“Each song is a character,” says Marlon Williams of his self-titled solo debut: a remarkably assured and diverse nine-track tapestry, united by one of the most versatile and evocative voices you’ll hear this or any other year. “I don’t really ever sing out of character. Even if it’s a very personal song, once it’s written it doesn’t belong to me.”
Combining his family’s Maori upbringing with the vocal epiphanies he discovered in the school choir and then in nearby Christchurch’s cathedral ensemble, the duality informed Williams’ unique journey as a singer. He enrolled in the prestigious University of Canterbury, but classical music’s institutionalized stuffiness proved too much. The Unfaithful Ways, his band of fellow fallen choirboys, was becoming a hot local live draw.
After the youthful combo folded its frontman cut a trio of domestically acclaimed duo discs with prolific Lyttelton tunesmith Delaney Davidson, then made the decision to relocate to Australia – partly pushed by the ruinous earthquakes that had left Christchurch in disarray, partly pulled by the promise of Melbourne’s bountiful music scene. Williams pitched up at legendary pub venue the Yarra Hotel, winning over seasoned booze hounds with a first gig on the eve of the Aussie rules football grand final.
Marlon returned home to record his self-titled album, utilizing the The Sitting Room in Lyttelton Harbour – and working once more with producer/engineer Ben Edwards, whose prior loyalty extended to rescuing The Unfaithful Ways’ album master from a cordoned-off quake aftershock area. Such deep-rooted bonds birthed an eclectic yet cohesive set that ranges from rollicking, acrobatic opener “Hello Miss Lonesome” to the wry coffee house wisdom of “Everyone’s Got Something To Say”, via Rubber Soul-ful zinger “After All” and “Lonely Side Of Her”‘s beauteous barroom empathy (penned for paramour and co-vocalist Aldous Harding).
Its author’s easygoing gender fluidity is expressed through his revelatory, androgynous reading of the traditional lament “When I Was A Young Girl”, previously hymned by Nina Simone and Feist, among others. “That’s a real fun challenge. An exposition of how songs are personal and impersonal at the same time. I don’t even think about [male or female]. Either that or I don’t think of myself as a boy anymore! The version I knew was by Barbara Dane, a white San Francisco soul/folk singer from the ’60s.”
This ability to truly inhabit his material illuminates Williams’ majestic rendering of such diverse touchstones as classic orch-pop ballad “Lost Without You” and conceptual, 1974-vintage nugget “Silent Passage” (originally by Bob Carpenter, a Canadian of First Nations heritage). These covers blend seamlessly with novelistic noir standouts “Strange Things” and “Dark Child” (co-credited to childhood choral pal Tim Moore, now a palliative care nurse), which deliver gallows humor with a widescreen groove. That quality is further illustrated by their playfully cinematic videos.
Having been nominated for 5 New Zealand Music Awards, an Australian ARIA Award and completed sold out album release tours, this Southern Hemisphere star’s eagerly awaited international release should see Marlon Williams soar.