He’s only 24 but Kiwi star Marlon Williams has managed to change the way we think about country music. The singer — in line for five awards at next month’s NZ Music Awards — talks to Alan Perrott about life on the road, why his father sold his favourite CDS and being born in Boh Runga’s bath.

Slight to the point of skinny, typically blushing as he hunches over his microphone, and never sure of what to do with his arms unless they're cradling a guitar, Marlon Williams has a voice that's always a surprise when it arrives.

It's not just that he can sing - and he can! - it's the way he sings, which is so completely at ease, yet in total thrall to the lyric, that makes his audience hold its breath to better absorb each note.

It's a power that's easy to recognise and hard to explain.

"I don't know, but there's a beautiful naivete there," says his friend, sometime mentor and longtime Lyttelton legend, Al Park. "I remember when we first realised he was a star. He was only 16 and he'd turned up for this Beatles tribute show at my bar. He sang the ballad Till There Was You and everyone just went nuts, they wouldn't let him go until he'd done five more. I know this sounds like crap but it was like everyone there knew that this was his destiny, the charm and that voice, he was something special."

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But if word of the 24-year-old's abilities have been slow to leak beyond the bearded world of alt country until now, five nominations in this year's New Zealand Music Awards for his self-titled album may start setting things to rights. Not only does he have more nominations than any other contender (Unknown Mortal Orchestra follow with four), they're all big ones: Album Of The Year, Single Of The Year, Best Male Solo Artist, Breakthrough Artist and Best Alternative Album.

Which is great, but for the shame that we've already lost him.

Since heading to Melbourne in 2013, Williams has reached such heights he's about to tour with Lucinda Williams and Paul Kelly - so the clock is already running on when they start claiming him as their own. He's also signed with American label Dead Oceans, the sister label to Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian, which places him in the same stable as Bon Iver, UMO, War on Drugs and Dinosaur Jr, and just yesterday he completed six showcases at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York before heading to Europe for a 12-stop tour. Busy, busy ...

Melbourne-based kiwi Musician Marlon Williams has a voice that's always a surprise when it arrives. Photo / Nick Reed
Melbourne-based kiwi Musician Marlon Williams has a voice that's always a surprise when it arrives. Photo / Nick Reed

But then he was born in Boh Runga's bath and named after Marlon Brando, so his life should have a certain boho style. And that's before you factor in his parents. His father, David Williams (Frank, as in Spencer, to his mates), had discovered punk rock back in Gisborne, playing and singing in groups like the Boneshakers, while his mother, Jenny Rendell, who is of a more arty bent, was seldom up before 1pm and then painted into the wee small hours while banging out classical music.

This cultural millieu began with his naming. Rendell had wanted Kahu (among other meanings, it's the name of the swamp hawk), but Dad eventually got his way when they discovered the name of his favourite actor also meant "little hawk" in French. From there his mother's tastes led him into choral music and opera, which he then blended with the more earthy stuff that's got him wearing bolo ties and singing about baby killer Millie Dean.

"Yeah I guess I soaked up everything they threw at me, Dad especially - I'd be getting into a CD then he'd trade it in and come home with something completely different."

The first to catch his ear featured Dylan's 1966 European tour, but more for the backing group that went on to become The Band. So his father traded it for their album The Big Pink. "That took me to this world that was just so fresh to me. That was an exciting thing to discover."

It remained on constant rotate until, inevitably, it disappeared and was replaced by Gram Parson's Return of the Grievous Angel. If that one took longer to sink in, it proved a life-changer.

Country eh? There is an entire generation whose feelings toward country have been tainted by anodyne shows like That's Country, but, says Williams, "I had no handle on any of that in my early teens, instead I was into this dude [Parsons] who'd died at 27 from a heroin overdose. That was my starting point and, by the time I found out about all that other stuff, it really didn't figure in the equation."

So, still only 15 and with his imagination fired by country's Gothic darkness ("that was really attractive") Williams started writing songs while doing the bare minimum at school, Christchurch Boys', where he'd fallen in with a group who shared his love of harmony. Straight away he found a solid compadre in Ben Wooley and the pair began performing Beatles covers and singing in the school choir.

