Analogue Music | Olivia Chaney

Olivia Chaney

By Matt Conner

There's a naïveté to Olivia Chaney's approach, but don't confuse that with ignorance.

If an artist is going to continue to bestow such earnest beauty upon the world with any longevity, he or she has to maintain—protect, even—the impulse to create such offerings in the first place. The distractions, the noise, the efficiency of culture all work against such albums, but Olivia Chaney persists nonetheless. Wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove, as they say.

Chaney has a firm grip on what compels most of our favorite artists: a deeply held belief that beauty will rise, that the cream does rise to the top. Shelter is all of that, a summer release whose fragile beauty works in all seasons and proof positive that Chaney is sowing meaningful musical seeds that will last.

Analogue: The record’s just out there. Does that feel like a vulnerable time for you, when the release is so fresh?

Olivia: That’s a good question. Not really, because I feel so sure of this record. I don’t mean that arrogantly, in terms of I’m so sure it’s great. I mean actually, personally, I kind of am for my taste, but it’s more that it’s just that I know with Thomas’s [Bartlett] help and maybe with a few years of experience behind me, I really know that what I made is kind of what I wanted to make.

Credit: Rich Gilligan
Credit: Rich Gilligan

I think our real vulnerability is going to come from within and not from the external crap that one is going to put up with in the world, often. It’s when you really feel bad about yourself that it’s normally your own issues. In regards to the actual record and any kind of vulnerability there, I don’t feel it. But the music industry is tough, and it’s a really tough time to be a musician, because no one buys music. And I’m on a really wonderful record label, but it’s like everyone’s trying to get people to listen.

I wouldn’t say I feel vulnerable about it, but my music is not very immediate for everyone. It takes a bit of time. It takes commitment and time. I'm not ashamed of that, but it does make life harder for me. That’s kind of the bottom line, and I think I’m beginning to realize that. That’s why it’s such a joy to work with someone like Thomas, because he just doesn’t feel like that and he doesn’t make me feel like that. He makes me feel like the way I think and the way I approach music making and the way I write and the way I sing is just the most natural thing in the world, and it just speaks to him. We kind of speak the same language, so that was a real joy.

Analogue: Are you a more confident artist this side of working with Thomas?

Olivia: Yeah, I think that’s really fair to say, actually. I think I definitely owe him that. He’s a really amazing being in that way. He does that for a lot of people, and I think that’s why he’s becoming a more and more successful producer. People are coming to him because that is one of his gifts. He really teaches you to harness your own strength.

My music is not very immediate for everyone. It takes a bit of time. It takes commitment and time. I'm not ashamed of that, but it does make life harder for me.

I suppose I’m a fairly busy musician, and there’s a lot going on. I’m trying to scrabble something of a career in the U.S. and in my country, in the UK, which has many challenges, and I’ve collaborated with lots and lots of people. There’s always a lot going on. And to just be still with your own self-belief can be really challenging for any creative. That’s the real cliché is of an artist’s kind of struggle. He’s very, very aware of that.

I think he makes that a big part of what he does on a daily basis. When he steps into the studio, he just really makes you feel nurtured. So I would definitely say that’s true. I think I was kind of teetering on the cusp of that when I decided I knew I wanted to work with him. We tested some stuff out and tried out a few recordings, recording some French songs as well which are going to be released at some point—some really lovely recordings, too. From that moment, I just knew he was who I wanted to work with.

Even then I was still kind of doubting some aspects of the process, but he just brought out a bit of me that knew what I was doing. I do ultimately know what I’m doing, but I can be quite English on the surface in terms of how I look like I’m floundering.

Also, actually, what is probably interesting for you, interviewing a Brit, is having signed to an American label, having now made another previous record with Americans, the Decemberists, and another American producer, Tucker [Martine], I’ve now actually made more albums in the States than I have in my own country. I wouldn’t say I’ve worked with more Americans than Brits, because I spent years and years collaborating with people before I got signed, but I’m definitely slowly beginning to understand that that is a big cultural gap, and I’m only talking about it in relation to music, but I’m sure it crosses over into all sorts of other fields as well.

The American musicians and producers I know just get on with it better. They’re just a bit more like, "Right, let’s do this!" Whereas all the Brits I know, and actually some Europeans as well, it’s just like a bit more hemming and hawing and self-doubting. Whether that be about when you make a record, or when you do the first take, it’s just on every level, I think. Yet Thomas kind of respects the more European, or English, approach. We were a good match in that way.

Analogue: That sounds like a really healthy tension to live in.

Olivia: A healthy tension. Yeah, exactly. He’s all about that as well. He makes constant jokes about keeping me up late, and I’ll come in the next day feeling totally trashed because we kind of stayed up too late drinking and me smoking and him getting annoyed that I’m smoking. I come in the next day, and I’m like, "Oh I can’t sing, I can’t do any vocal work." And he’s like, "Oh, got you just the way I want you." He’s kind of always making jokes about making you really vulnerable to get the best vocal take and stuff. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, because he’s not like Rick Rubin—some big fat cat producer who’s got that vibe. But he’s very into the psychology, and we’re both interested in looking at the world in slightly psychoanalytic terms, a la my first album. So we just approach a lot of our lives in that way, and there’s a lot of laughter as well. It was really kind of a joyous process.

Analogue: I’m glad you said your own music isn’t immediate--

Olivia: Why, because you’re struggling with it?

Analogue: No. Not at all. I think even for myself as a writer, I want to have conversations like this and then feature them, but I know that discussions of depth aren't for everyone. I want to write things that demand time, but all you can do is post them and hope.

Olivia: That’s all we can all do. Obviously there are a lot of really exciting things and benefits from this streaming age with aspects of the music industry disintegrating before our eyes. There’s a kind of democratization that is really exciting that comes from that. But also there’s a slightly more sinister side—a more unknown, potentially controlled, algorithmic inspired kind of angle, which is really threatening to the making of art and the impetus of why humans even bother to express themselves in some kind of poetic way.

If that motivation is knocked, if that’s no longer there, what the fuck are we doing? We’re just surviving. We’re not expressing anything; we’re not analyzing anything. I don’t know. So I utterly agree with that principle. It’s hard, but you have to hold on to that. And actually, I would say as well that even though I’m sure they have their own struggles, my record label signed me on the basis of that. They literally gave me that speech themselves. They said, "We just kind of have to sign people with the hope that we think it’s good, and therefore other people will as well." I think there are very few people—labels, for sure—who do that anymore. So yeah, I very much agree with that. But it can be a hard, lonely place to be, having that attitude.

Analogue: That’s so encouraging to hear about Nonesuch. You kind of know that intuitively based on who they have signed, but at the same time, just hearing that is heartening. I guess there are more people out there than maybe we realize all the time.

Olivia: We have to talk and remind each other of this global community, because otherwise, if you think you’re in a terrible vortex, you’re potentially less likely to keep holding on to that belief. So it is really important to keep holding onto that and keep communicating that to other people so they’re given the courage to hold onto that belief. Because it does work. It just might sometimes not work in one’s own lifetime. Loads of our favorite records are by people who died and then got famous or whatever it is. There are plenty of examples. They are legendary people who just took a long time to get heard. It all goes back to the first thing we were talking about, the self-belief thing as well.