Mary Lattimore on the Harp, Touring and Improvisation

Music Features

Name a harpist.

It’s tough. Mary Lattimore, who along with electronics wizard Jeff Zeigler, has contributed to the Ghostly Swim 2 compilation that’s out now, might not make the instrument as common as guitar. But that’s not the point. Taking the 47-stringed instrument off the orchestra riser and insinuating it into surprising circumstances is, in part, what drives Lattimore’s ambition. And it seems as if a number of people have taken notice.

The Philadelphia-based harpist has performed with a wealth of underground stalwarts, including Thurston Moore, Kurt Vile and Steve Gunn. A recording two years ago, though, marked her first foray into solo recording, with 2014’s companion set that she worked up with Zeigler, Slant of Light, finding its way on to the Thrill Jockey imprint.

Lattimore’s list of accolades seems to be forever mounting, too. A fellowship has afforded her a bit of time for a west-coast swing to record during January, perhaps yielding material fit for a third record. But when Paste caught up with her, she and Zeigler had just completed some dates with Gunn. And yeah, she has to lug a harp into clubs across the country.

Paste: Your mother’s a professional harpist in North Carolina. Did it ever feel like the instrument was foisted upon you?
Mary Lattimore: She’s a harpist with the Asheville Symphony and the Hendersonville Symphony. She also has an ensemble called the Blue Ridge Harp Ensemble, so she has a relatively big community who she’s played with—she’s a pretty active musician. I started when I was 11 and played the piano before that.

When I started out, she pressured me, like any parent does, to practice. It wouldn’t matter what I’d be doing, she’d want me to work on it. But it’s hard to work on stuff when you’re a kid and there are a million distractions. In high school, I was the only one who played harp. I went to music camp during the summer, so it become more my thing. There wasn’t too much pressure, though.

Paste: You’ve played in a pretty wide range of settings—everywhere from Thurston Moore’s group to stints with Kurt Vile and in orchestras. Does each require a different mindset?
Lattimore: I don’t think so. I think of it all as the same body of work, whether I’m playing with Kurt or in an orchestra. It’s all about being in tune with what’s going on, turning your ear on and being sensitive about the setting. But improvising, in general, is really what I enjoy most.

Paste: Slant of Light was largely improvised, but did you have an idea of what it was going to sound like in your head?
Lattimore: Our only idea was to just sit down and play together. It was very concentrated improvising. But in our minds, it was just hanging out and getting down whatever we were doing in a live situation.

Paste: Your first disc, The Withdrawing Room [Desire Path Recordings], was recorded after touring with Moore’s band. Did that experience affect how you put the album together?
Lattimore: Playing with him was my first time really jamming with other people. I was playing classical music and just writing parts for different records before that. So, I was really focusing on melodic lines and trying to be really tasteful about how it fit in. Thurston liked to mess around, and whenever we were practicing, he would just sort of break into improvising.

Paste: When you were growing up, was there a kind of popular music you thought the harp was suited to?
Lattimore: No, I really thought about it being separate. I never thought about fitting into a band. In high school, playing classical harp music was really different from what I was interested in. I do like putting it into contexts that are unexpected, like not thinking about where it would fit in, but how people’d be surprised by it.

Paste: When’d you realize harp could fit into endless ensemble situations?
Lattimore: Playing [a show] with the Arcade Fire, which was the first time I ever played with a band. But they already had harp on their record, so I was playing those parts. The first person I played with in Philly was Kurt Vile. And it was kind of his idea, like “I’d love to have harp on this.” I was playing with Fursaxa around the same time, too.

Paste: I think the harp you play was in Richie Rich (1994) with Macaulay Culkin. How’d you wind up with it?
Lattimore: It belonged to my mom and she gave it to me when I started playing. Every year, my mom and I play at this place called the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. We have a harp duo and play holiday music. The film’s set there, so they called my mom and asked if she had a harp to borrow. If you blink, you won’t even see it. It’s just in the corner of some crowd.

Paste: You’ve worked on film scores. And the covers of your albums are paintings that existed prior to being used as cover art. So, how important are other art practices to you?
Lattimore: It’s really important. Becky Suss, who did those, is a really good painter. I was looking for something to use for the first record and I thought of her. She sent me some stuff, and her work is representative of the feeling I want to convey—those quiet, empty houses. But I always like to have a mental image or a little movie going on in my head when I’m improvising.

Paste: You’re telling yourself a story as you go through the different pieces?
Lattimore: Sort of. One of them, I’m thinking about being underwater. I looked up the name of the device that measures the deepest part of the ocean, so I called the song “Echo Sounder.”

Paste: Last one—what’s a Pew Fellow?
Lattimore: That’s a crazy thing that I get to be for two years.There’s this thing called the Pew Foundation, and they give the fellowship to 12 people a year—artists, musicians, writers, dancers. You have two years of financial piece of mind while you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s an opportunity to not work all these little, part-time jobs and just focus on your art. It’s been really amazing so far.

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