Country music isn't limited by geography. It's a folk-rooted style built of traditional instruments and tried-and-true techniques, but it is by no means anchored to them. Just ask musician Marlon Williams. Country gallops across the American backcountry but can swim the spans of entire oceans, too—all the way to Williams' native New Zealand.
"Country music is made up of a banjo from Africa and Maori island singers, you know? It's just another steeple on the path of musical extension," Williams says from the airport, en route to his latest international tour. "It's been in America for the last 60 to 100 years, but it doesn't just come out of nowhere. It doesn't rise from the American soil like some national bird."
Williams, 25, grew up in Lyttelton, a tiny port town about halfway down the South Island of New Zealand. A product of the highly musical and indigenous Maori culture, Williams has rhythm and harmony flowing through his bloodstream. "My dad was always playing music, so I was exposed to a lot at the house," he says. "My mom was a painter, so she always had a lot of music playing while she was working."
Stints with the local choir and a nearby Christchurch cathedral ensemble polished Williams' vocal delivery. He sang through hangovers and a general indifference toward spirituality. He tried college, contemplated opera singing, then dropped out. He dove into his father's sprawling country music collection. By 16, Williams was covering the Beatles at a local bar and getting shouts for encores.
Over the next eight years, Williams carved out a devoted following with his band, the Unfaithful Ways, playing 200-plus gigs a year and winning a handful of New Zealand music awards amid shadow-casting names like Lorde and Kimbra. He would try Melbourne after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, only to return to his beloved island to write himself into the canon of masterful young musicians.
Williams wrote his self-titled debut in two weeks—impressive, given the level of deftness and sensitivity to tradition that's at play. It's music that is influenced but not governed by American country music traditions. Roy Orbison, Elvis and Gram Parsons can be heard on the surface, but there are also nods to '70s balladeers, Rat Pack crooners, even Pacific Islands folk. The potency and layering of vocals is a byproduct of old Maori songs, while the ability to arrest listeners with just a guitar and voice is in the vein of Polynesian folksmiths.
Many of the album's tracks are so dazzling you begin to wonder if you should take note of where you were and what you were doing when you first heard them. The versatile Williams seems to play a new role with each song, stepping into character and "inhabiting" the track, as he says. Whether it's grieving parents in "Dark Child," or an ale-loving girl in "When I Was a Young Girl," Williams expresses the sincerity of a method actor.
"It's about communication," he says. "I understand the Kiwi sensibilities, and when you are talking about something as sensitive and subtle as making music, having the need for communication is pretty important, especially for your first solo album." MARK STOCK.
SEE IT: Marlon Williams and the Yarra Benders play Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Shelley Short, on Monday, Feb. 1. 8 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.