Offa Rex's Olivia Chaney On The 'Dreamlike Nostalgia' Of English Folk

Jul 16, 2017
Originally published on July 16, 2017 5:03 am

For the last 15 years, English folk musician Olivia Chaney has done a little bit of everything. She performed as a vocalist with the electronic-pop group Zero 7, and alongside the acclaimed Kronos Quartet. She's done a stint as an actress and multi-instrumentalist at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. And in 2015, Chaney toured the world with The Decemberists to promote her debut solo album, The Longest River. But Chaney's involvement with the band didn't end there, thanks to an enthusiastic tweet by frontman Colin Meloy.

One thing led to another, and eventually Chaney joined forces with The Decemberists to form a new group: Offa Rex. On its new album, The Queen Of Hearts, Offa Rex reimagines traditional English folk songs (including "Willie O'Winsbury"). Read on for highlights of Chaney's conversation with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about Offa Rex and her relationship to English folk music, and hear the interview at the audio link.


Interview Highlights

On the song "The Old Churchyard"

This feels like one of the tracks that really was a true collaboration and meeting of all of the band's and mine and Colin's beliefs about a song like this. ... "The Old Churchyard," in particular, was one [song] that I started just singing solo, a cappella, at gigs. ... What I think's so special about it is that although you feel the religious, spiritual roots, to me it's very timeless and universal as well.

On what she sees as the power of English folk music

I've tried to kind of use nursery rhymes or these timeless refrains ... in this almost dreamlike nostalgia for something we've perhaps never known. Those are all themes which I'm fascinated by in poetry, literature and song. I think I am often drawn to music that is dealing with these age-old, recurrent, human-condition kind of themes. And also touching upon mysticism in a very kind of open-ended — not necessarily one religion or other — kind of way.

On a musical revelation Chaney had while performing in Tuscany early in her career

This was the period when I started to delve back into folk music. Or not even delve back in — start to delve into, because I'd not grown up on old field recordings and my parents Morris dancing on the folk circuit like some people I know. I'm not a true folkie in that sense.

[There was] an old Sephardi Jewish hymn which I found myself remembering from a wonderful teacher at college. Just standing and singing that barefoot, a cappella, in front of a random crowd in Italy ... I just felt this real connection to something and the human voice and the simple text. I think from that point on, I realized that I needed to keep searching for that kind of — I can't use the words "purity" or "truth," really, can I? But I think at that point that's what it felt like.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For the last 15 years, musician Olivia Chaney has done a little bit of everything. She performed as a vocalist with the group Zero 7 and alongside the acclaimed Kronos String Quartet. Most recently, she toured the world with The Decemberists. Now Olivia Cheney has joined up with that band and its frontman, Colin Meloy, to form the supergroup Offa Rex. Their new album, "The Queen Of Hearts," reimagines traditional English folk music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE QUEEN OF HEARTS")

OFFA REX: (Singing) To the queen of hearts, he's the ace of sorrow. He's here today. He's gone tomorrow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thanks so much for being here.

OLIVIA CHANEY: Oh, thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us how this project came about? It seems a little bit of an odd pairing at first glance.

CHANEY: (Laughter) Well, I believe it started on Twitter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ha.

CHANEY: Yeah. I was touring my solo record and was in some kind of cheap hotel in Brooklyn, I seem to recall, when I saw something come up on Twitter. And it was Colin Meloy saying, you know, I wish Olivia Chaney would sing "Willie O'Winsbury."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think I actually have the tweet right here. It's from June of 2015, right after...

CHANEY: Oh, wow (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Your solo album came out. And I can't read it on air.

CHANEY: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Colin wrote, I suppose if Olivia Chaney ever did "Willie O'Winsbury," I would lose my...

CHANEY: Beep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIE O'WINSBURY")

CHANEY: (Singing) And Willie of the Winsbury has lain long with his daughter at home. What ails you? What ails you, my daughter Janet? Why you look so pale and wan? Or have you had any sore sickness or yet been sleeping with a man?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So lovely.

CHANEY: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was hoping we could listen to an older recording of one of the songs you chose to record for this album, "The Old Churchyard," and then your version. And maybe you could help us see how you updated. So let's listen to the old recording first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OLD CHURCHYARD")

THE WATERSONS: (Singing) Come, come with me out to the old churchyard. I so well know those paths beneath the soft, green sward. Friends slumber in there that we want to regard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So that's the English folk band The Watersons, who recorded it in the 1970s. And here is the Offa Rex version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OLD CHURCHYARD")

OFFA REX: (Singing) Come, come with me out to the old churchyard. I so well know those paths beneath the soft, green sward. Friends slumber in there that we want to regard. We will trace out their names in the old churchyard.

CHANEY: This was so nice you picked this because this feels like one of the tracks that really was a true collaboration and kind of meeting of all of the bands and mine and Colin's, you know, beliefs about a song like this. And I came with my own very strong association, which - this song, The Old Churchyard," in particular, was one that I started just singing solo a cappella at gigs. And I would just suddenly start singing it within basically not really folk clubs, you know, not places where you would particularly expect to hear an a cappella voice singing an old, kind of religious song. But for me, what I think's so special about it is that although you feel the religious spiritual roots, to me it's kind of very timeless and universal, as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me - for you, the power of English folk music in particular - these songs, when you hear them - they seem so resonant. They seem like - almost like a dream that you might have had, even if you're not familiar with the music itself.

CHANEY: That's such a lovely way of putting it. And I've tried to kind of use nursery rhymes or these timeless refrains that, exactly like you say, have this almost dream-like nostalgia for something we've perhaps never known. You know, those are all themes which I'm fascinated by in poetry and literature and song. And I think I am often drawn to music that is dealing with these age-old recurrent human condition kind of themes and also, as you say, touching upon mysticism and - you know, in a very kind of open-ended - not necessarily one religion or other kind of way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read that you had a bit of a realization about your music after you left school when you were spending some time in Tuscany.

CHANEY: Oh, wow. Gosh, I'm trying to think where you would've read that. But yeah. I - this was the period when I started to delve back into folk music - or not even delve back in - start to delve into because I've not grown up on, you know, old field recordings and my parents Morris dancing. You know, on the folk circuit, like, some people I know - I'm not a true folkie in that sense. But again, bizarrely, in terms of the thing I was talking about before, it was actually an old Sephardi Jewish hymn which I found myself remembering from a wonderful teacher at college.

And just standing and singing that barefoot a cappella in front of, you know, a random crowd in Italy on some slightly heartbroken trip I was on out there - I just felt this real connection to something and the human voice and a simple text. And, yeah, I think, from that point on, I realized I needed to keep searching for that kind of - oh, I don't know. I can't use the words purity or truth, really, can I? But I think, at that point, that's what it felt like.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you by chance remember that hymn? And could you sing a little bit of it?

CHANEY: Oh, gosh.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The way you described it is so beautiful.

CHANEY: Yeah, it's pretty short. I'll give it a go. I wasn't expecting to sing today (laughter). OK. (Singing in foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want you to know I have tears in my eyes.

CHANEY: Aww.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Olivia Chaney. Her new project with The Decemberists is Offarex. Their album is "The Queen of Hearts." Thank you so much for joining us and for singing for us today.

CHANEY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GARDENER")

CHANEY: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.