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The sound of summer

5 December 2022
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After a difficult, uncertain and distinctly un-fun couple of years, summer music festivals are back – in a big way – and South Islanders are spoilt for choice when it comes to enjoying their favourite local and international acts in the great outdoors, with Rhythm & Alps, featuring headline acts including Lyttelton local and international star Marlon Williams, once again set to be a highlight of the festy season. Words Josie Steenhart

If there’s an album that epitomises the mood of this long (and long-awaited) Kiwi summer, it’s modern-day crooner Marlon Williams’ My Boy.

Sunny but with the right amount of shade, as sway-inducingly laid back as jandals and lazy days by blue waters, but with plenty of playful twists and party-ready vibes to bop to, and captivatingly underlaid with a distinct sound unique both to Marlon and to island shores like Aotearoa’s.

It opens with a single of the same name, which Marlon describes as “a pop song with a Māori folk strum”.

“The urge to turn every song on the planet into a Māori strummer descended on me like a fever sometime during the long and winding tour cycle of [previous album] Make Way for Love,” he explains.

“So writing it into my artistic life became the only way to get the fever to lift.”

Shot last summer in the Christchurch-born musician’s front yard and at the Lyttelton Trinity Hall, the accompanying video was co-directed by Marlon and celebrated local film director Martin Sagadin.

Marlon has just returned home after taking the album on an exhaustive, and exhausting, tour of the US and UK alongside Lorde and fellow Lytteltonian Reb Fountain.

“Yeah, it’s been a big ol’ time!” he says. “[I] toured around Europe with Lorde in May and then did a headline run around the US, then Europe again with Reb. Honestly, it’s so wonderful to be back out on the elements playing shows again.”

He’s been a hard man to pin down for a chat, understandably out of range during the tour and equally understandably reluctant now he’s back on home turf – and I’m conscious he’s spoken before about burning out easily, especially on tour.

“I think I’m better at it [dealing with burnout] than I used to be, my whole band is,” he says.

“I think the secret is just to stay in equilibrium, in homeostasis. When the highs get too high and the lows too low and adrenaline takes over, that’s when it gets untenable. ‘The piper must be paid,' as a friend of mine put it recently.”

But so far, mostly so good. Marlon says the international response to touring My Boy has been “wonderful”, and he’s hopeful of an equally positive – albeit different – reaction from local audiences.

“Every culture has a different sort of response to the music, that’s one of the most sustaining parts about touring; the conversation shifts from audience to audience. I think New Zealand will obviously respond differently, and hopefully positively, to the more parochially focused elements of the show.”

So it’s nice to be back, especially having not too long ago bought a house on home soil?

“I think the pandemic brought out a whole new level of appreciation for home so, although I was loving being back out in the world, I was equally excited to get home!” Marlon says.

“And yeah, I think having my own physical spot has crystallised that feeling.

“I think a lot about my life has been informed by the landscape down here, the way the people are, certainly my musical community. I feel more and more grateful for it the older I get.”

Perhaps that’s why he’s chosen to start things off back in the south. On December 31 (his birthday), Marlon will be picking up a guitar once again to headline Wānaka’s annual mega music festival Rhythm & Alps, an event that sees the population of the resort town surge to almost double its usual numbers – giving New Zealand fans their first chance to hear the new album live and kicking off a fairly sensational and much-deserved summer festival season.

“Playing in this part of the world is my favourite but always comes with extra pressure (at least imagined), so I like to have a lot of shows under our belt before bringing the show home for y’all!”

Will he do anything special to celebrate his birthday? “I’ll play a show!” he says.

“There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than hanging and working with my band, then kicking back and getting my brain melted by King Gizzard and his Lizard Wizard.”

And the feeling is mutual. Rhythm & Alps founder and director Alex Turnbull has seen Marlon play “several times” previously, and says the R&A team feel “so lucky” to have him performing at this year’s event – even with a typically Kiwi casual hookup smoothing the path a little.

“The last time I saw him play was at the Oamaru Opera House. His sound man is a friend of mine so it's all feeling pretty good really, it was a nice and easy process. Marlon is a natural performer, artist and a dude so yeah, let's get him up on the mainstage and provide a platform for him to perform alongside some other amazing acts. He’s playing on New Year’s Eve, so it's a special occasion.”

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Rhythm & Alps Festival

Rhythm & Alps, which has been running since 2011, made international headlines last summer for forging ahead with its 2021/22 event despite the many additional challenges and the potential risk of last-minute cancellation, making it among very few events globally that didn’t have to be cancelled due to the pandemic.

Alex describes Rhythm & Alps as one of the luckiest on the planet, and says despite the potential pitfalls, “it was probably the best year we had in the history of R&A”.

“Massive challenges in a pandemic created a very special event, and we were very lucky to pull it off, no others could, and we are very proud of that. It came down to a very experienced and focused team.”

Alex has previously been quoted as saying, “We’re not selling tickets to a festival, we’re selling tickets to a location” and is enthusiastic when asked to elaborate.

“Yes! Everyone wants to come to Wānaka. It's an iconic summer location with the best lakes in New Zealand, and the great Kiwi road trip to Wānaka either down the west coast on state highway 6 or straight through the middle are some of the country's best roads.”

Of bringing an expected 10,000 extra visitors into the area, Alex says simply, “We live in a small community and most of us know each other”.

“A big part of running R&A is maintaining a balance between locals and visitors and managing the impact of bringing a large proportion of our young NZers to town. Waste management and road safety are big focuses.”

Is the leadup to this year’s event feeling a lot more normal? Yes and no, Alex says.

“With the new layers of bureaucracy it has been a challenge, but in general yes, this year we don't have the division of a vaccine mandate.”

Alex says the stresses of the last couple of years will add an extra layer of magic to the 22/23 event – both for the expected 10,000 attendees but also for the R&A team, who he credits with making the festival so special.

“It's the crew, who have had a long time together, the synergy that everyone understands their roles very clearly that can produce a very good show, and this rubs off on the festival goers inheriting a sweet festival experience. We have been told that the R&A vibe is one of safety and we don't encourage bad choices on site.

"We’re thrilled to welcome the festival back for 2022. This year we’ve focused on a very diverse lineup. We've also been building a brand new stage for our acts to perform on that's probably the most dynamic stage in the country. I can't wait for people to experience it.

“We are back as one now and have got better as a team, and our processes are tight as a result of the last couple of years. This means extra fireworks at NYE. Come watch us blow it up and welcome in 2023 in beautiful Cardrona Valley!”

And if you are Wānaka-bound, don’t forget to wish Marlon a happy birthday.

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