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Marlon Williams plays at Mojos this Friday, April 17, and Jimmy’s Den on Saturday, April 18. MATTHEW TOMICH reports.

Without so much as a debut album to his name, Marlon Williams has performed at the Astor Theatre, Meredith Music Festival and the Sydney Opera House. But make no mistake – this is not a man without musical pedigree. 

The country singer/songwriter cut his teeth with New Zealand outfit, The Unfaithful Ways, before making the move to Melbourne two years ago, and releasing a trio of records featuring old country standards (and new songs disguised as classics) in collaboration with fellow New Zealander, Delaney Davidson, called Sad But True.

Still, it’s a hell of a feat for a musician with only two singles under his own name.  That Sydney Opera House gig was a part of TEDxSydney, which saw Williams performing to a crowd of 4,000, sandwiched between talks on such relaxed subject matter as euthanasia, the mathematics of sex and the ethics of failure.

“In fact, there was talk of me doing a talk,” he says of the experience. “And I thought of what I was going to do for a while. I even had a topic and everything, and then decided it would be better if I just played songs and stick to what I know. I was in New Zealand and my manager said that I had the opportunity to do this, so I ended up playing a show in Littleton on Friday night, leaving there at about 2am, going to the airport straight to Sydney and going to the Opera House at 11am, and deliriously playing to 4,000 people at the Opera House.”

There’s a twisted elegance to Williams’ take on his genre. Country is a dirty word in some circles, yet on his latest single, Dark Child, Williams croons the haunting narrative of a father’s grief with a richness that’s enchanting enough to sway even the most country-averse listener. Maybe it’s the half-decade-plus of singing in a cathedral choir or the year of classical vocal training before he made the choice to pursue country over opera, but there’s mastery to the way every word wraps around the light strumming of guitar chords to paint a bleak and beautiful portrait of mourning.

Williams’ self-titled debut – which comes out Friday, April 24 – was written and recorded in his hometown Lyttlelton over the course of 2014, where the singer found himself haphazardly bouncing between the cottage where he wrote and the studio where he recorded. Though the writing process in his collaborations with Delaney Davidson were structured and methodical, when on his lonesome, Williams makes songwriting sound less like careful craftsmanship and more like an internal battle.

“I never like to spend too much time on a song. I guess I’m kind of scared of songs in that way. I don’t want to give them room to bite me so I just get them finished before they do. It’s a bit of a strange relationship with songwriting, but I want to get more systematic. And that’s the problem, that it’s a hard beast.

“It’s the fear of seeing too much of my own self in the song. I don’t want to look too closely at it before passing it off. I don’t want to become too invested in it. I need to have it out of my way, quickly.”
For a New Zealander now living in Australia, classically trained and yet playing a style of music most commonly associated with America, Williams’ sensibility may seem culturally confused, but his approach seeks to dislocate country from its geographical ties.

“The idea, I guess, is to decentralise it. I think geographical anonymity is the way I can see through that problem. I try not to be informed by American music as a thing.” Laughing, he adds, “It’s just music, man!”

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