The Timeless Charisma of Marlon Williams
The current reigning lord of alt-country jams peels back a few layers for us.
Despite not being hugely up to date with contemporary country music (beyond binge-watching Nashville on Netflix), we can’t get enough of Melbourne based singer-songwriter Marlon Williams' striking tracks and stirring lyrics. The way he breathes new beauty into ballads from bygone days is actually something else (it also doesn’t hurt that he’s impossibly good-looking). Hailed as “the impossible love child of Elvis, Roy Orbison and Townes Van Zandt,” Marlon was raised in the small port town of Lyttelton, New Zealand, and since the age of 17 (he's now 25) has been taking over the world – he’s just doing it quietly, in contrast to the showy flash of other solo artists of his ilk working in say, the electronic production realm. Marlon's become known widely across NZ for his work playing in two high-profile acts: band The Unfaithful Ways, and in a duo with Delaney Davidson. He's been nominated for five New Zealand Music Awards (won two of ‘em), and an Australian ARIA Award, and played sold out tours of Oz and NZ. In 2015 he decided to alone for the first time. It was a good decision - he released his debut solo album Marlon Williams to international acclaim.
Tone Deaf called it “one of the most impressive country records this year”, but like we said, if you're more indie-rock inclined, you'll still get a lot out of their music, just as you would Alabama Shakes or Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. This is because Marlon’s songs strike right to the heart; their capacity to embody human emotion gives them a broad appeal. He plays with a range of styles across the album: there's huge, energetic, rockabilly tracks whose cinematic scope could allow them to easily sit on the soundtrack of a 60s spaghetti western, then there's mysterious soul, and fragile, tender songs of heartbreak. It’s a beautifully intense listen from start to finish, carried throughout by Marlon’s devastatingly good voice.
We’ll get the chance to experience those honeyed pipes for ourselves when he performs at Perth Festival next Sunday, February 28 (tickets HERE) and Melbourne- after that he’s coming home to support CW Stoneking in in March at the Zoo (tickets HERE). In the words of Perth Festival, "no music lover should resist the opportunity to catch the glow he throws when the light hits” We can’t wait. Give us all of the Marlon-y glow. The Kiwi star-in-the-making spoke to Pilerats from the back of a taxi in Portland, en route to soundcheck at the venue where he was performing that night. We covered the below terrain:
READING ON THE ROAD
Right now I’m in Portland Oregon, on show #3 of an 11-show tour. It’s been good so far, the shows have been well received. It feels like we’ve been on tour for ages already, though. I read a lot to keep myself sane on the road. At the moment I’m reading The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, it was one of the first true novels written in the 1300s, its about a group of young people who attempt to escape The Plague by going to live in a mansion outside of Florence. They spend the days telling each other stories; of love, and adventure, overcoming obstacles… the book’s a collection of all their stories.
The song’s written by a good friend of mine from Melbourne, from way back, Tim Moore. He stopped playing music for a while and started studying music, and I thought ‘if you’re not going to be putting these songs out there, I’d love to record Dark Child myself… he was pretty happy about that, now he’s writing me heaps of songs all the time. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship; that allows him to stay at the fringe without his music having to hide. Much of my material, such as When I Was A Young Girl, or Dark Child, comes from other sources, that doesn’t stress me out. I love playing my own songs, but I’m not particular about it - I equally enjoy discovering other people's songs.
THE SONGWRITING PROCESS
I don’t usually enjoy the songwriting process as I’m scared of imperfection; and I don’t like looking too closely at myself; it freaks me out, I like to stay a little blind to what I’m actually doing! This past album came together really fast in the studio when I was doing it, I don’t really remember what happened… haha I kind of blacked out for two weeks and then I came out with an album!
RUBBER SOUL REVOLVER TOUR
In August last year I teamed up with some Aussie musos [Jordie Lane, Husky and Kingswood’s Fergus Lincare] and together with a seventeen-piece band - we played the whole of The Beatles’ Revolver from start to finish in chronological order – it was a world first. Wow, this is very odd, I just pulled up to the venue and I’m looking at a Revolver poster... super spooky!
Marlon on Rubber Soul “it’s got this beautiful balance between incredible pop music with just a little bit of weirdness in it.”
HAVING YOUR HIGH-SCHOOL SCIENCE TEACHER IN YOUR BAND
When I was 17, I spent three years in a country rock band called The Unfaithful Ways with two of my high school friends, and my science teacher. He was the drummer. I was a terrible science student – it definitely made my life easier having our science teacher as our drummer. I never got in trouble for rehearsing instead of doing my science homework, for one.
BUILDING A SENSE OF DRAMA ON ‘LOST WITHOUT YOU’
That was me and the engineer – we recorded a lot together and have a long history of being in the studio – for that song we started with one violin player and layered up the sound; we referred to the original a lot. There wasn’t a string quartet involved or anything; it was a slow process.
GIVING EVERY SONG A CHARACTER
Every song is a different shade you have to bring out and perform. I find characterising each song certainly helps with that. 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; it belongs to the character I’m playing. Dark Child, for instance, is written from the perspective of a parent whose child has died and they have no idea why the child was so wreckless in their lives - it’s a song about a lack of understanding between generations. It’s quite harsh. With Dark Child, there’s a certain place I go to every-time with that song, I can’t even say what it is.