Country music is story and space. Marlon Williams’s heritage is part Māori, part Gram Parsons, part small-town feelings.
As a young boy, his music soaked the amphitheatre of his hometown, Lyttelton; population: 3000. His 2015 self-titled debut had the breadth and simplicity of this place, along with big-hearted stories, and deeply felt truths. His rendition of Roberta Flack’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ arrests and envelops, as three minutes of YouTube cradle you in a solipsistic breath.
In the last two years Williams’s music has spilled out into the Southern Hemisphere and into the big, wide-view world. Now, twenty-seven years old and almost always on the road, he releases his second album. Make Way For Love is a change of tune, offering wider, almost New Wave and deeply romantic insights into the places inside Marlon Williams. He paused in East Brunswick, Melbourne, to lend time to Lindsay.
Marlon Williams photographed by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
Is there a particular album, artist or piece of music that resonates with you because of where it transports you? Not necessarily an affinity with the genre of music, but with the place—real or imagined—that it takes you to?
Bob Carpenter’s Silent Passage is the one album that builds a world around itself more than any other for me. Great concept albums, and great albums in general, delineate a landscape with the same bare bones of an impactful dream, inviting the listener in to see a place structurally transitory and thereby all the more alluring. The album cover of Silent Passage is Gustav Dorés The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the music really puts you on his ship and imbues you with the yearning for distant lands… “from the coast of where I’ve been to where I think I’d rather be.”
How do you find life on the road in distant lands? Disconcerting? Exhilarating?
All of the above. Time extends. I spent the last two years consistently touring and it feels like it’s been ten years since I started.
“It’s a really nice feeling to travel the world, and the more you see of it, the more thankful you are for the place you come from.”
You’ve visited so many cities in the last two years. If you had to stop for a year or two, where would you stay?
Back at home actually. It’s a really nice feeling to travel the world, and the more you see of it, the more thankful you are for the place you come from.
Can you describe “home”? How does it feel and how has it affected you?
I’m from Lyttleton, a town about fifteen minutes out of the centre of Christchurch. It’s a port town set on the hillside, and the harbour sort of curves around it. It feels like a natural amphitheatre, which makes everything feel a lot closer. Like the sides have converged. It feels very cosy in that sense.
I like the instantly recognisable quality of the air when I get off the plane at Christchurch, and I’m sure it’s become something of a psychological thing, but there really is this beautiful sweetness and clarity in the way the air feels when you walk out of those front doors of the airport. For me, that is now the trigger of home.
I was born in the middle of Christchurch and moved to Lyttelton when I was six. Mum is still in Lyttelton and Dad’s moved through the tunnel (to Christchurch). I stay with Mum when I’m back home. She gives me a meal as soon as I get into town.
Do you have a favourite “Mum” dish?
Yeah, she makes a salmon steak that’s seared with Worcestershire sauce, with wilted spinach and plain rice. It’s my go to. It makes me feel like I’m home again.
“From there I realised I could communicate with people with music in ways that I can’t do otherwise.”
When did you know that music was your thing and what was it about playing and singing that you realised that you had something?
I knew pretty much straight away. I joined a choir when I was ten to get out of class and could see other kids struggling to find melodies whereas I knew “I can do this”. From there I realised I could communicate with people with music in ways that I can’t do otherwise. I wasn’t a very good speaker or student. I got flustered easily. You know how stutterers don’t stutter when they sing? It’s the same thing. It’s a prescription and if you know how the language works you can roll through it pretty easily.
The first time I was serious about writing a song there was a German exchange student at Christchurch Girls High School that I was infatuated with. I was fourteen and I wrote her a terrible love song. It didn’t work.
You were thinking about classical music when you first started. Did you actually go down the classical road or was that just a passing flirtation?
As a singer. I started singing in the choir in primary school, getting more into it in high school and singing at Catholic Mass every Sunday with the cathedral choir. Then I did classical singing at university. At the same time I was starting to write songs and play in a band. After a certain amount of juggling, I just had to make a call.
Are you religious or spiritual?
No. Well, you know “spiritual” is a tricky one to pin down. I’m not dead (laughs). I’m not dead to the world so I’m spiritual in some sense, but I wasn’t raised in a religious setting. I guess if you find fulfilment singing in church every weekend without believing in God, it speaks to the spiritual side of things—the love of the music.
Do you have a more secularised belief in something else?
I enjoy popular science. I really get a kick out of reading about quantum physics. And I read the Bible.
So many people—usually people who were raised Catholic—have this allergic position to the Bible, and that’s a stream of fervent atheism that I just can’t get behind.
Well, it’s essentially a story.
Exactly, so why can’t we enjoy it like any other story, and have the fortitude of will to be able to look past the rhetoric and just read it. My favourite book growing up was The Death of King Arthur. The Bible certainly has moralistic elements to it, but that’s what stories are for, to a degree.
“When I was really starting to write my dad put a Gram Parsons CD in front of me. It was definitely the simplicity of it that drew me to it.”
Marlon Williams photographed by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
Okay, so classical music was put to the wayside. Your first album obviously has affiliations with country—what is it about that genre that you feel connected to?
