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Six stars: Marlon Williams, Singer

Six stars: Marlon Williams, Singer

Who hasn’t yet watched the YouTube clip of Anika Moa interviewing Marlon Williams? Moa, no singing slouch herself, cajoles Williams into an off-the-cuff rendition of the “Goodnight Kiwi” tune, “Hine e Hine”, and it’s gorgeous. In fact, it prompts the query: could the alt-country star one day find himself guesting on a Sol3 Mio track? Or vice-versa?

Williams pooh-poohs the suggestion, but relates one of those two-degrees-of-separation stories that are almost too good to be true: “Funnily enough,” he says, “my singing partner at high school is now engaged to Pene Pati, and she just won the Sydney Aria competition last year.

It turns out that Williams, nominated for no fewer than five mantelpiece adornments in this year’s Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, did his high-school singing, and his growing up, in the South Island port town of Lyttelton, where it seems a generation of perfectly formed artistic spirits has germinated in ideal conditions.

Like his girlfriend, Hannah Harding (stage name: Aldous Harding), Williams is part of an unofficial Lyttelton collective that’s bursting with talent and burning with a preternatural sense of singular artistic assertiveness. Melbourne-based since 2013, and already a troubadour with extensive international touring under his belt, the 24-year-old this year released his first, self-titled album. He garnered ecstatic praise from the likes of Rolling Stone and Billboard, and in a review for Metro, I used lines like “effortlessly great”, “a revelation” and “he sings like a wounded angel”.

I ask Williams whether his parents recognised and cultivated that natural-born talent, and how he got to make a record that was just so damn great and so at ease with what it is.

“I was about five or six when I decided I wanted to be a trumpet player,” he says, “but my teeth hadn’t come through yet, so I tried to play the violin and snapped the bow in my first-ever violin lesson. Then when I was 10, I joined the school choir and sang in harmony for the first time, and found the beauty of that communication with other people. Singing in choirs and really loving the form and structure of classically good singing… and then blending that with loving listening to country music and a whole lot of other things, it was obvious to me that that was what I wanted to portray my music with, through a strong sense of lyricism…”

“It was so easy, growing up in Lyttelton and around that scene, to be creatively autonomous and carefree. There were no pressures, except for who’s going to see you play tonight.”

Williams credits Lyttelton, where there was little to prove and no barrier to improving, for seeding his style and easy attitude, and his story rebukes the idea that you must suffer for your art.

“I have artistic parents, and they never pressured me in any direction, so I never came up against any barriers to what I wanted to do. It was so easy, growing up in Lyttelton and around that scene, to be creatively autonomous and carefree. There were no pressures, except for who’s going to see you play tonight.”

Williams credits his partner for helping him with his debut album. “Working with Hannah and helping her produce her [2014 self-titled] album, I’m in constant admiration of her singular vision… She has ideas fully formed in her head and there’s no compromise. Going through that process gave it that sense of familiarity [so] when I went to do it myself, it came very easily, without any self-justification.”

Williams has also moved into movies and television this year, landing a role in Alison Maclean’s just-shot adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, and another in Aussie TV series The Beautiful Lie. He took them “because they turned up. I don’t wish to pursue a full-time acting career”.

The music, then, is clearly Williams’ focus. In October, he did his first American tour; now he waits to see if he lands the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) award he’s been nominated for, or any of the five local music awards. He’s in contention for Album of the Year, Single of the Year, Best Male Solo Artist, Breakthrough Artist of the Year and Best Alternative Album.

“It feels like getting plaudits when you haven’t even done anything, just like little gold stars for no extra work,” he says. He’s particularly keen to win Best Male Solo Artist and Best Album. “That’s my artistic piece that I put out there, and it’ll be a signifier that I can move on and properly think about something else.”

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of Metro. Photo: Martin Martini.

The Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, Vector Arena, November 19.

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