Formal and informal, traditional and offbeat, the juxtaposing aspects of Olivia Chaney’s music career make her a difficult artist to categorize or boil down into one niche. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she was classically trained as a vocalist, pianist and cellist. She is also an English folk artist, whose 2015 album The Longest River was described by The Guardian as “an enchanting, stately creation.” Most recently, Chaney is the voice of Offa Rex, a musical project created by Chaney and the Portland indie band The Decemberists. Together the musicians recorded the traditional folk album The Queen of Hearts. Weaving sorrowful elegies and nostalgic ballads of hope, the record calls to mind a distant past, even as its timeless themes inspire its modern day listeners.
Fresh off her tour, Chaney spoke with SF Weekly about the power of folk music, working with The Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy, and why she doesn’t care about being famous.
SF Weekly: You studied classical music while you were at school. How has that influenced the way you write songs and perform now?
Olivia Chaney: Enormously. Growing up, it was the music that was around my family. My love of classical music is still very prevalent: I play Bach badly everyday at the piano. Not really to keep my technical chops up, but more like as yoga for my musical brain.
SFW: What does folk as a music style convey that other genres can’t?
Chaney: For a start, the word folk is so broadly and differently interpreted, so I wouldn’t want to assume anything. For me, what folk gives is a kind of earthiness and something pre-industrial. In the part of the world where I’ve grown up, revivals of folk culture often happened when societies were getting very industrialized. There’s a reason for that, and I think that’s because whatever the word folk means now has to do with pretty ancient traditions and expressions of different cultures, and the timeless, universal themes within them.
What classical music and folk music share is a sacredness to the music — it’s really trying to go very deep, where it’s about human condition, really timeless, and touches on powerful themes that no one can deny.
SFW: Why do you think people are still connecting with these old, traditional songs?
Chaney: Because I believe that the machine doesn’t have all the answers. There’s subtle and less subtle movements back to all sorts of aspects of folk culture now. Even in types of food — there’s a huge reaction to the industrialization of food manufacturing now, with organic farming and local food movements. To me, I see that as quite connected to the return of interest to what people might call folk music.
There are so many anti-corporate folk movements in the surge of local coffee shops, or people going back to vinyl, or stuff like that. We live in quite a strange, post-postmodern time where we have a nostalgia for this stuff. There is that attempt to go back to basics, or get back to a simplicity and purity and directness.
SFW: For The Queen of Hearts, are all the songs an equal collaborative effort between you and the band, or do you feel like there are certain tracks that are “your” song?
Chaney: There’s definitely some songs where I feel like I came with a pretty solid arrangement — actually the title track is one of these songs — but the band and everyone’s personalities became imbued in each of those arrangements, so I definitely wouldn’t say that any of the songs were just mine. We made the record together.
SFW: Were there any drawbacks to collaborating with other musicians, after years of recording solo?
Chaney: No, there’s not drawbacks. I think there are really humbling, completely human lessons to be learned from having to collaborate and work with other people. It’s important to have someone else’s opinion, because otherwise you just start going down wormholes in your own brain.
Colin and I have had interviews where we’ve both laughed and been like, “Of course our egos have wrestled.” But we’ve become closer friends because of it, and it’s been a good lesson and experience for both of us I think. I think we were both quite challenged by each other and the project, but we both came out with results that we were surprised by and that we liked.
SFW: You’re becoming an increasingly prominent figure in British folk. Do you want to be famous?
Chaney: No, I don’t want to be famous for the sake of being famous. I wouldn’t seek that. But as I get older, I’m having to face the fact that if I want to carry on doing music at a certain level, then I need an audience just to survive and make a living.
I don’t want to be famous, but I do want an audience. I want to communicate with people — that’s pretty much a life force for me. But I’m also coming to an age where it’s like, if I can’t make that audience grow beyond a certain point, then it’s just hard to survive financially, even if you’re signed on to a big label.
SFW: You don’t strike me as a very Hollywood artist.
Chaney: Well that might be partly because I’m not famous or that successful, but I’ll take it as a compliment.
It’s tricky. I write music and I play music that I want to give people pleasure, but I think it’s pleasure from being moved and being made to think. That sounds really arrogant, but I’m trying to discuss big things and talk about being alive and that isn’t always very popular immediately with people.
But that’s partly why I love doing what I’m doing. When I get out there I can feel that people are maybe chatting at first and there’s resistance, but then you get to the point where you feel you have made them stop and listen to something — that’s something really special. That’s quite a privilege, and a luxurious place to get to as a performer, and it’s bloody hard-won too, and that’s what I’m striving for.
SFW: Any final comments?
Chaney: I’m trying to communicate to people and move people and write music and say stuff that’s maybe a bit transcendent and make people think beyond themselves.