I vaguely remember messaging Olivia Chaney on MySpace when I first heard her music, so it must have been a long time ago. Six, seven years? That it’s taken such a long time for so obvious a talent to record a debut album demonstrates a rare patience and self-assurance. The time has been spent honing, crafting, re-working: The Longest River – finally released by Nonesuch last month – is minimal and spare, but strongly felt and rigorously considered.
Tonight, Chaney expresses bemusement at being labelled a folk singer – fair enough, given what else she has turned her hand to. She’s been to the Royal Academy of Music, worked with electronica duo Zero 7, sings in a variety of languages and plays classical music as well as her own songs. But though she’s not exactly Steve Knightley, a folk singer she is, opening her album launch gig at Kings Place with her piano-led version of Oxford Girl. There’s much more to her than that, of course…
She is spellbinding. Violinist (fiddler doesn’t feel appropriate, somehow) Jordan Hunt holds the quietest, gentlest note at the end of the song as she moves from the piano to pick up her guitar. It feels disrespectful to move, let alone sully the moment with anything as vulgar as applause. Music is happening! Shh!
The set showcases Chaney’s diverse talents and tastes. As well as songs from the tradition, she interprets pieces by Alasdair Roberts, Henry Purcell, François Villon, Joni Mitchell, Violeta Parra, and what Folk Witness inexpertly thinks might be Johann Sebastian Bach (it might not be). Each piece is treated sensitively, with a proper string quartet used sparingly (it feels like they only play all together about twice, but when they do you know about it) while a bloke with a laptop provides the subtlest of background noises. Chaney occasionally announces that two or three pieces will be played in a row, and at one stage the audience is left holding its breath as two are linked – with magnificent incongruity – by the almost imperceptible sound of children in a playground.
I haven’t mentioned Chaney’s own songs yet. They’re wonderful: performed with intensity and conviction but surprisingly they’re frequently wryly funny, confessional pieces too. Swimming in the Longest River investigates relationships and Freud via a ‘denial’ pun, Too Social details the tribulations of inhabiting an overcrowded house, while Imperfections seems to be an honest, unusual self-appraisal, full of unexpected couplets: “he takes us out for hard boiled eggs/salt beef bagel, oh he’s got good legs”. Holiday, meanwhile, is flat-out heartbreaking – measured anguish and eloquent hurt.
It’s all performed with tender sensitivity. Hunt’s backing vocal on Swimming… is barely-there perfect. Chaney is expressive at the piano, guitar and harmonium, her voice cut-glass and pure with an alluring hint of soul. Towards the end she reveals a frighteningly good operatic quality, too – again, a weapon used selectively, for maximum effect. So when the applause does arrive it comes, deservedly, in raptures.