When Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams perform, it’s like the ghosts of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and so many other classic crooners are on stage with them. Amanda Witherell talks to Davidson about his shift from a one man band to the powerful duo with Williams.
Twice I’ve seen the powdered visage of Davidson and the boy-faced Williams take the stage, clad in dark suits and thin ties, cradling guitars. Twice I’ve had chills run down my spine and the sense that I’m seeing something truly unique, even when they’re singing covers of classic country songs – like Cool Water, by Marty Robbins. Williams’s voice is high and pure and so like Robbins it’s scary, tempered by Davidson’s, lower and grittier, giving the song a fresh, haunting complexity.
“Marlon Williams has been singing in choirs for years and years and he has a really good knowledge of music in a trained way,” says Davidson, speaking by phone, parked on a hill with a view of the Canterbury plains. “My knowledge is self-taught, figuring stuff out with a guitar and a bottle of wine, travelling and touring for years, and we both did this stuff at the same time. He started his singing training in the choir while I started my touring.”
Davidson’s music is often described as steeped in misery, written with “a whiskey-soaked heart,” which makes him snort. “I don’t smoke. I don’t even drink anymore,” he says. Asked if he’s miserable and he firmly responds, “No way. If I was, I think the music would sound totally different. It would be gothic or repetitive. It’s more nostalgic. It’s not miserable. There’s a lot of longing in what I do. Yearning for another era, yearning to be in a different place, a lot of travelling, but there’s a feel with the music that’s upbeat.”
His tempos are often quick, his riffs bluesy and influenced by the rock greats he listened to growing up, layered with rhythms and an old timey tone from his analogue style of recording.
While he’s long accustomed to running his own show, in some ways it seems like he was meant to find Williams. The two met by accident – or were possibly set-up by Adam McGrath, headman of The Eastern. A tour forced McGrath to skip his standing gig at Lyttleton’s Wunderbar and he asked around amongst his local friends for somebody to cover him. Both Davidson and Williams showed, both expecting to play.
“This tall skinny guy turned up with a guitar at the same time as me. We were both asking, ‘What are you doing here?’” They decided to play the gig together and came up with a set list of songs they both knew and loved. “We didn’t even practice. We just played. We both love singing. It was great, and we said let’s do it again next week.”
Not long after, they got together for a coffee and a chat about recording.
“We were talking about our haunted country album that we were going to make. Then the earthquake hit,” says Davidson. At that very moment.
Exactly a year later, while the rest of New Zealand observed two minutes of silence to mark the anniversary of the February quake, Davidson and Williams were anything but quiet, in the studio recording songs for their first joint album, Sad But True: The secret history of country music songwriting Volume 1.
To make the album – 11 original tunes with some covers — seems remarkable now, particularly while so much of the city is trapped in stasis and turmoil. “So many ideas don’t really happen. It was really great to see this become a reality,” he says.
Davidson has four other albums to his credit and spent a decade touring internationally and living between Switzerland and Lyttleton, playing in various groups, but mostly as a one-man band with a guitar and a loop pedal, which is how the crowd will see him when he opens for British-based Gomez in Wellington this week.
Williams is known as one of the four members of country band The Unfaithful Ways and he performed with Davidson and The Eastern in The Harbour Union and again during the Lyttleton Roughhouse Revival. Both were nominated this year for APRA Best Country Song Award, Williams for Ghost of This Town and Davidson for You’re a Loser, from his outstanding album Bad Luck Man. Davidson is the one with the certificate hanging on his wall.
“It says: Congratulations Delaney Davidson You’re a Loser,” he says. “I waver between taking it seriously and just laughing about it.”
Wellingtonians can also catch him at Evil Genius on December 1 and with Williams when they hit the road for the Sad But True tour in 2013.
Originally published October 24, 2012 in Capital Times.