“Each song is a character,” says Marlon Williams of his self-titled solo debut: a remarkably assured and diverse nine-track tapestry, united by one of the most versatile and evocative voices you’ll hear this or any other year. “I don’t really ever sing out of character. Even if it’s a very personal song, once it’s written it doesn’t belong to me.”
A veteran at the age of 25, Williams found his calling as child growing up in Lyttelton, New Zealand. A picturesque coastal town populated by fewer than 3000 people, he recalls its “wonderful contrast between port workers and a big artistic community”. The latter includes his mother and father, respectively a painter and industrial punk musician. “The first three things I remember Mum listening to were PJ Harvey, early choral music and Smokey Robinson. A lot of Maori music too. We used to go down the marae for meetings and sing these big harmony songs.”
Dad would bring home CDs every week, moving from Elvis and The Beatles through Echo & The Bunnymen, The Band’s Music From Big Pink, and, crucially, Gram Parsons: “A rock ’n’ roll dude playing country music, but respecting the purity of it.”
A similar duality informed the young Williams’ unique journey as a singer, combining his family’s Maori upbringing with the vocal epiphanies he discovered in the school choir and then in nearby Christchurch’s cathedral ensemble. “It’s a very different approach,” he explains. “With the Maori songs it’s layered thirds, one over the other. You just feel when you want to bring another third. But then I spent most of my teenage Sundays at church. We’d sing a 30-minute Mozart Mass where every note is prescribed. I’m not a spiritual person but the music was enough to keep me there, through whatever hangover I had.”
He even enrolled in the prestigious University of Canterbury, but classical music’s institutionalized stuffiness proved too much. The Unfaithful Ways, his band of fellow fallen choirboys, was becoming a hot local live draw. “I did a year at university, but they didn’t like that I was out playing in bars at weekends and coming in on Monday smoking. I was wearing country shirts to our performance days, instead of the bow tie and penguin suit.”
After the youthful combo folded its frontman cut a trio of domestically acclaimed duo discs with prolific Lyttelton tunesmith Delaney Davidson, then made the decision to relocate to Australia – partly pushed by the ruinous earthquakes that had left Christchurch in disarray, partly pulled by the promise of Melbourne’s bountiful music scene. Williams pitched up at legendary pub venue the Yarra Hotel, winning over seasoned booze hounds with a first gig on the eve of the Aussie rules football grand final.
Returning home to record, utilizing the The Sitting Room in Lyttelton Harbour – and working once more with producer/engineer Ben Edwards, whose prior loyalty extended to rescuing The Unfaithful Ways’ album master from a cordoned-off quake aftershock area. Such deep-rooted bonds birthed an eclectic yet cohesive set that ranges from rollicking, acrobatic opener “Hello Miss Lonesome” to the wry coffee house wisdom of “Everyone’s Got Something To Say”, via Rubber Soul-ful zinger “After All” and “Lonely Side Of Her”’s beauteous barroom empathy (penned for paramour and co-vocalist Aldous Harding).
Its author’s easygoing gender fluidity is expressed through his revelatory, androgynous reading of the traditional lament “When I Was A Young Girl”, previously hymned by Nina Simone and Feist, among others. “That’s a real fun challenge. An exposition of how songs are personal and impersonal at the same time. I don’t even think about [male or female]. Either that or I don’t think of myself as a boy anymore! The version I knew was by Barbara Dane, a white San Francisco soul/folk singer from the ’60s.”
This ability to truly inhabit his material illuminates Williams’ majestic rendering of such diverse touchstones as classic orch-pop ballad “Lost Without You” and conceptual, 1974-vintage nugget “Silent Passage” (originally by Bob Carpenter, a Canadian of First Nations heritage). These covers blend seamlessly with novelistic noir standouts “Strange Things” and “Dark Child” (co-credited to childhood choral pal Tim Moore, now a palliative care nurse), which deliver gallows humor with a widescreen groove. That quality is further illustrated by their playfully cinematic videos.
Williams won Best Male and Breakthrough Artist at the 2015 New Zealand Music Awards and was nominated for Best Blues & Roots Album at the ARIA Awards, alongside nominations for the coveted Taite Music Prize and Australian Music Prize.
His album was released internationally in February 2016 through Dead Oceans, and Williams has spent 2016 selling out shows throughout North America and UK/Europe, playing major festivals including Latitude, Longitude, and Austin City Limits, and making appearances on tastemaker radio shows like NPR, KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, KEXP and World Cafe, plus performances on legendary TV shows Later With Jools Holland, Conan and The Late Late Show in Ireland.
“Picks his marks and hits them…captivating” Rolling Stone
“…his voice soars to the heavens and plucks at the heartstrings.” The Australian
“One of the most impressive country records this year” Tonedeaf
“At times impossibly fun, at others bone-achingly beautiful; Marlon Williams has delivered a gem” The Music
“The whole record is remarkable…” Music Feeds
“…sublime” Herald Sun
“Williams is also a singular artist who mimics none of his heroes, and has forged his own musical path” New Zealand Herald
“Williams’ combination of youthful enthusiasm, old-soul wisdom, and solid songwriting makes this debut a wonderfully accomplished record which justifies the hype he is getting” New Zealand Herald
“It’s a revelation: an album that will still be listened to and enjoyed a decade hence” Metro Magazine
“Marlon Williams solo debut is so effortlessly great…” Metro Magazine
“A big part of his charm is that voice, which almost single-handedly brings back the type of emotive yet eloquent crooning touched on by both Tim Buckley and his son Jeff, but which hasn’t really been done the way it needs to be done since those first crooners of rock and roll, those bedevilled songs of Bing like Elvis Presley and especially Roy Orbison” Metro Magazine
“Well, I have something to say. Do yourself a favour and buy this album. Buy it now, because it might just be one of the best country/folk/alternative/whatever-you-want-to-categorise-it records you listen to all year!” Speaker TV
“Marlon Williams has one of the richest voices you’ll hear anywhere in New Zealand.” Sunday Star Times
“Though this solo debut has been a long time coming he has built a strong reputation as a live performer across Australia and New Zealand, and that experience has filtered through on this superb album that never falters or loses its sense of wonderment across its thirty-five minutes” UTR
“Sorry, New Zealand – in the grand tradition of Crowded House, Sam Neill and Russell Crowe, Australia will be claiming Marlon Williams as our own. After all, the Lyttelton-born singer resides in Melbourne now, and really, he’s just that good, we’re having him” The Age
“striking poise and unique polish” Mess & Noise
“One of New Zealand’s finest musical exports” Renowned For Sound
2011 – Free Rein by The Unfaithful Ways
2012 – Sad But True Vol 1 by Delaney Davidson & Marlon Williams
2013 – Sad But True Vol 3 by Delaney Davidson & Marlon Williams
2015/16 – Marlon Williams – Marlon Williams (released internationally Feb 19th 2016 via Dead Oceans)