"You make a quote, unquote 'break-up record' and then you sort of spend a lot of time ruminating as a consequence while you're on tour and you're doing media and stuff and you're rehashing the songs all the time…"
The Aotearoa troubadour Marlon Williams is about to surprise his fans. He has long been compared to everyone from Elvis Presley to Roy Orbison to Nick Cave. But, for his blithe third album, My Boy, Williams has referenced '80s synth-pop – specifically Duran Duran. "I'm just sort of having fun with following my nose," he says. Indeed, Williams was weary of being "broody".
The alt-country star from Lyttelton, Christchurch has travelled far. Initially singing in a Catholic boys choir, Williams encountered early success in New Zealand with his high school band The Unfaithful Ways. In 2013 he relocated to Melbourne, living out of a cosy pub in inner-suburban Abbotsford – The Yarra Hotel. A solo Williams introduced his emotional, if stylised, balladry on 2015's eponymous debut – earning an ARIA nomination in the Blues and Roots field. Three years later, he'd follow with the globally acclaimed Make Way For Love, chronicling his split from fellow Kiwi artist Aldous Harding.
Along the way, Williams accidentally became an actor. In fact, he was scouted for screen roles because of his theatrical music videos. "It's such a brave new strange world," Williams extols, "so I'm just enjoying the ride as it happens." He memorably cameo-ed in The ABC's mini-series The Beautiful Lie with Sarah Snook. Soon, Hollywood latched on, Williams performing in Bradley Cooper's blockbuster A Star Is Born – "a bizarre little surreal experience," he recalls, "but really wonderful."
Now again based in Christchurch, where he primarily isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams is promoting My Boy. Shy but easygoing, the 31-year-old Zooms from a big chair in a wood-panelled studio space, pondering a peculiarly productive period.
In late 2020 Williams aired Plastic Bouquet, a trad country (side-) project he'd cut with the Canadian folk duo Kacy & Clayton in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan over Christmas 2018. Asked how it fits into his career trajectory and Williams defers. "I'm not very categorical when it comes to thinking about my career," he maintains. "I certainly don't think about my career trajectory at all. I just follow my nose as I go. I discovered those guys [Kacy & Clayton] on Spotify when I was listening in the tour van and just became so enamoured with their sound and their writing and what they could do… I think it was just a curious place to go and make some music and an exciting world to be invited into." Alas, Williams was unable to tour behind Plastic Bouquet due to border closures.
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In the meantime, Williams teamed with Mark Perkins to score the independent NZ film Juniper, starring Charlotte Rampling. Then, having Ngāi Tahu and Ngāi Tai ancestry, he resumed his youthful studies of Māori culture. "I'd not fully engaged with it well for a long time and so, coming home after the Make Way For Love Tour, it just felt like a necessary time to sink back into that stuff."
Even in lockdown, Williams continued to act, notably appearing in Netflix's offbeat fantasy drama Sweet Tooth – the show ironically about the aftermath of a pandemic. Lately, he was cast in Bad Behaviour, the directorial debut of Jane Campion's daughter Alice Englert, with Jennifer Connelly and Ben Whishaw as leads.
However, Williams has also hit the road. Starting in May, he joined his friend Lorde (who Williams mainly refers to by her real name, Ella Yelich-O'Connor) on European dates as special guest. "I spent the first four months of this year doing the second season of Sweet Tooth and then went on tour with Lorde and then came home and went down and did Bad Behaviour in 'Aucky'," he says.
Williams acknowledges that balancing music and acting is a challenge. "It definitely brings up some navigational problems. I guess now that the music world's opening back up fully, and I'm putting out the record – yeah, I've felt the squeeze a bit this year, just trying to put on my different hats and keep things running on some sort of cohesive track."
At any rate, Williams is relishing the My Boy roll-out – the album revealing many layers. Raised an only child, he contemplates his Māori identity and masculine codes – the carefree title-track (and lead single) distinguished by its Māori strum. Still, My Boy doesn't so much as signal a reinvention as allow Williams to tell different stories, the vocalist often assuming characters. He tested himself, too, working with a fresh producer in Tom Healy plus live personnel other than his regular band, The Yarra Benders. Overall, My Boy feels sanguine.