"Marlon's one of those people for whom no mountain is too high," says the school choirmaster, Don Whelan. "He has the most disarming smile - it's like he sings through his eyes - and an awareness of the integrity of beautiful sound and beautiful harmony, elements that people are attracted to rather than impressed by. He actually puts me in mind of another young man with a guitar and a country and western background and, while Marlon may not shake his hips like Elvis, he has the same way of sucking people in, and that's a rare phenomenon."

Williams and Wooley were also part of Whelan's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament Choir that toured Europe over the summer of 2009/2010 with the budding soloist singing front and centre in cathedrals in San Francisco, the Baltic states, Portugal and Spain. Encouraged, he spent a year studying with Dame Malvina Major (once being critiqued by Max Cryer) and was partnered with soprano Amina Edris, now the fiancee of Sol3 Mio big man, Pene Pati.

Watch: Anika Moa face-to-face with Marlon Williams

Anika Moa sits down with country singer Marlon Williams, who she believes is destined to be "as famous as Lorde, if not famouser".

"I had huge aspirations of being an opera singer," says Williams, "but I started getting a bit slack on it, I guess. I was playing in bars on Friday and Saturday nights then turning up for class with a hangover and reeking of cigarettes. I had to make a choice."

"He was quite talented," says Dame Malvina, "but he was probably never going to be an opera singer. He would turn up in these cowboy outfits rather than a suit and that did get a few people's goats. It was clear that he was interested more in country, it just took him a while to sort it out."

Williams' ear was also tickled by marae life. As active Ngai Tahu he and his mother went to major hui: "The singing there was diametrically opposite to the choir stuff, it was all intuitive harmony. Once my theory was good enough, I started thinking about how they were layered, thirds being constantly stacked on top of each other until they created these incredible block chords. I still do that myself, but by the time I've laid down my 16th harmony, I know I've fallen into a hole and it's time for a break."

In their last year at school, Williams and Wooley got together with newly ex-pupil Sebastian Warne and science teacher Simon Brouwer (the second from that department to trial) to form The Unfaithful Ways. In 2008 the group entered Rockquest, where they caught the ear of judge and Christchurch musician Flip Grater. If the musicianship was a little ragged, the vocals shone enough for her to offer help - one of only two acts to ever get her blessing, the other being a duo featuring Williams' girlfriend, Aldous Harding.

"When I first heard Marlon sing, he sounded like a choirboy singing country music. But it worked. You can't deny his vocal talent and those old-timey song choices worked for him, they fitted his perfect enunciation and, while he has relaxed his delivery since then, he's always kept that tonal precision."

Grater was soon aboard as quasi-manager/mentor, putting out their first EP on her own label, making a video, booking shows and securing Williams' first publishing deal: "He still owes me money from that ... ha ... perhaps now he's having some success I should call it in. I still get a swollen heart and a wee sense of pride every time I see one of them creating brilliant music."

She provided the push Williams needed. After giving up opera and studying Maori history for two years, he told his parents he was dropping out of university. They weren't best pleased, but there was no arguing that he wasn't gigging at a prodigious rate with a national tour under his belt while still finding time for the occasional duet with the likes of Aaron Tokona (of Weta and AHoriBuzz).

"It's not that I had a grand plan," says Williams. "I'm more of a passive drifter really, I follow what I feel I'm doing well at and I'd discovered the thrill of being in a tight band that could go up and down the country playing shows. So I just kept doing it."

The Unfaithful Ways had also recorded an album, only for the master tape to end up trapped inside their red-zoned studio after the first Christchurch earthquake. All seemed lost until their producer convinced an engineer to give him five minutes inside the unstable building to grab his hard drive and his grandfather's old guitar. Although the band was now breaking up, Williams had established himself at the centre of Lyttelton's thriving music scene, so when his usual gig mates, The Eastern, couldn't make a show at local venue The Wunderbar, he was a natural choice to sub. Except they'd also booked another prolific player, one-man-band Delaney Davidson. They went on as an impromptu duo and bonded so well they've since recorded three (award-winning) albums with a fourth a distinct possibility.

