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Interview: Harpist Mary Lattimore

Photo by Rachael Pony Cassells

When I first heard Mary Lattimore's The Withdrawing Room recently, I was immediately intrigued by the way she makes the harp sound so contemporary and interesting. So I decided to interview the LA-based harpist, who was kind enough to feed my curiosity:

I'd love to understand where muscle memory ends and your own memories and mind come to play. When you're playing the harp, do you find yourself drifting off sometimes?

Muscle memory is there but I don't think about it at all. I can play the notes while looking away or while closing my eyes. The harp is just the vehicle for the memories, the weird thoughts, and the drifting off. It's the instrument I connect to the most, but I also use it like a paintbrush, too. 

On the Day You Saw the Dead Whale

When did you discover your love for the harp?

My mom is a harpist and she encouraged me to play starting when I was eleven years old. I went to music conservatory and studied classical music pretty seriously, but it was only when I started incorporating the harp into different types of music like rock music and noise and pop and experimental improvisation that it truly felt like my own. My relationship with the instrument is ever-evolving and growing deeper, where the style of playing is becoming such an extension of myself.  

I'm sure your harp has a lot of personality, but does he/she have a name? What is your relationship with the instrument?

Hehe my harp's name is Harpie, kind of like a Pee Wee Herman-style of naming furniture, like Chairy! I take my harp with me to a lot of cities, into hotel rooms, into unfamiliar landscapes, and it's my responsibility to take care of it, to make sure it doesn't get too hot or cold or knocked over. I'm very attached to Harpie and sometimes it feels like it's us on our own secret adventure, like a beloved pet.

When I hear The Warm Shoulder or It Was Late and We Watched The Motel Burn, the sounds make me wander into a story you're creating the narratives for. I'd love to know how you go about naming your songs and albums. 

They're little memories of mine. The Warm Shoulder came from a joke I heard - the punchline was "The Cold Shoulder!" Some of them are snippets of conversations I've had or titles of books (in homage form) that I've loved. There are stories behind every song and title but sometimes, I don't reveal the stories because it might take away from the listener's experience, the listener's translation of the song. 

It Was Late and We Watched The Motel Burn

Are you trying to tell a story without words through your music? Is there a film or sequence of events in the background in your head when you play?

Yes, exactly. Sometimes there are words/lyrics in my head, even, or I'm talking to someone who might not be around anymore. We all have our own language and this is how I express mine. I feel lucky to have found this outlet. 

Do you have any rituals before you get into the writing zone?

I don't really have any rituals before writing, except sometimes if I'm feeling really sad, I love sitting down at the harp and forming my reaction to things through music. I live in LA now and when I'm home, I like to start the day off with putting on a record, grinding the coffee beans, making the coffee, and sitting out on the deck to read for a little bit. My deck has a nice view of the neighbourhood and the lemon tree.

The view from Mary's home in Los Angeles

Are there other instruments you enjoy playing? Also, Is the aspect of collaboration something that excites you or do you prefer going solo?

I love playing other instruments, especially keyboard-based instruments. I'm trying to learn more about synths and I recently bought a guitar. I like being kind of primitive with some instruments, to focus more on the note and the sound rather than being really dexterous and amazing at it. It's liberating, after spending decades trying to get "good" at one thing. I love collaborations and playing solo. They're all part of the same body of work and they influence each other: the solo brain and the collaborative brain. 

Who are some of your all-time favourite musicians/influences?

I really love Brian Eno, I love Alice Coltrane, Yo La Tengo, Meg Baird, Liz Harris (Grouper), Bill Nace, countless countless others. William Basinski is another favourite, and also the Cure. So many influences and favourites it's hard to answer!

I'm curious to know about your artworks. Do you commission them? Is it an extension of your personal aesthetic? Do you doodle/paint/sketch at all?

I do sketch and paint some but it's not very original. I have many friends who are visual artists and who are brilliant, so I think my standard for myself is really high and therefore, I'm super shy about it. Oh well.

The paintings I use for my record covers are all huge paintings by genius artist Becky Suss, who's based in Philadelphia. The flower on the front of Collected Pieces was done by a guy named Bobby McManus, who is also based in Philadelphia. I like using art by people I'm close to and Becky has been so generous with her work and I feel like her paintings, especially, are definitely an extension of my visual aesthetic. I want to live in her rooms and read the books she's painted and sit by her windows. Her paintings are stories too. 

Album art by Becky Suss

Go follow Mary on YouTube or Facebook :

Happy listening!


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