Harpist Mary Lattimore makes music that sings like a memory. Melodies peer out over layers of water, soil, and stone, transporting you to places you’ve been or imagined. Earlier this year she released the stunning Hundreds of Days on Ghostly International. Her latest is a collaboration with songwriter Meg Baird. It’s called Ghost Forests, and it’s available now on Three Lobed Recordings. The album pairs Lattimore’s experimentation with Baird’s songcraft for an album of reflective and tangled musical exchanges. Their sounds live and breathe - you can hear the musician’s give and take, the act of creation itself.
Mary Lattimore spoke with Eddie Garcia (1970s Film Stock) after she and Baird made their live debut at the 2018 Hopscotch Music Festival.
Pedal Fuzz: Tell me about your early days of playing the harp - when did you start, what kind of harp did you play, who did you play with?
Mary Lattimore: I started when I was 11, playing a small troubadour harp. In high school, I went on to play the pedal harp and played with my high school orchestra and the Charlotte Youth Orchestra. I then went on to study at the Eastman School of Music, only playing classical music for a long time.
PF: Do you come from a musical family?
ML: Yes, my Mom is a harpist and my grandpa played the piano and banjo.
PF: What musical experiences were you having leading up to the 2013 release of The Withdrawing Room? Were you playing in other configurations at that time before you went on the solo path?
ML: I was in Thurston Moore's band with Samara Lubelski, John Moloney and Keith Wood. Samara, Thurston, Beck and I made Thurston's record Demolished Thoughts together and then we all went on tour, minus Beck. The tour cycle lasted almost two years, I think, and then it was time for Thurston to work on a new record. He didn't really need harp on it, so I was encouraged by Kurt Vile and another Philly friend, Jeff Zeigler, to make something solo. I had never worked on anything alone like that, but went into Jeff's studio and improvised The Withdrawing Room. Jeff played synth on “You'll Be Fiiinnne” and the title came from KV saying I'd be alright even though I wasn't playing with that band anymore. Making something solo seemed daunting at the time but it all turned out alright and now it's my favorite thing to do, come up with my own solo compositions.
PF: What can you tell me about your Lyon & Healy harp?
ML: It's about 50 years old and belonged to a student of my mom's. It was made in Chicago and sometimes I use a black Sharpie to fill in the bald spots.
PF: When did you get into pedals, and exploring ways to loop or change your sound?
ML: I was playing for fun with Tara Burke, who plays under the name Fursaxa and layers and loops her vocals and keyboard. We were also improvising with Helena Espvall, amazing cellist from Espers, and she was doing the same thing, so I was encouraged to see what the harp would sound like through pedals. I thought I could make something unique like they were doing with their instruments.
PF: The Line 6 DL4 has been a big part of your sound and performance. How do you feel about their reliability? I interviewed William Tyler and he said he had gone through quite a few. Have you ever gotten the DL4 modded?
ML: I haven't gotten it modded, but I certainly should. They break all the time. I even flew to Iceland with a brand new one and went to play the show and it didn't work, so I had to borrow a friend's looping pedal and learn how to use it during the set. I'm on my 4th one in just a couple of years. I really know the DL4 so well, though, so I'm gonna stick with it while adding other pedals too, but yeah, William is right. They break and you can't trust them, unfortunately.
PF: What pedals are you currently using?
PF: When you play live, are you using an amplifier, or going straight to the PA?
ML: Straight into the PA. An amp feeds back all the time.
PF: What kind of pickup system do you use?
ML: The Dusty Strings Pedal Harp Pickup. It's gorgeous and rich and I couldn't be happier with it.
PF: What role does improvisation play on records and in live performance?
ML: I like structured improvisation, where I write a general theme but there's room for happy accidents and layers.
PF: The new album Hundreds of Days has other sounds, like synth and voice - tell me about the choice to expand from the solo harp.
