Life on the road can be a continual act of self-sacrifice. It’s inspiring, sure – why else would musicians do it, after all? - but it also involves placing your life on hold, putting things dear to you in stasis, an emotional hold-all that you simply place in a locker, and hope it’s still there when you return.
Marlon Williams spent almost two years on the road, following his self-titled full length as it gained an international audience. Along the way he met another songwriter – the remarkable Aldous Harding – and the two fell for each other, a relationship conducted via small snapshots of time, slender meetings, prolonged phone calls, texts, and Skype conversation.
But it didn’t last. Maybe it couldn’t. From this experience, though, grew Marlon Williams’ new album ‘Make Way For Love’ - it’s a break up record, or sorts, but to use this fairly hackneyed term ignores it’s questions about art, touring, loneliness, and the simple desire to make a real, true connection with someone.
“I needed to make this album,” he admits. “I’ve never needed to make an album before, I’ve always made albums because I like making music, but this time around there was a necessity to it. That was a new feeling for me. And it was intense. More of a crime of passion, I suppose, than anything I’ve ever done.”
- - -
- - -
Not that it came easy. Detoxing from lengthy spells on the road, Marlon found that the muse wasn’t about to return without a fight. “I hadn’t finished a song in two years,” he recalls. “And then in a matter of three and a half weeks I came out with 15 or so. It really felt like I came out the other end with blood on my hands, and I couldn’t remember anything that had happened.”
Returning to his native Lyttleton – a small town on New Zealand’s south island – he worked quickly, desperate to get his thoughts down in one place. “I always plan to do pre-production in Lyttleton, and then fly to the States to record the album,” he says. “But it just all sort of lined up in a way that made sense. There’s a few songs that were conceived before the break up, but it’s definitely a therapeutic process for me.”
- - -
If it starts getting too easy then you’ve got to wonder about what you’re doing.
- - -
Able to work with close friends, Marlon called up the Yarra Benders, his confidantes and contemporaries for some time now. The actual process of writing a full album, however, remains stubbornly difficult – Clash asks, does it ever get easier with time?
“Well, it does and it doesn’t,” he admits with a sigh. “And in a way, it shouldn’t. If it starts getting too easy then you’ve got to wonder about what you’re doing. But there are certain practical things that you learn from doing it repeatedly, and just knowing the things that really piss you off during the album making process is a really important thing to learn, I think. All the basic things.”
“In terms of approaching the process you’ve got to give it the same amount of energy and tackle it with the same vigour as you did the last time round.”
- - -
The break up was definitely a catalyst...
- - -
‘Make Way For Love’ certainly doesn’t lack vigour. The vocal performances are some of the truest, most honest, Marlon has ever recorded, shifting from the passion of ‘Come To Me’ to the sheer exhausted regret of ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’. It could well stem from the material itself, that sense of carefully packed away emotions suddenly being unleashed.
“The break up was definitely a catalyst,” he admits. “And just generally a whole bunch of built up tension inside me, because after a couple of years of solid touring and a lot of uncertainty on all fronts I definitely feel like I sometimes need something to open the floodgates. But I’ve never had that as a writer before, so it was a new experience.”
Not that this impacted on his actual artistry, with the methodology remaining strikingly familiar. “I tend to write songs fully formed,” he says. “All the demos have pretty much the same arrangements. There were a couple of songs that I wrote on piano and had no idea where they were gonna go until we got into the studio, but for the most part… For me, it’s like listening to the radio, and then you Shazam the song and find out how the rest of it goes. I don’t write in a constructive, linear fashion… it all just happens at once.”
- - -
- - -
Collecting his material, Marlon Williams – plus his ever-reliant Yarra Benders – flew out to the United States, working with producer Noah Georgeson on some quickfire sessions. “We only had 10 days in the studio and we had a lot of sonic ground to cover,” he says. “We were working pretty quickly. It was a fast-paced process. I’d like to make an album where I’ve got a fair bit more time, and feel free to try a few different things but there’s benefits to working quickly too.”
Despite the personal nature of the material the studio remained a relatively loose environment, with Marlon able to work out his issues amongst some of the people closest to him. “I’ve known my band for a long, long time,” he says, “so it’s not like I’m presenting it to strangers and expecting them to just look straight ahead and move with it. They know me and know what haunts me.”
It’s remarkable, then, given the explosion of emotion that ‘Make Way For Love’ is such a succinct, cohesive experience. “It was a very unconscious thing,” he admits. “Like I said, I came out the other side and was just astonished. By the fact I was doing it in such a short amount of time, that there’s got to be some sort of unity to these songs; they were coming from the same place and it all felt like part of the same journey for me. There’s definitely a huge amount of faith into acting out this cyclical piece.”
- - -
We were working pretty quickly. It was a fast-paced process.
- - -
Opening track ‘Come To Me’ was penned in Glasgow, and represents “a naive optimism and an excitement about the challenge”, a naivety that was soon dispelled. The debauched ‘Party Boy’ represents the dangers of becoming seduced by rock ‘n’ roll life, by the pleasures of the road. “That’s a composite of being at a whole bunch of different social events,” he recalls. “The more parties you go to the more you get a feel for the characters that make up the play. There’s always that guy who is everyone’s friend but no one quite trusts them.”
Throughout the whole album, though, is the hidden figure of Aldous Harding. Bringing the cycle to a close, Marlon invited her to sing on ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Any More’ - she accepted, but due to timing issues was forced to perform her lines across a phone line.
“She was in Cardiff, in Wales, and I was in Portland,” he says. “I had recorded the album a month earlier, so I had done my parts. It was kind of weird but kind of poignant, and fitting. We were very used to being on the phone. It was very layered. It was good – I would rather it had been in the studio, to do it that way, but it was kind of nice.”
“Her performance is more guttural than she normally does. She was feeling it, I guess.”
- - -
It was kind of weird but kind of poignant, and fitting.
- - -
Did he need this album, in some way, to understand the past two years?
“I feel like it’s a self-perpetuating thing,” he explains. “You see a lot of artists, and people just generally, who constantly require the push and pull of that stuff to really… They force the issue sometimes.”
“I think it’s something that’s just innate in human nature,” he insists, “but it was really interesting to watch myself do that, and to feel like it was like on another side, that I could listen to the songs back and learn something for myself.”
- - -
- - -
'Make Way For Love' is out now.
Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Holly Whitaker
Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.