Who's that with Marlon Williams?

by James Belfield / 20 February, 2017

Marlon Williams performs at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Photo/Getty Images

Supporting Bruce Springsteen and a Womad appearance get 2017 rolling for the Kiwi country star. 

calm family Christmas in Lyttelton was very much the eye of the storm for Marlon Williams. The past 18 months have been a whirlwind as the world woke up to his strong, clear country music voice and took him on a ­seemingly perpetual world tour of festivals, gigs, TV appearances and interviews – he shared a stage with Willie Nelson, shook hands with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley shortly before his death, performed on the US late-night talk-show Conan and in ­September made his film debut as gay acting student Theo in the adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal.

So he’s been recharging his batteries: he was home for his New Year’s Eve birthday (he turned 26) and has been soaking up motherly advice from mum Jenny – even turning down a gig to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Band’s The Last Waltz in which he would have shared the stage with country-rock great Garth Hudson to give himself some time off the treadmill.

“Oh, I’m definitely exhausted,” he says. “I had to take a hard line and say, ‘No, I’m not going to do any shows for a while,’ because it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, I’ll just do this, I’ll just do that.’ Then, all of a sudden, all that time you had to regroup yourself is gone.

“I’m starting to embrace the ­challenge of what all this has brought to me, you know? I’m starting to renew my strength through it, which feels good.”

What hasn’t changed over ­Williams’ hectic schedule is how hard he works to hone his craft. The high praise he won from showcases at September’s first ­Americana Music Festival in Nashville (National Public Radio’s one-to-watch and “Best Drama King” from Rolling Stone) has come from watching closely those he’s worked alongside.

“Watching Willie Nelson work out how to deliver the lyrics to Crazy in the Austin sun was really like a eureka moment. You know, just seeing the voice of the song, the songwriter, sing that and choose on a whim when he’s going to deliver the next phrase was incredible,” he says.

“It’s interesting to analyse yourself like that and try to really stay on top of the ways in which you change and at least be aware of them, if not the driving force behind them. I think my approach is always shifting subtly and that extends beyond the stage into every facet of the music. It’s always a very ­continuing and ‘under development’ process.

“It is evolutionary; it’s like a monkey didn’t just turn into a man. I wish it was that simple. It would be so much easier to make value judgments in this world if things happened like that. But they just don’t.”

But development doesn’t happen on its own. He spends three hours a day learning the discipline of writing – a lesson from “massive inspiration” and fellow Lytteltonian Delaney Davidson – and stimulates his creativity by scouring the infinite depths of cyberspace – his ­Facebook feed is as likely to feature 70s Greek crooner Demis Roussos or 80s ­hip-hop from Dr Dre as more familiar country fare.

“I’m very frantic with what I listen to, too. I’ll sit in bed at night and be listening to some house music or something and I’ll go from that to [60s folkster] Karen Dalton. From that back to Ice Cube; it just goes all over the place.

“It does turn into influence, of course. It can’t not. It can be hard trying to filter that the right way. This is the problem with this blurring of lines between genres.

“My mother said to me the other day, ‘You’ve just got to be careful that probability doesn’t overtake necessity or you’ll become ­neurotic.’ Just having the nous to work out what this means to you and why it’s grabbing you and whether it’s applicable in an obvious way to what you’re doing – that was wonderful motherly advice.”

The nous, too, to write more ­autobiographically, something that hasn’t been a priority in his first solo efforts. “I see songwriters using it as therapy. I certainly feel like I’m missing out on part of my soul, sometimes; it’s sort of a necessity coming into play there. That’s what I’m trying to work through at the moment. It’s so much bigger than just the music.”

His first effort is Come to Me, a love song about long-time girlfriend and fellow Kiwi muso Aldous Harding and the difficulties of living and loving on the road.

“It’s been hard – we’ve seen each other probably about a quarter of the time we’ve been together. It’s very difficult in that we’re both very much ships in the night. But we’ve always had that understanding of how we move through this world with our own ventures. It’s coming on 10 years now; we’re very attuned to each other. There’s a very strong bond that goes on.”

And that road has very much opened up again as 2017 gets into full swing. Williams has already performed at the Sundance Film Festival’s ASCAP Music Café and celebrated Australia Day with a show at the Rocks in Sydney.

Next on the list are two support gigs with Bruce Springsteen in Christchurch and Auckland followed by a spot at New Plymouth’s Womad in March. He’s done Womad before – in Adelaide last year – and enjoys the inspiration that comes from being surrounded by a world’s worth of talent, but sharing a billing with the Boss is a new, and slightly terrifying, proposition.

“I’m obviously just going to be blown away by watching how he puts a show like that together – that goes without saying,” he says. “But in terms of asking him anything, it’s like looking at the sun. I really don’t know. I’d probably just ­stutter and then say, ‘See you later,’ and turn around and walk away. Even thinking about being put in a position of having to ask him a question that was of any weight is terrifying.”

Marlon Williams and the Yarra Benders will support Bruce Springsteen in Christchurch on February 21 and Auckland on February 25. They play Womad in New Plymouth on March 17.

This article was first published in the February 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.  

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