In February, Marlon Williams released the first great New Zealand album of 2018. He talked to Henry Oliver about the heartbreak and honesty that went into making it.
“It’s not, but it is,” Marlon Williams said, introducing his song ‘Love is a Terrible Thing’ at a showcase for his new album, Make Way For Love, which recounts the disintegration of his relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Aldous Harding. “It’s like Old Testament terrible. In the same way God is.”
Make Way For Love is a classic break-up album, like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or Joni Mitchell’s Blue (also about a relationship with another musician). Its eleven songs of country, folk, heartbroken early-rock n roll, and lightly-experimental traditional pop are the shattered remains of a break-up. It’s a mournful album about desire (‘Come to Me’); miscommunication (‘What’s Chasing You’); lust (‘Beautiful Dress’); possessiveness (‘Party Boy’); longing and jealousy (‘Can I Call You?’); melancholy (‘Love is a Terrible Thing’); bitterness (‘I Know a Jeweller’); vengeance and infidelity (‘I Didn’t Make a Plan’); resignation (‘The Fire of Love’); bargaining and acceptance (‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’); and, just maybe, hope (‘Make Way for Love’).
And through it all is Marlon Williams and his blessed voice. A combination of country croon and vibrato swoon, it is the product of the cathedral, the marae, and the bar. It’s smooth and warm and deep. He has the effortless range and perfect breadth of someone both naturally gifted and formally taught. No syllable is a struggle, no note is out of reach. He’s been called the Māori Elvis, but could just as easily be the Māori Roy Orbison, the Māori Gram Parsons, and now, the Māori Scott Walker, the Māori Odetta, or, even, the Māori Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave. But while American forms have always been at the heart of Williams’ music, this more sonically expansive album includes more direct Māori influences, recalling Prince Tui Teka, Sir Howard Morrison and the Māori showbands of the ‘50s.
The thematic core of the album is ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’, a duet with singer-songwriter Aldous Harding – the object of not just the song but, seemingly, the entire album. He sent her the song, asking if she’d sing her part of a dialogue they, perhaps, couldn’t have in real life. He wanted to record it together, in the same room, but her touring schedule didn’t allow it, so she recorded in Cardiff a couple of months after he recorded in California. “There is no blame, there is no shame, I need you more,” they sing to each other separated by an ocean, a continent and time. “Nobody gets what they want anymore.”
“We had to be honest with the reality of what the record is,” he said about the collaboration, which became the first single of the album (making the first voice the public heard of the album not his, but hers). “I was nervous, but it allowed me to communicate things that I couldn’t do any other way. There is a feeling in that song that I don’t have words for, that I had, up until that point, had tried to express but couldn’t. I was really excited to sing that to her. Like, ‘This is where I’m at. And just so you know, this is where I think you’re at.’ I wanted to make it clear that these are my words in her mouth, this is my world as I see it. And the fact that she agreed to sing it and sing my words in her mouth was some sort of validation to me in itself.”
Last year, Aldous Harding released her own sophomore album, Party, which helped her win Breakthrough Artist and Best Alternative Artist at the 2017 New Zealand Music Awards. Party hinted at a disintegrating relationship but obscured any literal interpretations in a metaphorical haze. But it was easy to speculate that the “perfect man” Harding really wanted back again in ‘Blend’ and the wounded babe she scolds in ‘Horizon’ (“I’m showing that person two things; their life, and their life with me. And I’m taking one of them away. And that’s me,” she explained to NPR) are Williams. But, while Harding almost never discusses Williams publicly (a notable exception is when she told Jesse Mulligan on RNZ, “He’s the only one really… that I’ve got time for”), Williams talks freely about how their break-up inspired the writing of Make Way For Love, both as material and motivation.
“It’s funny because she doesn’t talk about us in interviews – pointedly so,” he told me over steak, fries and a ‘special coffee’ in a wood-lined booth at one of Auckland’s three steakhouses called Tony’s. “She won’t do it, which is part of her cultivation of her … [she’s] protecting the ambiguity of the songs and I completely understand why she does that. She literally made [Party] while I was in the middle of panicking about my own music, and she was like, ‘I’ve made this record and it’s pretty good. And now you’ve got to try and make a pretty good record too. You’ve got no choice.’ I remember just sweating and being like ‘This is the worst. How do I do this?’”
Knowing, from writing about Harding, how reluctant she’s been to fill any literal gaps in her songs, I wondered what responsibility he felt he had to respect Harding’s privacy. I asked him whether he’d listened to Lorde’s ‘Writer in the Dark’ and whether he empathised with its sentiment (“Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer the dark,” she taunts an ex). He said he’d compared notes and shared lyrics with Lorde while they were both writing albums dealing with related subjects. So what, I wondered, does an artist owe their subject? If a person knows their partner is an artist are they necessarily making their private lives available as a character or as content? And what if the subject is not only an artist too, but has made work about the same thing and chosen not to talk about it explicitly?
