Colin Patrick Henry Meloy was born in Helena, Montana. Meloy attended the University of Oregon in Eugene for two years, studying English, before returning to Montana and enrolling in the creative writing program at the University of Montana in Missoula.
In high school, Meloy was a member of the band Happy Cactus. In college, he was the lead singer and songwriter for Tarkio. Both were indie/folk/alternative country bands.
After college, Meloy moved to Portland. There he started going to open mics, and "... sometimes with no one else in the room save the bartender," he said during a 2009 interview, "... However, when I was in that position, with nobody to appeal to or scare away, I thought, ‘I might as well do whatever I want to do, and that created a new thing."
In Portland, Meloy met future Decemberists bandmates Jenny Conlee and Nate Query. In addition to vocals, Colin performs with an acoustic guitar, 12-string acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bouzouki, percussion and interpretive hand gestures. The other members of the band are Chris Funk (guitar, multi-instrumentalist), Jenny Conlee (hammond organ, accordion, melodica, piano, keyboards, harmonica), Nate Query (bass guitar, string bass), and John Moen (drums, backing vocals, melodica, guitar).
The band's debut EP, 5 Songs, was self-released in 2001. Their sixth full-length album, The King Is Dead, was released in January 2011, by Capitol Records. It was the band's third record with the label.
In 2004, Meloy wrote a 100-page book on The Replacements' third album, Let It Be, released as part of the 33⅓ series. In 2005, he went on his first solo tour to support the self-released six-song EP, Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey, consisting of six Morrissey covers. Only 1000 copies of the album were made and they were sold only on this tour.
Meloy did a second solo tour in January 2006, playing with Laura Veirs and Amy Annelle. On this tour, he sold an EP featuring covers of British folk artist Shirley Collins. 2006 tour performances were recorded for a live release.
Meloy contributed an online bonus track for Lavender Diamond on their Imagine Our Love album. He performed a solo version of "Oh No."
Meloy's began another solo tour in April, 2008. This coincided with the release of his debut solo album, Colin Meloy Sings Live!, on the Kill Rock Stars label. Singer-songwriter Laura Gibson was the supporting act for the full tour. As with previous EPs, Meloy sold an EP only available on this run: Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke, a collection of five Sam Cooke songs, arranged and performed by Meloy, with Laura Gibson singing harmonies.
On September 4, 2010, the band opened for Neko Case and the headliner, Bob Dylan, the first day of the Bumbershoot Arts and Music Festival in Seattle, WA. There they announced that they were wrapping up a new album before debuting three of the upcoming album's tracks. The King is Dead was released on January 18, 2011 with Peter Buck of R.E.M. appearing on three tracks.
"Down by the Water," a track from the new album, was released via the band's official site on November 2nd, and was immediately available on iTunes as a free download. The King Is Dead debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 in the United States upon its release.
Compared to The Decemberists' previous work, The King Is Dead is more influenced by genres including country, blues, and folk.