Martha Marlow defies medical odds to release debut orchestral album


Martha Marlow was fulfilling her second year at the National Art School when she was diagnosed with a rare auto-inflammatory disease. The multidisciplinary artist had already started working on her debut album Medicine Man when she began to notice her body changing. For a while, she was forced to stop pursuing her passions of art and music, concentrating her energy on managing her health.

Fast-forward a few years, and Martha has found her way home to music. With funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and Phonographic Performance Company of Australia, this Sydney singer has finished creating her album — and despite the challenges, she’s also lifted other members of the Australian music industry into her dream.

To realise her compositions, Martha worked with a 17-piece string ensemble led by Veronique Serret and conducted by Daniel Denholm. Into the studio she brought an all-star group of musicians including Hamish Stuart, Julien Wilson, and Ben Hauptmann among others. Composer Nigel Westlake and writer Harriet Cunningham even jumped on board; and the album was mastered by Grammy Award-winner Helik Hadar who has worked with Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell.

In this interview, Martha tells CutCommon about her extraordinary journey from the beginning of Medicine Man to its 2021 release.

Martha, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work. If you feel comfortable, I’d like you to take us back to your second year at the National Art School. How did your life change?

It was a creeping, gradual change. I’d been unwell for quite a while but able to manage my studies. I was loving art school — it was a dream to be accepted. I was also making music, and had begun recording the vocal and guitar for Medicine Man and things seemed to be going well there. But unfortunately, it started changing to a point where the symptoms made it impossible to study, and difficult to develop a music career.

As things deteriorated, I had to start spending a lot of time in and out of hospital. So I really had to focus on that for a while.

You had already written and partially recorded Medicine Man while you were in your second year. But along the way, this album would soon become about your struggle with chronic illness, and your drive to keep going. Talk us through this change in the direction of your project.

It’s been a slow letting-go of certain expectations and ideas I had as a young person, but I’ve taken along with me so much of what I’ve learnt from art school. My visual art practice is a huge pillar of who I am creatively, and has also informed my approach to music.

Music and art really nourish my interior world. They are kind of my lifeboats. The great irony is that since my health has become more precarious and made it harder to work, I’ve taken them both so much more seriously and gone into them even more deeply.

So how does Medicine Man share your story?

The whole experience has taught me how to yield and accept. So these things are always present and are inseparable from my artist practice. It’s always just there without me ever needing to be specific because I live it. It’s a huge part of who I am.

How did you navigate writing and performing Medicine Man with a 17-piece orchestra while also meeting your changed needs?

I felt strings would enhance the work sonically, and I’m in the lucky position that my father Jonathan Zwartz is a fine string arranger. It was a special thing to work with Dad on a creative project. The strings are a huge force — but it’s not a blunt force, more like a river. They provide a sensitive and subtle enhancement, drawing out the emotional density of the songs without overwhelming them.

I thought the recording sessions would be a little daunting, walking into a room of 17 high-calibre string players who were all there to work on bringing my music to life. But it was very exciting, and they were all incredibly welcoming and warm and sounded so great. 

It was one of my best experiences as a musician and songwriter. I learnt so much over those two days. The atmosphere was supportive, professional, and just wonderful, due in no small part to Veronique’s leadership of the players, Daniel Denholms conducting, and everybody involved.   

What did this recording process teach you about the culture of the music industry when it comes to chronic illness? What I’m asking about here is the way others responded to your needs, and the experience of communication during the recording.

I love the recording process. It fits with my circumstances really well. I’m comfortable in the studio creatively and physically. The difficulty for me is performing live, so in that sense my biggest challenge is working out a way to craft a successful career without a lot of live performance and touring.

I’ve been able to work with a team of people who are interested in inclusivity and finding different solutions to making a music career, and this is incredibly encouraging. 

Of course, as an industry there’s still a long way to go. Certainly the amazing work that Liz Martin and Morwenna Collett at Accessible Arts do is making a massive difference creating opportunities for artists and tools for our industry. 

You’ve worked with such a range of artists on this album — jazz pianist Barney McAll, composer Nigel Westlake, arts writer Harriet Cunningham, and violinist Veronique Serret among many others. What were some of the most beautiful things to come of this collaboration? You’ve brought together so many artists from across the many streams of the music industry!

Both my parents are involved in music, and my father is a double bassist, so I grew up in a house filled with music of all kinds. There were always interesting musicians over for rehearsals, and Dad’s work was always gigs and sessions. And on top of that, my four grandparents were classical musicians. In New Zealand, there is even a New Zealand Symphony Orchestra award in my grandfather’s name, supporting young orchestral musicians to undertake further study.

So I suppose this is the community I come from, and I’ve been able to share my work with them as it’s evolved, and I’ve benefited hugely from their knowledge support and encouragement.

Nigel is a wonderful friend and someone I look up to greatly. And apart from being an incredible musician, Barney is my godfather! I know I am very lucky to have these people in my life. 

At the end of the day, what message do you hope to share with Medicine Man?

There’s a lot of who I am in this album, and I’ve allowed myself a certain vulnerability. I hope that people are ultimately moved by it, and hear a work with its own original voice.

I hope that this is something a listener can connect with on a deep level.

Learn more about Martha Marlow on her website, where her debut album Medicine Man is now available for purchase.

Featured image supplied.