“Being with a musician or another artist, there are unique ways of communication and there’s an element of ‘the show’ over the whole thing – and there always was,” Williams explained. “We were musical buddies before we were together and there’s an acceptance, some sort of fatalistic, ego-driven, musical personality going on the whole way down the track. So it meant [being candid about the relationship] was an obvious thing to do in an odd way, to treat it like that at the end.
“There’s no distinction between the musical world and our private relationship. It’s all so tied in. For the same reason I respected her decision not to talk about it, I knew that she might be pissed off by the fact that I’m talking about it. But she would never tell me that I couldn’t do it. It’s my prerogative to decide … I could generalise a bit more, sure. But it seems pointless.”
But now that the record’s done and he’s played the songs for large groups of people, and he’s talking to strangers like me about how he turned a break-up into an album, he’s been forced to reflect upon the motivations behind his openness. “I’m trying to work out whether there’s some kind of emotional exhibitionism going on,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like how alcoholics talk about AA all the time; there’s always this element of fanaticism going on. There’s a tiny part of me that worries that I’ll wake up one day and go, ‘Why have I just told everyone all this stuff?’ But I think it’s alright. I think I’ll be okay. I feel like I can never be angry at myself for doing it. You can get stuck pretending like you’re being backed into a corner, but I’m not a circus monkey. There’s a lot of intent going into this. And I could stop anytime. No-one’s holding a gun to my head.”
Marlon Williams was born in a bathtub on Cashel Street, Christchurch on New Year’s Eve 1990. When he was “about six” his family moved to Lyttelton, which became the epicentre of one of New Zealand’s most fertile music scenes. He’s Kāi Tahu through his mother’s side, and Ngāi Tai through his father’s. He’s an only child. (“It’s just me,” he said. “Someone picked it the other day and, you know, it’s always really annoying when someone goes ‘Are you an only child?’ It’s the most loaded ‘fuck you’ thing to say. I think it was because I made everyone come play basketball with me at 3am. Because I like playing basketball regardless of what everyone else likes.”)
As a child, Williams fell in love with harmony by singing along to the car stereo with his mother on long-distance drives. “Me and mum spent a lot of time in the car trying to nail harmonies before we got to the hui and had to do it for real,” he said. “We’d listen to recordings of the waiata that we’d have to sing.” His earliest musical loves were John Travolta, early Elvis, and the Beatles (“I think I’m a Paul guy,” he told me, a few days after Paul McCartney’s Auckland concert, despite having often played John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ at the shows leading up to the new album’s release).
He sung in the Christchurch Cathedral Choir, the country’s oldest choir, and went to Christchurch Boys High School (“Number one rugby school in the world,” he said with ironic pride) and a class signifier in Canterbury society. “It’s literally a conversation opener,” he said. “In typical Christchurch circles, that’s how you approach someone.” But, unlike some of his friends, he loved the school, with its rules and its traditions. “It’s probably something along the same lines as what draws me to strict bluegrass music – these weird forms and traditions that you have to observe. Having fun between the lines is great.” That sense of tradition is crucial for a musician rooted in country, bluegrass and folk music which was forced upon him by his former-punk father.
“There’s something in the fatalism of the songs,” he said about how he fell in love with country music. “These things just happen and there’s just the most tragic inevitability to those stories. I’ve always been into folk tales like Grimm’s fairy tales and Arthurian legends and things like that. There’s just something that really gets me about allegorical writing.”
At Boys High he formed The Unfaithful Ways with two friends and a science teacher and, a while later, met Delaney Davidson, an artist at the centre of Lyttleton’s Americana scene, when the two turned up to play with the Eastern’s Adam McGrath before realising they knew so many of the same songs they might as well play them together. Davidson quickly became a mentor figure for Williams, showing him how a life in music was possible. “When I first met him I was definitely in awe of him,” Williams said. “I was a big fan of his music and just getting to be around him and absorbing his energy and drive… He definitely challenged that part of me that was superstitious about writing. He’s so disciplined, he likes to write every day, he instilled a lot of the ideas of craftsmanship, as opposed to just inspiration or whatever. Just literally being around someone who’s that restless and hungry to create and do good things and to do good work was the number one thing that you take away from being around Delaney.
“It can be overwhelming because he’s so driven you can end up feeling a little bit like you can’t keep up with yourself, let alone him, and I think that’s why I ended up moving to Melbourne and ended up just working things out for myself for a while and now when I work with him, it’s really great because, you know, I’m not afraid of him.”
His first album, 2015’s Marlon Williams (which also features Harding), is, lyrically, almost devoid of Marlon Williams. There are songs about vagrants and gold miners, soldiers and sailors (who return again here on ‘I Didn’t Make a Plan’), all set to faithfully-reproduced genre conventions. It’s an album of impeccable craft, but it’s low on emotional stakes. The album’s tension feels like it’s off somewhere else, either in the distance or in the distant past. “I felt some sort of privileged space from the music – y’know, ‘I’ll tell you about a story about something terrible that happened to somebody else’. I just saw that as a really simple way of circumventing the whole experience question. I hate that bullshit about, like, ‘How could he have written those songs, you’re too young to have lived through that.’ Fucking Hank Williams was dead by the time he was 30, so it’s bullshit that it has to be forged through life lessons. I’m just a little bit allergic to that… I don’t feel inauthentic or I don’t feel authentic. I don’t even care.”
