6 questions for English singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney
This weekend, The Pabst Theater Group debut a new performance space both new, though it will seem extremely familiar to most: Colectivo Coffee on Prospect. The intimate back room of the coffee shop has previously played host to special parties, film festival speakers and other events. On Sunday night, however, the space will play the role of concert hall for the first time for a nationally touring artist.
While the prospect of potentially snagging a cup of coffee and a concert at a venue both cozily familiar and relatively untapped certainly has its appeal, make no mistake: The main draw Sunday evening is still definitely the performer, Olivia Chaney. The English singer-songwriter may have just released her first album, "The Longest River," this past April, but her lyrical, leaping and soulfully spare approach – applied to folk tunes both old and new – has already earned her fans and raves on both sides of the pond.
Before her show Sunday night – her first visit to Milwaukee – I got a chance to chat with Chaney about finding her new album, her musical voice and her journey to keep it intact.
OnMilwaukee.com: What really got you interested and started in music?
Olivia Chaney: I just kind of started! My parents didn't really have much money, but they inherited from a great aunt or something a really, really old, beautiful, upright German piano, all carved and still with ivory keys – I mean, it was that old. It was just in the house, and my family was very literary and artistic and stuff – none of them were actually musicians – but there was just this piano, and by the age of three, I just starting mucking around on it. I think my parents realized, oh, maybe we should get her some lessons, so I eventually got piano lessons. But I spent a lot of my childhood just improvising and stuff.
Then I had really rigorous study. By the time I was 22, I had done, like, eight years of these really intense institutions. And then I kind of went full circle and decided to teach myself guitar after graduating from the Royal Academy (of Music). (laughs) So that's the kind of summarized version of my life of study and non-study. (laughs)
OMC: Which technique did you prefer: the more rigorous institutional one or the more relaxed self-taught version?
OC: That's a great question, and in a way, I'm a weird mix. I hope and I think that my music, in a sense, reflects that. In some ways, at its worst, I get accused of being austere and, you know, very straight ahead. But I think if you listen carefully, you can hear that there's inflections of my various obsessions and maybe even small improvisatory or experimental stuff and my love of 20th century composers and contemporary classical.
It's kind of all in there, but I've kind of channeled it through, um, I don't know, perhaps more … ah, I'm not even going to try and find a word because you'll quote me on it. You can think of one. (laughs) But yeah, for me, both are really important, and the musicians and the composers that I really love are the people who manage to break rules but at the same time perhaps acknowledge the craft.
OMC: It's kind of that whole "You have to know the rules to break them" thing.
OC: Yeah, that kind of thing. Yeah.
OMC: What is your ultimate guilty pleasure artist or song on your iPod?
OC: Oh God, I've gone blank! I've been so busy trying to do my own thing and put this record out that I've barely been listening to stuff. I don't really have anything that I listen to that I'm ashamed of.
I'm not even really using my iPod; I'm going on YouTube, and even now and again, for some reason, I end up watching some Michael Jackson videos. I'm just like, "Oh my f*cking God," (laughs) forgetting how otherworldly that guy was. He was such a kind of freak of nature when he was alive, and it's almost like him dying didn't happen. He's like in Elvis status, where he's this mythical creature that almost never existed. When you watch him on video now, I find it quite kind of disturbing and incredible and celebratory and moving – all at the same time. It's just now that he's not here, you're just reminded that, Jesus, that guy was from another planet, just the talent was crazy.
OMC: You released your debut album just in April. How was that experience, starting from the recording of it?
OC: Well, in a way, it's been an even longer journey than that because signing to Nonesuch Records is like a part of the journey, and that was really a dream come true – in a strange sense, a dream that I never kind of dared have? (laughs)
I finally sat in an office with Bob Hurwitz and David Bither, the heads of it. Bob Hurwitz is someone who's worked with Joni Mitchell, Glenn Gould, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, basically all of my heroes. And I just felt, because I've been doing music since I was tiny and I think I've always had a slightly wacky approach in a way – even though some people hear my album as really straight ahead and even my attitude toward classical music is not typical or whatever – that meeting those guys at Nonesuch felt like I'd found my home. Like after all of this toil and feeling misunderstood and feeling slightly outcast in whichever world I was in – I'm too folk in the indie circuit, or I'm not pop enough in the pop world, or I'm not classical enough for classical circuit – finally Nonesuch was like, "Yeah, totally, we get it; we love it," with no need for explanation. They just totally understand my approach to songwriting and appreciate my influences. So that was amazing.
OMC: How was the recording process?
OC: We picked RAK Studios in London, kind of quite an old school rock 'n' roll one full of wood and history and atmosphere – when you walk into a room and you can feel the atmosphere and history there but in a low key way. It's around the corner from studios like Abbey Road and stuff, but it's the kind of slightly more laid back.
I made it with a real old veteran engineer (Jerry Boys) who recorded "Sandy Denny." He worked with The Beatles back in the day; he recorded "Buena Vista Social Club." He's literally been around forever. He's known for where he puts the microphone and capturing the vibe.
I kind of had to justify to a lot of people my co-producer (Leo Abrahams) who's a great friend. He's worked a lot with Brian Eno and does a lot of very layered music, but he loves my songwriting. All the people around me who've supported me and known and loved my music, they were like, "Oh my god, yes! She's signed to Nonesuch; this is it! We can get in and make her music bigger or something!" And I, even with my slight tendency to self-doubt, had to really be strong and follow my gut and be bold and keep it sparse and keep stuff off of it and not do that thing where songwriters suddenly have a budget and they go in a studio and get the whole symphony orchestra in with them. That's not me, and I kind of can't bear it when people do that – whether it's Billie Holliday or Joni Mitchell or Nat King Cole. (laughs) I always would rather hear the more bootleg recording of someone.
If anything, if I got any of criticism of my record – which, of course, I've got plenty secretly – one of them is that's it's even still a bit too smooth. I wish it had more creaking chairs and more off the cuff and on the edge. That's what I mean about the contradiction; I love classical music and rigor and believe in a sense of craft, but at the same time, I want things on the edge.
OMC: You seem acutely aware of criticisms of your music …
OC: Oh really? Oh dear! That's probably just me (laughs) my own voices.
OMC: Do you pay attention to outside criticisms?
OC: Yeah, I really do because this is the first time I've really been getting proper press. I put out my own EP a couple of years back – which is how Nonesuch heard about me – and I self-released it, and my god I've been working hard the last few years to make things happen. (laughs) I managed to get some press from that, but you know, if you put a full album out with Nonesuch Records, you're obviously going to get more press. And there's a kind of story in the sense of who is this random English 33-year-old girl who's only just put out her first record.
There's a lot of blessings to doing things this slowly, I think, and I'm beginning to realize that. I used to be a bit chippy about it, but now I'm just like … I feel stronger, and I feel able to take the blows. And so far, I'm kind of surprised I come across as aware of any bad press because I can't believe how much amazing press I've gotten. (laughs)
I think maybe you picked up because I was kind of re-justifying how I kept the record sparse?
OC: And actually, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive about that. And that really makes me happy. That really makes me feel like, OK, I followed the right instinct. I was true to myself, and I didn't kind of … it's not really sell out, but my ideas didn't get corrupted or confused. And people are really responding to that, and that's really great.
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