​Olivia Chaney Takes 'Shelter' Wherever She Can Find It

Photo: Rich Gilligan / Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Olivia Chaney's Shelter is a purposely intimate record. She uses the sheer beauty of her vocals and the wood and wire instruments to create reflective and spiritual music.

Olivia Chaney


15 June 2018

Olivia Chaney's Shelter is a purposely intimate record. The acoustic songs feature the London-based singer songwriter's voice front and center. She expresses herself with loud vibrant vocal flourishes and open emotionalism. Yet she also maintains a formal distance. She uses the sheer beauty of her vocals and the wood and wire instruments to create reflective and spiritual music. Chaney's Britfolk sound self-consciously evokes past masters of the genre, particularly Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, but the evocation of another time has a different meaning now. What was once radical is now traditional.

Of course, traditional does not mean popular nor does it mean plagiarism. Chaney carves out her own path. She wrote eight of the ten tracks on the album with the other two being distinct interpretations of the original compositions: Henry Purcell's "O Solitude" and Frank Harford and Tex Ritter's "Long Time Gone". Her rendition of "Long Time Gone" varies greatly from the Everly Brother's version. Chaney transforms the song into a young girl's cry of freedom through the way she accents certain phrases and the way she celebrates the act of leaving. It's a lovely twist on a song that seemed deliberately male in terms of its archetypal gender roles and the relationship.

Chaney delivers the more romantic material such as "IOU" and "Roman Holiday" with a kind of bouncy joy that makes one feel the love as well as its fragility whenever one couples with another. That also suggests the fantasy of these feelings. Who doesn't always want to feel love when it is a good thing? The artifice of such a world can only exist in song. Such music can function as an escape from the world.

The deepest songs such as "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and "Colin and Clem" offer a more varied strata of meaning. Her tribute to the young adult novel and its theme about the willingness to dream also conveys the emotive hold a story can have. The impact Francie Nolan has had on the generations since Betty Smith wrote it back in 1943 cannot be underestimated. Chaney obviously felt it, too. It makes one wonder if there is a Tree of Heaven growing outside the window right now.

But the record is meant for indoor listening. The outdoors is too noisy for such quiet music. The album was produced by Thomas Bartlett (David Byrne, Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, Father John Misty). He and Chaney's longtime collaborator Jordan Hunt are the only other musicians besides Chaney on the record. The songs are spacious, and there are many silent and very tranquil moments.

The title track, which introduces the disc, provides a good example of this serenity. Chaney lets the high notes ring. The instrumentation keeps the rhythm and the beat moving, at a steady but slightly slowed down pace. Chaney's voice changes timbre and speed, but never goes too fast. The whole point of the song has to do with finding a safe space, which she recreates using the music. That's a noble goal. And sometimes we all need asylum. But I can't help wish that I knew Chaney more. Although her music is naked in one sense of the world (sparseness), she doesn't reveal herself here.






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