You might say the earthquakes threw them together. After sitting down to plan their first album, they got as far as writing one line, "the ghosts of country music," when the second big quake struck. The road tunnel from Christchurch became so scary Lyttelton was isolated from everywhere, leaving the tiny community with little choice but to pull together to party heroically. "Once we got over the tragedy of it I found it a whole lot of fun," says Williams. "It was a new thing that not everyone experiences and sure, a lot of it was for the worse, but some stuff was better. That autumn and winter was all about house parties and getting pretty weird, our world turned into a playground. But looking back, that period is a bit of a black hole when it comes to self-evaluation, I still don't know how it impacted on my songwriting."

Watch: Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson - Blood Letter

Watch the video for Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson's Blood Letter, directed by Tim McIness.

A fundraising album, Harbour Union, featuring all the Lyttelton acts, now serves as a memorial to the scene before people started leaving, mostly for Australia.

For Williams, though, he was still learning from Davidson while trotting out tales beyond his years. "But I look at Hank Williams, dead at 29, and his songs were a whirlwind of angst and emotion, so I don't think age is that big a factor if you have imagination and allow the power of allegory to come out in strange ways. You're just telling stories ... "

So he was happily trucking along when he got the support slot for a tour by Australian singer, Jordie Lane. If the tour was a success it had the added bonus of Lane's manager, ex-pat Aucklander Alastair Burns, offering to work with him if and when he shifted to Melbourne. "It was an amazing offer, but it was a really big decision for me. I really had nothing bad to say about where I was and what I was doing."

But people like Al Parks knew he had outgrown Lyttelton. They held a fundraising gig to send him off with a bit extra in his pocket.

He set down in Melbourne on July 3, 2013, played his first show the next day and went on to play about 230 more times before his first year was up. During that time he broke up with his first girlfriend (she got the dog; a country music cliche if there ever was one) and later moved in with Harding above the pub where he had a weekly residency.

Otherwise his game plan was simple: "Use my voice ... I've always found that if you tell people bad things in a pretty way, they'll believe you." Which is as good an addendum as any to the country music dictum of three chords and the truth, a simplicity he still revels in, "there's this Stravinsky quote that says the tighter the lines, the greater the room for expression - and I really believe that."

When a live album did well, Williams felt ready for his debut proper and there was only one place it could be made: home. The result was a mixture of covers and originals that proved his versatility and appeal when it peaked at number 4 on the New Zealand album chart and garnered a string of rave reviews. If that was predictable the new career option it created wasn't when his video for first single, Dark Child, caught the eye of a casting agent. His name was passed to Bridget Ikin, producer of the Alison Maclean-directed film The Rehearsal, as someone worth a look. "We asked him to do a short test on film - a personal story - and it was riveting. He has an emotional intensity and tenderness that is unusually exceptional, so we cast him in a role that has him singing and he gave us a wonderful, surprising performance."

Not only that, but he is soon to appear in an Australian television show, The Beautiful Lie, a development that has Williams feeling somewhat nonplussed.

"It is interesting, you're still trying to get to a certain place with your audience but without phrasing and beauty of tone, but whether it's a new form of employment or another creative adventure? I really don't know."

What he does know, however, is that his immediate future is looking extremely busy, which in Williams' terms means same ol', same ol'.

"I'd love to be able to buy a house on Banks Peninsula. It's coming up to eight years of never-ending shows and the whole treadmill, so I think I'm getting to a point where I'd like to be able to sit back and be still for a while. I have this half-dream of being a complete stoner nobody. I mean I've never been a rebel, that side of me never took hold, but I have been writing a couple of raps ... ha."

Now there's another surprise.

Marlon Williams' self-titled album is out now; he has a newly announced show at the powerstation on March 9, 2016. the NZ Music Awards are on November 19.