My Boy, the third solo record from acclaimed New Zealand singer/songwriter Marlon Williams, announces an artist emerging anew. Gone is the solemn, country-indebted crooner with the velvet voice – in his place comes a more playful, shape-shifting creature.
Following the release of his second album, 2018’s stunning portrait of a breakup, Make Way For Love, Williams’ toured the world, playing major festivals, and appearing on Conan and Later with Jools Holland. He forged a fledgling acting career, making a cameo in Oscar winning film A Star Is Born, and then major roles in films The True History of the Kelly Gang, Lone Wolf and current Netflix series Sweet Tooth. Williams’ has also become an in-demand collaborator, singing on stage with Lorde and Florence Welch, recording duets with Courtney Barnett, Paul Kelly, Yo-Yo Ma, releasing the Plastic Bouquet album with Kacy and Clayton, and making his first foray into composing with the film Juniper.
My Boy parlays this flush of worldly experience into a vivid, dynamic record as spirited, complex and kinetic as the unfolding life of its performer.
“I’ve always explored different character elements in my music,” says Williams. “And I think the more I get into acting, the more tricks I’m learning about representation and presentation. I’m trying to make my worlds feed into each other as much as possible. To get braver and bolder with exploring shifting contexts and new ways of doing things.”
As the pandemic paused global travel, Williams found himself at home in New Zealand decompressing from the Make Way For Love tour and exploring new avenues left in its wake. “It was such a big monolithic project, that record,” he says. “I wanted to get out from under its shadow.” He reconnected with family and friends, returned to his Māori language and culture studies, and joined a basketball team. Soon new demos and lyrical themes emerged: of self-identity and escapism; tribalism and a gnarled family tree; and ruminations on the role of masculinity and mateship.
“There’s a lot of male shapes on the record,” says Williams of My Boy. “Growing up an only child, I had to outsource my brothers and build a world around me. So while masculinity is a big theme, it’s really subsumed by broader explorations of vitality, and the social and cultural value placed on legacy.”
To help explore legacy, Williams shook up his own. Instead of recording My Boy with trusted, long-time backing band The Yarra Benders, Williams’ demoed half the album with Mark ‘Merk’ Perkins before entering Neil Finn’s Roundhead studios in Auckland in late 2020 with producer Tom Healy (Tiny Ruins, The Chills) and a new cast of musicians: LA-based drummer Paul Taylor (Feist), bassist Cass Basil (Ladyhawke, Tiny Ruins), Healy on guitars and synths, and appearances from Delaney Davidson, Dave Kahn (the lone Yarra Bender on the record), and Elroy Finn on drums and percussion.
“Having new personalities in the room allowed me to escape myself” says Williams. “When everyone’s still working out each other’s roles, there’s an unsettling and exciting tendency to go off in different directions.”
My Boy does: from the loping slack-key guitar sway of the breezy title-track, to the charging synth arpeggios of ‘River Rival’, sultry dance floor pop centerpiece ‘Don’t Go Back’ and serene, soaring ‘Easy Does It’ – My Boy sees Williams firmly having fun, even while interrogating the behaviors of himself and those around him.
“It happened naturally,” says Williams. “I was listening to more steely, New Romantic
stuff, like Duran Duran, John Grant, Perfume Genius, the Bee Gees. All those things fed into the machine.”
New sounds unearth personal meanings: the droopy synth hook of ‘Don’t Go Back’ – a callback to Williams’ debauched ‘Party Boy’ character – mirrors the hoot of the ruru, New Zealand’s native owl. The whirring synths of ‘River Rival’ and b-movie organ of ‘Soft Boys Make the Grade’ (“Was gonna write it all down in a letter / But here I am in your DMs”) addresses the seemingly innate human desire to ascribe inner turmoil to outside forces. A marriage of Polynesian and bluegrass guitars powers ‘My Boy’ and ‘Easy Does It’; the chugging ‘80s noir sheen of ‘Thinking of Nina’ was inspired by an obsession with FX spy drama The Americans; and the stop-start lurch of ‘My Heart the Wormhole’ (“Don’t you dare speak to your father that way / That’s what you say”) evokes paternal kinship through a haze of half-remembered fantasy.
All this sonic and emotional whiplash through My Boy’s eleven songs is intentional. “As a live performer one of my favorite things to do is blindside people with upsetting mood shifts. I really wanted that to come across on this record.”
It culminates in a stark cover of Barry Gibb’s disco classic, ‘Promises’. A moment, says Williams, to acknowledge the longing that powers exploration.
“I wanted one song that wasn’t mysterious to me – a love song that didn’t feel weighed down by anything,” says Williams of the final track. “It’s a parting plea to not read cynicism into it. A statement of solidarity with all the flawed characters in the preceding ten tracks. No one escapes or we all do.”
– Marcus Teague