New Zealand’s Marlon Williams Strikes the Heart of Classic Country Music

Marlon Williams

Marlon Williams.

Country music has been deeply woven into the fabric of the American South for so long, it’s hard to imagine it existing anywhere else. Saying this in certain counties might get you killed, but the themes and motifs of country music—the open pasture, the livestock, the loneliness and desolation—are not native to this land.

In fact, country music was around much earlier in Australia—the ballads of bushrangers and ex-cons sung out on the outback as early as 1788 would come from the same place as early American country and folk—from the Celtic ballads of immigrants. Turns out they had a lot of grievances with the British, too. Australia’s “unofficial national anthem,” “Waltzing Matilda” came much later, in 1875, but that’s still years ahead of Bristol, Tenn.’s recording sessions in 1927 that purportedly birthed the genre.

Australia’s country music culture really got kicking when Tex Morton, a New Zealander, came around with his love for the American genre. Morton’s love of the old internationally touring rodeos and Wild West showed him finding the common ground between the American heartland and the Australian outback, but for purposes of this story I’ll argue that the pastoral landscape of New Zealand first gave him the bug. He allegedly just moved to Australia because that was the place where he had shot at a recording career, and good thing he did—today he’s largely regarded as the father of Australian country music.

But Morton gave a bunch of Kiwis back home those sounds, too, where musicians like John Grenell and Patsy Riggir would soon carry the mantle. This history comes to the fore when you hear the voice of Marlon Williams, 25, a singer-songwriter from Christchurch with a heart-worn sound far older and well-travelled than the young man himself. Williams has been cutting records since he was a teenager, but his career started getting serious when Williams rewrote the country canon in a series of records with his old collaborator Delaney Davidson, the first of which won them “Best Country Music Album” at the 2013 New Zealand Music Awards.

“There’s always a slight disconnect between the presentation and my actual feelings, you know? I really appreciate having a bit of distance from it.”

Last year Williams’ renown started spreading outside of New Zealand when the highly renowned Bloomington, Ind./Austin-based label Dead Oceans released his excellent, self-titled solo debut. Full of stories and songs that this young man couldn’t possibly have lived through, Williams’ record finds him burying a child and living life through the hedonistic mind of a young girl.

Though the scenes he sets are not authentically his, the feelings they evoke are, and they tell his story nonetheless. Williams talked to me earlier this month and told me a bit more about his story ahead of his next show at the Bowery Ballroom on September 25 and first playing with his newest band, The Yarra Benders.

It’s a story about Williams’ musical upbringing that came from growing up in the culture of the Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, and blossomed in the choir at Christchurch’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s a story about finding the pleasure in singing a few degrees removed from the story you’re telling and finding new meaning in anonymity. But most importantly, Williams’ story is about erasing his personal history, not to forsake everyone and everything that taught him along the way, but to get there on his own.

Well thanks for talking to me today. I’ve really been enjoying your record, and for some reason when you came through with Sam Beam and Jessica Hoop it just didn’t work out scheduling-wise, but when I heard you were coming back to New York I got really excited. As a fan of U.S. country music, and particularly outlaw country and all the unsung heroes who died of liver failure in Texas who we don’t know about, I connect a lot with that energy and spirit on your record. But I started thinking about Kiwi culture and how pastoral it can be, that line of yours where you “smoke your mind across Australia,” and then I started thinking about Nick Cave’s The Proposition, the Australian or Kiwi western. How entrenched are you in these themes from back home, how in touch with the country do you feel? Insofar as it’s typically regarded as an American genre of music, how do you connect with that back home?

I guess there’s two ways. There’s a natural elementary connection that happens between that connection and the place where you are, wherever that is. It’s a celebration of the place where you’re from. Secondarily, theres the awareness of it having filtered through America, and the cultural awareness as a secondary device. There’s levels of irony and subtly you can play on about the fact that it’s foreign music. There’s a couple of different feelings I have about it, based on those two positions.

Are they sounds you got turned onto as a kid? Are they tethered to your Māori culture at all? How did you get into country?

It is somewhat tethered the Māori culture. A huge part of Māori life is about sitting around with a guitar and [someone] singing harmonies over the top, so it’s folk music in an essence. But that folk music was imported in the same way that country music came about. It was the blending of European musical styles with something that was inborn and of the area. Country music to me, it feels natural that it moves on to other parts of the world, it’s a linear course.

