At a truck stop somewhere outside of Boston, Marlon Williams holds a camera against the dashboard of his tour van and adjusts his headset to make room for his signature dangly earring. We’re talking about his upcoming appearance at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, and when I ask if he’s going to bust out some of his old bluegrass numbers, he agrees that the occasion is the perfect excuse.
While creating his earlier albums, Williams (who plays Aladdin Theater on Sept. 29) was heavily influenced by Gram Parsons and Porter Wagoner. Folk music is in the New Zealand-born singer-songwriter’s kiwi soul, but his vocal stylings often shift from quiet country to an Orbisonesque belt to a Chris Isaak call. Every album is a new pivot—and at the center of each are Williams’ butter-rich vocals.
2018′s croon-tastic indie rock-folk album Make Way for Love helped propel Williams onto the global stage (it’s a break-up album that gets mentioned alongside Beck’s Sea Change and Joni Mitchell’s Blue). He then leaned into bluegrass, partnering with Canadian folk duo Kacy & Clayton to create 2020′s superb Americana album Plastic Bouquet.
Williams’ latest, My Boy, explores themes of masculinity, tribalism and escapism. Songs shift from Polynesian guitar (“Easy Does It”) to synth-pop noir (“Thinking of Nina”) before the album concludes with a cover of Barry Gibb’s “Promises” that takes Gibb’s epic vibe in a haunting new direction.
“Nina,” the album’s standout, was inspired by the FX show The Americans. It’s got the catchiest of refrains and a video with a David Lynchian feel that showcases Williams’ knack for acting.
“For one reason or another, these more exaggerated and over-the-top sort of performances are coming out of me,” he tells WW. “It’s sort of self-perpetuating.” Williams’ performances in music videos have led to acting roles, including an appearance in the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born.
So how much acting goes into Williams’ onstage performances? “I’ve had conversations with people who think I’m posturing on ‘Soft Boys Make the Grade,’” from My Boy, he says, referring to a song that references a less cocky version of fuckboys (and features a cringeworthy reference to DMs). “I’m addressing a certain part of my character there, or of my past behaviors.”
Then there’s “Trips,” a song about 19th century sailors trying to circle the globe. “But it’s also about being on tour,” says Williams. He likes the ambiguous fact-and-fiction quality to his music: “I think to go too far in either direction is pretty foolish.”
I ask Williams what’s up with the video for the undulating synth-pop number “River Rival,” which features a close-up of him dripping wet as he seemingly sings into your soul. He laughs. “That came from a place of utmost fatigue,” he explains. “I was just so tired I couldn’t even close my eyes. I was just like this glazed-over zombie, you know. So we sort of just had to lean into that.”
Williams takes his work dead seriously but has enough humility to joke about said seriousness. “I watched that video [’River Rival’] stoned later, and it felt like it went on for five hours,” he laughs again.
These days, Williams is studying traditional Māori music (he is Ngai Tahu and Ngai Tai). While he isn’t fluent in Māori, he’s learning and absorbing hundreds of years’ of proverbs and songs through composers like Hirini Melbourne ONZM—and he’s working on a Māori-language album next.
Williams is also reading Genevieve Callaghan’s One Story a Day, a collection of 1,001 micro-fiction stories. He describes the book as filled with “beautiful little idle thoughts…[that make you] think about things the way you don’t think about them, which is what you want in a writer.”
For Williams, collaboration is the essence of creativity (he relishes working with other alternative, uncategorizable artists like Aldous Harding). “Being able to meet some of these other personalities in the field and to work out what the sum of the parts is?” he says. “That’s one of the greatest joys of being a creative person: that ability to learn from other people and to learn about yourself through working with other people.”
SEE IT: Marlon Williams plays Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 503- 234-9694, aladdin-theater.com. 8 pm Thursday, Sept. 29. $20. All ages.