My Boy

For his latest record, Marlon Williams discovered himself by becoming others
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 21 November 2022
Photographer Willow Williams
Stylist Keeley Dawson.

waistcoat and trousers both by EMPORIO ARMANI FW22

A louche 80s crooner, a passenger on cursed waters; a lover in pursuit, a lost troubadour on surreal terrain. Within his latest record – My BoyMarlon Williams discovered himself by becoming others.

The record began – like most 2022 stories – stranded during lockdown. Back in his native New Zealand, Williams switched things up, recruiting a whole new backing band that lifted him out of his comfort zone and forced him to approach from a different angle. A major gear-shift for the musician, My Boy elevates his sound with nuanced craft. Yes, those delicate folkish melodies from past albums remain, but they’ve been distorted and melted into new form – electrified by an 80s synth pulse. And yes, Williams has long conjured characters and fantasy – not least in his moonlighting acting career [A Star is Born, True History of the Kelly Gang] – but here we’re guided by a narrative ensemble more tangible than ever.

rollneck stylist’s own

Alex James Taylor: Hey Marlon, you’re currently in Germany supporting Lorde?
Marlon Williams: Yeah, Augsburg. We’re leaving at 4am and going to Cologne. We’ve been in a hill-top fortress in Croatia the last two nights – surreal. And then before that we were in a castle in Verona. It’s been super beautiful.

AJT: Sounds like you’re doing touring the right way. Congrats on the new record, it’s really special. I want to go back to the start of that process – so, lockdown’s happened, and you’re back in New Zealand, reconnecting with family, studying, what was that period like for you? It must be a dramatic change going back to that homely lifestyle.
MW: I’d been on tour so consistently, for so long. I’m sure there are many musicians who can relate, but when you have that thing forcing you to stop, it kind of infantilises you a bit. It’s hard to avoid when you go home after a long time. I’d sort of forgotten how to be at home long term, and how to stay still. So it was very confronting really.

AJT: Was it easy to begin making music again in that situation?
MW: It’s very seldom easy, it’s always like getting blood out of a stone – I always have trouble forcing it. So it took a while. I definitely lent into the nothingness [during lockdown], just like everyone did for a little bit at the beginning there. But then I thought, “Well, I’ve got to make a new record and I’ve got no excuses not to be working.”

AJT: And you put together a whole new band for this record. What influenced that?
MW: The Yarra Benders, who I’ve always played with and who will be touring the record with me, we’re extremely close – I’ve known Ben [Woolley, bass] since I was twelve. Just for this record, I felt the need to be the new kid at school, to be able to play without having my world reinforce who I actually am. It was a means of escape, I guess.

It’s having that freedom to be able to follow your nose.”

jacket, shirt and trousers all by ALEXANDER McQUEEN FW22; socks stylist’s own; shoes MARLON’S own

AJT: When you put together a band for the first time, how do you begin to get to know each other, musically? Do you jam? Do you get stuck in immediately?
MW: I think just workshopping really. We went to Waiapu in the North of Auckland and just workshopped the songs acoustically for a few days, creating demos. We got to feel each other out without too much pressure, but while also being very project-oriented, fixated even.

AJT: Listening to the album, it feels like you’re really having fun. There’s a real pace to it, and drive. Was that something you thought about prior to making it?
MW: I’ve been wanting to make a record like this for a while. The last record I made was a very sort of maudlin affair. I think it’s flipped the other way, and then flipped back, and flipped again. It’s a nice guideline for how to have an interesting time in your career. Other than that, I just have fun with it. When it’s feeling dark, throw some lightness, and when it’s feeling light, try and weigh it down a little bit. I like that balance, even the internal consistency of when some songs are really sunny and chirpy but others are a little bit off, throw some shadow in there.

AJT: There are characters in there that shift and evolve. There’s also a heavy 80s influence, you can hear those Gary Numan, Duran Duran sounds. Where did that come from?
MW: I grew up loving Echo & the Bunnymen, Duran Duran and a lot of new romantic bands. I’ve always been very manic and scattered with my tastes, and there might have been a time where I would have held back from the mania when making music, but people can roll with it, they’ll come along for the ride. It’s very easy for a musician or songwriter to get stuck in their own head about things, but nothing’s that bad when it sees the light. It’s having that freedom to be able to follow your nose.

AJT: Did that 80s direction alter the way you approached the vocals?
MW: Yeah, [it] brought out certain characteristics that aren’t always there – the medium informs the message. Playing characters vocally is definitely my favourite part of the job.

AJT: You mentioned earlier about recording it in Waiapu, I know you recorded Plastic Bouquet with Kacy & Clayton in a ranch in Saskatchewan in the middle of winter. Can you tell me more about that?
MW: Yeah. I flew over to Saskatchewan around November 2019 and made the record in minus twenty degree winter. I mean, you can’t help but be informed by the surroundings you’re in, so it’s a big part of it. The record before that was in a weird old… almost like a castle on a hill in San Francisco. There’s strength in familiarity sometimes, but it’s just so evocative to go to different places and let them inform the making of the record.

trousers by MM6 FW22

AJT: I’ve always been intrigued by how the location a record is created in influences the output, like Bob Dylan at Big Pink and the Stones at Nellcôte. How much do you consider this when choosing how and where to record a new album?
MW: I try not to lean into the romantic side of the writing, because I don’t find writing to be a very romantic thing. I think it’s pretty brutal and cold a lot of the time. So if I’m somewhere too nice, I’m not gonna write [laughs]. I need to be in a sort of desperate mode.