Does it allow you, not as a cultural device but maybe as a dude, to…I think some of the best country songs are sad-sap songs for lack of a better word. The storied country singers debase themselves, they wear their drunkenness on their sleeves, and they get into fights. It’s not a glamorization but it’s almost like little morality plays that come up in the subtext. How does that work? There’s a spiritual component to your music, too, a ritual happening on songs like “Dark Child”. Where does it all come from for you, and how do you fit that into a narrative when you write?

It’s all equal part storytelling and underlying spirituality across the board, whether you’re singing a gospel song when you’re a nonbeliever or whether you’re telling a story about something that hasn’t actually happened to you. It all sits along a similar band of authenticity to me. There’s always a slight disconnect between the presentation and my actual feelings, you know? I really appreciate having a bit of distance from it.

Marlon Williams

Marlon Williams.

The genre allows itself for that. Maybe you don’t get to do that in every genre. We know that when you’re singing “When I Was a Young Girl” you were never a young girl. I mean, you have a background of singing in a choir, so this must be a liberating experience for you just being able to embody somebody else and live in a new skin for a while. Is that something that was new for you when you started making music? Can you walk me through that transition from the kid in the choir til now?

The two parallel things were always going. I started to write songs before I joined the choir, and these days I really just miss it. I miss the simplicity of singing in the choir, where you’re just a small part of a whole. There’s anonymity in the extreme of the choir, it’s a whole other few steps back from having to present yourself or getting yourself confused with the story, I guess. But that probably informed the way I approach things now, and that I’m quite comfortable standing back from myself as a performer.

Maybe it’s an ego exercise, too? A lot of rock ‘n’ roll music, I’m thinking of the ’80s, but it’s the exact opposite. You’re not supposed to stand beside yourself, you’re supposed to play cock rock and be an egomaniac! And good storytelling is the exact opposite in a way.

Totally.

Delaney Davidson and you are joining to play country music, were you guys picking this stuff up at old record shops or was there already a strong country scene that you both took to, how did that sort of come about? I know you got a feeling for this stuff when you were in high school, but what was the vibe and the pulse of country music back then in Christchurch?

It seemed to me in retrospect that it was sort of boiling up in a lot of different places around the world, post-Whiskeytown, the early ’00s is when it really rose to the surface in a lot of places, God knows why that is. But me and Delaney didn’t know each other at all, we knew of each other, and I roughly knew that he was a weird vaudeville-blues, one-man-band guy and he knew I played in a mess of a country-rock band. We followed our tastes to a certain logical conclusion together, out of curiosity. We made these albums that were called The Secret history of Country Music Songwriting, sort of an exploration of what it meant to us, what country music means to us. Just an exercise in making a fake canon of our own personal history.

I mean that’s what Dylan did on “My Back Pages”, that’s the move—you move to a new town and you tell everybody you’re an orphan cleaning chimneys.

Totally, yeah! It’s a really important thing to be able to do, observe and shed skins. It’s really strengthening as a creative person, to be able to do that.

“Ive been a certain kind of vagrant, one who forgets all that he learns.” That’s really what you’re talking about on “After All”, erasing your personal history?

There you go!

Did you really drown an Aryan boy like you sing about on “Dark Child”? Where did that come from?

That came from a friend of mine who wrote it about a real experience, about a friend of his who passed away. He remembers going to the funeral of his friend and it being a very…his friend was a real roustabout, vagabond dude, and his parents put on this funeral that didn’t make any sense for who he was. It’s a song about lack of communication between generations. No matter how much love there is, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna be able to honor and respect the person.

If that fake country canon you made prepared you for this self-titled record, then the last song, “Everyone’s Got Something To Say” seems like a comment on what you’re going through now, touring around and just staying on your track, on point with what you have to do despite all the new things you’re experiencing. When you first started touring the states you had to be a solo dude, so how is it different with the Yarra Benders. The ante has been upped. What does that name mean by the way?

The Yarra being a park, it’s a park in Melbourne that’s right next to where we all lived. And I just liked the idea of calling the band “benders.” I don’t know if it has the same meaning in the States, but it means homosexual.

Marlon Williams and the Yarra Benders play Bowery Ballroom on September 25.