Like the rest of us, Marlon Williams heard Kacy Lee Anderson sing and thought she was from a different time. While on tour in Europe, the Kiwi singer-songwriter was listening to the radio and hearing lots of new music, but one song stood out: “Springtime Of The Year”, by Anderson and her cousin/musical partner Clayton Linthicum. He was entranced by the sound of Kacy’s voice, by the melody of the song, by Clayton’s studied guitar playing, by the warm production. Marlon assumed it must be an unearthed track from the 1960s, recorded by a contemporary of Sandy Denny or Joni Mitchell, but when he discovered that it was actually new, he wasted no time reaching out to the Canadian duo via social media. From that initial contact, first a friendship and then a musical collaboration bloomed. Despite being on opposite ends of the globe – him down in New Zealand, them up in Saskatchewan – they traded songs and letters via email until they were all finally on the same continent at the same time.
The result of this infatuation is Plastic Bouquet, a cross-hemisphere collaboration between two teams of very distinctive artists encompassing a wide range of styles and influences. Williams’ two full-length albums – 2016’s Marlon Williams and 2018’s Make Way for Love – have established him as a songwriter with a gift for summing up complex emotions in just a few words and as a singer with a dexterous drawl recalling Chris Isaak or Roy Orbison. Meanwhile, Kacy & Clayton are part of a surprisingly busy Saskatchewan music scene that includes Colter Wall and The Deep Dark Woods, among others. Their songs sound like they could have been recorded at any time over the last 50 or 60 years, thanks to Clayton’s mastery of so many styles: Nashville country, Laurel Canyon folk, pre-punk garage rock. There’s a sculptural quality to Kacy’s vocals – she breaks and stretches syllables into new shapes – which adds gravity to her pointed songs about women backed into corners or at loose ends.
Recorded primarily in Saskatoon with the Canadians’ touring rhythm section of Mike Silverman on drums and Andy Beisel on bass, Plastic Bouquet sounds like a Kacy & Clayton record with an extra voice on it. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when meeting somewhere in the middle would have plopped them right in the Pacific Ocean. (Reinforcing Plastic Bouquet as an international album: they booked a subsequent session in Nashville, then had it mixed in Sweden.) These are songs about finding points of emotional overlap in the drawl of a pedal steel or in the jump of a two-step drum pattern, about what you give up as well as what you gain when you connect with someone else.
Crucially, Kacy and Marlon strike an immediate vocal chemistry, their voices slotting easily beside each other as they harmonise sardonically on “Your Mind’s Walking Out” or parry flirtatiously on “Light Of Love”. The latter is one of the most striking songs on the album: playing different sides of a romantic negotiation, they sing around each other more than to each other, their melodies intertwining like ribbons. Meanwhile, Clayton and the band whip up a Flying Burrito shuffle that manages to be both romantic and grounded, barbed yet delicate – scoring the goings-on without intruding on the drama.
Befitting an album made by people at opposite ends of the earth, these songs examine the different kinds of distance between people: the conflicts as well as the connections. With its spiderweb of guitar notes and teary smears of pedal steel, “Old Fashioned Man” puts a new twist on the Loretta/Conway country duet, with Kacy and Marlon describing the same interaction from two very different points of view. The woman rolls her eyes at the man’s condescension. “When you spoke you talked high above me, as if I could not understand,” she sings, her voice dripping with disdain, just as the song shifts to its waltz-time chorus. “Believe me,” Marlon mansplains, “there’s no obligation, but I can’t stand being denied.” He agreeably plays up the caddishness of his character, shifting the listener’s sympathies over to Kacy and her character’s predicament. Surprisingly, the song was nearly cut from the final tracklist, as Kacy thought it “sucked ass” (see Q&A), but “Old Fashioned Man” gives the duo a chance to spar vocally with one another while showing how a small moment can reveal great depths in people.
Kacy and Marlon dominate the proceedings, so much so that they are listed as co-producers, and at times Clayton sounds like he’s been elbowed right out of these songs. But he turns up frequently like a Greek chorus, providing sly commentary on the songs. He plays guitar like he’s scoring a film, working by insinuation rather than outright statement – a tactic that allows him to lurk in the shadows, adding a few notes here and there as punctuation. His staccato riff adds a bit of heraldry to opener “Isn’t It”, as though he’s providing the album with its own overture and fanfare, and his barrelhouse piano on “I’m Gonna Break It” sounds like the whole band have pushed the song down a flight of stairs.
Each of these three artists brings out something new in the others, prodding them slightly out of their comfort zones. Coming off last year’s Carrying On, which saw her find surer footing in her storytelling, Kacy contributes some of her sharpest lyrics – and, on the title track, some of her grimmest. With Silverman’s two-step drum pattern counting lines on the highway, “Plastic Bouquet” extrapolates a story from a homemade roadside memorial. It’s a common enough songwriting motif but Kacy & Clayton and Marlon transform it into something like a grisly murder ballad: “When a small four-door car was severed in two, three girls were killed by a boy they all knew.” Kacy sings the lines with a startling matter-of-factness, as if narrating one of those shocking driver’s education films. “Take care on the road ’cos you could someday be a cross by the highway with a plastic bouquet.”
“I’m Unfamiliar” addresses the album’s curious collaboration directly, as Kacy describes a simple scene with two people walking around a farm on a winter’s night, going inside to escape the cold, kicking the snow off their boots. It’s a tender gesture to the wildly different worlds they occupy: winter in Saskatoon means summer in New Zealand. She uses the language of a love song to convey the spark of creativity between artists and collaborators: “I’m unfamiliar with this feeling, nothing that I ever knew,” she sings. “Is it a secret worth revealing, what I’m feeling for you?” Marlon doesn’t answer, but harmonises with her on the chorus. On an album full of he said/she said songs, the one-sided aspect of “I’m Unfamiliar” adds notes of promise and possibility, as though the only way to erase that distance between countries and artists is simply to make more music together.