Marlon Williams has come a long way.
The 25 year old native of Lyttelton, New Zealand is already a veteran in the music business in his homeland. He started his first band, The Unfaithful Ways while in high school, and they quickly became known across the country. Later, he performed as a duo with fellow New Zealand singer-songwriter Delaney Davidson. That collaboration resulted in New Zealand Music Awards for Best Country Song and Country Album of the Year in 2013. But Williams doesn’t necessarily subscribe solely to that genre.
“It’s not something I think about too often. A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to do that that, trying to figure out where things fit in the scheme of the genres. I tend not to really think about it at all.”
Lyttelton is right next door to Christchurch, which made headlines around the world in 2011 when a devastating earthquake struck, causing billions of dollars in damage, and essentially leveling the downtown core. Williams remembers that day.
“I was with Delaney Davidson, actually. We were sitting in a cafe in Lyttelton. And then the earth sort of turned itself upside-down and we ran away.
“I think it’d be silly to say it didn’t have an effect on me personally. I mean, I was lucky enough not to have anyone close to me die in the quakes. But you know, the city is still picking itself up. My mum’s still trying to get an insurance payout on her house. So yeah, the remnants are still very much felt. It’s definitely changed the dynamic of the landscape and the city as a population for sure.”
Marlon has spent most of his life around music. His parents introduced him to music that ranged from PJ Harvey, to Bjork, to Maori music, and various styles of classical as well. “My dad used to be in sort of a post-punk band in the 80’s and early 90’s, so we’ve got a very different approach to our own music. But also, while I was a kid, he’d put something new under my nose every week, so he definitely gave me a good history of popular music. And my mom’s a painter. She listens to a lot of popular music while she paints, really loudly as all hours of the morning. So I had that permeating into my consciousness too.”
In 2013, Marlon moved to Melbourne, Australia to pursue a solo career. Since then he’s built up a large following Down Under and around the world, and released his first full length album, the self-titled Marlon Williams (released internationally in February 2016). The album sounds like a classic album from the 1950’s or 1960’s, in the tradition of greats such as Gram Parsons and Hank Williams.
“Well, when I was first starting to write music, the most formative part of my musical upbringing, that’s when I was getting into Gram Parsons. He was the first sort of entrant into that form of music. Gram’s still like an entry point for a lot of people into country music, cause you know, he died young, he’s a rock star, hung out with The Rolling Stones… An easy way into it. From then I sort of worked my way back into Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, George Jones, all the old honky-tonk singers. And then I started looking forward from there, going to The Byrds, Gene Clark… and then I listened to all sorts of rubbish.”
For Williams, it seems a career in music was always his destiny. Being on stage has always come naturally to him. From his first time singing in front of a crowd he said, “Oh, I’ve got to get more of that.” And he doesn’t see any other careers as being viable options.
“I guess in a way, and not necessarily in a bad way, I’ve always taken it for granted, just because I have no other abilities. I have no other talents, so it’s like, as my defense mechanism I’ve always thought I’d do music until there’s no food left. No backup plan. If it all falls apart, it’s going to fall apart in a really big way.”
So what kind of show can the crowd at CityFolk expect for Marlon’s Ottawa debut, the first stop on his North American fall tour?
“It’s pretty varied. I start as a solo artist and then start to bring out different aspects of the band to sort of fill in different gaps. And then we end up in this big soul sound, and then we pare it back into a bluegrass band. It’s pretty schizophrenic. It goes on something of a journey.”
While Williams won’t have much time in Ottawa before moving on, if you happen to have your rooks and bishops handy, he says he’s always looking to throw down, chess-style.
“I play a lot of chess. If I’m not playing music or watching cartoons I’m looking for someone to play chess with. If anyone is at the festival and has a chess board, I’m more than receptive to a game. I’ll bring a chess board with me.”
Marlon Williams performs at CityFolk Festival on September 17th from 8:30-9:30 on the BMO Stage.