I’m talking to Marlon Williams who has a new album out next week, which is a collaboration with Canadian folk duo Kacey & Clayton called Plastic Bouquet.
The first question I ask is whether or not we should be surprised by this new record, given we might have been expecting a rebound from Make Way For Love, (which he tells Kim Hill he looks back on now with a kind of morbid fascination) and what we get, as good as it is, is less of a rebound than a bounce back into old and familiar territory. And yes, he acknowledges the bounce back, but at the same time cautions against putting too many expectations on him, which is, of course, very fair. But in essence the bounce back is to the simple form of country music, short succinct songs which respect the formula, and transports him, distils him back to an earlier time
You are comfortable in collaborations. I mean we’ve heard you in The Unfaithful Ways, and Sad But True, but in this one you almost take the back seat, or is it that which partially defines you? The ability to lead from the front as well as behind, from the background, as it were?
Yes, exactly. Very happy to be the light touch, to put Kacy’s voice ahead of his. After all he came to the project as a pure fan. He just wanted to be there, sort of go with the flow approach, so was happy just to go, on his own, and meld in to their environment and with their band
Is this essentially an unplanned interlude, or symptomatic of an opportunistic streak in the way you approach your art and deploy your talents?
Two sides to the same coin. Certainly unplanned. Just as the appearance in A Star is Born was unplanned. Carpe diem. But (my words) I guess that is the privilege of the successful artist to be able to choose the opportunity when it arises. And be open (many successful artists are not open to straying from the formula of their past success).
This is delightfully retro, delightfully 60’s, delightfully jangly and the first thing I did after a couple of listens was to pull out Reflections in a Crystal Wind, where I found a reference, an anchor. You know the song and the album?
No he doesn’t, but of course he knows Mimi and Richard Farina, whose album it is, and he knows that Mimi’s older sister is Joan Baez, and he knows that Richard died tragically, very young, in a motorcycle accident, and he has read Richard’s book. So, he’s happy to take the reference and I’m happy that he has such a scholarly knowledge of music history. Can’t catch this guy out !!!
So, we have Spotify to thank for this (I almost choke to say that)? But, this is a great story, a simple story, but quite romantic, in a platonic sense, in a country or Americana way
Yes, he agrees, there’s a love hate thing with Spotify because his main source of new music is his Discover Weekly playlist, and this is how it happened, in a van between gigs in Europe (remember this is now a couple of years ago as the album was recorded in 2018) and like a bolt of lightening on came “Springtime of the Year” and he was hooked. And now I’m hooked because I’m listening to it as I write, because I can, because I find it on Spotty-bloody-fi, and I can understand it as a song he could have written. And for Marlon this was an ephiphanous moment, it happens but rarely in a lifetime, and he had to reach out, and it had to be reciprocated, and he just had to travel from New Zealand’s summer to the depth of the Saskatchewan winter, and chop wood in the minus 20-degree cold when the power went out
And how dicey are the back streets of Saskatoon in minus 20-degree winter? Too cold to fight surely.
Maybe too cold to fight, but there is nonetheless a drug problem in parts of Saskatoon and people trying to bust in to the studio property such that the engineer had to become, from time to time, a real heavy dude with a 2 by 4 to scare people off the site. All the more reason to make warm music.
The album contains mostly Kacy songs with just 4 or 5 songs written by Marlon. Were there any co-writes?
No, each song was written solely by either Kacy or Marlon, although in the process of preparing to record the ideas and early takes were swapped over great distance and this allowed for nuanced influence as a consequence of one allowing the other to see things in each song that they didn’t see before. I call it creative reciprocity. He agrees. It’s nice to agree.
And your planned Marlon Williams future is another surprise , or maybe we should learn to be unsurprised by anything Marlon Williams does, but it’s an album in Te Reo Maori. Is it just the language which changes or the music as well?
