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The Rise of Marlon Williams, As Told By a Guy Who Used to Loan Him a Couch

This is what it’s like to watch your mate become a lauded country singer.

The first time I heard the name Marlon Williams, I wanted to hate him. I had been living overseas for a couple of months when I started to hear from Christchurch friends about some impossibly handsome country singer, just 18 and singing about how whiskey was his only real friend, who had situated himself among my friends and had started seeing my most immediate ex-girlfriend. Annoyingly, I really liked his band; more annoying still, when I moved back to Christchurch a year or so later, I really fucking liked him, also.

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If you lived in my Christchurch milieu in the late noughties/early 2010s, you listened to country music. It didn’t matter if you liked it or not, you couldn’t escape it: step into a bar any weekend and you’d be confronted by the banjos, mandolins or guitars of Cowboy Machine, Von Klap, The Eastern, Tim Moore, Delaney Davidson, or the Unfaithful Ways, the band Marlon fronted when he wasn’t making milkshakes behind the counter of a Lyttelton dairy. When the Christchurch earthquakes struck, sincerity was in, and country music, with its stories of discontent and destitution, became an appropriate soundtrack to life in a stricken city.

Now 25, Marlon has come a long way since his dairy days, which, along with a short spell in a Christchurch record store, are the only real jobs he has ever had, and are almost certainly the only ones outside music and acting he will ever have. I’ve watched from afar, after I moved to Auckland and he to Melbourne, as his career has bloomed; every other day, it seemed, I’d see a photo of him on my Facebook feed with an arm around some increasingly famous musician in some increasingly far-flung American locale. When I’d see him, when I was in Melbourne or he in Auckland, he’d have a new haircut and some new level of fame reached (his latest high-tide mark was turning down the chance to audition for Scarlett Johansson’s latest film). It used to be just presumed that he’d be crashing on my couch whenever he played in Auckland, and I didn’t need to ask to be put on the door at his gigs; once, him and Delaney Davidson played an impromptu gig in our lounge to about eight people. Now, he stays in hotels and is sometimes too busy with media commitments and award ceremonies – last year he won two awards at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards and was nominated for an ARIA – to grab a drink.
I had originally planned to write a far more substantial profile on Marlon, focused around his recent Auckland gig at the Powerstation. For years, him and I have talked about me writing an account of touring with him, and this seemed like the closest chance – if not the tour I’d hoped for – I’d get for a while. But it fell through: a succession of Facebook messages from me (“Hello mate, you free for a call?”; “No? Yea?… You still interested?”; “I really need to know if this is still on?”) went read but unanswered. After a while, it started to feel like my professional profile had fallen sufficiently far behind his, as it has, for him to bother. In the end, I had to turn to his manager, suffering the ignominy – what felt like a friendship downgrade – of going through the official channels. She replied, sorting me out with tickets to his gig.

I caught up with him over beer and cigarettes backstage before the show – his now-longish hair brushed back in a nod to Nick Cave, a tiki bolo tie over a paisley shirt – and had a couple of photos taken, and then watched from the side of the stage as him and his band, the Yarra Benders, played through his self-titled debut album to a sold-out crowd. It is strange to watch a friend the centre of such attention, the faces of fans lit up and held at the same rapturous angle, strange to study the faces of strangers having emotional reactions to someone who has been a part of your own personal emotional life.

I spoke to Marlon as he waited at Auckland Airport a couple of days after the show – he was on his way to Adelaide and Sydney for a couple of shows; as I write, he is now in Texas at SXSW. He sounded jaded after “another big night”: he had DJ’d at Whammy Bar, and had been up until 5am. Of his Auckland show, he said: “I think it went really well, you know. It’s always kinda hard when you play to a massive show who [all] seem to really like it. You automatically feel like you’re being deceived… when you are paranoid, like I am.”

Marlon has always drawn an eclectic crowd, and he doesn’t think about how to appeal to certain demographic – it’s just a love for the traditions of country music that dictates his craft: “Seriously, I just found this [country] an easy way to communicate. It’s a simple way of putting it, but it’s the language I understand best and that I can talk to people in better than any other language. It just feels easier in a game which is about communication – that’s pretty important, you know?”
Not that he remains inextricably tied to country music. After a year in which he is touring both the States and Europe, he’ll move back to his hometown of Lyttelton to put together his next album, one he imagines might not be country to quite the same extent. Like Taylor Swift, I said. He laughed. “I’m gonna do a Taylor Swift, but just not as good.” I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s no longer just his friends who really fucking like him.

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