If Colin Meloy had his druthers, the Decemberists would exist in 1970s England, where they could share stage time and radio airplay with the psych-folk giants of the day: Fairport Convention, the Pentangle, and the Albion Dance Band.
But, of course, as a modern-day musician, the closest Meloy can get is by paying tribute to artists who inspire him. Their influence can be heard on the Decemberists' rootsier moments and on his 2006 EP Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins. Recently, Meloy's musical obsession found a new voice when he happened upon The Longest River, singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney's 2015 debut.
A fellow student of the British folk tradition, Chaney spent decades gigging and learning songs from centuries past before finally committing some to tape, along with a few originals, on The Longest River. In Chaney's crystalline vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonium, Meloy heard the long tradition of great British folk artists like Shirley Collins, Sandy Denny, and Maddy Prior—in other words, the perfect foil for his dream project. A few Twitter DMs later, they were trading ideas and mapping out a collaboration that would become Offa Rex.
It was only then that Chaney decided to temper Meloy's ambitions: "We did go about things very differently," she says, speaking from her home in London. "I didn't want to make a record that's just trying to emulate what's already been done. I wanted it to be a love letter to that era. Colin was like, 'I wanna be in an English folk rock group!' But you can't really re-create that era."
Chaney and the Decemberists strike a delightful compromise with their new album, The Queen of Hearts. Recorded in Portland at Tucker Martine's Flora Studio, these folk songs evoke the mood of classic LPs like Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief or the self-titled effort by Fotheringay through Chris Funk's stardust-covered guitar lines and the mixture of accordion and harpsichord handled by Jenny Conlee.
Chaney keeps the album rooted in the present. Her arrangements—which include classics like Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and traditional fare like "The Old Churchyard"—feel slightly burnt around the edges. For her, the biggest challenge was how to pick a gaggle of obscurities.
"He persuaded me that it was more than justified," she says of Meloy. "He said, 'A lot of our fans will never have heard the originals.' And I think there's certainly some validity in us putting a fresh stamp on these."
Fresh as their interpretations are, many of the songs are hundreds of years old. What keeps Chaney and her creative partners like Scottish folkster Alasdair Roberts returning to this age-old material?
"The human condition doesn't really change, does it?" Chaney says. "The themes are timeless. No matter how our ideas about melody have morphed, or whether it is religious music or pagan, the core themes remain the same, and they're what draws me and many other artists back to these songs again and again."