Images by Rich Gilligan
Imagine. Olivia Chaney was born in Florence; grew up in Oxford; and then studied music in Manchester and London (at the Royal Academy, mind). Artistically, and surely spiritually, one could not have begged to be surrounded by any greater sense of inspiration.
Now eight years in to a prolific and critically exalted career, the British indie-folk songstress’ CV includes collaborations with Kronos Quartet, Robert Plant, Zero 7…as well as the 2017 record The Queen of Hearts, a creative communion with The Decemberists under the moniker Offa Rex, which was nominated for a Grammy. Impressive, to put it mildly.
Most recently, she chose to withdraw to her family’s bucolic 18th Century cottage in the North Yorkshire Moors, seeking yet still fresh inspiration. The result is a stunning new album, Shelter, released in June by Nonesuch, her label since 2015.
“The beauty and unpredictability and harshness of nature provided much of what I was looking for and looking to be immersed or lost in,” she explains. “And the isolation from ceaseless communication we’re all now in was a welcome break. That isolation could also lend a terrifying kind of empty clarity – the self doubt could be exaggerated, but so was the focus and thankfully that enhanced my ability to distill the ideas I knew I wanted to distill.”
In many of the songs, there’s a palpable visceral debt to Joni Mitchell, along with a Jeff Buckley sort of sense of divinity; but her Englishness also shines through, perhaps the result of her so starkly reconnecting with the land. Indeed, “IOU” recalls Kate Bush, with its lilting phraseology of such laid-bare lyrical exhortations as, “Won’t you make peace with me / It’s been too long / That I’ve held you in my grip.” And “Roman Holiday” is at once intimate and emotionally epic.
But it’s surely “House on a Hill” that most leaves its visceral imprint, with its haunted evocation, “At night I hang from the ledge / By moon, by Pleiades / In all the shining mystery.”
“I achieved exactly what I set out to aesthetically,” Chaney insists. “More directness and clarity, but also still the layers of metaphor and I hope a true development of my own style and voice.”
In the interim, we asked her to enlighten us as to those special places that most exhilarate and inspire her.
An urban wilderness – the flora and fauna here in spring and summer are uplifting, as is the sense of space all year round. Sometimes you’ll encounter few people, but on a sunny weekend there’ll be the dog-walkers, hipsters, cyclists, dealers, barge dwellers, poachers, planters, strollers, families, etc. The green stretches on forever here, with the River Lea flowing between other parks and reservoirs that all connect across a strange smattering of industrial estates and railway tracks, graffiti and allotments. All juxtaposed besides the pretty boats, the swans, herons, terns, the wild bits, the bridges and a last stop at The Anchor and Hope, a river-side Fuller’s pub the size of a postage stamp, full of locals that will ‘enlighten’ your sense of local history but who might not assist your journey home….
A beautiful shop and imprint. Female authors dead, alive and reprinted. They also sell other beautiful objects, fabrics and furnishings, besides their own perfectly published books. In an age of historic London bookshops closing by the month, it’s also something to support. Lambs Conduit Street is one of my favourite streets in London – mostly 18th and 19th Century houses and shop fronts; great wine bars, cafes, restaurants; the wonderfully Dickensian ‘The Lamb’ pub (with it’s super-trad ‘no-music policy’ – great for a musician sometimes – plus original snob screens and overflowing with London characters), independent clothes shops including Folk; a community-run ‘people’s supermarket’. It’s (still) pedestrianised, there’s a friendly bike shop and it just feels the way a high street should.
Walthamstow as a borough has plenty going for it, though it’s far out of town – but such is the economy of cities like New York and London that communities are flourishing beyond their original nuclei. This particular patch is still a lot of bookies, barbers and defunct minicab offices, but nourishment is provided by this little gem. Juices, coffee and breakfasts to die for, jewelry, pottery and other useful gifts by local artists (of which there are many) on the side, and fabulous hosts. The area hasn’t gentrified (yet) and hopefully as it grows (not gentrifies), it will follow suit in the spirit of this small and successful enterprise, that satisfies many of the locals.
