Interview: Olivia Chaney – Sydney Festival 2015

Well under the way, this year’s instalment of the Sydney Festival is sure packing quite the elite list of music, theatre, dance, opera, visual arts, ideas, free and family events. It’s got everything! Because, at the end of the day, there’s nothing more beautiful than celebrating your own city – and Sydney know how to do that well. Amongst the guests that will help with the celebrations, English multi-instrumentalist and all-round sweetheart Olivia Chaney has made the trek down to our shores to take part in the festivities. Having already performed as part of Woodford Folk Festival as well as a few sporadic, intimate shows around the country, Olivia will take to the Sydney Festival stage tomorrow.

We were fortunate enough to get the time to chat to the beautiful soul just ahead of her trip Down Under.

What’s been happening, lovely? How are you?

I’m currently at home in the freezing cold and the rain, so I can’t tell you just how much I’m looking forward to coming [to Australia] for more than just the music.

Get a nice tan, maybe…?

Yeah, God. I hope so.

Have you been to Australia before? 

No, it’s my first time. And as I keep saying in interviews, I’m half Australian, so it’s extra exciting.

Well, I was just about to say… Upon doing a bit of research on you, I found your life to be very interesting – almost something out of a beautiful novel. Because you were born in France, right?

I was born in Italy… My mother’s Australian, from Melbourne originally – but she’s kind of grown up all over the world, and ended up [in England] when she was pretty young. Then my dad’s half Dutch-half English, and he was doing his phD out in Italy, so that’s why I was born there. So I’ve got no Italian blood at all, but I’m kind of a mixture in that factor.

And musically, you’re extremely diverse and incredible with the amount of instruments that you play. Can you just tell me a bit about your musical background and, I suppose, how you got to this point?

Well, I don’t know which point we’d quite be talking about [laughs], because that point is different for different people. But yeah, definitely – I think I’ve done lots of coming back in circles, boomeranging. Because I feel like, when I was really young, it was all instinct and passion and everything was by ear. I kind of feel like the really excited child musician was very self-taught, and pick up tunes off the radio and then improvise them…and my dad was trying to teach me how to play Boogie Woogie. It wasn’t like I was just listening to Joni Mitchell, it was really like a great array of stuff. But then, my parents – they weren’t strictly musicians at all. They were really sweet and really supportive, and they were like “Oh, she seems to have a bit of a thing!”, so they [sought out] to get me the best teacher in town. But then the teacher was like “Right, you gotta read music!” And then suddenly you just get onto that circuit of just training and learning; which is wonderful, but it comes with its curses too [laughs].

Then kind of a lot of shit happened with my family, and I was a wild child. Suddenly, next thing I knew, I was scraping a scholarship somehow…I hadn’t really been working that hard at that time, and was dropping out. But I suppose I’d put in the work enough when I was younger, that I managed to get this scholarship and, you know, effectively leave home for this music boarding school…and that’s when the rigorous study kicked in, I suppose. I was only 14 then but, I suppose, if we go down the Freudian school pf psyche – my musical psyche was already formed in some ways. I’m not saying that I knew everything, but I just mean that my instincts and my taste and my kind of diversity – really, I’d such a lucky, kind of slightly unconventional education before I got into the really rigorous stuff.

The problem with these hot house institutions is they kind of have a tendency to kill the joy out of it, and I suppose that I tried to kick against that, but tried to work hard at the same time. I think I struck an okay balance…that was when I began to realise that I was really interested in songs; but I wouldn’t say songwriting in the traditional pop singer-songwriter sense, I was thinking of it in really broad terms.

