Olivia Chaney

Q&A: Olivia Chaney

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London-based singer/songwriter Olivia Chaney recently followed up her 2015  debut, The Longest River, with Shelter, an album produced by Thomas Bartlett (David Byrne, The National, St. Vincent). This rising folk star has already shared the stage with legendary acts includes Robert Plant, Zero 7, the Labeque Sisters, Martin and Eliza Carthy, and Kronos Quartet. Most recently she fronted a Grammy-nominated album, The Queen of Hearts, forming a new outfit, Offa Rex, with the Decemberists.

We wanted to learn more about this emerging artist so we reached out to Olivia to talk about the recording of her latest album, how the collaboration with the Decemberists came about, and what she thinks accounts for the recent popularity of Folk music.

What was it about a rustic, 18th-century cottage in the hills of the North Yorkshire Moors that inspired you to write your latest album?
Soaking up the natural beauty of that very unique landscape… whilst being solitary, remote and fending for myself!

What would you like listeners most to take away from “Shelter”?
One reviewer said ‘…here is transcendent refuge from the storm.’… I loved that.

Folk music seems to have gained immensely in popularity. What do you think accounts for it and what drew you to the genre?
It has, hasn’t it? Which is great! The term is now so broad that at worst it’s a little hard to distinguish what the hell folk music is! At best, I think the very broad umbrella has drawn people in who maybe feel they need something more earthy, ‘real’, gritty, less machine-made. Also, sounds and songs that are maybe expressing universal themes in powerful, direct ways — not always quaint or earnest at all as some people might think — and not just about the same old clichés (although there’s plenty of sex and death in folk anyway!). I suppose folk music at its best has a kind o built-in integrity — being of the ‘people’. When you hear an ancient song written by ‘anon’, played by someone who’s played that music for generations, there’s nothing quite as stirring. I’ve just absorbed a lot of that stuff along with my classical training and my very eclectic listening tastes in my 20’s! It’s a mish-mash I think but if people want to call me Folk that’s fine too!

From what I’ve read about you it sounds like music has played a big part in your life for a very long time. When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
Yes, thanks to my super artistic, literary family and my Dad having been a painter, but also having had a band when he was younger too (alongside the Fairport Convention types), I grew up with a love of music around me, and a crazy range of listening tastes too! I never really questioned that I’d do anything else. It definitely felt like a calling. Making music and singing for people is my lifeblood.

Olivia Chaney
Olivia Chaney

Do you still get nervous when you take the stage?
Always! But that doesn’t mean I don’t love playing for people. I guess I’m just quite intense — as can be my music — in a quiet sort of a way!

Let’s talk about your time with the Decemberists in Offa Rex. How did this collaboration happen?
Colin Melody was a fan of my debut album, The Longest River (Nonesuch) which is nice, and he invited me to come and play a support tour with them around the States. Next thing, he’d invited me to make a record with them covering old folk songs out in Portland, OR. We made it with Tucker Martine (Laura Veirs, My Morning Jacket, First Aid Kit) and we had a ball. I even managed a holiday with my boyfriend camping on the Oregon coast in the middle of it, which was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had!

What was it like touring with the Decemberists? Any interesting road stories you can share with our readers?
Fantastic. Amazingly, I think we’ve all grown fonder of each after that experience. Making the album was one thing but living on a bus and traveling together is something else. It was a supportive vibe. Funny story: me getting what it turns out they call ‘oil spotted’. I was still in our hotel in Salt Lake City, I got outside with my suitcase only to watch the tour bus pull away. They took about 20 minutes to come back and I wasn’t sure for a while. Colin is Mr. Punctual so I thought that was it 🙂 Turned out Chris Funk had told our TM and driver that I was on the bus (cuz he thought I was in the bunk asleep or something). He bought me a dream catcher as a gift to say sorry and we all had a big laugh about it 🙂 after I got teased relentlessly.

You’re playing San Francisco in a couple of weeks. Have you played here before? If so what do you think of our city?
First and last time I sang in your beautiful town was lead singing with an electronica band from the noughties — Zero 7 (including my own folky renditions of Sia’s hits with them ;-). I got given a guided tour (in a car!) by a guy who worked at the venue — he took me up to Golden Gate and everything. It was a great sightseeing whistle-stop tour, but I’ve sadly never had time to hang out here, much though I’d like to! Super excited to come and play Swedish American Hall — and alongside Laura Gibson whom I’ve known about for so long (partly through The Decemberists also) but never met — so thanks for putting us on together, how lovely!

What’s next for Olivia Chaney?
Writing and making more music/records! Moving to the countryside, at least part-time! Kids!

Olivia Chaney, Laura Gibson (Solo) play the Swedish American Hall, August 16 // Noise Pop Presents 21+ // $15 – $17

Having released albums under Digital Nations, a label founded by Steve Vai, music critic Louis Raphael has remained deeply connected to the pulse of the San Francisco music scene. Following his tenure as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he embarked on creating Music in SF® to authentically highlight the vibrant offerings of the city's music scene.

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