When I spoke with singer/songwriter, the quietly spoken Marlon Williams he was in Mt Eden in Auckland on a church tour. This is a perfect location for the acclaimed crooner, who actually started singing in a cathedral choir.
‘Singing has always been about whatever my voice can do first and foremost’, says Marlon, ‘I guess I didn’t really engage in the singing properly until my voice broke, by the time that I joined the Catholic Cathedral Choir and started singing Mozart – so I was already a classical tenor, I feel lucky that I got my classical grounding. I would turn up on a Sunday morning and have a whole new 35-minute piece to sight-read – but it all sat within my range so all I needed to do was upskill my theory and basic knowledge of how to read music.’
Finally, the question is answered about why he’s so bloody good.
Although Marlon laughs that his classical training can go both ways.
‘At times it’s both a help and a hindrance – it’s a help in that I know the science behind what I am doing and it’s a hindrance in that I know the science behind what I am doing! I had this voodoo paranoia about learning music. I have come to a place now where I know a lot of the rules and have a bit of appreciation of what it means to aesthetically break the rules. In the end it has helped me along.’
A New Zealand boy who gets homesick for his country if he’s away too long Williams is a passionate songwriter who prefers to craft his music on a whim rather than in long disciplined sessions.
‘As a writer I pick up a melody and often a lyric out of nowhere and see where it takes me, I am not very self-directed as a songwriter, it ends up being something that I am as surprised by as anyone else. Trying to think of a consolidated piece of work is a task for me, I have to exert an abnormal amount of direction.’
So what was the album that first turned Marlon onto contemporary music?
‘The first album that really struck me is Big Pink by The Band, they had been playing with different artists, backing Dylan on his European tour – they went off to a cabin in the hills and recorded this seminal album of Americanah – for me that album is so solid and complete within itself – it’s sort of a blueprint for genius.’
So how does Marlon approach taking his album to the stage?
‘You record an album specific to a space and time and go out and tour on the back of that, unless you are doing a real concept album – I know a lot of people when they tour the album it has to be faithfully represented.
I don’t approach it like that. I want to have that personal touch, something specific to the place and time, it’s the beauty of live music.’
Marlon admits to not always feeling comfortable on stage, which is a surprise, as he’s such a mesmerising performer.
‘It’s the general unease of performance that is the impetus to keep moving and the problem is whatever you say it becomes a part of your performance, it’s hard to become earnest. I don’t think many artists become confident, and there are so many factors that go into a live show, and whatever comes – we are all in this together, with all of this personal bullshit…
In the end, it is you on stage – just another shadow of myself.’
Marlon Williams is joined by the Yarra Benders and support act Ben Salter at the Byron Community Centre on 15 November. Tickets at the venue.