THE electricity around the single microphone seems to suspend time. Which is kind of handy, because the ballad that Marlon Williams and Aldous Harding share in slow, quavering harmony, eyes coyly downcast and lips almost touching, is at least 250 years old.
The young lovers’ plaintive version of ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ is preserved forever, thanks to YouTube fan-cam at some basement folk club in Switzerland in 2015. But like its ageless story of young love and tragic parting, the video captures an innocence destined to pass.
“It’s an album of processing, for sure,” Marlon says of Make Way For Love, his second, palpably lovesick solo record. “I’ve never used music as therapy, really. I mean, it’s always been cathartic in some ways, but I’ve never needed to have it as a vehicle to work things out. Until now.”
The Orbison-esque pitch of the album — a brooding, cinematic stocktake of raw emotion from ‘Come To Me’ to ‘Love Is A Terrible Thing’ and the desolate ‘I Didn’t Make A Plan’ — suggests that this was a big one.
“Yeah, it was,” he says. “And it was such a musical one; all tied up in music. I’ve never dated a musician before. So it seemed like the only real way through.” He shrugs, swigs his midday stubbie of Coopers Pale and attacks a plate of penne like a man, for the moment at least, more burdened by hunger than heartache.
It’s the day after a sold-out gig at Howler in Melbourne in November 2017: the last on a whistle-stop world tour that the New Zealand country(ish) singer recounts in a single sentence: “London Amsterdam Paris Berlin New York Toronto LA Auckland Wellington Christchurch Sydney Mullumbimby Melbourne.
“The names don’t really mean anything to me,” he adds with a wave of his fork. “It’s just so much a job now.”
"I'm not a man of faith but I'm definitely a man of music and that was enough to drag me out of bed every Sunday when everybody else was doing sports."
Hey some job though. The globetrotting began in earnest with Marlon’s rapturously received self-titled album of 2016. A spectacularly assured sprawl of crooning and rollicking Americana, it consolidated the experience of half-a-dozen indie albums recorded back home in Christchurch, going back to his late teens.
His pure, high and lonesome tenor made its northern hemisphere debut in 2010, as a teenaged chorister on tour of the Baltic States, Portugal and Spain. As a kid he’d sung Māori songs with his mother at tribal gatherings around his hometown of Lyttleton. His father, once a pink-mohawked punk in Gisborne, had seeded his passion for Elvis and the Beatles. But it was the Catholic mass that galvanised his musical soul.
“That’s where a lot of my mentality about how music works came from,” he remembers. “I love harmonies and I like being part of an ensemble.” He joined his first one in primary school; Ben Woolley, guitarist with his current band The Yarra Benders, already at his side.
As high school rolled around, highly reputed Kiwi choirmaster Don Whelan “employed us to go and sing some serious music”. So each Sunday at Christchurch’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Marlon honed his craft with material of a particularly challenging hue.
“My theory was not much chop before I joined the choir but pretty soon I could sight-read with the best of them. I’ve no doubt that informs the writing side of things and the arrangement stuff that I do now,” he says.
“I’ve had to give up a lot. I’ve had to give up relationships. That’s totally part of the deal. That’s just an aspect of what I’m doing. I’m kind of fatalistic about it.”
“Don had this real knack of throwing a 50-minute modernist mass in front of us on the Wednesday and expecting us to sing it fully on Sunday. It might be a Frank Martin mass for 16 voices one week, then it would be early plainsong the next week, then Mozart … it was all over the shop.
“I didn’t have a religious upbringing at all. I’m not a man of faith but I’m definitely a man of music and that was enough to drag me out of bed every Sunday when everybody else was doing sports.”
It’s a distinction worth noting, especially at an institution — Christchurch Boys’ High School — so renowned for its rugby prowess. With his towering physique the very definition of beanpole, Marlon remembers being dumped in the odd rubbish bin early on. “But I was in the Māori class as well as the choir. No one messed with the Māori kids,” he says with grin.
The classical training naturally led to classical studies at university. By then though, he was torn between the discipline of the choral ensemble and a passion for the stuff he played with his high school rock band, the Unfaithful Ways.
“I just couldn’t balance those worlds any more. I couldn’t go out and live my own naive sense of what being in a rock’n’roll band was [and then] reconcile that with serious vocal training. I’d always managed to straddle it up until that point, but they both started suffering.”
Come 2013, Marlon sealed his credentials as a committed highwayman with Sad but True: The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting Vol. 1. It was the first of three albums under the wing of Delaney Davidson, another Lyttleton singer-songwriter 20 years his senior.
So why country?
“A couple of reasons,” he recalls. “First was just timing. That was what I was listening to when I first started to write. It started with Gram Parsons, really, and he’s such a gateway artist ’cause he’s got that rock & roll side to him. He’s cool. So that sent me back to
Also: “I just really enjoyed the simplicity; how easy it is to communicate ideas in country music. It’s such a universal and well-understood medium and I like the constraints that it has.”
He underscores this last observation with a quote from Igor Stravinsky. “The arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” It’s an insight Johnny Cash would have undoubtedly understood, but maybe not at 26.
“Without sounding sort of entitled, I always expected that this was gonna be the way.”
It’s here at the crossroads of precision execution and heart-and-soul storytelling that Marlon’s talent lies. Ten years of cross-disciplinary musical experience, tucked away at the geographical end of the Earth, have launched a fully formed artist on the world. Which is pretty much as he anticipated.
“Without sounding sort of entitled,” he says, “I always expected that this was gonna be the way. From the first time I sang I was like, ‘This feels like the only way that things are gonna work’. And then luckily enough, it was.
“I’ve had to give up a lot,” he adds. “I’ve had to give up relationships. That’s totally part of the deal. That’s just an aspect of what I’m doing. I’m kind of fatalistic about it.”
WHICH leads us back to the inevitability of heartbreak, the kind that seeps like blood from Make Way For Love.
The denouement of the cycle is ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’, a duet with Aldous, of all people. The two exes’ touring schedules didn’t allow for face-time, so the song came together in a slightly awkward phone conversation between Portland, Oregon, and Cardiff, Wales.
“It was hard because we sort of had a lot of air to clear, just generally,” Marlon says. “So me talking her through the song and what I wanted her to do, just talking in musical terms, was pretty weird.
“It went fine. A bit up and down,” he concedes, burying his fork back in his pasta. “It was well and truly a part of the process. That, more than any other song, really helped me come to terms with it all. It’s a really great feeling that music can have that sort of functionality.”
It’s a pragmatic conclusion for a man who reveals so much tenderness on record. With almost 50 dates booked through the first half of 2018, from Wanaka to Glasgow; Toronto to Dallas; Cologne to Perth (“just names,” he smirks); maybe that’s the only option.
“I’ll be in trouble if I ever have to stop,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know how to be still anymore.”