Name that tune: Melody Pool and Marlon Williams are forging their own sound. Photo: Nick Moir
See, there’s this thing happening in Australia. It’s a genre producing consistently good music, strong songwriters and the kind of characters all too often neutered as they are scrubbed down in pop, buffed up in rock and glammed up in country.
It’s a genre which can’t get on mainstream radio anywhere but has fervent support in not just the usual markets of the US and Britain, but also Germany, Spain, Scandinavia and France. What’s more it could be the next international springboard for a lot of young, and some not so young, locals, too, who are appearing in regional centres, cities and even the suburbs.
Yet it is the genre which dare not speak its name.
No strings attached: Marlon Williams and Melody Pool play the Newtown Social Club on August 2. Photo: Nick Moir
This is essentially because it doesn’t have one. And as we know, these days if you can’t name it, it doesn’t really exist.
It may be that the best way to describe what the genre is about, is by telling you what it's not. It’s not quite country, though many of its practitioners grew up playing it and retain a love for its storytelling and sense of open skies. It’s not quite folk, though the genre's occasional looseness in melody, fondness for acoustic instrumentation and sense of history suggests connections there.
Nor is it rock (no one is trying to blast you out of your seat or solo you into heaven) or even strictly speaking country rock (though that crossover is a rich mine to source, from the Eagles and Jackson Browne to the Dingoes and Ryan Adams). And while there are tunes to be had and no fear of songs that you’re going to want to sing along with, you couldn’t really call it anything like pop.
In the US, where a sister style was once labelled alt.country, it might get called Americana; but there’s more to it than roots American music. Meanwhile, you can forget about the alternative of Australiana, which is both inaccurate and loaded with wince-inducing memories of lagerphones, comedy accents and bad damper.
Whatever the genre may be called, it’s out there. Take Melody Pool, a songwriter and singer from Kurri Kurri who sounds something like Laura Marling and something like Patty Griffin – folkish, countryish, something else-ish – and is already seen as one of the most exciting, young writers we have via her debut album, The Hurting Scene.
"When I was playing country music when I was younger, I loved the traditions of the music but when I was trying to write songs it never really came out," says Pool, who likes open tunings and wordiness. "I had this thing in my head about how a song was meant to be and when I started writing without platform I found that I had no boundaries to what I could write. I felt more free. As long as they sound like they flow together, well I don't try to think about it too much."
She’s touring with another 23-year-old, Christchurch’s Marlon Williams, who grew up in rock and country rock bands, but now, with a debut album coming this year, is a traditionalist, right down to his neat, slicked back hair, boldly patterned body shirt and denim.
“I just think that the more normal you keep things, the more room there is for feeling and emotion,” says Williams, explaining why he likes to work within traditional structures. “You can't eke tragedy out of chaos; you have to use these signposts to show where the standard is, where things are normally, to show the difference.
“Sometimes I’ll just write a song that’s not within the form, and it’s consciously so. But generally when I write a country song it uses the standard tropes and you chuck in bits of the unfamiliar to balance it out. And that becomes so much starker.”
If the duo are a strict formalist (Williams) and free-spirited (Pool) in the writing room, on stage they reverse roles.
"I'm a pretty organised performer and I don't like change,” Pool admits, while Williams happily confesses that “I’m a pretty disorganised performer".
“I like to throw a curve ball in. I almost think of songwriters and singers as different people and that is probably coming from the folk tradition, too,” he says. “It doesn’t [matter] where the song came from, you just have to be the vessel for it in this brief time.”
Which, when you think about it, is something from not just folk and blues but also country, successive performers and successive generations building on a well known story or characters and adapting it for each generation. It’s happening again, just without a name.
Melody Pool and Marlon Williams
Gig Saturday, August 2, 8pm, Newtown Social Club, Newtown
Tickets $10 plus booking fee, newtownsocialclub.com
Live Both kinds of music, country and ... not country
Best track Henry (Melody Pool) and Trouble I’m In (Marlon Williams)
Melody Pool and Marlon Williams play
It's not rock'n'roll but you'll like it
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