry says adaptation draws platforms to short content.
“A lot of the work does move on to become a full documentary or something scripted. It’s a great proof of concept opportunity for filmmakers.”
But Chanatry is quick to also note that short docs are appealing to many platforms including Topic because they “highlight important and critical issues.”
POV Shorts producer Opal H. Bennett agrees.
“PBS is coming at it from the broadcast perspective and being like, ‘We have these bits of time in the schedule that we want to be able to fill with engaging, educating and well-crafted content,’” says Bennett. “That’s where doc shorts fit the bill.”
Although the marketplace for nonfiction shorts has become more competitive, Bennett says POV Shorts will not be a part of any bidding wars.
“There might be a title that I’m interested in, but if Disney Plus or Netflix is also interested then I just say, ‘Go with God,’ and go with the next title because we don’t have $45,000 or $60,000 to pay for a doc short.”
That said, Bennett doesn’t think that Oscar glory is the sole reason Netflix is interested in nonfiction short form content.
“The more altruistic lens on Netflix is that they are perhaps building a pipeline. Because for the most part, short filmmakers are folks who are beginning their career or maybe emerging.”
Like HBO, PBS, the company behind POV Shorts, has been distributing short-form nonfiction content for decades. Launched in 2018, POV Shorts has received two Oscar nominations for its short docs. Together with the New Yorker, POV Shorts distributed two films that made this season’s short doc shortlist: “Aguilas” and “A Broken House.”
“We play nice with the digital-only distributors like the New Yorker and the New York Times Op-Docs,” Bennett says. “From our standpoint, it’s greater exposure and a broader audience for the filmmakers. It also means multiple license fees for the same title, which for a short documentary filmmaker is a big deal.”
Arguably short-form nonfiction content fits most naturally on news outlet sites, which could be why so many print giants have embraced the format.
“Short documentaries for the New Yorker makes sense because we’re able to dive deeper into a story,” says Soo-Jeong Kang, executive director of programming and development for the New Yorker. “It definitely serves our subscribers. It’s a new way for them to experience the New Yorker storytelling.”
To date, the New Yorker Studios has garnered three Oscar noms for its short doc content. Shorts serve not only subscribers, but are also a way to reach new audiences and “help us meet our revenue growth goals,” Kang says.
Time Studios — the television and film production division of Time — launched in 2020 and has generated more than $70 million in revenue. The production company is behind 2021 doc shorts including “From Devil’s Breath”’ and “Snowy.”
“Our focus is how do you make the most impact in the world with our storytelling,” says Time Studios president Ian Orefice. “I think the awards conversation is definitely a part of that broader strategy.”
One reason awards are part of the broader strategy is because trophies increase viewership.
“People watch [shorts] when they hear about them, but do they watch them when they are born? No,” Nevins says. “How are people going to hear about a short doc? People are only going to hear about it if it wins awards. So that’s why the award became important.”
When she relocated to MTV in May 2019, Nevins began acquiring nonfiction features as well as shorts In 2021 she garnered the network’s first Oscar nomination in 15 years for the short “St. Louis Superman,” the story of Black rapper and activist Bruce Franks, who was inspired to run for office by the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Last year MTV Documentary Films nabbed another Oscar nom in the short doc category for “Hunger Ward” and this year Nevins has two films — “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker” and “Lynching Postcards: “Token of a Great Day” — on the shortlist.
“Everybody in the docu business grew up watching the Academy Awards,” Nevins says. “They never thought they’d be able to go up there and get one, but now they have a shot with a short.”
XXXTentacion’s Manager and Producer Talk SoundCloud Reissues and the Long-Delayed Documentary
The late rapper XXXTentacion left behind a complicated legacy after he was murdered during a robbery in June of 2018 — dozens of platinum or gold-certified and influential songs amid charges of domestic abuse and violence. A pioneer in the SoundCloud emo-rap genre, nearly four years after his death, the Florida rapper’s earliest songs on the platform are finally seeing official release via Columbia beginning today (Jan. 28) with the song “Vice City,” which he originally uploaded in March of 2014. It marked XXXTentacion’s first released song, which was followed by many that he created and produced from his Florida home.
