Born and raised in Christchurch port suburb of Lyttelton, music started early for young Marlon Williams, though the trail to his chosen alternative-country discipline was hardly flagged. His father sang in a punk band, but with a blend of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāi Tai blood he inevitably did a bit of singing at the local marae, harmonising around the house along with his mum. Church and school choirs later helped polish his natural vocal skills. Gram Parsons was his first country record and, as he tells Silke Hartung, Marlon knew then that this was the music he himself wanted to make.
Marlon Williams started songwriting as a teenager and says he only began playing guitar properly in his last year of high school. His first band of note was gloriously named The Unfaithful Ways. It’s a classic story. Meeting at Christchurch Boys’ High School they won the prize for Best Song as Canterbury region finalists in the 2008 SmokefreeRockquest, recorded an EP and an album, performed Julia Deans’ A New Dialogue at the 2010 APRA Silver Scroll Awards and were finalists for the second Critics’ Choice award the following year –– up against Popstrangers and Kimbra.
New Zealand’s popular country music renaissance was in its infancy but The Unfaithful Ways smashed down a good number of apparent barriers and introduced a bona fide new talent in their fresh-faced, angelic-voiced, acoustic guitar-toting frontman. Back in December 2010, Vicki Anderson observed in NZM that, ‘Marlon Williams has the face of a choirboy and the shoes of an Italian film star.’
In 2015 Marlon Williams is still somehow fresh-faced –– at least when the rigours of his busy touring life aren’t being reflected, as they are when we talk early on a Friday morning –– and still eye-catchingly dressed, with his own naturally dapper style. He is promoting his own debut studio album with an early morning in-store performance and a gig at Auckland’s Tuning Fork tonight, sandwiching a series of interviews in-between.
Not yet 25 years old, Marlon already has a very decent collection of touring, writing and production credits to his name, a modest but remarkable international reputation as an outstanding singer and songwriter (Justin Townes Earle reckons him the ‘real deal’), and a strong trans-Tasman following for his ’60s-tinged style of alt-country. All these things, but most of all his abundant natural charm, lend him a considerable aura of cool.
Hugely successful collaborations with Tami Neilson and Marlon’s long-time friend and mentor Delaney Davidson, for the Sad But True national tours and albums, have brought Tui awards and further critical acclaim. Part of a wave of quality country and folk musicians, he has been involved with three of the 10 finalist albums in this year’s Taite Music Prize.
Despite a quite prolific output of solid original work, Marlon is often quoted as saying he thinks of himself more as a singer than a songwriter. Rather than false modesty, it reflects more his honesty and a scholarly diligence to the history and craft of his genre. Oddly he doesn’t much enjoy the process of writing, only the end result.
“The golden rule of Delaney in songwriting is, ‘‘Just do it’ –– don’t be precious about it, get used to the feel of writing!’ He taught me it’s a craft as well as an art. You don’t have to wait for divine inspiration, I mean, you can, but that’s not an easy way to create.
“I’m not like Delaney. I find it really hard to sit down and go, ‘‘Okay, I’m going to write a song in C, F and G and it’s going to be about rain.’ I don’t do that. I have to wait until I get a line that comes into my head, and that’ll be a complete line. It’s like hearing a song on the radio, a tiny bit of a song, and you’re taking that as example, using it to push out either way until you’ve got a whole song.
“Strange Things started like that. I had [he sings the chorus in doo doos] in my head, and the whole line. So from there you’re just trying to work out what the whole song is about from the one line. ‘What’s this song about? Hmm, it’s probably about this!’ And then you try to remember the rest of the song. That’s nearly how it feels.”
If his often dark lyrics were to be taken for personal truths there would be a lot of cause to worry about Marlon. Spooky deaths, sad love and forced departures are regular themes.
“I never think of myself in songs at all,” he assures. “If I do come to a song through a feeling, I try to obscure that and just think about the story. It becomes fiction surprisingly quickly. Of course there are always elements of truth –– after all it came out of my head…”…
The closest to personal his self-titled album gets is Lonely Side Of Her, inspired by his relationship with fellow Lyttelton Records‘ artist Aldous Harding, but even here, he says, he tweaked it.
“Ben Edwards and I produced the album together. There certainly wasn’t an overall theme, but the idea was to branch out into as many different directions as possible for my first album. From then on you give yourself the space in the public eye to close in on certain things after that.
As for the production, he says he didn’t have much of a concept for any of the nine songs before heading into the studio.
“Not much was planned from the beginning, most ideas came up during the recording. It was just me, so I sort of just felt my way through it without having too much pre-production.”
The recording line up sees long time playing mate Ben Woolley (another member of The Unfaithful Ways) on bass and backing vocals, John Egenes on pedal steel, Jamie ‘Rang’ Lloyd, Aaron Tokona and Simon Gregory on additional guitars, AJ Park and Joe McCallum on drums, with Anita Clark and Mikey Somerfield adding strings. More backing vocals were provided by Harding, Ben Brown and Marlon’s father David Williams.
As evidenced by the choice of often obscure covers he’s recorded in the past, and for this album, Marlon listens to a lot of music. A true scholar does their research. The album’s first single, Dark Child, was written by fellow Christchurch songwriter Tim Moore, an old friend. It’s also his personal favourite for its climactic production.
