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A lifetime of chronic pain has shown celebrated singer-songwriter Martha Marlow the real meaning of beauty. By Andy Hazel.

Singer-songwriter Martha Marlow

Black and white image of Martha Marlow gazing back at the camera, head tilted.
Singer-songwriter and artist Martha Marlow.
Credit: Jonathan Zwartz

When you cannot get out of bed you are on a constant journey through inner space – watching the light make its circuit about the room.

A voice appears from somewhere very deep down, and says;

“This too is a meaningful life.”

“This too is worth knowing about.”

“This too is your life now, as much as at any other time.”

– In the Shadow of the Stars, Martha Marlow

 

Martha Marlow lives in a tall house on a narrow street in Sydney’s east that she shares with her parents and border collie, Hazel. Almost entirely bereft of pop culture and modern technology, it seems to have barely changed since members of the Bee Gees lived here in the mid-1960s. There is no overwhelming widescreen television and there are few concessions to the modern age.

Instead, the roomy, autumnal kitchen is filled with the smell of freshly baked muffins. As Hazel circles us, barking, we sit at a heavy wooden table, the early afternoon sunlight streaming in through large windows. It feels like a sanctuary and it’s difficult to shake off the feeling of having travelled through time to be here.

“I really don’t leave here much,” Marlow tells me. “I love to swim in the ocean, and I take this one out.” She gestures towards  Hazel, who is being led into another room by Marlow’s mother, Jane. “I go out sketching. I love the park and the trees and the ocean and the outdoors, but I don’t really socialise.”

The first time Marlow’s music found an audience bigger than a full pub was in 2014 when she sang Randy Newman’s Feels Like Home in a commercial for Qantas. Over the past few years, Marlow has written a series of illustrated children’s books, a treatise on chronic pain entitled In the Shadow of the Stars and found representation as a visual artist at Sydney’s King Street Gallery. But it is her 2021 album Medicine Man for which she is best known. Since its release, the album has acted as a kind of nerve connecting her to the systems of the wider world, which she typically experiences via hospitals, waiting rooms and sometimes galleries and venues.

“The interesting thing about living such a quiet life is that you tend to have very strong connections with people,” she says. “Stronger in some ways than being out with a bazillion superficial connections. I’ve got some incredible friendships that I’ve forged.”

One of these friends is composer and occasional collaborator Nigel Westlake. Marlow, who’s in her late 20s, points through the window to a small beehive he gave her that sits in a lush garden. Other friends include local artists Lucy Culliton, Ann Thomson, Reg Mombassa and her mentor Euan Macleod. “I love to be able to go out painting but I do spend a lot of time in bed,” she says. “Long stretches of time.”

What dominates Marlow’s life, almost as much as her love for art and creativity, is chronic pain. She walks with a wooden silver-capped walking stick. Some days are spent in a wheelchair and it has been months since she could play her guitar. Marlow is forthright about how her condition is deteriorating. Performances are especially difficult.

Our meeting comes a day and a half after a concert, the necessary time for her to recuperate. I’ve been asked to limit my interview to an hour, though after 90 minutes she insists on showing me her studio upstairs, a tidy room lined with books, paintings and, again, light that seems to arrive through a sepia filter. Deftly drawn, richly hued watercolours of nearby beaches and promontories line one wall. A copy of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood lies near an easel. Soon she is impersonating Richard Burton and enthusing about her love of 1970s British filmed theatre: her voice quickens, her eyes brighten and she briefly seems unconstricted.

“Illness has really informed my life and my work in this really positive way,” she says. “So much of the time I am escaping into my inner world. The day-to-day realities of that are confronting, but to be able to retreat into this rich interior life, it’s my medicine, it’s my hope. I’m putting my life force there where it seems to be vanquished in other areas.”

As a child, Marlow experienced pain “like it was an imaginary friend who was really naughty or really aggressive”. Today, she says, “I feel like my feet are in bear traps. There are throbs and aches and sharp pain when I have a particularly bad flare-up. A knife is the most common analogy, but there are so many different sensations. I just feel so trapped. Pain is an incredibly loud and constant sound. I often try to block out the sound of pain with music.”

Marlow is often drawn to music created by people who have similarly suffered. Artists such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Miles Davis, and composers such as Beethoven and Debussy, lived with their own disorders and mental illnesses. The idea of listening to music made by people experiencing chronic pain is – unlike the actual experience of chronic pain – normalised and readily commodified.

The chief cause of Marlow’s pain is Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue causing fatigue, joint pain, dislocations and dizziness. “No other disease in the history of modern medicine has been neglected in such a way as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome,” says rheumatologist Rodney Grahame. EDS predominantly affects young women, and its common symptoms – hypermobility, pain and poor muscle tone – aren’t considered to be serious. Anxiety about them can lead physicians to downplay the condition, often causing more anxiety. As a result, diagnosis can take many years. Marlow, who has also been diagnosed with lupus, fibromyalgia and club foot, says the sexism is palpable.

