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Russell was born in Los Angels and grew up in Park LaBrea, a planned community built for workers in the aerospace industry. There was always music around the house and artistic pursuits were encouraged.
"My grandfather, Val (Vladimir) Rosing, was a Russian opera singer," Russell recalled. "He moved to California to direct operas at the Hollywood Bowl and the American Opera Company at the Eastman School in New York. He was married five times. My dad was Val Rosing as well, born Valerian Rosing. He was vocalist for the BBC Dance Orchestra in the 1930s and had the original million-selling hit with "Teddy Bears' Picnic." He also played drums in his own band the Rhythm Rascals."
When her father landed in Hollywood, he was given the American sounding name Gilbert Russell by a business associate in Hollywood. Russell's mother was a dancer and toured the country before she landed in L.A. "She was in the right place, at the right time, with the right gams, as they used to say in those days," Russell joked. Her mom appeared in White Christmas, An American in Paris and was in the chorus line on the Jimmy Durante Show on NBC.
"After my parents broke up, I remember spending Saturday afternoons listening to music with my Dad," Russell said. "Musicals like South Pacific. He had speakers the size of filing cabinets in his home with his new wife. He was a fan of all music and all things British...even the Rolling Stones. He turned me onto the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, José Feliciano, Ella Fitzgerald, Simon & Garfunkel, and jazz. He was a vocal coach for folks like Natalie Wood, Beau Bridges, and Shirley Jones, as well as younger students that turned him onto things that he passed onto me. I never thought about performing, but I liked music and other girls were learning to play guitar. My dad showed me E, A, and B7, which is a gnarly chord for a kid. He got me lessons, but I didn't like to practice." Russell learned Travis picking at Westwood Music and felt at home with the folk singers who were starting to make music. "I could sing even as a child. My dad has an old recording of me singing at four years old and I had pitch. I'm glad he got me to the guitar; it brings me comfort and is my pain relief. I don't think I'd be half as sane as I am, if I wasn't making music."
Russell made up songs when she was younger, but never thought her songs could measure up to the work of her favorite artists. In 1969, her step-mother put an ad in the local newspaper saying: "Singer looking for a band." Ted Waterhouse, still a friend and collaborator after all these years, called Russell up and asked her to audition for his band the Rubber Ducks. She was just 15, but was soon fronting the band, doing covers of rock and folk hits like "White Rabbit" and "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down."
Russell went to CCLA in their Radio Broadcasting Program and was a DJ on the college station. At home she wrote songs, played guitar, and dreamed of being a performer, but didn't know how to start. She worked for the LAPD and as a bartender. Ted Waterhouse reappeared and hired Russell for his new Western Swing band, Tequila Mockingbirds. They went on the road for almost three years opening for strippers and bad comedians. When she wasn't on the road, Russell did demo sessions and sang background on the albums of songwriter friends.
In 1990, Russell was one third of the Life Is Grand Band with Jill Freeman and Laura Zambo-Flores. They blended original material and satirical rewrites of pop songs with their a cappella vocals. Russell was still writing and while she never showed her bandmates her songs, she did co-write one tune with Freeman and Zambo-Flores. Her day job was working behind the counter at the gift shop at the LaBrea Tar Pits. In the mid-'90s, Russell joined songwriter Allison MacLeod in Maggie's Farm. They got signed to an RCA subsidiary, played Farm Aid and got to invited to open a bunch of shows for Kris Kristofferson, at his personal invitation.
"I was still a closet songwriter, despite all my stage experience singing and playing guitar," Russell said. "I finally took a singing class from Rosemary Butler, who sang with Linda Rondstadt and Jackson Brown, and met other songwriters there who were very encouraging. I also met my husband and musical partner Bruce Kaplan and started a band called Almost Angels, but I still had serious stage fright. We'd play only a few shows every year."
In 1998 Russell entered a song into the Kerrville Folk Festival's new songwriters competition and got into the finals. "Bruce and I performed there. The guy who ran it, Rob Kennedy, gave us a pep talk about being writers and artists and that finally gave me permission to become a songwriter."
Back in L.A., Russell, Kaplan, and producer Mark Governer, who wrote soundtrack music for directors like Russ Meyers, started working on Song Food, Russell's debut. The album was a hit, gaining airplay on over 100 stations, and won the Best New Artist Award from WUMB in Boston. "Bruce and I went out on the road as a duo to support the album. We played from Hollywood to Hyannis, anywhere they'd give us 50 bucks. They say the more you play, the more (your stage fright) goes away, but I wasn't sure. Then we played a pizza place in Vermont. It was so small and so close, that I was almost face to face with the audience. I didn't have time to get frightened and it was a really fun gig."
In 2001 Russell and Kaplan started working on Russell's second album, Ready to Receive. During the process they moved to Berkeley, CA. The album took about four years to come together, and capitalized on the underground buzz of Song Food. In 2007, Russell followed up with Live Band Tonight under the billing of Claudia Russell and the Folk Unlimited Orchestra, an ever shifting confederation of friends and relations that shrinks or enlarges according to venue. "I'm sporadically touring and working day jobs," Russell says philosophically. "Studio work and live gigs are two different animals, but there's room for both of them in the zoo. I sound better live than on record. Bruce says that records are slight of hand, but live gigs are real magic. I use alternative tunings on the guitar and I'm a good fingerpicker and the audience always fuels my passion. I started writing songs a little bit late, but maybe that's a good thing. I can feel it unfolding and beckoning me on and that feels good. These days, I can finally say 'I'm a songwriter.'" ~ j. poet, Rovi