Growing up in Lyttelton, New Zealand, Marlon Williams absorbed a strange blend of music: classical and church hymns from his mother, and both rock and traditional songs from his M?ori punk singer father.
But it wasn’t until he got deep into country music that Williams found his calling as a songwriter.
“I like the simplicity of country music. I like how straight up and down it is,” Williams says. “There’s a predictability to it that you have to work with. You have limited tools, and therefore you have to be the most economic with them. I like the constraints, the self-imposed constraints of country music.”
Now 25, Williams first found some acclaim with his high school band, The Unfaithful Ways, touring in support of Justin Townes Earle and ultimately receiving a Critics Choice award nomination at the 2011 New Zealand Music Awards. Next, he began performing as a duo with country singer Delaney Davidson while also stepping out on his own for solo shows.
Three years ago, Williams saw himself at a crossroads and decided it was time to make a play for something bigger.
“I’ve been doing a lot of touring up and down New Zealand, and I had a fork in the road where I could try to take it overseas or just continue what I was doing. I’d just turned 21, and I was pretty keen to see what was happening in the world,” he says. “A lot of my friends are in Melbourne, and I knew Melbourne had a pretty amazing music scene, so I decided to go and give it a shot.”
Working on a batch of new songs that would form his solo debut album, Williams found himself writing more character-based tunes, with imaginative leaps in his lyrics that connected in a deeper way with the country and folk traditions he’d embraced from the start.
“Definitely I hold onto the basic groundwork of country music regardless of where I’m going, but I’ve started to feel my way around a bit more,” he says. “The ethos behind it was the same. The simplicity of country music was the backbone of what I wanted to do. I played around for a while and then went into the studio and started trying to expand on some of those simple ideas. I came up with an album that had strayed off the path in a little bit.”
Songs like “Hello Miss Lonesome,” the opening track and lead single of his self-titled record, leapt from his mind, distinct and nearly complete. Williams says that when he first latches onto an idea for a song, he sees a complete cross section and just has to fill in the details.
“It’s not the most structured way to write songs, but they do come to me pretty fully formed,” he says. “It’s like I’ve heard the song before, and I just need to remember how the rest of it goes. It doesn’t make for the most consistent process, but when it does happen, it happens pretty quickly.”
“Hello Miss Lonesome” races along with a furious tempo, like “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” while another album highlight, “Strange Things,” unfolds with the same slow menace that characterizes the best murder ballads.
“I was reading a lot of Edgar Allan Poe and sort of in a gothic mood,” Williams says. “I knew where I was going with that one. I knew there would be some sort of lurid tale about a haunted house, basically.”
Williams slots his own versions of several traditional tunes alongside those original compositions. He fully inhabits those covers: the heartfelt “Silent Passage” (Bob Carpenter), the aching ballad “I’m Lost Without You” (Teddy Randazzo and Billy Barberis), and in one of the album’s strongest performances, sings the traditional “When I Was A Young Girl” in a haunting, androgynous falsetto.
“I don’t think it matters where the songs come from. From the outset, I just really wanted to make an album that’s going to bring a lot of old songs back to life and write some of mine, and do it in a way that feels seamless and feels completely natural. That’s what folk music is and always has been.”
Released last spring in New Zealand and Australia, Marlon Williams is set for a Feb. 19 U.S. release on Dead Oceans. Williams was the leading nominee at the 2015 New Zealand Music Awards with five nominations. He won twice, for Best Male Solo Artist and Breakthrough Artist of the Year. Now, Williams is ready to find an audience in the land where his beloved country music was born.
“Your perspective on your own work changes all the time, regardless, from when you first thought about writing songs to recording them to starting to tour them. I’ve been through a lot of places with the album already,” Williams says. “I’m curious to see where it takes me now, especially bringing it to the States. It’s going to be an interesting juxtaposition. I’m really comfortable with this album, but will I still be comfortable with it when I’m playing in Nashville? I think I will be, but I’m curious to see what comes up.”