Monday, 26 July 2010

Olivia Chaney

Singer Olivia Chaney is on a distinctive musical journey and, increasingly, people are sitting up and taking notice. I’ve caught this lady four times in the last year and every time she’s doing a different show. One month she’s mezzo-soprano soloist in a new classical piece from the Camberwell Composers’ Collective; the next she’s combining Monteverdi, Joni Mitchell and English traditional songs in a Topic Records anniversary concert on London’s South Bank. I asked her how she weaves together these different musics: "In my solo shows I’m trying to point out that they’re not disparate. Although I’m pretty analytical about what I do and trying to carve out a sound, it does come naturally. It’s actually a lot to do with taste – that’s the music I love."

Chaney grew up in Oxford picking out tunes on the piano and playing boogie-woogie with her dad, an academic. "I’ve always been an improviser, before I learned to read music". Happily, that spontaneity wasn’t lost during the formal training she received at the Royal Academy and the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh. You get the feeling that she thrives on dissolving one genre into another. She believes passionately that "it’s important to break down barriers and reach as big an audience as possible".

Latterly her journey has taken her back to English traditional music, via people like Bert Jansch who rediscovered it in the ’60s. "I wasn’t popping down to Cecil Sharp House as a teenager," she admits. "I grew up with the revivalists. But I’d like to think that my projects, the collaborations with other musicians, the solo concerts are about searching for some sort of ‘purity’ which is inherent in traditional songs, the ones that survive." Directness, immediacy, timelessness: these are the qualities she prizes in folk music. With eyes tight shut as she accompanies herself on harmonium, she seems deep inside the song, where lesser singers merely skim the surface.

At music college she felt pressure to produce a big operatic sound, but in some repertoire "it didn’t feel natural enough, ‘me’ enough, honest enough". Despite acquiring some pretty high-profile admirers in the classical world, Chaney still frets over the question: "Are they going to hate how I’m ‘folkifying’ everything?" She needn’t worry. In an environment where drum’n’bass star Goldie gets premiered at the Proms, even the stuffed shirts of the classical establishment are loosening their ties.

She is about to embark on her biggest venture yet: a world tour with electronica and trip-hop pioneers Zero 7. "Someone recommended me," she explains. "Surprisingly, they’re huge fans of what I do, my solo singing. They pride themselves on being eclectic: Henry Binns [one half of the band’s core membership] has very open ears to sparser, more traditional stuff." She hopes to bring something more direct and earthy to their sound but recognises "it’ll be a fascinating challenge to maintain my identity and my artistic search within quite a ‘poppy’, commercial thing."

Meanwhile her own songwriting has been put on hold. She’s so steeped in the singer-songwriter genre (Dylan, Neil Young, Sandy Denny are all high on her playlist) that she’s a bit intimidated by what’s been achieved by others. "A friend of mine once said, ‘If you try and be original, that’s exactly the time when you won’t be’." So she’s waiting for the songs to come as naturally as the leaves to a tree. Doubtless some will find their way onto the solo album she plans to start recording shortly. Expect to see guest contributions from her numerous collaborators over the years, a colourful range of musicians spanning early music, jazz and folk.

Oh, and did I mention that Ms Chaney has just made her professional acting debut in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre? The poet Lorca described life as "a giant labyrinth of intersecting crossroads"; Chaney’s life as performer seems to be just that.

Olivia Chaney official website

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel) Nov/Dec 2009

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