Marlon WIlliams grew up in Lyttleton, New Zealand. He toured Europe as a member of the choir of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, and started playing guitar in high school. His band The Unfaithful Ways, formed with two friends and his school’s science teacher, were successful. They released the 2011 album Free Rein and played The Big Day Out. After The Unfaithful Ways Williams collaborated with veteran country artist Delaney Davidson, who also mentored Nadia Reid and Tami Neilson. Davidson and Williams released a series of albums entitled Sad But True: The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting.
Still only in his mid-20s, Williams struck out solo with his self-titled debut in 2015. A second album, 2018’s Make Way For Love, topped the NZ album chart. Williams made a cameo appearance in the remake of A Star Is Born, but he’s still the kind of niche artist you expect NPR to rave over but enjoy middling sales.
Williams considered a career as a classical singer, and his vibrato-laden croon is immediately distinctive – like Angel Olsen, his vocal style feels anachronistic. His songwriting is unconventional and stays away from big choruses and clichés. I’m not sure if he’s reached his potential yet, but he’s enjoyable. I saw Williams live in early 2021; with the world still struggling with Covid-19, he remarked that he was just about the biggest tour in the world right now despite performing solo with a $150 acoustic guitar.
Marlon Williams Album Reviews
Unfaithful Ways – Free Rein
2011, not rated
I’ve listened to the debut album from Williams’ high school band a little. It features a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Snow Don’t Fall’, a good reference point for Williams’ work.
Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams
The duo of Delaney Davidson and Williams released three volumes of The Secret History of Country Music between 2012 and 2014. The second volume was only released at gigs, and isn’t on Spotify. The volumes mixed originals like Williams’ ‘Minnie Dean’ (about an infamous NZ criminal) with covers like ‘Dark End of the Street’.
Already an experienced recording artist, Williams launched his solo career with 2015’s self-titled record. Although he’d already relocated to Australia, the recording sessions took place in Lyttleton produced by Ben Edwards. Like everything Williams has done, Marlon Williams is a concise 34 minutes and 9 songs. It starts strongly but despite its short length it does tail off toward the end.
Opener ‘Hello Miss Lonesome’ provides a sprightly opening and recalls the rockabilly of early Elvis. Williams is excellent of the Gothic country of ‘Dark Child’ and ‘Lonely Side of Her’. ‘Silent Passage’ sounds like a Gene Clark song with its mournful pace and imagery-laden lyrics – it’s actually a cover of a 1974 song by Canada’s Bob Carpenter. I’m not as fond of ‘When I Was A Young Girl’, despite Williams’ impressive vocal range.
Marlon Williams is an effective solo debut, showing Williams’ unique vocals and unusual writing.
Make Way For Love
Williams’ first album was full of Gothic country, his second is a sad breakup album. The end of his relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Aldous Harding inspired a spate of songwriting – Williams wrote 15 songs after the breakup. While Williams is supported by his regular band The Yarra Benders, Make Way For Love was recorded with Noah Georgeson in Panoramic Studios, California. Williams had enjoyed Georgeson’s productions for Cate LeBon.
Make Way For Love is a stronger record that the debut in many ways – with the richer production it breaks Williams away from straight country. But at the same time, it’s difficult to rate an album with ‘Party Boy’ higher than the debut – Williams refused to play it on request when I saw him live. The tone is set though, by the heartbroken by the sumptous heartbreak of songs like ‘I Know A Jeweller’ and ‘Beautiful Dress’. Best of all is the duet with Harding on ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’, which won the APRA Silver Scroll for New Zealand songwriting – Harding would win the next year for ‘The Barrel’.
‘Party Boy’ aside, Make Way For Love is often gorgeous.
Kacy & Clayton & Marlon Williams
On Plastic Bouquet, Williams collaborates with Kacy & Clayton. Kacy & Clayton are a duo of second cousins from Saskatoon – Williams contacted them after hearing them on Spotify. Like Williams, they bring a traditional country feel to Plastic Bouquet – Kacy Anderson’s voice resembles Emmylou Harris’ in its clear purity. The Canadian-New Zealand combination makes sense – Kacy told Bandcamp that “the three of us are just old timey kids.”
There’s a cross-pollination of cultures on Plastic Bouquet – the title track is bluegrass while ‘Arahura’ reflects Williams’ Maori heritage. When I saw him live, Williams told the audience about the album’s lead single ‘I Wonder Why’ – he was embarrassed by its straightforward nature and tried to excise it from the master tapes. Even more than most of Williams’ oeuvre, it sounds like a 1950s throwback, but it’s charming. It’s fun hearing Kacy and Williams duet on songs like ‘Light of Love’.
Williams’ music feels slight sometimes – he favours short songs and simple arrangements – but Plastic Bouquet is a charming record that sounds like it beamed in from 60 years earlier.
Best Marlon Williams Songs
Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore
Lonely Side of Her
I Wonder Why
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