When I was really starting to write my dad put a Gram Parsons CD in front of me. There’s this ease of communication in country music for a young songwriter. You’re dealing with only a few chords and really obvious tropes and those constraints are really important for songwriting, especially when you’re starting out. You sort of cautiously proceed out the gate. But it was definitely the simplicity of it that drew me to it.
How do you hope to go beyond the tropes and the genre’s restrictions. The new song ‘What’s Chasing You?’ has a more poppy, Beach Boys element. Is that conscious or are you creating that unconsciously?
I’m definitely an unconscious writer. It just happens and then I’m left to rationalise it afterwards. The way I write is that I hear one sliver—like a cross-section of a part of a song, or just the recording quality. I liken it to driving past a café and hearing a hint of a song and then remembering how the rest of the song goes.
Is that sliver more like a feeling and then you’re trying to express what that feeling is through song? Or is it an actual synaesthetic sound that you’re hearing?
That’s such a good question. It just sort of happens. But it does mean that I find it really hard to mould. There’s a sense of fatalism to it, which in terms of consistency, is scary. I have no reference point for keeping things consistent.
Do you feel like you could lose that trick, or gift, at any moment, and not know how to get it back?
Yeah. I’m not a very disciplined writer either. You know, I’ve got friends who get up at 9am every morning and write a song before lunchtime every day. I can’t fathom that way of doing it, so there’s definitely anxiety.
Did you just write this new album in one outpouring?
Yes, this one was like a crime of passion that I had to make sense of afterwards. I had plenty of ideas floating around my head for a long time, but I’ve got this fear of committing things to paper. If I haven’t heard enough of the song then I won’t write it down because it feels like I’m trying to lock it in. There’s a lot of weird superstition going on. But it all came out in three weeks.
“I needed to convey things that I couldn’t express any other way.”
We know it’s a break-up record. Was that cathartic?
It was really necessary in a way that I hadn’t experienced as a writer before. Previously I had listened to other music for that, not write it. But this time I needed to convey things that I couldn’t express any other way.
When you play them live now, and you’re about to do that for four months on the road, is that cathartic again and again, or is that painful, or even cryptically joyous?
There is some sort of weird ecstasy I get out of it now. I really get excited about the way to use this as entertainment, and also because I want to learn about the guy who wrote those songs too.
What does being in love mean to you?
It’s a letting down of the guard. I’ve come to believe that it’s a purely personal thing. Obviously it helps to have a conduit, someone else, but really in terms of how it works, there are a lot of different ways to find that feeling. I wouldn’t have said that two years ago. I used to be an idealist.
Your song ‘What’s Chasing You?’ is about, as I understand it, the desire to really get inside and empathise and understand another. What do you think we gain or lose when we do that?
Well it’s definitely the drive to not be alone. It’s about the will to want to do it as opposed to the thing itself, because it’s not really possible. It’s about the intention. I think you can come close, but there’s no way you can get inside someone properly, or know that you’re in there, either.
What impresses you about other human beings?
Terrible things impress me: people’s ability to deceive impresses me. Any innate slights of hand are really fascinating, and people’s ability to right themselves through any means possible. The brain does whatever it can to maintain its equilibrium. Any expression of that I find interesting.
To maintain a point of righteousness?
I was thinking about this: when you’re looking at a watch and the second hand always takes a little bit longer when you first look at it and that’s because the brain can’t take in the time elapsed as it goes to look at the thing. It can’t measure it exactly, so it just doubles the image, and you see time freeze while the brain goes “okay, I’m going to give you this until I can work out what the fuck is going on and then we’ll be back on.” That gives a really good indication as to how the brain works.
I didn’t know that!
It’s one of my favourite facts.
If you weren’t making music what would you be doing?
I’d like to be back at university. I still haven’t finished my history degree so I think I’d probably still be doing some post-grad study. Hopefully I’ll go back at some point.
“It brings me back to the place where I feel like I belong and builds a sense of self. My Mum’s part Kāi Tahu, a South Island Māori and Dad’s half Northern Māori, so I’m Māori both sides.”
What interests you about history?
Well it’s Māori history, so it brings me back to the place where I feel like I belong and builds a sense of self. My Mum’s part Kāi Tahu, a South Island Māori and Dad’s half Northern Māori, so I’m Māori both sides.
Do you feel connected to your Māori heritage?
Yes and no. I’ve got strange views on a few things and there’s a certain cultural preciousness that I find suffocating at times. Like the things that cultures have to do to survive. For example the unification of all the tribes to represent one body against the Crown. You have to bastardise to survive, but it’s counterintuitive. There’s a dishonesty to it.
So you feel a real affinity with those politics as opposed to the colonised politics?
Do you think an ability to really connect with the darkest parts of the human condition is necessary to being a great artist?
I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. But look at anyone’s list of the top one hundred novels and you’ll barely find one that doesn’t delve into the pits. As Graham Greene said, “Happiness annihilates us.” Pain and suffering in art is an acknowledgement and celebration of universal suffering.