“I’ve always loved the way Tim writes. He’s such a natural songwriter and singer. When I recorded it I thought it was better than any I’d done, so I put it out as a single. I think Dark Child sits in the middle of the album, just in the way of the instrumentation and themes. When it gets bigger and bigger… and explodes into the final part of the song… I like the way that sounds and feels.”
Lost Without You is a cover of a lesser known song by Italian-American songwriter Teddy Randazzo, who had minor hits on his own, but whose credits most notably include charting songs by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, The Zombies and Linda Ronstadt. Marlon’s version sounds positively inspired by a 1965 cover of the same song by British teen idol and Beatles contemporary, Billy Fury.
Another eclectic cover choice is Silent Passage, the title track to the only, and near mythical album of Canadian singer/songwriter Bob Carpenter. ‘’Silent Passage’ (the album) had been recorded in 1974, but was never published due to contract issues with his producer until nearly 40 years later, in 2012. The original has Emmylou Harris on backing vocals – Marlon replacing her with the lush voice of partner in crime, Aldous Harding. His interpretation is spacious and gently paced. Typically the covers he plays blend seamlessly with his originals, which speaks for the quality of Marlon’s own compositions.
In spite of his proclaimed ‘weakness’ as a songwriter, Marlon’s melodies and lyrical skills are far from below par. The stories he tells can be taken literally, but certain lines and ideas stick out as universally applicable to feelings and situations most of us have encountered. He plays the role of a romanticised vagrant, outsider and rebel, with a delivery that is always believable. Thematically the album deals strongly with transience, many of the songs resembling ‘modern’ gothic fiction, touching on family, love and religion. Between the lines swings the inevitability of death, but there’s also beauty.
Despite a strong sense of longing (for love, distance, travel, what could have been, the past, a life without worries), it is somehow uplifting, sentimental rather than depressing. While clearly aiming for an old-fashioned, even traditional sound, the album comes across as fresh with appeal for country purist, folk and Americana fans, and also indie audiences with the dark themes and injections of quirk.
(“I got locked out of Chicks Hotel one night after playing, and decided that I was able to scale the stone wall to climb into a first floor window. There was a ladder that was going to my room but it was a whole 6.5 feet from the ground. I was very surprised and impressed by my ability to do it. Spiderman!”)
‘‘Marlon Williams’ is a fantastic album, reminiscing classic ’60s RCA/Monument recordings out of Nashville. In the vein of Roy Orbison, Marlon has one of those rare voices that can carry any song. He soars and croons, with great control over clarity of voice, husky when required. The quiet vulnerability between the lines in the often emotional ballads shows a deep sensitivity and empathy with others’ situations. There’s that maudlin sentimentality, the ‘Southern gentleman’ that he channels, and even the increasingly influential ‘Lyttelton Sound’ A-team.
The Lyttelton Sound. It’s been amazing to witness the development of an influential country/folk scene in Christchurch’s port town, particularly given the heart-breaking circumstances of the city’s earthquakes.
“It’s interesting how in history every scene seems to converge out of its own volition, like in various little pockets. Look at punk starting pretty much at the same time in the UK and US. That’s a much bigger example of course… that’s a big sociological question! I’ve always wondered but I just don’t know. The nature versus nurture question –– when I first came to that music The Eastern weren’t a band yet, there was no scene. I came to it pretty organically.”
As much as he has drawn from it, Marlon wasn’t afraid to leave Lyttelton when he felt the need to in mid-2013. His home base these days is Melbourne, Australia.
“In Melbourne I hang out with a lot of old-school rock’n’rollers, like the Drones and You Am I. The pub where I live is really iconic. It hasn’t been around for long, but it’s run by old Melbourne rockers, so generally I hang out with those guys. They’re fun!”
As indeed he is. Not given to taking himself all too seriously, Marlon had a special treat for NZ fans for Valentines Day this year. Weekly gig guide The Fold published a pin up pic of him, posing shirtless and smouldering in the bike shop that’s based at the back of the pub where he lives, taken on a phone by his girlfriend.
“I’ve found myself in a nice place in terms of Australia’s musical history, being able to meet all these people.”
Though outwardly gregarious when on or near a stage, there is also an introvert aspect to him. Being on tour a lot demands a degree of social skills as well as managing the very little downtime there is to provide some necessary personal time. To get away from everything when touring he reads, watches movies and plays games on his phone.
“Your mind learns to shut certain things off. The more you tour the better you get at it – also in ways to make people feel okay while not giving them too much of your energy. It’s just another art that you develop over time. I’m not very sociable, I mean, I can be, but I’m not very outgoing.”
He hesitates, then laughs before (sort of) joking, “I don’t like people. It gives you that appreciation to finally get home. I never leave my room when I’m home.”
It doesn’t seem likely that he will be home, here or there, much in 2015. Bigger stages beckon and after so many collaborative releases he now has a strong calling card of his own.
“After releasing the album I’m going to go to Canada in July for some folk festivals. I’m hoping to get some recording done with Justin Townes Earle in Nashville. My goal is to have a few songs ready to go to record with him, hoping something good will come out of it. I’m sure it will, but I better make sure it does, you know?