Marlon Williams crosses the Pacific for Dead Oceans

Marlon Williams

Loyal readers, you may have sensed a sort of weariness emanating off my person about the state of my email inbox, maybe from my Twitter complaints about achieving the impossible Inbox Zero, or maybe from Wayne's multiple cartoons this month about collectively lighting our computers on fire. Honestly sometimes my daily inbox cleaning can be something like The Purge. Most survive, but a few unjustly perish at the whims of itchy trigger fingers. 

But there's gold in them thar hills, err, email inboxes. And thus, I persevere! (It's a Friday in February, can you tell we're all exhausted around here?)

This week gold takes corporeal form as Marlon Williams, an enormously talented Kiwi singer-songwriter recently signed to Dead Oceans and cruising through Bloomington next Tuesday with his first solo album in tow.

Here come the press release facts: Williams' dad was a Maori punk singer who stuck his son in the Catholic Cathedral Choir in Christchurch for five years of sacred song. Somewhere in there, Williams formed successful alt-country band The Unfaithful Ways at 17 (with his high school science teacher! What!) and collaborated with country singer and Kiwi musical elder Delaney Davidson for three country albums, scooping up handfuls of New Zealand Music Awards on the way. 

I'll be real with you: I didn't know any of that until a week or so ago when I was doing some email inbox scrubbing and came across his self-titled languishing, unlistened-to, unclicked-upon. Williams was new to me, as I imagine he may be new to you, too. (That's what happens, although at an ever-decreasing frequency, when someone is off being massively successful half a world away.) Openers "Hello Miss Lonesome" and "Dark Child" was instant favorites. As I continued, covers of Bob Carpenter's "Silent Passage" and '60s ballad "When I Was a Young Girl" — not dissimilar from Nina Simone's iconic version — snuck up on me. Williams' S/T is a curt nine tracks long, including four he did not pen. But, as ever, folk music is not so much about who wrote the song, but about who feels the song. And Marlon is feeling it, y'all. So am I: a week later, I've listened through 11 different times or so. It's a really, really great, effortless folk record. 

I grabbed a bit of Marlon's time earlier this week in between bopping from one West Coast location to another on a North American tour. Here's our conversation, interspersed with some of his music.

He stops at the Bishop on Tuesday. 

NUVO: I’m so excited you’re coming to Bloomington because it’s your new record label’s home! Could you trace out for me, because they are a locally based label, your experience with Dead Ocean so far and any of your new label mates that you’re excited to share a label with?

Marlon Williams: Well, it started because a friend of mine worked for them in New York. A friend of mine who moved over from Christchurch, and so he sort of got the album under their nose … and now I've got a record deal. They've been really good. They're a nice size. They're big enough together to get things done, but they're also small enough to care about getting things done in the right way. There’s some wonderful other acts on the label. A lot of them I’m not familiar with, and I’m trying get to know them. It’s a good time.

NUVO: Let’s talk about the songs that you didn’t write on this album first. There’s four of them: “Dark Child,” “When I was a Young Girl,” and “Lost Without You,” and “Silent Passage.” If we could go through one by one, you could tell me why each were important to put on this record.

Williams: Well, “Dark Child,” it’s a very close-to-home song. It was written by a very good friend of mine in Christchurch back in New Zealand a few years ago. Tim Moore. He stopped playing music for a nursing career. Basically, because he wasn’t going to be performing the song anymore, I got up and asked, you know, I want someone to sing it. I was fit to do it. And I had a specific way I wanted to perform it, and it was an easy way for me.

“Silent Passage” comes from an obscure Ontarian singer-songwriter named Bob Carpenter who never really had a lot of success in his life time. He only had one album, which was also called Silent Passage. That, for me, as a music lover that’s really why I really wanted to play this song, because I want more people to hear it. I’m such a massive Bob Carpenter fan, and it was pretty selfish — that was the reason I wanted to perform that one. I was like the drunk guy at the party putting his favorite song on, basically.

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“When I Was A Young Girl,” the version I first I’d heard of that song by a woman named Barbara Dane from New York, who sang it in the '60s. She had a really deep, wobbly alto. ... I started singing it, and then [thought] it's be interesting to try and pull this one off, you know, singing from a girl’s perspective. I was enticed by the potential for the challenge of getting inside the song emotionally. It’s just a really beautiful song to sing. “I’m Lost Without You” is a very cinematic, '60s R&B pop song that’s just another beautiful song that I wanted people to hear. I love groove; I had a slightly new angle to bring to it that I thought was interesting.

NUVO: I feel like a lot of interviews or reviews written about your music mention Maori music [Williams was and your history. Both that and singing in Catholic choir, I would love to have your elaborate on how both musical traditions specifically inform your music and perhaps anything that vocally you feel growing up with both those traditions of music has done for you.

Williams: I think generally just my lust for always having harmonies, just you know … any opportunity in the song. That’s the key part of [Maori music] is having simple songs that you can just lay a harmony on top of each other. ... It’s folk singing… there’s no shame or subterfuge in Maori singing. It’s just very straight up and down. It’s very loud and open. It’s very open-style of singing. That's probably something that I inherited a bit, being a singer and not worry about it too much.

NUVO: And your time with the Christchurch Cathedral Choir, can you tell me what kind of pieces you gravitated towards that you enjoyed singing the most?

Williams: Well, I love the old 16th and 17th century, early Baroque stuff. Like Bach and Handel, that stuff is so technically difficult and rewarding that you know, it’s a craft that really requires everything you’ve got. It kinda keeps things simple in a way. You just gotta get the job done, ya know, and that’s all you can really do. But then we sang everything ranging from early plainsong stuff through to really avant-garde, modern French stuff that was just to me ran the spectrum of to sacred classical music for the last 500 years.

NUVO: I know that you have a little bit of film acting coming up as well. Can you tell me about the experience of acting in independent film?

Williams: I’m [playing] a gay student in a New Zealand special called The Rehearsal. It’s about a sex scandal that happened at a girls’ school between a girl and a tennis coach. It's a very meta-theater story. So basically, I’m playing a role that’s not super natural to me, which is kind of interesting. And it’s not something that I’ve really done at all anyway, and so all a learning experience. I have no idea what I’m going to look like on the screen, I think that kinda can’t get my head around that, it's a little bit worrying to me, but I'll just have to wait and see!

NUVO: I was talking to a music-writer friend earlier and told him I was going to interview you and asked if he had any questions, and he said, “You know, I bet it’s exhausting to plan touring when you’re based out of New Zealand and Australia because it is just so far away.” And I was like, “Yeah! It is!” I was looking through your schedule, and thinking you’re probably spending a lot of time on planes, and you’re probably near one now. What are the particular challenges of being a world-touring artist from the New Zealand and Australia area?

Williams: It means that, you know, every undertaking is that much bigger. They're much more significant and important, because you got so much longer to think about it on the plane ride, and you don’t take it so lightly as if you were going from Europe to the States, or within the States. And also, I’m thinking right now I’ve got South by South in March and then I’ve got a couple of the week off before I have to go to Europe, and I was hoping to go back to New Zealand to take a little break. But flying back [to New Zealand] and then flying all the way back to Europe is probably going to be more tiring and stressful then not going home for the next couple of weeks. ...There's just a new set of rules for how to operate when you go so far. 


Editor of NUVO Newsweekly since 2016; formerly Music Editor. Lover of justice, cats, local hip-hop, axe-throwing, sailing and pies. Hater of fake news.