It also appears that a long-delayed documentary on the rapper, first announced in June of 2019, may finally be seeing the light of day.
While there is no set schedule for the individual tracks’ release on streaming platforms — beyond each song becoming available to once the rights have been cleared — a website, www.makeouthill.com, and a Twitter account (@makeouthill) will offer updates, music and information.
In a statement released earlier this week, Columbia announced the reissue campaign — and gave a small status update on a long-delayed documentary.
“We will continue to release music as we clear it, and are making sure we do it in a way that stays true to how X released each song originally,” the statement reads in part. “Beyond the music, we know X’s fans have been waiting patiently for the documentary and we will be sharing updates on it soon.” (Later material previously released through Caroline Records or Bad Vibes Forever/ Empire Distribution is not included in the Columbia deal.)
“there is light in all of us” pic.twitter.com/4bGi64ZSnJ
— MAKE OUT HILL (@makeouthill) January 26, 2022
“It’s important that people get to know and understand the origins of Jahseh [Onfroy, XXXTentacion’s real name],” says his longtime manager, Solomon Sobande. “People don’t know the early songs that built his rabid fanbase. In the scheme of things, there’s only a small number of people digging around SoundCloud for cool underground music. It’s important for his legacy for people to understand what he was making at a young age that ultimately connected to so many people. Those songs still feel relevant, and we want them available in the widest way possible.”
Columbia inked a deal with the rapper’s estate — which overseen by his mother, Cleo Bernard, and Sobande, along with his producer John Cunningham — in 2021; Ron Perry, inked XXXTentacion to a publishing deal at his SONGS Music before becoming the label’s CEO. “Ron Perry was a huge supporter of Jahseh during his life,” Sobande says. “He gave Jah his first publishing deal, so it was important to give Ron a chance to extend that legacy. We just wanted to make sure that this legacy was delivered in a way that was true to Jahseh in as original a format as possible.”
The project brings Cunningham, the executive producer behind XXXTentacion’s albums, full circle.
“I was interning for SONGS in 2017 when Ron Perry was president,” he says. “I had shown XXX’s material to Ron first, and he asked me to A&R the project. I didn’t know what that meant at the time,” he laughs, “but yeah, I wanted to do it.
“XXX came into NightBird Recording Studios [in Los Angeles],” he continues, “saw that I played guitar, started singing and that was it. There was no spoken agreement between us — just that he had all of these sounds and words in his head and a longtime desire to get it all out. He just didn’t have anyone to help him extract it.”
Picking up the thread, Sobande says, “He had many of these songs written already, some during his time in jail. He always had huge ideas; it was just about connecting him with creatives like John [Cunningham] to get those ideas out. There’s an interview where XXX said, ‘I want to be everything to my fans — I don’t want them to go to any other artist.’ That’s why he blended all those [musical] genres — he knew that genre lines would blur in the future.”
Of course, that attitude carried over to his strikingly vulnerable lyrics as well. “In 2017 and 2018, there weren’t many artists talking about their depression and mental health,” Cunningham says.
Sobande adds, “Fans connected with him because XXX expressed his feelings of being an outcast, of feeling alone and misunderstood. He gave a voice to the voiceless.”
Whether other material will be released by Columbia in the future is yet to be determined. “Our main focus right now is to rebuild Jah’s legacy from the beginning with these SoundCloud tracks, and getting them onto all [streaming services],” says Sobande. “That said, we love Ron and we love Columbia, and if the idea presented itself to do something in the future, we’d be happy to do it.”
Finally, the still-unnamed documentary, which was originally announced in June of 2019, will combine biographical data and live footage of the rapper, along with previously uncirculated material. It has been the subject of many rumors and misinformation — to the extent that web searches reveal an almost comical number of posts with variations on “Is the XXXTentacion documentuary coming out in 2019/ 2020/ 2021 on Netflix/ YouTube” etc.
Sources tell Variety that it will finally see release through a top streaming networks before the fall. Columbia declined comment.
“Let’s keep it chill here, Solomon — lock it tight,” Cunningham jokes when asked for details about the documentary.
“One thing I can say is that it is one of the best music documentaries I’ve seen,” Sobande says, “and I am a music documentary junkie.”