“People were always questioning him – ‘Oh, you’ve written a song about a woman with cancer who died who’s your wife, but you haven’t been married’,” Delaney Davidson said to me over the phone from Lyttleton. “And I think he got a bit pissed off at that. Obviously, Marlon’s got a love for the form of bluegrass music, country music folk music. I think it was at my 40th birthday, he just sat down with his guitar and started singing and it was like an anthology of old bluegrass, old folk music, y’know, song after song after song. We knew it all. He knows that background and that tradition and he probably saw those songs as coming from that. So he didn’t understand why people were questioning the validity of those songs – whether he’d done this or done that – it just didn’t make sense to him.
“I remember saying that this personal stuff … put that into the songs,” Davidson continues. “I think he was already doing that anyway, but I was supporting that idea. That’s what people want to hear. Because if you can stand up and make people have feelings, they don’t see you as vulnerable, they see you as strong. In the end, he just realised this thing that seemed so personal, a lot of people go through that. So if you’re singing it to people in a song, they don’t think it’s about you, they think it’s about them. And that’s what music’s for. That’s the beauty of it – that it goes from one person’s heart to someone else’s heart and it’s like it never travelled, it just was born in both hearts.”
Since releasing his debut – he’d had already made albums with The Unfaithful Ways and as a duo with Delaney Davidson – Williams had toured extensively in the US and Europe, playing hundreds of shows but over a nearly two year period had written nothing more than two “sort of half-assed” songs. “I was just not in the mood,” he said. “I really need the direct pressure. It really needs to be on for me to be able to do it. I need to know that if I don’t have these songs done, I’m going to be wasting thousands and thousands of dollars. Which is terrible. I need to potentially lose money and break up with someone to make music.
“It felt like a total crime of passion, like I just had no idea what I was doing, it was so unconscious,” he said, recalling how he ended up writing 16 songs in 30 days. “It was like my body throwing something up, like it made a choice that something doesn’t belong there. Which is as helpless as I feel about the album. It was super scary and real.”
For three weeks he went between Ben Edwards’ studio in Lyttelton and his mother’s house and wrote. Then he took those demos to California, where he recorded with Noah Georgeson, the producer on two Cate Le Bon albums that Williams is “obsessed with”. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted,” he said. “I’d never worked with anyone except Ben before and just naively thought people make music the same: you just get in there and produce an album. But he was way more passive than I expected so I freaked out the first day. I had all the songs and the arrangements, loosely, but I totally expected him to sort it out and then he didn’t. So I knew I’d have to push this thing and he’d make it sound great because that’s his strength as a producer; he’d tie it in and sonically make it a complete and sensible piece. So once I got that sussed it was much easier. But we didn’t have a lot of time to get to that point.”
He describes the process of writing and recording the album as a therapy and an exorcism and, ultimately a confrontation not with Harding, but with himself. “I’ve got a better sense of my own sexuality,” he said when asked what he’s learnt from the experience. “It’s a weird thing to say without sounding arrogant, but my own power as a sexual being and responsibility and my potential for hurting people.
“There are things you can hide behind, there are questions you can ignore when you’re in a relationship with someone. If you want to break away from that, you’ve got to answer the questions. And they’re based on sexuality and everything, your own opinions, you just have to stand on your own two feet and say, ‘Well, I believe this’. Being forced to choose is a really good thing that people shouldn’t hide their whole lives from, but I have heretofore.”
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power,” Oscar Wilde apparently said, a cliché that has found renewed relevance in the wake of the #metoo movement, and finds relevance in Make Way For Love. “It’s an interesting time to try and assert yourself,” Williams said. “And when you’re trying to work out what’s appropriate, what I want, what I’m allowed to want – all this basic shit that we’re all thinking about again. I want to be top dog sometimes and sometimes there’s that part of me that wants to hurt other people with whatever power I have. That’s in me. And accepting that it’s in there is good. I would never say anything to anyone like ‘I’m not usually like that’. That’s a completely nonsensical thing to say, but [the album] is a total exploitation of power – social power and sexual power. All sorts of power.”
It is usually inadvisable, and often dangerous, to draw absolute truths from a work of art, even when the artist has told you their work is autobiographical. So we cannot know, from these songs alone, what happened between these two people. Whatever stories this record is telling, we can be sure that there are many more to be told, and that all of them have different sides and competing interpretations. We don’t really know anything. And, to be honest, we don’t need to. The capital-T truth behind an artwork is irrelevant. All we really need to listen to is what the record is telling us.
And whatever really happened, whoever was really at fault, whoever was really hurt the most, Make Way For Love says, ‘I was wrong, but you were wrong too’. ‘I miss you’. ‘I’m sorry’.
‘I love you’.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.