Marlon has spoken Te Reo Maori all his life, without formal training, apart from the earliest years. So he’s gone back to language school, and expressing his new confidence in lyric, which influences the sound because of phrasing, but doesn’t change the music.
Tell us the story of "Your Mind’s Walking Out", which I’m assuming is a Kacey song, but its also about dogs.
Well, the dogs appear on the video for the song, which Marlon directs, and it’s long been an ambition to use dogs in a music story video, to try and get a different perspective on imputing emotions through imagery; creating a narrative, using animals rather than humans as the vehicle, because humans can impute emotion through any symbol, but, untrained dogs? Mmmmm, eight hours of footage later, a two-minute video emerges, and it’s very cute. There’s a happy ending, to be a spoiler, and some very clever dogs doing the final mix.
Well, I’m loving the album, will we hear some of these songs on your tour?
Final word please on Justin. The first time I saw him I saw you for the first time. Last year I interviewed him and he was still talking about you in an endearingly abusive way. He really liked you.
For Marlon, having Justin Townes Earle in his life has been a blessing. Kind of a big brother thing. Justin was a super stubborn guy, but very loyal, and it was such a tragedy that he lost his life at what seemed to be a time in his life when he had everything to live for.
Final final word, what are you listening to? (Don’t be surprised)
Sardinian folk music, of course. Shepherd’s folk songs in discordant harmony. Check it out. I will.
But what I’m listening to is Plastic Bouquet. A collaboration between Marlon Williams and Canadian cousins Kacy & Clayton conceived from a Spotify playlist, courted from a distance and consummated in the depth of a Canadian winter in a creepy neighbourhood. We know how and why, we know not yet what.
But we soon find out as the opening track jangles into life with a sweet sounding Kacy and “Isn’t It” so much the Marlon of old as he blends in behind in high harmony. Shades of Mimi and Richard Farina sets the tone for a series of short, succinct tableaus , and the first of many country waltzes with the title track, the sad and hopefully not true “Plastic Bouquet”, with Marlon once again in mournful maintenance.
“Light of Love” is a proper duet evoking Roy Orbison and Joan Baez with Rickenbacker chopping in behind. “Your Mind’s Walking out” is a delightful little love song so patiently crafted into video dog by Marlon in the Lyttleton hills. It took eight hours of footage and even longer to teach dog to play and mix. Very sweet.
I don’t have access to the credits but “Arahura” is unmistakeably a Marlon song which brings the West Coast river as the source to now flow through the Saskatchewan prairie of Kacy & Clayton’s home region and symbolises that merger of Kiwi and Canadian cultures which the record embodies.
“The three of us are just old timey kids” says Kacy as the reason for this beautiful album to be. Three kindred spirits of distant but compatible cultures trash the tyranny of distance to meld each other’s roots into the tradition and form of country music with a retro feel and timeless themes. Call it Americana.
Maybe “I’m Unfamiliar” but there’s something both traditional in terms of call and response and modern with a punkish beat. The first single from the record is “I Wonder Why” which is a typical Marlon song but then again it’s not, it’s universal, it comes from everywhere and it belongs to everyone.
The “Old Fashioned Man” waltzes off to a steel intro and the title tells the story. “I don’t want to take a dance with you, I don’t want to take a chance on you” goes Kacy’s refrain, and Marlon the old fashioned creep responds in outrageous indignation at chauvinism denied.
“I’m Gonna Break It” rocks a little in a generally upbeat rendition of the desperate travelling salesman struggling to lift himself up. It lifts me up, so it must be working !
And the “Last Burning Ember” talks of what it takes to make long marriages work, or at least survive. A little pessimistic, but based on youthful observation from a worldly-wise Kacy.
“Devil’s Daughter” has a sweet little exchange caught between Kacy and Marlon which sums up the spirit of the collaboration. Old fashioned, immaculately polite, homespun. Nice.
And there you have it. 11 short but immaculate songs and it’s all over in half an hour. So retro, so refreshing, so perfect a soundtrack for our summer.