Singer Olivia Chaney might specialize in traditional British folk music, but she isn't too keen on being labeled a "traditionalist." It's much too stodgy a term for someone with a background in jazz and improvisational music, and who has taken part in, as she puts it, "many weird and wacky collaborations." So when Colin Meloy asked her to help realize his dream project—a straight-up English folk-rock record, done in the stately, psychedelic style of bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span—Chaney made it clear that she had little interest in simply doing '60s cosplay.
"I think when he proposed it, I was like, 'I don't want to just try to recreate a Steeleye Span record,'" she says. "I don't think we agreed on the concept at the beginning, which made it more interesting than if we went in with similar tastes."
And so began a cordially contentious friendship, one whose creative push-and-pull eventually resulted in The Queen of Hearts, the album Chaney, Meloy and the rest of the Decemberists recorded in Portland last year under the name Offa Rex. Interpreting centuries-old tunes, many of which already have definitive modern renditions, could've ended up as merely an exercise in well-studied Anglophilia. Instead, the music feels lived in—partly because, well, Chaney has lived it.
Spending most of her youth in Oxford, Chaney grew up immersing herself in her father's record collection, which was full of folk revivalists like Bert Jansch and Anne Briggs. She first came to Meloy's attention with her 2015 debut, The Longest River, a set showcasing her luminous voice against spare instrumentation. He invited her to open for the Decemberists on tour, and dropped hints about a formal collaboration.
"We did have what I thought were pretty indirect conversations backstage, with him saying, 'Hey, have you ever thought of having a backing band?'" Chaney says. "He being Colin, he already had ideas sneaking and brewing, but I didn't know he was thinking about it."
A few months later, Chaney found herself in Portland. Once they got into the studio, with producer Tucker Martine, the cultural displacement forced Chaney into a new relationship with songs she'd known since childhood.
"It meant that I wasn't on my turf, and I wasn't able to feel like those references were as near as when I'm here," she says.
It also caused her some anxiety. While Chaney may not consider herself a traditionalist, she holds enough reverence for the British folk tradition that the potential for screwing it up weighed heavily on her. Propelled, perhaps, by her own nerves, Chaney's performances throughout The Queen of Hearts are stirring and graceful, especially on ballads like "Willie o' Winsbury" and "The Old Churchyard." For Meloy's part, the arrangements fit within the classic folk-rock template, with knotty layers of guitar, organ and harmonium, though there are some notable left turns—see the heavy take on "Sheepcrook and Black Dog," inspired by a group outing to see Black Sabbath.
Chaney still isn't sure how the folk community is taking the album. But now that it's out, she is breathing a bit easier.
"Thank God there's been some nice reviews," she says.
SEE IT: Offa Rex plays Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., with Courtney Marie Andrews, on Sunday, July 23. 9 pm. $30. All ages.