AJT: I also want to talk to you about the Māori aspects of your career [Marlon has Māori heritage] – I’m really intrigued. In the UK, we get taught nothing about New Zealand culture in that sense. I know you and Lorde have both recorded songs in Māori and you’ve spoken about wanting to make a whole album in Māori. Is there a revival of the language happening?
MW: New Zealand’s an interesting place, it’s founded on a bicultural treaty between Māori and the Crown. And the Crown have certain obligations to Māori, certain very big obligations that include the preservation of the language. In the 80s, there was a big revival, I went to a total immersion kindergarten, and now it’s going through a second sort of revival. There are two ways, you either force people to learn it, or you hope that it’ll just naturally come out of things. But when you’re a minority in your own country, you’re not going to be able to push back on the cultural hegemony to have enough room to let it breathe properly, because the numbers don’t add up. Language by prescription is a tricky game, because it makes things tight. I think it’s really great that there are a lot of discussions around who’s able to use the language and it’s a shame that Māori have had it withheld from them for a long time and not been allowed to learn it. There are a lot of arguments that say Māori should be prioritised in learning their own language but that’s a slow, long process to get that happening. And it probably should be happening. Lorde did an incredible job with that EP [Te Ao Mārama, which features tracks sung in the Māori language], she did things by the book by having experts go over it with her, but I think there also has to be a little bit of room for mistakes and for not necessarily perfect Māori. Even on this record [My Boy], I try to throw a few Māori words into the landscape without being like, “Here’s the Māori bit.” I’m doing a little exercise in normalisation, I guess.

AJT: It’s really interesting and like I said, it also brings the language to people outside of New Zealand, so it’s important.
MW: Traditional Māori music is very chatty and monotonal, compared to that first nexus, that first intersection of Irish, English and American people coming to New Zealand, bringing the guitar – the piano and the violin were the first two instruments that Māori really latched on to. Before colonisation, the music was all monotone, it was bad luck to have harmony going on, it was taboo. But now it’s an absolute hallmark of Māori music. That’s the result of syncretism, of growing together. Now we’ve got this beautiful, harmonically rich, very idiosyncratic music that lives in its own world, and it’s a beautiful combination of a lot of things.

“I don’t find writing to be a very romantic thing. I think it’s pretty brutal and cold a lot of the time.”

trousers by MM6 MASION MARGIELA FW22; jewellery, worn throughout, by CONOR JOSEPH

AJT: Going back to you and My Boy, how is it playing the album live, especially in terms of the characters and playfulness we spoke about? I imagine it’s fun to play.
MW: I’ve been playing solo at the moment on this tour [with Lorde]. From listening to the record, you can see a lot of it is hard to pull off solo, but I’ve been doing these, like, karaoke versions of the songs. But I’m already starting to see how audiences are interacting with them, which is a really nice thing to watch, to observe and adjust around.

AJT: I also want to ask you about your acting career. Which came first, music or acting?
MW: Music, for sure. I mean, I’m an only child, so I’ve probably been acting since I was born to a degree [laughs]. From a very young age, I was singing in the car with my parents and joined the choir when I was six or seven. Then you reach high school and you’re an arty kid, so you start doing Shakespeare or whatever. You’ve got your music mates and they hang out with your drama mates. Definitely music first, but also acting came out of music videos, of writing, directing and wanting to be in my videos, because that process is an extension of the songwriting and the way people consume music a lot of the time these days. It’s part of the responsibility of the song.

AJT: There was a time when you had MTV and music videos were this incredible artform. Then it looked like they were fading out, but now, with YouTube and social media they’re back in a big way and are often the audience’s first connection with the track.
MW: Yeah, we’re so visual now.

AJT: I need to ask you about A Star is Born. I was watching a video of Bradley Cooper speaking about how he found you, how he was listening to the radio while driving and heard your track, then he immediately went to see you play live.
MW: So, we turn up in LA that day to play at the Troubadour and me and the band were super excited to play such a storied venue. We were all just giddy with excitement and agreed it was one of the top three gigs we’ve ever played. Everything was just done in that beautiful flow state. I remember looking out and I could see Elvis Costello in the audience and thought, “Oh shit, Elvis Costello!” Then after the gig, I went to the tour manager and he was like, “Yeah, Elvis was here and Bradley Cooper was, too.” I was like, “Oh shit, that’s cool.” Then I got an email from his people a couple of weeks later, saying he’d written this whole scene for me to be part of this movie. I was just so… it made me giggle how cliché that story is, in a really lovely old-school way, him hearing me on the radio and coming along for the gig that night. So I got to go along and be part of that cool, bizarre, surreal world for just a couple of days of my life. And now it’s this weird little landmark in my career.

AJT: He said it was a longer scene, but he had to cut some of it. I’m curious to know – what was cut?
MW: There’s just a whole bunch of back-and-forth between him and I about me being a big fan and setting up the sadness of him not being the frontman.

AJT: What are your ambitions in terms of acting?
MW: I’m not much of a planner. I’m just curious. I just want to follow my nose with these things.

AJT: Do you find that acting influences your music, maybe in terms of character development or creative writing?
MW: Yeah. I mean, film and getting familiar with a film set and that world, any sort of theatre device is such a specific thing and it’s interesting finding which skills are transferable between the two worlds. I definitely think in terms of character observations, character building and that confidence to inhabit characters, I’ve always felt okay doing that, and perhaps that’s also helped with the acting.

AJT: Your latest music videos are a case in point.
MW: [laughs] I mean, it’s like bad Duran Duran acting, me trying to follow Simon Le Bon’s lead.

AJT: I like it, it’s very smooth.
MW: It’s a lot of fun.

Interview originally published in HERO 28.

grooming MOE MUKAI;
photography assistant SARAH MERRETT
fashion assistant; BELLA KEMP;

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