ML: I love adding textures and experimenting with instruments that I don't really know how to use, like the Moog Theremini and am learning how to play guitar now too. I like the period when you don't really know where you're doing and the primitive instinct of it.
PF: You have lots of collaborations, how does that inform your solo work?
ML: It's all body-of-work style - collaboration and improvisation, classical music, solo stuff - it all influences each other in melody and listening.
PF: What is your relationship with sound engineers at venues like - do they have certain expectations when they see the harp?
ML: They do but I think generally they're pleasantly surprised that it's not too hard to figure out!
PF: Where did you record Hundreds of Days?
ML: I recorded it at the Headlands residency in the Marin Headlands outside of San Francisco in a Redwood Barn. I just used GarageBand and had a lot of freedom, space and time - also a lot of inspiration from such a dramatic, gorgeous landscape.
PF: How did you get your Headlands Center for the Arts residency, and what did you gain from the experience?
ML: It was through the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage in Philadelphia. I received a fellowship in 2014 and that made it easier to get awarded the residency. I feel incredibly lucky that both happened to me. Both changed my life so much. The validation that I am on the right track with music has meant so much, and the trust from them that I'd make something cool with the experiences.
PF: You’re incredibly active, is it hard to organize your playing schedule?
ML: Yeah, luckily I have a great manager and a great booking agent who keep me busy and organized and I wanna take advantage of all opportunities and weird experiences - I love saying yes and bringing the harp to people who have never seen one before.
PF: Do you visualize images in your mind while playing?
ML: Yes, always. Little movies.
PF: What soundtrack/scoring work have you done recently? Any coming up?
ML: I recently wrote a part for the documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor. I also play the parts written by talented film/tv composers like Heather McIntosh's killer score for Amy Scott's Hal Ashby documentary that was just released.
PF: How has your musical life changed moving from Philly to L.A.?
ML: I'm working more for film and TV and making a little more money, being more active professionally. Philly was great for warmth, support, improvising and community and LA is great for work and new creative opportunities. Both are terrific places.
PF: How long has Ghost Forests, your upcoming record with Meg Baird been in the making, and how did the project come about?
ML: It's coming out on Three Lobed Recordings, an old friend of mine and Meg's label (Cory Rayborn) and he encouraged us to make something together, as we are close friends. We recorded and wrote it in only a few days and the synergy was apparent. It was super fun. It was engineered, mixed and co-produced by Thom Monahan.
PF: What was working with Baird like, how was merging your songwriting approaches?
ML: I am more improvisational I think, and she writes beautiful lyrical structured songs, so it's a melding of our styles. I love how Meg's brain works!
PF: Your gig with Baird at Hopscotch was the live debut, were you happy with the show?
ML: It went fine! I was happy with it. We are about to embark on a 30-show opening slot tour with Kurt Vile and the Violators in Europe starting tomorrow, so the set will be really good by late November!
PF: Do you have any other upcoming tour plans?
ML: Solo tour after the KV tour in Europe and the UK!
PF: Last, I know a young harpist (17) who is beginning to experiment with pedals - he currently has an EHX Memory Man, and would like to play in a rock band. Would you have any pedal recommendations, or advice to him as he takes this less traditional musical path?
ML: I would love to hear what he's doing. I played through the Memory Man on Kurt's Smoke Ring for My Halo and it's a cool sound! I would say to just keep bringing our instrument into the modern world and advocating for it and experimenting with it. There's so much untapped potential.
EDDIE GARCIA PLAYS GUITAR AND ALL THE PEDALS AS 1970S FILM STOCK. YOU CAN ALSO HEAR HIM REPORTING ON NPR AFFILIATE 88.5 WFDD IN WINSTON-SALEM, NC. IN THE WEE HOURS HE RUNS PEDAL FUZZ, WHICH IS A PROUD RECIPIENT OF A GRANT FROM THE ARTS ENTERPRISE LAB / KENAN INSTITUTE FOR THE ARTS.