New Zealand’s Marlon Williams has quite simply got one of the most extraordinary, effortlessly distinctive voices of his generation, a fact well known to fans of his first, self-titled solo album, and his captivating live shows. An otherworldly instrument with an affecting vibrato, it’s a voice that’s earned repeated comparisons to the great Roy Orbison, and even briefly had Williams, in his youth, consider a career in classical singing, before realizing his temperament was more Stratocaster than Stradivarius.
But it’s the art of songwriting that has bedeviled the artist, and into which he has grown exponentially on his second album, Make Way For Love, released in February 2018. It’s Marlon Williams like you’ve never heard him before—exploring new musical terrain and revealing himself in an unprecedented way, in the wake of a fractured relationship.
In early December, Williams and his longtime girlfriend, musician Aldous (Hannah) Harding, broke up—the end of a relationship that brought together two of Down Under’s most acclaimed talents of recent years, who’d managed to navigate the challenges of having equally ascendant—though separate—careers, until they couldn’t.
While personally wrenching, the split seemed to open the floodgates for Williams as a writer. “Then I wrote about fifteen songs in a month,” he recalls. The biggest challenge was then condensing often complex, conflicted emotions and doing them justice, and while Make Way For Love draws on Williams’ own story, it captures the vagaries of relationships we’ve all been through in remarkably universal terms.
Williams flipped the script recording-wise as well. After three weeks of pre-production with regular collaborator Ben Edwards, Williams and his backing band, The Yarra Benders, then decamped 7000 miles away, to Northern California’s Panoramic Studios, to record with producer Noah Georgeson, who’s helmed baroque pop and alt-folk gems by Joanna Newsom, Adam Green, Little Joy and Devendra Banhart. “I was a really big fan of those Cate Le Bon records he did [Mug Museum, Crab Day],” Williams says. “I was obsessed with those albums.”
If the idea in going so far from home to make the new record was to shake things up and get out of his Kiwi comfort zone, Williams succeeded—to the point where at first he wondered if he’d gone too far. “The first couple of days I nearly had a breakdown,” he recalls. “Just cause I got there and I’m working with Noah on this really personal record having only met twice before over a coffee.” But he needn’t worry. He and Georgeson settled into a zone over twelve days of recording, and aided by incredible performances from The Yarra Benders, they have, in Make Way For Love, a triumph on their hands.
The record also moves Williams several paces away from “country”—the genre that’s been affixed to him more than any in recent years. Make Way For Love, with forays into cinematic strings, reverb, rollicking guitar, and at least one quiet piano ballad, is a more expansive affair. “I think just having the time,” he explains, “and having just finished a cycle of playing these quite heavily country-leaning songs for the last three or four years, and playing them a lot, has definitely pushed me into exploring other things.”
On the live front, Williams—who’s been a road dog in recent years, touring with everyone from Band Of Horses, City & Colour, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, to the one and only Bruce Springsteen, performing at the likes of Austin City Limits and Newport Folk Festival, and building a loyal following for his phenomenal headline shows.
If “breakup record” is a trope—and certainly it is—then Marlon Williams has done it proud. Like the best of the lot—Beck’s Sea Change, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Phosphorescent’s harrowing “Song For Zula” and Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece Blue, Make Way For Love doesn’t shy away from heartbreak, but rather stares it in the face, and mines beauty from it. Delicate and bold, tender and searing, it’s a mightily personal new step.