When you hear Martha Marlow sing her fluid, rhythmic and elegant songs - alone, with a small ensemble, or with a 17-piece string orchestra - you begin to understand why this painter and writer says “I’m singing into the silence of what I paint.”
Landscape and beauty feed into the songs of vulnerability and grief on her debut album, Medicine Man, where openness is the story and pain is virtually a character of its own.
Co-produced with one of Australia’s best jazz musicians and string arranger on the record, Jonathan Zwartz (who also happens to be Martha’s father), this album taps into one of the creatively fertile periods of artistic life, and also one of the darkest, personally.
Medicine Man was written and partially recorded during Martha’s second year at Australia’s leading arts college, the National Art School, as painting and music fed into “this dynamic energy” where “I would paint a whole run of paintings, and while the paint was drying, I would pick up my guitar work on these songs”.
Soon after though, a crippling health issue forced her to temporarily give up painting and performing. It would be five years before she could think again about releasing her album, helped by “life changing” funding from the Arts Council and PPCA that meant she could make real the sound she had always envisaged for these songs, played by some of Australia’s leading musicians such as drummer Hamish Stuart, pianist Barney McAll, guitarist Ben Hauptmann, and violinist Veronique Serret.
In that dark period before finishing Medicine Man, two things came to her aid: music and reading. “I ran away into literature,” she says, giving her, and eventually her songs, purpose and direction, and hope that tapped into deep musical roots.
“As a child I remember hearing Billie Holiday sing and not knowing what the song was about, but hearing pain and recognising that sound,” she says. Like her paintings and illustrations though, connection and expression were “not about suffering or being unwell or in pain”, she came to understand. “It’s about transforming that suffering, distilling it somehow. I hope that comes through in the songs, that something about the gift of vulnerability can shine through.”