Every few years I discover an album by a band whose music I don’t know, and I’m simply blown away by their talent, by how much their songs make me feel and imagine. Long ago it happened when a friend put on Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and in more recent years with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and Arcade Fire’s Funeral. It’s happened again, though this time not with a rock band but, to my surprise, with a British folk singer.
Olivia Chaney opens her debut album The Longest River with her arrangement of a 17th century traditional Scottish folk song. Chaney’s elegant vocal and purity of phrasing brings deep emotion to a familiar story: a young woman loves a lad, who forsakes her and marries another; the lass is distraught and wishes only for death’s release. Exquisitely arranged and sung with a bell-like timbre, Chaney’s “False Bride” is reminiscent of Joan Baez singing “Silkie” or “Jackaroe”. Throughout this album, Chaney scatters folk songs from different traditions and different eras that she’s rearranged, dipping back to the great English composer Henry Purcell and his 17th century song “There’s Not a Swain of the Plain”, to more contemporary but traditional songs from Norway and Scotland, as well as “La Jardinera,” a folk song written by Violeta Parra, the much beloved Chilean folk musician from the mid-20th century, a song Chaney sings in Spanish. What’s remarkable is how new she makes these old songs. The instrumentation is stripped down — often she’s just playing guitar or piano with an occasional string line added for enrichment — and she creates rhythm by virtue of her vocal phrasing, more how a jazz singer or poet does.
Chaney follows “False Bride” with her own song “Imperfections,” a piano ballad that would not be out of place on Joni Mitchell’s great album Blue. And this is what’s so incredible: Chaney can arrange and sing a song comparable to Baez’s interpretation of traditional ballads, and follow with a Mitchell-like original that weaves a remarkable lyric and unique vocalization into a beautiful melody. “Crying on a plane to New York, New York”, the song begins, and Chaney goes on to sing, “Traveling alone / Fans flames / Smokeless, smoldering / I depart without declaration / Almost feeling I could become someone”. Chaney’s imagery and relation to language is more like our contemporary poets than our songwriters. She seldom writes verse and chorus songs, or repeats lines, choosing instead to tell stories and dig deep into emotions through a series of images.
Chaney never goes so far with her lyricism that as listeners we lose the sense of meaning. But if you like poetic lines, or you like to hear a song for the tenth time and realize that you just now understood something beautiful, you will like these songs. Sample lines from “Swimming in the Longest River” give you a sense of her brilliance: “Gave him a book on Freud’s lectures / Only book he read, least that’s what he said / ‘Don’t deny erotic pleasure’ / Page well-thumbed, he found the line he needed / Freud never got to beloved Egypt / Fled the Nazis, not his fears / They say the longest river is denial / Is denial, is denial.” Sung to a slightly irregular melody, these lines are even better heard than they are on the page.
“Imperfections” is just one of many Chaney songs that plumbs in unusual ways the common subject of understanding one’s selfhood while trying to find love. “Loose Change”, “Swimming in the Longest River”, and “Too Social” present the ambivalence that comes from making oneself vulnerable to a love object who may be untrustworthy. Chaney shifts major and minor keys in songs and varies the rhythms from measure to measure; her exploration of relationships never works typical pop veins of melody, image, or verse and chorus structure. Each song is unique — after enough listens, you realize it’s exactly what you didn’t know you were waiting for. I am not aficionado enough of traditional British folk music to rave about this record because of the traditional ballads, as good as they are. What makes this album transcendent is how Chaney’s original compositions speak to, enlarge, and finally contain within themselves this line of traditional music even as they’re exploring contemporary subjects.
Olivia Chaney’s range of styles and knowledge of numerous folk traditions has come, perhaps, from all the cultural influences in her life. Born to an Australian mother and Anglo-Dutch father, raised in England listening to a wide range of music from opera to Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan, Chaney landed a scholarship to Manchester’s Chetham’s School of Music for voice and piano, and then graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London. But she grew more interested in multi-media/cross-genre collaborations, which led to her working for two years as actress and musician at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. In subsequent years she has performed with traditional bands such as Concerto Caledonia as well as doing her own songs in solo shows. She’s had a substantial career generally in the arts.
I am a big fan of Laura Marling’s music, and Marling is perhaps the best contemporary comparison to Chaney, not in the particular ways that they are both indebted to folk music — they have different debts and different styles — or even what their songs sound like, but because they are both huge talents. Marling is younger but far more accomplished in her career, having already at the age of 25 released five albums, three of which were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. In her early thirties, Chaney is just now releasing a debut album. How an artist’s career evolves can be mysterious and serendipitous. But whatever is to come in the future for Olivia Chaney, for listeners of The Longest River now it’s like we’re back in the late ’60s when Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell burst like supernovas onto the folk scene. There may not be the same possibility for commercial success as Collins or Mitchell had — the times are different — but Chaney is a major talent, whose record doesn’t just suggest that there’s greatness ahead. The record is great.