Listening to Marlon Williams is an exercise in time travel.

If you don't know you're listening to a 25-year-old New Zealander, you might think you're listening to an old recording of a crooner from the American Midwest. Williams says that effect is intentional.

"The ability to time travel in any sense is a pretty wonderful thing," he says. "I really get off on sounding like I’m from somewhere else — or some other time. It’s quite freeing."

Williams' self-titled album, which came out earlier this year, criss-crosses a ton of different genres, including folk and rock 'n' roll. More generally, his work has been classified as Americana.

Americana doesn't belong just to America, Williams says.

"It didn't start in America," he explains. "It reached some sort of synthesis in America. ... It's hard to see it from the inside, but if you follow the arc of how music migrates and moves around, it starts to look a whole lot more complicated and far-spread."

In fact, Williams says much of the stylistic choices in his latest album come from his hometown: Lyttelton, New Zealand.

Justyn Strother

He had been living in Melbourne, Australia for about a year and a half before getting back into the studio to record this album, and he knew he could put together a team of people in Lyttelton who could capture the tone he wanted.

"I wanted to make a really disparate-sounding [album] — in terms of genre and direction. I wanted to go a few different places, but keep my voice as the common thread through everything. ... I think familiarity was really important to this album."

Williams has Maori heritage on both sides of his family, which he says has a subtle influence on this album, especially in vocal style and how he uses harmony. 

"There's a really strong crooner tradition that ran through Maori music in the first half and the middle of the 20th century," he says. "It's Western music filtered through a Maori sensibility."

So this style that people call Americana — the acoustic mix of folk, country, blues and early echoes of rock 'n' roll. If it doesn't belong to Americans, who does it belong to?

"Everyone and no one, really," he says.

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI