If there’s anyone who proves that singer-songwriters don’t need a Nashville or Memphis address to make authentic, arresting country music, it’s 25-year-old crooner Marlon Williams. Growing up in Lyttelton, New Zealand, a scenic port town outside Christchurch with a population of less than 3,000, Williams found early success with an alt-country ensemble he fronted in high school, the Unfaithful Ways. He also collaborated with fellow Kiwi troubadour Delaney Davidson. All told, both endeavors resulted in a total of seven records. But now, with his stunning solo debut, he’s made his most important work to date, and the accolades it’s already earned in Australia and New Zealand aren’t enough for him. There’s another frontier he has to conquer — the American heartland and the cradle of country music itself — so with Dead Oceans set to release his self-titled LP stateside on February 19, Williams tackles his first-ever North American headlining tour: an attempt, in his words, to “bring honey back to the bees.”
That “honey” is certainly sweet — the nine tracks on Marlon Williams blend soul and rockabilly elements into an already rich palette of tightly articulated stories, announcing a talent for both singing and songwriting straightaway with the freight-train-with-no-brakes of an opener, “Hello Miss Lonesome.” Whatever Lyttelton lacked in musical influences, owing to its slight population, Williams evidently made up for by becoming a something of a human jukebox. Whether employing the woebegone wail of Roy Orbison on “Dark Child” or dousing his vocal on “I’m Lost Without You” in reverb and tender strings for a full-on Righteous Brothers effect, Williams tailors every tone to each verse’s varying mood. That nuanced delivery comes through especially well on moodier tracks like “Strange Things,” which expertly channels the murder ballads of Nick Cave or Johnny Cash, or the cover that follows it — a startling, gender-twisting cover of “When I Was a Young Girl” that sounds uncannily like Nina Simone, who recorded it in 1974.
Funnily enough, Simone’s version was not the first Williams heard; he sang it in the key of Greenwich Village blues and jazz singer Barbara Dane. “The timbre of her voice — I found some sort of similarity there, and I was wondering whether I would be able to bring any sort of emotional gravity to it even though it’s sung from an old woman’s perspective,” he says. “Trying to get inside that mindset was my most exciting challenge as a singer.” Elsewhere on the record, he covers the title track from unsung Canadian folk singer Bob Carpenter’s overlooked 1974 masterpiece (and only record), Silent Passage. All this speaks to evidence that Marlon Williams isn’t merely some young hotshot in an increasingly marketable genre. On the contrary: He’s well versed in even the most obscure bits of its history, particularly where it overlaps with beatnik balladry.
“You have to understand the language, and the intricacies and the subtleties of the language, before you can break away from them or make any departures,” Williams explains. “I really feel like the rules of country music are the most important part of it. If you’re aware of them, you know when you’re not playing along and when you are. Then you’re in complete control of the dynamic of your art. That’s my central tenet of what I do — crossing the line.”
Williams’s crash course in learning those rules came through working with Delaney Davidson, another Lyttelton native more than twenty years his senior. Their duets compose Sad but True: The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting, a three-volume effort on which Delaney is the throat-scorching scotch to Williams’s smooth drink of bourbon. But Williams felt the pull of musical fascination even further back, when his father, a Maori punk singer, introduced him to Elvis Presley, Gram Parsons, and Echo & the Bunnymen. “It was kind of a strange thing for a small-town Maori boy to be singing punk music, so I think he felt like a bit of an outsider in that regard. He was always passively introducing me to all sorts of music,” Williams says. “My dad wasn’t really what you’d call a ‘culturally active’ Maori, but my mother has always been really into the culture. So I used to go to big tribal meetings and things like that at least a couple times a year with her as a kid. That always involved a lot of singing and I really got a knack for harmony singing doing that.” Williams also toured the country with the renowned Christchurch Cathedral Choir as a youth.
Though he has lived in Melbourne since 2013, he says Lyttelton is oddly a bit of a hotbed for country music. “There’s a studio there that has consistently been putting out great folk and country albums for the last few years. It’s kind of inexplicable — there’s really no accounting for why that happened. It just kind of started and then grew exponentially,” he says. But in Melbourne’s larger scene, Williams easily put together a backing band, naming them the Yarra Benders, after a venue where he held a residency. His drummer, Gus Agars, literally came from behind the bar. “He jumped from pulling beers to hitting a drum kit. I sort of built a band out of the members of the staff of the pub,” he says. The expanding scenes in both Melbourne and Lyttelton, he feels, are indicative of a worldwide trend, saying, “It just feels like it’s quite a serendipitous time to be playing country music.”
Williams won’t attempt to just ride the rising tide of country music’s popularity to stardom; he’s already raised the stakes with bold videos (he brings new meaning to the word exposure when he strips naked in the clip accompanying “Hello Miss Lonesome”), big dreams, and a talent that simply can’t be contained by any one hemisphere. “I don’t really see [country music] as being geographically centered. But I’m still curious to see where people from America think [my music] sits on the spectrum. I’m just excited to be traveling around the States with my friends, really,” he says. “It’s an exciting journey for us.”
Marlon Williams plays the Mercury Lounge on February 5.