You might recognise Marlon Williams as the solo troubadour who’s spent the last few years charting the breadth of this country armed with an acoustic guitar and a powerfully seductive voice. Or perhaps you’re familiar with him as Delaney Davidson’s counterpart on the Sad But True album series, which sees the pair reinterpreting classic country numbers. Either way, Williams has just released his self- titled debut solo LP, which asks that you leave behind any established notions of his artistic identity.
“I really didn’t want to have any pre-conceived ideas in my head about what to do for this album,” Williams says. “I wanted to push out as much as I could in all directions, just so it gives me more room to move later on. I wanted to make it as widely spread as possible – I definitely do, just in my mind, genre-hop quite a lot – but the other key idea behind the album is that it’s all hopefully tied together by the voice. The singing doesn’t really change that much, that’s the common thread.”
Williams has come good on his intentions and delivered an exceptionally varied journey through a host of venerable music styles. By virtue of his heady vocal register, he ties together the travelling country rock of ‘After All’ with the Scott Walker-like chamber pop of ‘Lost Without You’ and the jaunty Greenwich Village folk of ‘Lonely Side’. When adopting the various stylistic modes, Williams was careful not to commit artistic blasphemy.
“You’ve got to strike a balance,” he says. “I really do love the classic form and structure of country music and other similar genres, where you don’t have that room to move really. You’ve got the smallest possible space in which to create something new and I think you can turn that into a positive thing and use that to your advantage. It makes every little push that much more effective, every little wayward quirk that much more noticeable.”
Speaking of quirks, at first listen the LP’s lead single ‘Dark Child’ is an innocuous mid-tempo country-folk song, but a closer look reveals a backdrop flecked with tension-raising squalls of noise. Likewise, album opener ‘Hello Miss Lonesome’ is essentially a conventional bluegrass song, though the token banjo solo is replaced by fluent Spanish guitar playing.
“For ‘Dark Child’, it’s got an obvious way in which it should go and then you draw upon the underlying despair of the lyrics,” Williams explains. “Because the way I sing that song is very understated, you need to bring that sense of unease back into it somehow and usually a guy riffing out on some weird noise stuff on guitar will do that.”
Marlon Williams was recorded at The Sitting Room Studios in Williams’ former hometown of Lyttelton, New Zealand. The Sitting Room belongs to his longtime studio collaborator Ben Edwards. To convincingly present the aforementioned stylistic escapades, Williams and Edwards put a lot of thought into the appropriate recording techniques.
“We always do the same thing going into the recording process of picking tracks that roughly resemble what we’re trying to do and then try to investigate the method that went into it,” Williams says. “So every song on the album had a reference track in terms of production and we’d research recording techniques that went into those specific recordings.
“I’ve been working with Ben Edwards since I was 16 years old, so we’re very familiar with each other and what sounds we like,” he adds. “He’s the only engineer I’ve ever worked with, so we know each other’s habits, both good and bad. My technical knowledge is pretty slim. I can’t talk in shapes and sounds, but when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts I leave that up to him.”
As mentioned above, the most captivating element of the album – and that which provides unity – is Williams’ voice. Despite what some people may think, the human voice is not an easy instrument to record, especially one with a dynamic range as vast as Williams’.
“We had a lot of false stars with that kind of thing,” Williams says, “where we thought a certain reverb or whatever seemed self-evidently the right way to go and it just turned out to be completely weird and wrong.
It’s funny, without a bit of trial and error, you never really know what’s going to work. Really, you’re always going to lose something somewhere, so you have to try to make it up in other areas to cover that, because it’s not live.”
In addition to Edwards, a lengthy list of guest musicians helped to flesh out Williams’ vision for the album. It’s no surprise to find the likes of Delaney Davidson and Williams’ girlfriend Aldous Harding in the album credits. But the inclusion of noise rock band Asian Tang is somewhat unexpected. However, Williams knew all of the invited guests could contribute just what the album needed.
“They’re all really close friends of mine,” he says. “The whole idea with going back to Lyttelton to record was that I’d have access to people I know. I flirted with the idea of recording in Melbourne but I wanted to minimise those risks. It’s just easier working with people you know. A lot of those friendships have been formed through making music together, so it’s a chicken and the egg kind of thing.”
July 2 - Jive, Adelaide SA
July 3 - Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
July 4 - The Basment, Sydney NSW
July 5 - Bello Winter Music Festival, Bellingen NSW
July 7 - Black Bear Lodge, Fortitude Valley QLD