This cafe/restaurant is an ex ’80s squat, still community-run, sitting on the edge of an oasis that is Bonnington Square. I’ve been coming here since I was about 18, at music college, and thankfully it hasn’t changed much: cheap, lo-fi, summery, authentic, vegetarian/vegan home-cooking (some nights/chefs are vibier than others) and providing welcome solace from the dense traffic just around the corner. There’s even a ‘pleasure garden’ 20 yards away in the centre of the square, replete with a disused watermill, a swing, neighbors’ cats, tropical plantings and Victorian eccentricity. Everyone in the square is green-fingered or inspired to be so – every doorway, window-box, and lamppost seems to explode with lush green planting and colourful flowers. Apparently the cafe’s tenancy is finally under threat, so go and support them whilst being cooked for, and someone might even strike up a tune on the old piano. And BTW…it’s BYO.
Florencia Clifford and Hugo Hildyard opened this beautiful cafe, restaurant, gallery, vintage furniture shop (and not-always-intended community centre) just over a year ago. York is a beautiful, small university city in the north of England (where my mother now lives) and it’s lucky to have these friends of ours and their fine establishment as an addition to its many attractions. The menu is ever-changing and fresh in every sense, as is the decor, and as are the hosts. They bring their laid-back flair, discernment, charm and skill to everything they do, make you feel welcome but not fussed over, and serve fine food, coffee and cakes with it.
Soho, New York
If you’ve a moment to rifle through the deliberately more generic, repro pieces, they’ve a few near-museum-quality ones hidden in between. Once I found a 19th Century Japanese fireman’s coat on the rack that could have been designed for a catwalk today. I normally prefer hunting bargains out myself in thrift stores, but the sought out vintage ones are worth it – I like the buyer’s eye. Also great for staples: socks, overalls, belts and shoes. I believe there’s one in Brooklyn too.
South Street Seaport, New York
Last time I was here it looked like the local mob had smashed the windows in or created multiple bullet holes? We persevered and opened the handleless door by the top corner only to hit the familiar wall of bad jukebox pop, heat and incredibly loud American banter. It’s worth it. Once fighting your way in, and once a waiter catches your eye you’ll be treated like an old friend and offered a seat at a not particularly hygienic-looking table and a confusing menu from which the fried delights and dumplings appear – a fusion of Southeast Asian, American and not sure what else…but it’s delicious. During your meal, just as you feel you’re fitting in, you’ll suddenly be offered (forced) to down shots of Jameson’s with the locals and the bartending waiters. This then usually turns into a lock in, and then things get pretty blurry after that. Despite waking with a sore head and hazy memory after a night here, people (and I) always return. Also if you’re looking for the grittier, less touristy answer to the monied, chic, Manhattan exclusivity that seems to be the increasing norm, here’s your (dive) bar!
Divine, inspired frescoes such as those by Fra Angelico in the amazingly well-preserved monks’ cells are amongst the treasures that draw people from around the globe to this city again and again, and have done over the centuries. Two of my favourite paintings: ‘The Annunciation’ and ‘Noli me Tangere’ are both here, and so humbly; not in an air-conditioned, lifeless gallery but in the tiny monastic rooms where Fra Angelico, along with other monks, once piously lived and worshipped long ago. You’re able to look at the frescoes in the same light in which they were painted, and get a far greater sense of why and how and in what conditions they were conceived, created and perhaps interpreted or absorbed. There is a lifetime’s worth of history, art and architectural beauty to see in Florence but San Marcos’ frescoes, alongside the Brancacci Chapel (namely, for me, ‘The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden’ by Masaccio, Michelangelo’s teacher) are my two recommends if you’re short on time. If you want further guidance, Florence ~ A Traveller’s Reader has just been revised and re-issued with the wonderful Little, Brown Books (and happens to be by my scholar of a father).