Country-folk supercrew Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams have returned with a third installation of their ‘Sad But True’ album series. ‘Volume 3’ – sub-titled ‘Juke Box B Sides’ cos flippancy is a big part of their shtick – is a stronger and more triumphant album than its predecessors, bringing back all the live magic of the two vastly different voices and songwriting approaches. Mohamed Hassan caught up with them during their Big Day Out performance to find out about the new release, and where the pair are heading next.
“This song is about luck, or lack of luck,” explains Delaney Davidson, dressed in a dark suit and loosened polkadot tie. “It’s funny, when you have no luck; you often think you’re lucky.”
Luck is a subject Davidson seems to have given plenty of thought to, as witnessed by the title of his 2011 Voodoo Records’ album, ‘Bad Luck Man’. His evidently younger partner in crime, Marlon Williams, is wearing skinny jeans and a bowtie. He fiddles with the guitar tuning and waits for the cue, before they both launch into a hearty ballad and their very different voices glide into natural harmony.
Perhaps it was precisely a lack of luck that found the two country-folk singers and guitar slingers playing inside the tiny Metro room/stage at this year’s Big Day Out festival, trying to drown out the sound of Snoop Lion’s What’s My Name? pounding through the walls. Not 200m away the festival’s other headliners, Pearl Jam, are also in the midst of their set, comfortably filling out the stadium’s main stage. However, as the two local country crooners power through a handful of intimate songs to an eager crowd squeezed in to listen, you could be fooled into thinking these were the luckiest men in the world.
With two years of intensive touring and now three collaborative albums under their belts, the seemingly unlikely pairing of Davidson and Williams has won over NZ with their commanding and earnest sound. Their first ‘Sad But True’ release in 2012, ‘Volume I: The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting’ garnered them praise and a nationwide following, as well as winning both the NZ Music Award Tui for Best Country Album of 2013 and APRA’s Best Country Song award (for Bloodletter) at the NZ Country Music Awards held in Gore.
The pair have since completed four national tours, including two Grand Ol’ Hayride tours with fellow singer Tami Neilson and stringsman Dave Khan, while sneaking in another album, ‘Volume 2’, without anyone (except their devoted live audience) noticing.
Both Lyttelton-born and raised, perhaps it was only a matter of time before these two country ambassadors would join forces to take over the sound waves, though one was a stoically solo act and the other, frontman for two-time NZ Music Awards nominees, The Unfaithful Ways. His much- heralded group were up for The Critics Choice Award in 2011 and Best Country Album in 2012.
“We were both playing the same gig on the same night,” explains Davidson. “We just both turned up for the show and saw this other guy there – so we just wrote up a set list together – we knew the same songs and just went from there. Music, it always just comes back to music, every question you ask we could probably say it’s to do with the music.”
Aside from working the same genre, the two musicians seem to come from different worlds. Davidson’s weathered voice and dark wit resembles Tom Waits at his most melodic, while, still in his early 20s, former choir boy Williams brings a bright-eyed juvenescence that is a fresh take on the traditional crooners of the 1950s.
“It just seems to have legs, somehow the combination of us seems to have a lot of momentum behind it, and we followed it naturally through.”
“Oh, we like each other too,” adds Williams, at which they both laugh.
Like the voices, their songwriting processes differ drastically. For Williams, coming back from touring often proves a productive time, while Davidson barely wants to look at his guitar for a good while afterwards. What is undeniable is that the two have a chemistry that works, and it’s often in the differences rather than the similarities that musical magic happens.
“Well it’s like cooking, you can’t say, ‘Okay, I’ve got some flour, that guy’s got some flour, let’s make a pizza!’” says Davidson. “Someone’s gotta bring the cheese, someone’s gotta bring the yeast, and someone might have to bring some salami, who knows? I don’t think it makes any sense to do things that are too similar together. It just brings nothing.”
As with their previous collaborative albums, what really works on their ‘Volume 3’ is the combination of Davidson’s dark voice and matching wit, with Williams’ smooth and soulful singing – and the way the two often play off of each other’s styles. It’s a thunderous return for the duo – crisper, fuller and more fleshed out – while at once managing to feel like the two are kicking their boots off and having fun.
“This one’s probably not quite so careful as the first one, and it’s stronger as an album,” confirms Davidson. “I guess we feel more comfortable with what we’re doing so we don’t have to be so careful as we were – and the first one was mainly about getting the concept out there, [showing] that there is a series starting now. Maybe people didn’t realise when it came out that it was intended quite a lot of volumes would follow it.”