"I definitely wanted to be less broody on this record," Williams illuminates. "You make a quote, unquote 'break-up record' and then you sort of spend a lot of time ruminating as a consequence while you're on tour and you're doing media and stuff and you're rehashing the songs all the time… So I think there's probably a little bit of a practical step to try and bring a bit of lightness and fun to the record – so that it would be reflected in my performance and just the way I see the world for the next little while."
The album does have one personal number – Morning Crystals, which Williams describes as "the most needy", as he clamours for attention. "Most of the other songs I had some sort of an arm's length away from them and I was in control, but Morning Crystals was like a pure vomit of need," Williams confesses. "So there's a story for ya."
Williams admits that the pandemic "imprinted" on My Boy. "Thinking Of Nina is a song that I wrote after binge-watching [the Cold War spy drama] The Americans," he says. "It could only have come out of, like, the idleness of sitting around watching television all day and then daydreaming about characters and thinking about other possible worlds for them." Williams penned the epic River Rival, decrying natural resource conflicts, on "Googling the etymology of words." (Not coincidentally, he previously included Arahura, a paean to a South Island river famed for its greenstone, on Plastic Bouquet.) Inherently an interpreter, Williams digs covers – and My Boy closes with his flip of Barbra Streisand's '80s Promises, written by Bee Gees Barry and Robin Gibb.
Conspicuously, Williams veers away from country on My Boy, instead embracing classic pop. He considers Duran Duran a touchstone, declaring the frequently underrated UK band "great, great pop songwriters." "The first piece of music I ever owned was Duran Duran's A View To A Kill Bond theme on tape. Over the pandemic, and a little bit beforehand, I was just going back to that stuff – like Depeche Mode and Duran Duran and Tears For Fears." Williams concedes that the '80s aesthetic might not be obvious but adds, "the steeliness, and the sort of coldness, of the production and the arrangements, I think, to my mind at least, leans into that New Romantic world."
Yet Williams isn't done with country. "I feel like there will probably be a lot of fans who listen to this record and maybe lament the lack of country music on the record," he volunteers. "[But] country is always such a big part of my life that I'll go back to making country records at some point."
By contrast, Williams' Māori heritage is prominent on My Boy. "Māori music has been such a big part of my life – my whole life," he explains, stressing the Polynesian influence on his harmonising and guitar-playing alike, "to more or less explicit degrees."
Though Williams claims to be "still very humbly at the beginning of my journey" in learning Māori Te Reo (the Māori language), he is drawing on it more as a songwriter (Williams contributed a te reo rendition of O Holy Night for Paul Kelly's Christmas Train). "There's certain words that I'm inserting into the record – just slipping little phrases in here and there that are some way of like gently trying to bring my worlds together a bit more and let them sort of seep into each other in a natural way. A lot of the songs have something of, if not a country feel, then a Pasifika feel to them."
Williams has already sold out a My Boy launch in Melbourne – his second home. Next, he'll tour internationally, criss-crossing North America, then Europe. But, in November, Williams will return to Australia for Adelaide's Harvest Rock festival. He's announced an East Coast run for 2023.
Supporting Lorde, Williams connected with a pop audience. "She took a real sideways move in bringing me onto that tour – and I was super-grateful," he enthuses. The megastar's fanbase is young yet astute. "They're super-dedicated to her and will go along and will take her lead when she makes recommendations or brings people into her world… So I just was really grateful to have that openness from them."
Williams has successively performed on stage with Lorde. Most recently, the pair duetted in London on a te reo version of the Solar Power track Stoned At The Nail Salon – entitled Mata Kohore for her EP Te Ao Mārama. Williams welcomes the idea of a full studio collab. "Ella is one of my absolute idols in terms of her commitment to what she's doing. I love singing with her. You know, I sang with her on her record [Solar Power] – I'm doing BVs [backing vocals] on that last record of hers – so I think there's definitely scope for us to work together in the future. And I'm excited for whatever sort of shape that would take. But she's an incredible musician and a wonderful writer. I'm so excited at any prospect that I get to work with her on. We'll see what happens."
'My Boy' is out now