Two left-field country exponents talk about their new double act to Lydia Jenkin.
Marlon Williams may only be 21, but the lead singer of Lyttelton's alt-country outfit the Unfaithful Ways has a voice like Elvis, and is what you'd call an old soul. Somehow his heritage and early musical experiences add up to a certain gravitas and truthfulness on stage that's hard to fake.
Fellow southerner Delaney Davidson has equal magnetism, though is more wizened, earned from years of international touring, and six darkly humoured, scorchingly sad solo albums.
Now the two have paired up, merging their voices and instrumental talents to create Sad But True: The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting, the first release from new label Lyttelton Records.
They're helping redefine country music to audiences the length of New Zealand as they tour a collection of old favourites and fresh compositions, united in their abilities to be both sincere and sly, both matter of fact and heart-on-sleeve simultaneously.
"We get all sorts of people at shows," Williams smiles. "We get people who say they didn't like country music, but they do now if what we play is country, and it's really nice to be able to bamboozle people in that way."
That sort of comment demonstrates the delivery and talent of this pair is more important than any genre definition, and as impressive as they are solo, the dynamic they've found together is that rare sort of gold dust that can't be manufactured. Even their first meeting was a chance encounter.
"Adam McGrath [of The Eastern], asked me to play a gig at the Wunderbar. He said 'I'm going on tour, but I've got a regular slot there on Wednesdays. Could you cover it for me?"' Davidson explains.
"So I turned up, and there's Marlon with a guitar, and we were kind of going, 'hmm, are we both meant to be here? Who's playing?' So we started talking, decided to do the show together, started to make up a setlist and realised we both knew lots of the same songs. And we really liked the songs each other were choosing, so we just figured out who would take the lead on each song and the other person would harmonise, and sort of fill it out.
"We didn't rehearse, we just made the setlist and played the show, and it was great. It was a great moment of realising that it was working straight away."
"Our meeting was a totally musical experience" Williams adds, "we just talked songs, chords, and harmonies. It all fitted together very well."
Doing a couple of shows together led to more shows (they recently toured on the Lyttelton Rough House Revival Tour), and the idea of an album.
"We wanted to make an album that was pretty much a big hat-tipping homage to country music." Davidson grins.
The resulting album is not about the ghosts of country music though - seven of the 11 album tracks are originals by Williams and Davidson, and there are four cover tracks by a mixture of contemporary friends and established names. But that's only a fraction of the songs in their live arsenal and is simply one version of them. "We really like the concept of a song being kind of alive, so some concerts we'll change the key of it, we'll sing it in different ways, change who sings what part of it, it's always moving. The record is about making a fixed version of a song, but the live shows explore the way they change. And with Marlon it's great because I feel like nothing is fixed and everything is elastic, musically speaking. It's like a substance that hasn't set yet, it's still malleable, you can still play with it," says Davidson.
"We want to get a revelation from the music as much as the audience do too," Williams adds.
And their shows are indeed a revelation. The pair look like true troubadours, with a touch of old western heroes about them on stage and off, and they can command any room with just their voices and guitars, and maybe a splash of white face paint.
The album tour will be a larger affair though, with a five-piece band along with many special guests (including a string section and a brass band, depending what part of the country you're in).
"We want it to be like an old-time show" Davidson laughs, "multiple sets, heaps of covers, heaps of songs people already know, as well as some new ones, and just make it a great time."
Sounds like a show you could bet your hat on.
Who: Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson
What: New album Sad But True
Where and when: Thurs Nov 15, Fri Nov 16, Wine Cellar, Auckland, Sat Nov 17, Artworks, Waiheke; Sun Nov 18, Leigh Sawmill.