Olivia Chaney on Offa Rex, Her Collaboration with the Decemberists (interview)

Ahead of Offa Rex's Newport Folk Festival set, Olivia Chaney talked about the collaboration with the Decemberists.

I was lucky enough to catch two of Offa Rex’s performances this past summer, having been instantaneously won over by the lead single and title track from the record, The Queen of Hearts. The melodious harmonium intro on the track is so entrancing, I didn’t want to miss their brief tour. The band had only scheduled a few dates due in part to other commitments and perhaps limited by their already busy schedules, the Decemberists are actively touring and had their own festival in the summer while and their friend, “sublime English vocalist” Olivia Chaney, had arrived from across the pond.

One of the band’s tour stops was at Fort Adams State Park for the Newport Folk Festival (a recording from the previous show at XPoNential Festival is available via NPR). The Decemberists had performed at the fest previously and Chaney has been a lifelong fan of many of the fest’s past performers, drawing inspiration from many past artist’s rich folk legacy. We had a few minutes to sit down with Chaney ahead of Offa Rex’s set (where they braved cold winds) to discuss the process by which she collaborated with Colin Meloy, Newport, and pre-show rituals. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Your collaboration with the Decemberists, Offa Rex [for the release The Queen of Hearts], came about through tweets, emails with Colin Meloy and then touring with the band. That gave you the sense that this collaboration was possible. When crafting the album itself, what was the back and forth process like?

After I came off support tour with them, I got to know each of the band members kind of characteristics musically. Like any band they all have quite different backgrounds. Then Colin dreamt up the idea after listening to my record [The Longest River]. With me going on tour with them, it was only a while after that that [Colin] said we should make a record together. We started to-ing and fro-ing ideas. I think the fact that he is an American musician who has delved into the repertoire, in a sense later in his musical career in life, means that he has this obsessional quality about it. But, even though I don’t regard myself as a pure folkie, I am closely affiliated with a lot of the people, those who are still alive, who made the records that Colin and I both love. So it felt more important to address what kind of record we were going to make. I didn’t want to just try and recreate something that had already been done.

He got that. That was where the fun began. The kind of wrestling of ideas. He just sent a very short list of song ideas which were really bold and I really loved and I would certainly not have come up with on my own. Partly because of what I have just said. In a sense being, just some of that stuff feeling more untouchable to me, paradoxically perhaps it is closer. So that was great, being given license, in a way, to cover a song like, “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”, which has such a transatlantic kind of conversation and relationship in terms of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, and then the Roberta Flack version we all know and love as well.

So then I wrote a huge list and we just bounced ideas across. It wasn’t particularly tidy or organized. It was pretty organic, artistic process. A bunch of musicians. I eventually flew out to Portland with a pretty good stack of arrangements under my arm but there was still stuff that got created once I was there, things I tried with the band that didn’t work so well, things that I thought I hadn’t finished that I threw at the band that they took to really well.

How did you wrestle with the song selection process?

We basically ruled out American versions of things. I at one point I think maybe we wanted to do “Silver Dagger” or a kind of classic. I obviously grew up with a lot of the American revivalists as well. I totally grew up with Joan Baez and [Bob] Dylan and all the people who have played here at Newport back in the day. We wanted to keep it a kind of clear message in that sense. Otherwise it was just opening it up too wide.

The political history of folk music is present on the record as it has been here at Newport. How does the album address contemporary politics, such as Brexit or what’s happening in the U.S.?

I don’t think we went into the studio trying to make a political album per se. Colin’s choice, “Blackleg Miner”, is certainly the most political song. Generally (we were talking about that in an interview yesterday I think), I don’t see myself as an overtly political musician. I am more interested in where the message is in a sense more subtle and kind of covert. That’s how I try and write as well. It also means that you can get more messages across.

For me probably, my song choices and the way I approach arranging or the way I approach even performing a song is like a kind of a grander narrative. And there’s lots of wonderful implications. Even a song like “Sheepcrook [and the Black Dog]”, the kind of conversation, that even though it is a few hundred years old, I think is still painfully relevant today of class issues and jobs and societal roles. I think those issues never go away.

In all of Newport’s history, what act do you wish you could have performed with or wish you could have seen?

I’m not sure I would have wished I could have performed with her but I would have given my eye teeth to see Joni [Mitchell]. Actually, I think of the time she was here as her and Leonard Cohen were kind of dating for a brief period. I have just been reading [Cohen’s] biography [I’m Your Man] by Sylvie Simmons and it talks of him coming out here with her and then not long after, them breaking up because everyone kept saying to him “How’s it going out with Beethoven?”. It dented his ego too much, so then he dumped her.

Obviously the famous Dylan going electric, I grew up with that mythology, but I never got to see Joni live so I would have loved that.

How is it touring with the Decemberists?

Well I go back on the road with them in August doing a mixture of support and then jumping on stage and doing a feature of Offa Rex. They’re great. They are just the loveliest people. They have even let my boyfriend join part of the tour. He’s been on the bus with us. They are just lovely. They are really fun. I think, in a way, because they have been working together and traveling together so long, they are pretty good welcoming someone else into the family.

I don’t want to speak for them but I think maybe it is fun for them. Having me in the band as it were or having a new band means all of their roles have slightly shifted. So I think that’s been fun for them. Colin keeps saying him playing a sideman and his guitar playing is much more of a feature now. He’s an amazing guitarist, which you don’t necessarily get to hear with him in the Decemberists.

How do you feel you have grown through touring with them?

Oh, I’m still learning so much from doing it. I mean it’s tough. We’re not doing a massive run. If I knew we had a month run, I think it would be a different thing. We are still finding our feet live. That’s kind of the beauty of the whole project. It’s all been, not shambolic, but pretty organic. Colin came in with what he thought were really clear ideas, but I’ve got a big personality too. So it’s kind of grown and morphed into something we couldn’t have predicted. I think the live shows are a little bit of the same. I’ve played with bands before and collaborated, but I haven’t made records. Trying to bring this record onto the live stage is definitely a learning curve.

Do you still get a bit nervous when you take the stage? I read that in another interview. Or do you have any pre-show rituals?

I get incredibly nervous. Actually, depressing truth for me at the moment, it doesn’t seem to get better. It almost seems to get worse. [The Decemberists] do kind of a band prayer thing. We all join in and do that together which is really sweet. It does help. I still have my fears up in my throat before I walk on, and sometimes while I am playing. Normally once I am in the middle of a song, especially with these old ballads, once you are telling a story you focus on that.