Released in September 2012, the first album in this (promised) ongoing series was also the first official label signing for Lyttelton Records, the post-earthquake operation of Ben Edwards who had previously ran the Sitting Room studio in central Christchurch. Alt-folk duo Tiny Lies released their debut album with the label in November last year.
Davidson explains why the second ‘Sad But True’ release was restricted to 300-odd sales at their gigs when he reveals that the first one was originally planned as double album release, to be badged as ‘Volume 1’ and ‘Volume 2’.
“We wanted to release two volumes at once to get the whole concept rolling.”
That ambitious concept got condensed down to just one album, with some of the leftover songs ending up here in ‘Volume 3’ – hence the ‘B-Sides’ part of the album’s extended title.
“We thought it sped up as well, because it’s got some of the songs that are a lot more driving, with bigger sound,” says Davidson.
Writer credits vary. Some of these songs were to be found on ‘Volume Two’ and they’re not afraid of throwing in the odd cover, but the new album kicks off appropriately with a Davidson/Williams’ number. Candyman jumps straight back into the visual western landscape of the first volume, complete with Ennio Morricone-esque whistling. The production is much more prevalent here, but still maintains the sincerity and simplicity of their sound. Things then wind down for the first of the album’s many stripped-down ballads, I’m Only On Fire, treating listeners to the rich harmony of their starkly different voices in perfect marriage.
“There’s definitely a lot more of those slow country ballads that are a lot less honkey-tonk and more Neil Young,” says Williams.
Whiskey and Kisses brings back the voice of Tami Neilson (who turned their Grand Ol’ Hayride tour, and accompanying Volume 2 release into a trio thing, and co-wrote this song with Davidson) slowing things down almost to a halt. Minnie Dean is a haunting Williams’ original tale drawn from NZ’s provincial history, about a woman on trial for, well, infanticide – haunting and a live show highlight.
One of the standouts of the album is the vivacious, racing snare-driven Bye Bye Baby, and it really feels like the two finally unleash their energy after showing tremendous restraint in the first half. Davidson’s Little Heart is to be found on almost every album that he has a hand in, and here has been passed to the angelic tenor voice of Williams, bringing light to what’s more usually a dark song. The album concludes with another Davidson track, the slow churning Lonesome Mile, and while it feels a little like a bonus add-on, the two wailing voices and Dave Khan’s backing mandolin are akin to a steam train arriving at its final destination.
“That’s always the concept of the ‘Sad But True’ series, Davidson explains. “It’s that they do blur the boundaries between who writes songs – and who cares about who writes songs, it’s just about good music.”
In collaboration with Arts on Tour NZ the pair kicked off an exhaustive national tour starting January 31, playing a myriad of small venues in all corners of the country. While timely for the album release, their BDO appearance was really an anachronism. Smaller community venues suit them well, bringing a more intimate experience to their performances.
“It’s a lot more personal, it’s just you and they’re only there to see you,” says Williams. “You can very easily get de-sensitised at festivals, the grandeur and spectacle of it all – but [on tour] there’s nothing, you’re there to play for them, and it’s a really simple relationship.”
The tour ends fittingly in their home town, and for both homecoming is always a bittersweet experience. They each find it a challenge re-adjusting to the inevitably slower pace of life compared to the touring lifestyle.
“It’s quite interesting coming back and doing your first show after a tour, you always notice that massive gap between who you were when you left and who you are when you come back,” says Davidson. “You get into a really quickened and heightened way of living being on tour, and you go back to your home town, and you’re like, ‘Fuckin’ wake up!’ guys, what the hell?!’ You just can’t believe how slow everything’s going.”
“I am very sensitive to things that I think are different, because you’re so used to this picture, so you can definitely feel it, and sometimes it hits you in real ways,” adds Williams.
“I do find after having just finished a tour is probably my most fertile [songwriting] period. Things go so fast, and you wanna just take stock at the end of the tour.”
Both are planning solo albums in the next year, each with extended tours to back them up. Williams had been living in Melbourne since mid-last year, clocking in 65 shows around Australia. For the rest of 2014, he has plans to do some recording, tour in Australia again, play some dates in the States and expects to be back here with a solo album by the year’s end. Davidson has a solo date at WOMAD mid-March and will be around to support the release of Tami Neilson’s album.
He also plans a return to European stages this year, as well as a ninth tour of the US. He loves playing there. Far from being slammed as ‘slavishly American’, as he’s often been told in NZ, his musical style is instead met with intrigue and fascination when he performs in the home of the genre.
“It’s like they recognise what I’m doing, but they’ve never heard it done that way before, so they think it’s really out of space.”
There are definitely plans to bring a fourth joint volume into the light however, with their broad individual plans for this year, we might have to wait until the next one to find out whether the ‘Sad But True’ series will continue.