The breakup album is a standard trope of rock music. Bob Dylan set the benchmark in 1975 with Blood On The Tracks; Beck’s Sea Change (2002) is a famous more modern example. Now Marlon Williams – the 28-year-old Melbourne-based New Zealander with the golden throat – has offered his own contribution to the form with his second album, Make Way For Love.
And Williams is making no secret of the album’s source: the dissolution of his three-year relationship with another acclaimed New Zealander, Aldous Harding, in December 2016. He even coaxed her to sing on the album’s penultimate song, the duet Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore.
“I think she saw how important it was to me, more than anything, and that song, more than any other, expresses a feeling I couldn’t put into her words any other way,” Williams says. “I’m actually telling her something in that song, and she’s responding through my words in her voice, so it’s a really important song for me.”
After a long apprenticeship in his home country, Williams burst into international view with his debut solo album in 2015. He was acclaimed for his storytelling gift and stunning voice, a tremulous instrument that’s often been compared to Roy Orbison. His band the Yarra Benders came on like an Antipodean Stanley Brothers, with string ties and high harmonies.
On his second album, Williams let those affectations go, as the songs came in a rush in the wake of his split with Harding. This time, they were mostly written on piano, not guitar. It wasn’t a conscious move away from country, he says, as much as moving towards something much more personal and revealing.
Even before the breakup gave him the material he needed, though, Williams says he wanted to make a more focused body of work. “I wanted to lock into a certain theme, regardless of what it turned out to be. My first album was pretty broad and undefined, so there was a real desire to close off certain things and just really get into one mode.”
Williams had previously been reluctant to draw on his own life for songs, but this time he couldn’t help himself. “It was freeing and exciting in one way, and also kind of terrifying in another. Nick Cave talks about songwriters being cannibals of their own lives, and I’ve always sort of tried to avoid that cyclical drama feeding into songwriting.”
But Williams’ focus in the immediate aftermath of the split helped him to simplify and unify his approach. “I wanted to close off everything else except for one thing that was going to really carry this body of work through,” he says. “So the listener will get to the other side and feel one mood.
“The hardest thing was really trying to tap into the honesty but not getting caught up [in details] that don’t matter, that aren’t essential to the feeling. It took a little bit of a re-set in my brain to get used to it, especially because I’m naturally such a storytelling songwriter. But the thing wanted to come out, so I had that going for me.”
Williams says that for him, the process was therapeutic: “I’m a much more rounded person coming out the other side of that album. But, you know, it’s difficult, it deals with difficult things, because it was so personal. It wasn’t easy in that sense, it was a bit of a gut-wrencher, but it needed to be done.”
And Harding? “I’ve given her the record now. We haven’t really talked about it, but there’s an unspoken respect, I think, (a) for my decision to make the record and (b) for my decision to be pretty open about it. She preserves her privacy and keeps it all about the art, but we’ve definitely got different approaches about that stuff.”
Is he prepared for the possibility of an answer record? “Well, it’s close enough to [Harding’s album] Party; there’s a lot of stories in there!” he says. “I’m sure we’ll be bound in a certain way throughout our lives.
“I can’t not have been influenced by her over the course of our time together. I’ve known her since we were 16 and I’ve always found her to be more musically on point than anyone I’ve ever met, so she’s definitely all over the record in a lot of ways.”
First published in The Age (Shortlist), 15 February 2018