“I still take my father into every single medical appointment I have, because as soon as he says, ‘Look, this is so bad. We have to help her, she’s having blackouts’, it’s real. People think you can just medicate for it” – she smiles slightly at the idea – “and there’s just no way. One of the most difficult things about living with chronic pain or with chronic illness is that they can be invisible. It is a secondary sort of trauma that you can have from a lack of...” she trails off, looking for the word. “Not a lack of care, just a lack of understanding. When you are disabled or living with a varied level of ability, your disability is described by people who are able-bodied. You’d be amazed at how much bias there is around chronic illness.”

When performing, Marlow cuts a compelling figure. Led on stage by her father, double-bassist Jonathan Zwartz, she sits among her musicians and speaks about the characters in her songs – passages full of careful detail and vividly imagined settings – before they begin, enveloped by warm, generous arrangements.

Though she began performing as a guitar-toting teenager, Medicine Man, with its 17-piece orchestra and her rich, confident delivery, sounds like the sort of album a singer-songwriter might work a decade towards releasing. Its follow-up is Queen of the Night, a song-cycle about life in a Cornish village in the early 1960s that includes songs from the perspective of the titular orchid. Performers on this release include pianist Chris Abrahams, guitarist Ben Hauptmann and drummer Hamish Stuart, as well as her father. Given that the album has such a strong narrative, she is hoping to be able to turn it into a stage production.

“A big artistic presentation of the work, that’s really what I would love to do,” she says. “But also, larger venues have disability facilities, so that’s from a practical perspective as well. A dream would be to put it on in a venue like the Opera House or Angel Place, in conjunction with shadow puppetry or with some sort of production that tells the story.”

When it comes to navigating an industry that demands consistent content creation, the maintenance of an online fan base and a willingness to perform as part of a record-release-promote cycle, Marlow remains harboured. “I’m a very private person, and so I’m not going to be posting on Instagram every time I’m in hospital or saying, ‘Underneath my silks my joints are taped up to stop them from subluxing on stage because it’s incredibly painful,’ ” she says. “It’s personal. Where I feel privileged is that I’m living at home with my parents who care for me, that I live in a country with a public healthcare system and that I have English as a first language, so I am able to navigate it.”

She says she has no idea how people discover her music. How she sold out the 1200-capacity City Recital Hall in Sydney is something she is unable to explain. Likewise, her nominations for AIR awards, the Australian Music Prize and an ARIA Award, and a Women in Music Award happily baffle her. Rather than angling to leverage an “authentic” online presence into whatever constitutes a career in 2023, Marlow is focused instead on the pursuit of beauty.

“I never really thought about it when I was younger, but a lot of the places you have to be when you’re unwell are really devoid of beauty,” she says. “There seems to be this void that you go into. And I really discovered the meaningful side of beauty. It’s often a celebration or acknowledgement of life, it’s not something frivolous or superficial. There’s a tremendous amount of depth in trying to cultivate beauty and I think we really need beauty in our world today.”

Success, she assumes, came because of her devotion to this task, and later through word-of-mouth. She’s often compared to artists such as Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Carole King and Melanie Safka. Any similarity, Marlow says, comes from simply being a woman writing songs who uses storytelling to reach a deeper truth.

“I think there’s that similarity. But it’s never something I’ve sought to try and be like,” she says. “It’s definitely not how you pay someone you admire a compliment. You only really pay them a compliment by doing your own thing and that’s always what I’ve tried to do.”

 

Months after my visit, we speak on the phone. Queen of the Night will now be an illustrated book, as well as an album. She is open about her health declining “in really practical ways”. Too ill to spend a day in a recording studio, the vocals for Queen of the Night will be recorded at home and, despite the success of a recent performance at the Brett Whiteley Studio, future concerts depend on the outcome of an operation on her shoulder that is due to take place in May. Our discussion turns to books and the various versions of her favourite, Homer’s Odyssey. “Originally, they would perform this piece to music,” she says, brightening. “It’s an epic poem that is really performed through music. That’s really been instrumental to how I think about music and storytelling.”

When she describes the experience of listening to Ian McKellen’s audiobook of Robert Fagles’ translation, and the way his voice led her through difficult nights, her voice grows lighter still until she is almost laughing.

“Something illness has taught me is that the most seemingly insignificant parts of the day are actually the most beautiful and meaningful and that’s really where life is,” she says. “It’s being well enough to sit in the sun with a cup of tea or be at home with the dog. That’s what people want, I think. If one’s life expectancy isn’t good and someone says, ‘What would you like to do in your final moment?’, it isn’t some grand and lofty thing. It’s just to be at home with the people you love or doing something simple. It’s a real gift, knowing that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "The healer".

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