Freed from his country roots, Marlon Williams has made his version of a pop album and it could send him into the big leagues. The question is, is he ready?
It was chaotic, euphoric, unhinged, a little dangerous. “I felt really reckless,” says Marlon Williams about his performance at the last Laneway music festival. It came out of the blue. In January of 2020, the Christchurch-born, Lyttelton-bred singer-songwriter was given just a week’s notice that he’d be replacing Fontaines DC as one of the night’s headliners. Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed that day, and it was just weeks before Covid-19 lockdowns began, changing our lives forever.
At 9.30pm, none of that mattered. With a 100-date tour for his second album Make Way For Love behind him, Williams was off-cycle and had nothing riding on his performance. Wrecked from a steaming hot day of trekking around stages, I staggered past just as his set began, intending to head towards the exits and home, but I wasn’t allowed to leave. Williams wouldn’t let me. I planted myself in a tree as he let it rip across a truly mesmerising performance, one that he, and everyone who saw it, still talks about today.
“That was one of my favourite shows ever,” says Williams (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāitai). Sitting in the boardroom of his record label recently, the 31-year-old grins at the memory and says he found a gear he didn’t know he had that night. “You autopilot but in a way that allows you to be drunk. I don’t mean literally drunk, but to sway around and not push because it’s all there. It’s [channelling] that chaos.” When I tell him I fell out of the tree at the end, Williams laughs, then replies: “I fell out of my proverbial tree too.”
A few weeks after Laneway, Williams found himself a little less free than he’d been that night. Like the rest of us, he suffered through the first Covid lockdown, and several more, at home in his Lyttelton flat. He passed the time doomscrolling his way through the internet. His social media platform of choice? “Boring old Instagram,” he says. He also enjoys a good old listicle. Williams, it turns out, loves lists. His favourite website is ListVerse, which entertained him with thinkpieces like, “Ten reasons the Mayan civilisation was the most dominant of its time”.
It’s here, somewhere amidst a weird amalgamation of doomscrolling, listicles and lockdowns, that Williams’ third album was born. Released yesterday, My Boy is his most relaxed and confident album yet, one that, for a very generous part of it, commands that you move your hips and sway just like he did at Laneway, and exactly like he does across a suite of upbeat new music videos. Keep your ears open while you boogie. Inspired by those lists, Williams slipped many random factoids into his lyrics. He jokes: “Just open Google and you’ll write an album.”
My Boy is poppy, for sure. Much of the countrified croon that cemented William’s status as one of Aotearoa’s most thoughtful singers and compelling performers has been smoothed off, replaced by an 80s aesthetic and a synthy sheen. Songs like ‘River Rival’ and ‘Believe in Love’, the gothic party anthem ‘Don’t Go Back’ and the whistleable hooks of the title song don’t have the mopey mood of old. “A lot of those songs are my half-baked idea of what a pop song is,” admits Williams, who says he rejected anything that felt too radio-friendly. “I like this thing of pulling the reins in at the point of explosion.”
To get there, Williams had to learn to let go. As he tired of doomscrolling, songs slowly started coming to him, and he recorded sketches in his home studio before working them up in Waipu and laying them down in Auckland’s Roundhead Studios. He surrounded himself with newcomers, people who wouldn’t remind him of his past, or point him back to his old tricks. “Basically I wanted to be the new kid at school and say, ‘My dad flies for NASA,’ and not have anyone be able to fact check it. I wanted to be radical.”
It works. In fact, it works so well that you can’t help but think Williams has an incredibly firm grip on whatever it is that makes him special. He assures me it doesn’t feel that way. Yes, after two records he has confidence that there’ll be some sort of cohesion to the songs he’s writing. Now, he says it’s more about “letting go than pushing in”. Still, there are some provisos to his new pop sound. “These songs, they don’t take off,” he says. “They don’t have these hooks.”
He’s deliberately downplaying them, and he has his reasons. Despite opening for Lorde on a recent tour, and scoring high profile roles in the Oscar-sweeping film A Star is Born and the Netflix series Sweet Tooth (yes, he confirms he’s appearing in season two), Williams is surprisingly reluctant to rise up to Ed Sheeran levels of fame. Yes, he gets recognised in public, but not enough that it ruins his day. “I’d love to get my music out to a lot more people [but] there’s certainly a level that I would not want to be famous,” he says. “I think I’ve got enough tools of self sabotage to keep my fame at a certain level.” Then he shrugs and says: “Anything can happen.”
If it does, he won’t be here to see it. Williams is touring overseas until the end of the year, playing a string of shows through America and Europe. He’s looking forward to reconnecting with his band, many of whom he hasn’t seen since that epic night at Laneway. After that, he’s back in New Zealand for a summer run of four shows. By then, he promises he’ll be back in Laneway mode, with the confidence to channel the carnage. “If you can get yourself into a spot where the chaos has enough behind it that will hold it together, that’s where the beauty happens I reckon,” he says. “It’s way more fun.”
My Boy is out now. Marlon Williams performs at Auckland’s Civic Theatre on January 20, Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre on January 25, the Christchurch Town Hall on January 27, and Dunedin’s Regent Theatre on January 28.