After earning his spurs in bands and collaborations, Marlon Williams is releasing a solo album. He talks to Lydia Jenkin.

If you haven't yet heard Marlon Williams sing, then you're missing out on one of the best voices this country has to offer. He's been widely described as having the voice of an angel (Billboard even said so), and nicknamed our Maori Elvis, but he's more than just a set of good pipes.

With his James Dean-ish good looks, the 24-year-old Lyttelton native could've been a movie star (see his Dark Child video for his big screen potential), but it's his easy way with telling a story through song, and his nuanced delivery that make Williams a singular artist.

Men and women of all ages have been swooning to his crooning at live shows over the past five years, first with four-piece band The Unfaithful Ways, and then Delaney Davidson, with whom he recorded Sad But True: The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting, volumes I, II, and III (Volume I was awarded Best Country Album at the 2013 NZ Music Awards).

He's been part of a tight pack of musos helping to restore the long-tarnished name of local country music, including his close collaborators Davidson, Tami Neilson and Aldous Harding (real name Hannah, who is now his girlfriend), all three of whom are finalists in this year's Taite Music Prize.

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And now after nearly two years based in Melbourne, getting the Australians onside by playing 250 gigs a year, he's finally releasing his debut solo album.

Williams is humble about his talents and achievements, but it seems he was almost destined to be a musical star - his parents were flatting with Boh Runga when he was born in the bath at home on Cashel St in Christchurch, and his dad was a keen punk singer.

Marlon Williams features on the cover of this week's TimeOut:

"Dad played a bit of keys and a bit of guitar, but he was mainly a punk singer. We do actually have similar voices, but they used to call him Frankie Teardrop after the Suicide song, so he was using it pretty differently. It's quite funny being the son of a punk singer, and singing country music. But he loved country music, and he certainly never put any pressure on me to play punk or anything."

In fact, his dad gave him a Gram Parsons record when he was 11. "Even at the age of 11 I had preconceptions about country music as being 'not cool', so I had to get over that.

"But I worked my way in there, and from then on I wanted to know everything about it."

While he was learning to love country music he was also singing in school choirs, which quickly became a parallel passion. He joined the Christchurch Cathedral Choir, and won leads in high-school musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar.

That soaring voice has remained, but the way he sings these days has something a little more gritty and raw about it, and the way he's recorded these nine songs embraces the slightly warped approach, giving every track plenty of character.

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"There's an element of unease there I think, there's some strange stuff going on, it's not all clean and right. I like to have the mic pretty close. You get all sorts of interesting sounds that way.

"I have quite a wet mouth, a moist mouth - moist mouth Marlon - so you hear everything when I sing, but I think it works great with certain songs, it sounds quite creepy."

He's conscious that he can sound too sweet and true at times, so it's all about judging when to rough it up, and feeling what's right for the song.

Musician Marlon Williams.
Musician Marlon Williams.

"There's a point that's a sweet spot in terms of familiarity and niceness, and then you have to work out your scale of how far you'll push against that niceness."

Williams has a similar approach to writing lyrics, finding that balance between telling a familiar story, and turning it on its head.

"It's about familiarity versus a line that makes you go 'Huh? That's a bit weird, is that right?'

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"Like with Gram Parsons, there's something not quite right in the songs, something about the singer telling you to look a bit closer, and see if you can work it out."

Williams has also embraced the notion of singing songs that other people have written.

Not so much obvious country covers, but carefully chosen tunes that resonate with him, sprung from many places, like Silent Passage by 70s Canadian folk artist Bob Carpenter, or Dark Child by fellow Cantabrian Tim Moore.

"I like singing other people's songs, and I don't feel the identity of a song should have to be linked to the identity of the songwriter.

"I feel like a song can be anyone's."

On his own songs, Williams often takes on the perspective of someone else - Strange Things tells the story of a man driven mad with grief after his wife has passed, for example.

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But on Lonely Side of Her Williams was feeling inspired by his own circumstances - the trials and triumphs of a relationship with another musician.

Musician Marlon Williams.
Musician Marlon Williams.

"That one is a pretty personal one I guess; well I took an idea that was personal and then I made it more black and white for the purposes of the song. So I always say to Hannah, some of that might have aspects of truth to it, but the song isn't about truth, it's a story, and it's about simplicity and communication."

Harding is clearly happy with it though - she sings it with Williams, making it one of the most romantic songs to come out of New Zealand in ages.

"It wasn't originally meant to be a duet, but then I was like, 'well shall we just sing it together?'

"That took us about two days of take after take, trying different things, different mental states to try and work out how to do it.

"We went for no drugs in the end, that was the way to go," he laughs.

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Harding's voice is (happily) all across the album, and they're hoping to get the time to write and record an album together in the near future, somewhere between Williams' further collaboration with Davidson, and an upcoming trip to Nashville to work with Justin Townes Earle, who has become something of a champion for Williams since he opened for Earle on his recent Australasian tour.

It's a good thing Williams loves singing with other people, because it seems there are plenty who want to sing with him.

Musician Marlon Williams.
Musician Marlon Williams.

"I love it. It's just where I want to be. I like harmony, that's the driving force behind my life really, I just want to find the best singers to do it with, and I've been really lucky so far."

He's got a busy few months ahead - after releasing the album here and in Australia, he's heading to Canada for a run of festivals, followed by his trip to Nashville, and then he'll be back to play more shows.

But despite the convictions of others that he's on the cusp of fame and possibly fortune, he has no illusions about what's ahead of him.

"I don't have starry eyes. I do want to try to build a sustainable career, I do have that ambition, and I want to find a way to balance time at home, time touring, time in the studio.

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"But if that doesn't work, then I'll just stay at home and work at the pub," he laughs.

Not a chance - country music is cool again, and Williams is the reigning prince.

Who: Marlon Williams
What: Self-titled album out April 24
Where and when: New Zealand tour dates for June to be announced soon.

- TimeOut