Marlon Williams attributes his singing talent to his Māori heritage

The indie folk artist from Lyttelton, New Zealand talks about his new break-up record and the openness in his voice.

While folk music may evoke cowboy hats, banjos and other clichés among the uninitiated, Marlon Williams comes at the genre from a far different angle. Indeed, “Come to Me,” the opening track on the New Zealand troubadour’s acclaimed new LP Make Way for Love features the forlornly twangy guitar and rustic percussion you might expect from a rising folk star. But it’s followed by other songs like “Beautiful Dress” and “The Fire of Love Williams,” which prompted The Observer to praise Williams for employing “a magnificent, fluttering, gender-fluid falsetto that recalls Anohni or Perfume Genius.” In recent interviews with Exclaim! and other publications, Williams discussed influences like the church choir he joined as a boy, and his father’s old Roy Orbison records. But in our talk ahead of his gig at Petit Campus tonight, Williams also chalked up much of his musical talent to his aboriginal heritage. The ever unpredictable singer-songwriter tells us about all that and more below.

Kyle Mullin: How’s your tour going so far?

Marlon Williams: I’m in Glasgow, and I just did some laundry. So everything’s great.

KM: [Laughs] I’m glad that you got to catch up on the important things after so much exhausting touring.

MW: It’s all about the humble victories when you’re on tour.

KM: Before we talk more about the tour I’d like to ask about Make Way for Love. You’ve said this new album is not as eclectic as your prior work, that it’s more consistent and focused because of the subject matter— the break-up with fellow Kiwi troubadour Aldous Harding that you just went through.
MW: That’s right. I’m not used to writing under any sort of pressure at all, really. That’s why my first album was the way it was. This new album comes from having an angle, a purpose and necessity that overrides possibility.

KM: The critical acclaim for this record has brought plenty of attention to the folk scene in Lyttelton, New Zealand. How do you feel about that?
MW: Well, it’s true that there’s some consistently amazing stuff by artists who have settled in Lyttelton, or are from there. It feeds into itself and perpetuates itself though, when good things start happening somewhere. People really got on board with Aldous Harding’s first record, and a whole influx of other singer-songwriters began to think there’s something in the water there. But I think there’s nothing inherent geographically or socially in Lyttelton that gives rise to such music.

KM: If that’s not it, then what else has led to Lyttelton’s rise?

MW: I read an ethnomusicologist talking about how the area’s earthquakes gave rise to an artistic need to push against something. But I think that’s bullshit.

KM: [Laughs] That’s an interesting notion.

MW: Yep, I feel the music scene there would have gone the way it had, earthquakes or not. Though that does give an angle, for outward promotion, certainly. It’s something for ethnomusicologists to grab onto, at least.

But it feels reductive to try and talk about it with any claim for consistency. There’s just a general banner of folk music it sits under, but that’s also been true for a lot of other parts of the world. Look at the post around that time. Like post-Whiskeytown uprising of alt-country in America in the ’90s.

KM: True. You stand apart other recent alt-country stars like Whiskeytown and Ryan Adams, though. People instead say your voice is reminiscent of Roy Orbison, who you’ve cited as a key influence, someone you’d listen to with your dad.

MW: Yes any singers from that generation, like Roy Orbison and also black R&B stars like Jackie Wilson. There’s something in their openness and willingness to commit to singing that I’ve always related to. And I think it comes from my Māori background more than anything. It’s something I tapped into whenever I was with my Māori relatives.

KM: I didn’t realize you were of aboriginal descent.

MW: Yeah my dad’s half Māori and my mother is a quarter Māori. I spent a lot of my youth at the local Marae, or a traditional meeting house for the tribes.

KM: I’m unfamiliar with the identity politics of Māori people in New Zealand, though it’s been at the forefront here in Canada lately. You’ve recorded and toured with a few Canadian acts like Tami Neilson, who is based in New Zealand now. Has the topic of indigenous issues or traditions come up with any of your Canadian counterparts? 

MW: I am indeed friends with quite a few Canadian artists — Tami and I did an album together a few years back, and I’m friendly with the Weather Station and others.

It’s hard, because New Zealand has a pretty good track record to give voice and credence to indigenity, to the Māori culture in the music industry and other artistic avenues. But I always sense this problem of trying to force it.

KM: Why is that?

MW: Well they’re made of hundreds of tribes, as aboriginal peoples are in many cultures. But when New Zealand was colonized, the Māori had to say, “Okay we have to say we’re all Māori now, and we’ll have to paint all our meeting houses the same colour. We have to unify as a means of survival, otherwise we’ll be divided and conquered.”

And I feel like that mentality persists, and tends to be really reductive and over simplistic when it comes to artistic endeavours. It feels like novelty, like the music falls under a general banner of “native music” sometimes. That frustrates me quite a bit. Even within the Māori community you’re constantly fighting against that. That’s a bit of a rant, I’m sorry.

KM: No, it’s fascinating. What aspects of that frustrate you the most?

MW: It’s the lack of nuance. You end up singing about certain things — your sense of place, your ties to the people and the language, and there’s less room for irony and nuance.

KM: But that’s not the case with your music, right? So when you say that your Māori heritage is an influence, you mean…

MW: Just the openness in my singing, like I mentioned earlier.

KM: One critic praises your “gender fluid, Perfume Genius style falsetto” on some of the songs. Could that be attributed to some of the Māori openness you mentioned earlier?

MW: Absolutely. It’s all part of the same mentality. It’s just a willingness to use your voice to do whatever you need it to do. And also a confidence that it can do it, that it’ll take you there.

KM: Are those decisions deliberate? “I’m going to draw on Roy Orbison here, and sing more gender fluid there”? Or is it more intuitive?

MW: This album is definitely more intuitive, both in the songwriting and in the performing.

KM: Does that intuitive approach also make the songwriting therapeutic? Because it’s break-up record, after all — are you tapping into those raw emotions more directly and intuitively?

MW: Yes, if you give over to the fact that it’s intuitive, then you skirt over the question of whether or not you want to reveal yourself that much. You give over to the agency of the creative process. There’s a practical fatalism that goes into it.

It’s all about the confidence to trust intuitions, the confidence to make yourself to make the right decisions and expose yourself, and do it in a crafty way that allows you to survive it. ■

Marlon Williams plays at Petit Campus (57 Prince-Arthur E.) on Monday, March 5, 9 p.m., $18/$21.75