The Decemberists may have finally met their match. The band has been working with British singer Olivia Chaney under the name Offa Rex — a reference to an Anglo-Saxon king. Their album, released on July 14 and produced by local whiz Tucker Martine, is called “The Queen of Hearts.”
The partnership was formed by The Hazards of Love. The Decemberists’ hard-rocking, over-the-top concept album was the first taste Olivia Chaney had of their music, and she loved it. We sat down to talk with Colin and Olivia about working together.
Q&A with Olivia Chaney and Colin Meloy
April Baer: So how did this collaboration happen?
Olivia Chaney: I just kept hearing about them. There seemed to be overlaps. Like, culturally, he took his inspiration from traditional music and then did his own completely out there kind of wild thing with that. I kind of became a fan from afar in that sense.
Colin Meloy: I think what appealed to me about Olivia’s music was that it did feel contemporary. There’s a fine line between making old material your own and contemporizing it. With Olivia, there was no line there. It didn’t feel like the music was being over thought. It felt like her voice and yet so anchored to the source material.
Baer: Olivia, some would argue that The Decemberists are actually a hard rock band masquerading in structures of folk tradition. Was there anything scary about jumping into all that?
Chaney: Not scary. But I think I was a little daunted that I might not be able to make things sound how I wanted them to sound. Because my whole life I wasn’t tending to sing with hard rock bands, if that’s what we can call The Decemberists, not that kind of conventional band setup with drums and bass. Colin and I did have conversations about how were we going to approach the songs.
Baer: What are some of the fingerprints you feel you left on the songs and instrumentation overall approach?
Meloy: This is the first and biggest musical collaboration I’ve done and it definitely is a learning process. We lovingly refer to The Decemberists as a benevolent dictatorship. Which is something that has worked, you know, you’ve got one captain at the helm but this was certainly two captains—
Chaney: He’s being so PC right now.
Meloy: If not three, if you want to throw Tucker in there. There were definitely times — and there will probably continue to be, as we embark on the road — of just trying to find that middle place.
Baer: How did you two go beyond mutual admiration to actually working together?
Meloy: I’d heard Olivia’s record and had loved it. So she came out on the road with us opening some shows a couple of years ago. I kind of pitched it to her. I really wanted to do Willie O’ Winsbury, the Anne Briggs song. In retrospect, I just wanted to live out this fantasy of playing bazooka alongside somebody singing Willie O’ Winsbury and she demurred and soon that desire to do a song grew into “let’s make a whole record together.”
Baer: The arrangement on that song, Willie O’ Winsbury, is really lovingly constructed.
Chaney: Funnily enough, actually I flew over with arrangements under my arm. And then once I was in Portland I was still staying up late, and I’d borrow Tucker’s guitar. I was just kind of jet lagged and just trying to come up with something. But then somehow we were jamming and it just ended up whittling down to essentially me, Colin, and Nate on upright. And then Tucker just stepped in, truly being, in a sense, an old school producer, and it was just one old mic in the middle of the room. We actually all took our cams off so it was like, properly folk, effectively no amplification, feeling like we weren’t even mic’d up. Yeah, it was a real kind of physical performance, I felt, from all of us. It was a really special moment.
Baer: I was going to thank you two for the lovely Roberta Flack cover, and then something just made me Google it and I found out what many other American listeners might not know: this song, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, was written by Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger. Olivia, that song has been so widely covered. How did you find your way into it?
Chaney: By not listening to any of them. I mean, really, I’m half serious.
Meloy: I think, going back, I ended up discovering the Peggy Seeger version. The Roberta Flack one is sort of smooth and gorgeous and lilting, whereas there’s almost sort of a jarring kind of folk art thing going on in Peggy’s. And that feels like more a part of the song anyway.
Chaney: It was really nice to be handed the license to approach something like that because I don’t think I ever would have dared, on my own.
Baer: These songs really shine when you spend time in a studio doing beautiful, thought-out recordings. But they’re also the kind of songs you can sing out loud in the car, or around a campfire. This kind of music isn’t necessarily meant to sit under glass. What will it mean to perform these songs live throughout the summer?
Chaney: I actually think it’ll be really fun to recreate. It’ll probably be challenging at times when we don’t have all the overdubs. But actually, a lot the record was pretty live and raw already, in a way, and also we did it to tape, so it’s not as if we nitpicked digitally for months and months after. It’s pretty fresh in that sense.
Meloy: It wasn’t something that was really crafted in the studio.