Swimming in the longest river

Olivia Cheney:

The thirty-three-year-old singer and songwriter Olivia Chaney was classically trained at the Royal Academy of Music, but she prefers the barroom to the opera house. She embraces songs about sex, death, unrequited love, and murder, and, following in the tradition of June Tabor, Maddy Prior, and Sandy Denny, has a talent for savvy arrangements. With an earthiness to her expressive soprano, Chaney is bringing the grand tradition of British folk music into the twenty-first century.

Onstage—and on her début album, “The Longest River,” which came out in April, on Nonesuch—Chaney moves between a few instruments, including the guitar, the piano, and the harmonium. The latter, a small hand-pumped organ, was prized by English missionaries to India in the mid-nineteenth century, who deployed it as a kind of portable church organ. Somewhat ironically, Indian musicians co-opted the instrument, and it is now used in devotional music indigenous to the subcontinent. “I love its complex history,” Chaney said. “It is no longer from one place, really.” She discovered the harmonium a few years ago, when she saw an Irish musician busking with one near her house in London. She talked him into teaching her the basics, and then she personalized it. “I’ve kind of invented my own bellows technique,” she said.