Nine Morbid Songs About Dying: An Interview With New Zealand Soul Singer Marlon Williams

Marlon Williams, the New Zealand born soul crooner whose self-titled breakout album drops today, isn’t just a throw back. Sure, his slicked back hair, tight fitting Brando style tees and general ruggedness may suggest a yearning for 1950s Americana, but this vocal prodigy from the Southern Hemisphere is merely singing from the heart, which can transcend time and space and musical genres. In his voice and vocal style, there are also strains of religious spirituals that can be tied to his family’s Maori upbringing (his father was a Maori punk singer) and singing in church choirs. Already selling out concerts and becoming a household name in his native New Zealand, Marlon Williams’ self-titled album will surely see the young musical artist gain international recognition, especially in the United States with multiple tour dates sets, including a spot at SXSW with his backing band The Yarra Benders, in March. We got a chance to speak with Williams about his Maori roots, soul music and his new album. 

Autre: Can you talk a little bit about your upbringing in New Zealand...I read somewhere that your roots go far back to a native Maori tribe, is that right?

Marlon Williams: That's right. My dad's half Maori, my mum's quarter so I'm some ratio too. I was brought up in a port town outside of Christchurch in the South Island. It was a classic small town upbringing, a lot of freedom to kick around the streets as a kid

Autre: And your dad was a Maori punk singer...that is very different than the music you make - do you have memories of seeing him play - what was the name of his band?

Williams: He kinda stopped playing by the time I was around but he played in a band called the Boneshakers. New wave punk from the rural North Island. 

Autre: What was your earliest exposure to music - how did you gain access to music that influenced and inspired you?

Williams: My dad always introduced me to new stuff, pretty steadily throughout my childhood and into my teenage years. It started off with Elvis and the Beatles and eventually lead into The Band and Gram Parsons.

Autre: Who are some of your folk and blues heroes?

Williams: Dave Van Ronk, Peggy Seeger, Vashti Bunyan, Robbie Basho, Blind Willie McTell, Lightnin Hopkins, Bob Carpenter. This list won't ever end.

Autre: Does New Zealand have a strong folk scene?

Williams: It really does. A lot of really great underground stuff and some more well known. Aldous Harding, Delaney Davidson, Nadia Reid, Eb and Sparrow. All good friends, all great musicians.

Autre: You have accomplished a lot in a short amount of time, and you've won a lot of awards, were you surprised at your success as a musician or is this something you've always wanted?

Williams: It's all I've ever really known so it's hard considering alternative paths, but it's certainly a nice feeling to be appreciated. As long as I can do it how I want I'm happy.

Autre: You are being hailed as "the new Elvis" is this something you balk at or embrace?

Williams: Neither. It'd be a dick move to react too strongly to that one either way

Autre: What is your ideally suited environment to write you have a ritual or does it come to you at all times?

Williams: I have no ritual. It just happens when it does. It's a very frustrating way to write music, especially when it doesn't hit you for a while. I need to get disciplined

Autre: Your music video for the track Hello Miss Lonesome is very intense – where did the idea for the music video come about?

Williams: That came from the director, Damien Shatford, who's a good old pal of mine. He's made a couple of videos for me and they both feature me getting smashed up.  You'd have to ask him why. Maybe I did something to him I don't know about

Autre: Your new album is self-titled and it almost seems like a “break out” album – whatever that means – do you feel like you want to reach a much wider, global audience with the record? 

Williams: Who doesn't? The more people I can get to hear my music the better. It means the Kiwis and Australians get a break from me for a while

Autre: You are planning to tour in some major cities in the US – is this your first time touring in states and do you have any apprehensions? 

Williams: This is my first headline tour in the states, yeah. Not particularly. I only ever worry about survival and love 

Autre: What can people expect from the new album? 

Williams: 9 morbid songs about dying

Autre: What do your parents think of your success as a musician...have they supported you all along? 

Williams: My mothers a painter and dad the singer so they'd be hypocritical to condemn me. They've always been behind me 100%. 

Autre: Where do you want to go with your music after this album…any grand, surprising plans? 

Williams: I'm not completely sure yet but it'll be really, really good

Marlon Williams' self-titled album on Dead Oceans records is available here. Watch the music video for highlight single Strange Things below. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Photograph by Justyn Strother. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE