The Decemberists' Colin Meloy on New 19th-Century British Folk Project Offa Rex
The Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy's unapologetic geekdom for British folk "revival" music of the '50s, '60s and '70s is what led to the formation of the group Offa Rex, a union between the band and British singer and multi-instrumentalist Olivia Chaney, which releases its debut album, The Queen of Hearts, on July 14.
The set features versions of 13 British folk songs -- including the politically charged 19th-century "Blackleg Miner," premiered exclusively below -- and was both a collaboration and a collision according to Meloy, who met Chaney via Twitter after hearing some of her recordings. "I think Olivia and I both sort of pushed and pulled," Meloy tells Billboard. "I wanted to do kind of slavish re-creations as a way of paying homage to that era, and I think Olivia, who grew up with this music and was more mindful of 'Oh, we can't do that...,' was rightfully kind of reluctant or skeptical of that approach. Plus I knew that even if we were shooting for a sort of slavish re-creation, inevitably we would miss the mark in a good way and arrive at something sort of new and unique.
"So I think we came together and it was really kind of a spirit of compromise and we arrived at something I think satisfies both of us while kind of keeping the other person's aesthetic in check."
Offa Rex recorded The Queen of Hearts with producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, Modest Mouse) last fall in the studio on Meloy's farm outside Portland, Oregon. Song selection was "tricky," according to Meloy, who considers himself "a bit of a dilettante" in the British folk world. "There's a big universe," he says, “but I didn't necessarily want the project to be just about unearthing and out-obscuring people and trying to dig deeper and find things that had never been done," he explains. "In many ways my approach to this was like a jazz standards record, a place for finding songs maybe a little bit more familiar in the canon and maybe breathing some life into them or coming at them with a different perspective."
The lively "Blackleg Miner" hails from Britain's national miners' lockout of 1844, which the miners lost because of scab, or "blackleg," replacement workers. "It's an incredible song," Meloy says. "I was immediately drawn to it and wanted to kind of bring it to a new audience." Offa Rex's performance, he adds, "is really a picture sonically of how I envisioned the record really sounding and was an opportunity to kind of develop and explore a groove that goes into so many of those old folk records, particularly Fairport [Convention] records -- really kind of a spare rhythm section and drums very much in a rock mode."
Offa Rex will play four shows to promote The Queen of Hearts, including a July 29 stop at the Newport Folk Festival. Chaney will also open for The Decemberists' short August tour, and Meloy promises the shows will feature "a couple of Offa Rex songs" during the shows. Meanwhile, The Decemberists are starting to work on the follow-up to 2015's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. "We're in the midst of working on material," Meloy reports. "We've got a couple tracks in the bag for various projects, and we're just starting to shape the sound and approach of the next record. We'll probably be working on that in the fall."