That voice! Those lucky enough to catch Marlon Williams’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival debut in 2015 couldn’t stop talking about it. There was something weirdly retro about the unbelievably young-looking New Zealander’s vocal timbre, as if Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley had been spliced together in Phil Spector’s lab and given a mildly androgynous makeover. Something deliciously out of time and place, too, an odd but beguiling combination of old-school Italian crooning and traditional Maori music.
Sharing a daytime workshop stage with folk veterans Richard Thompson and Mary Gauthier, Williams won a standing ovation with the very first song he sang, and a palpable buzz followed him around the festival grounds for the remainder of the event.
Although known mostly as an interpreter of old-school American country music, the 26-year-old singer is in the middle of a radical stylistic change. He’s now playing piano and working with a band, rather than accompanying himself on guitar. He’s just finished an as-yet-unreleased album on which he explores sampled beats. He’s writing his own nakedly autobiographical tunes. And, best of all, he sounds entirely happy with this development, even if it was sparked by that most unfortunate of events—a breakup.
“It was that classic thing of being left to try and make sense of it all, and that came through music, for me,” Williams says, in a telephone conversation from Berlin.
The shift is even more remarkable in that, while Williams had written songs before, they were always framed up as character studies, a gambit that allowed the singer to approach his material from a safe distance. “I have so many singer-songwriter friends who pour their hearts out into their music, and that puts you in a certain place, psychologically, that I was always a little bit afraid of confronting,” he explains. “But I went through some personal life changes, and then all of a sudden in the space of a couple months I had 16 brand-new songs that were all about me and what was going on in my life.”
Williams admits that he’s “nervous and excited” about performing this new batch of songs, but he’s also eager to truly be himself on-stage. Before now, he says, he was as much of an actor as a singer, but now it’s his own heart that’s on the line.
“Singing is a subtle craft, and I think I managed to make it seem personal,” he notes. “But it came out feeling a little bit cold, like I’d cheated my audience in a way. Of course, when I performed those songs I felt them, and I connected with them, but I was always able to hide behind myself as a performer. I felt pretty crafty and devilish—but now I feel like I’m at least being a little bit honest!”
Marlon Williams plays the Vancouver Folk Music Festival’s Stage 3 at Sundown on Saturday (July 15).