Being in those institutions, it is quite solitary and you get used to that because there’s just that joy of working on your own. There’s nothing quite like that, is there? That’s a particular feeling, and I think that I learnt that from quite a young age – in a nice way [laughs]. But anyway, yeah – lots of training, and kicking against the norm, getting more hungry to do my own thing…I went through some more experimental phases, really trying to push my own boundaries, piss off institutions, piss off other people – that worked for a while; collaborated with everyone – from performance art to choreographers to filmmakers. I don’t know, everything. Just everything! I said yes to everything and did everything, earned very little but we had a great time. And then, you know, you hit a bit of a wall like relationship break-ups and all that kind of crap, left home for a bit and just, you know, had a few epiphanies. I felt like I really needed to take it back to something really essential, both in myself and actually, more intellectually, musically. Trying to figure what is all this stuff that I’d been trying out…That’s when I started learning the guitar and looking at folk songs and I suppose, in a strange way, but consciously tried to simplify [what I was doing] in a sense.

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Did you feel, I suppose, being an unorthodox musician helped assist you in being as successful as you have been? Being the untrained musician amongst a sea of trained musicians?

Yeah, I think I obviously – on some instinctive level – did have the confidence and a good sense of self, because I did rebel against those institutions and I did kick against them and nearly get thrown out the whole time, and I did put on great shows. You know, even if I did end up practically failing the exam, it was like actually the audience went out cheering [during my live performances]. So…certainly I did feel very unorthodox, especially amongst those very orthodox institutions.

But now that, you know, I’m about to put out a record and it’s not just within these hot-house classical institutions, that’s a different thing. Because, of course, I feel like I’m probably going to be perceived as very trad and orthodox in a different way, and the irony is that I don’t feel very orthodox either, but if that’s how people hear it, then that’s fine. I mean, I can’t say that I won’t get irritated if people always call me a folk singer, but I don’t really feel like I have the right to care. If people want to put names on things, then that’s their need. It shouldn’t be my problem, really [laughs].

I like your attitude! I hope people have told you that before…

Aww, no! I don’t think I have ever heard that before, thank you!

As I was reading up on you, there were a lot of comparisons to Joni Mitchell, and I know that you mentioned her before as someone that you listened to quite regularly growing up. How do you feel about just that, being compared to someone else?

Well, I mean, specifically in relation to her it’s funny because it is a double-edged sword. But yeah, in relation to her specifically, I can’t help but laugh when there’s that comparison because I rate her so fucking highly, because I just think that she’s such a genius so I think that I should only be so lucky. But generally…I feel that with music journalists, or not even just music journalists – reviewers [in general], it feels like it’s often just a short, slightly lazy thing to do.

I mean, even, you could start bitching about the real chart music – I don’t know what it’s like in Australia, but over here it’d be like Radio 1 and all the hits. You know, I’ve spent time with people who are making that kind of music and stuff, and even with all the cynicism behind it and the moneymaking and the bullshit and the commercial attitude, even you scrape behind that, and there’s some kind of passion and a belief. You don’t do anything well unless there’s a massive belief and motivation behind it. I mean, I sound like I’m sitting on the fence now but, at the same time, I’d be careful to make huge sweeping criticisms about how other people make music, I suppose.

Woodford Folk Festival, Sydney Festival, and then you’re doing a couple of sideshows. You said that you haven’t been to Australia before… What are you expecting? Are you excited?

I’m so excited! I’m nervous, of course, as well. I’ve never travelled that far away. I mean, I’ve travelled a lot, but I’ve never been there. I suppose, in a way, because it’s my family and my roots, I have a lot of expectations…and there’s been crazy stuff going on there recently [Lindt Cafe, Martin Place terrorist attack], as there is all over the world. I’m trying to suspend judgement, basically. I can’t wait. I know that I’m going to be surprised, and I know that I’m going to be able to see a lot of different stuff and a lot of different venues. Even though it’s a kind of mini-tour, I’m very much hoping to come back when the record’s out. I feel like this is going to be a real exciting introduction for me, I’m thrilled!

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The lovely Olivia Chaney will perform her solo show tomorrow at The Famous Spiegeltent as part of Sydney Festival.

Sydney Festival is currently taking place until January 26. Be sure to get amongst all of the festivities! For any further information, head to the official website.

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