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Mary Lattimore

Mary Lattimore

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.

Credit: Rachael Pony Cassells

Credit: Rachael Pony Cassells

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?

ML: I just bought the Strymon Big Sky and I loooove it. I have a bunch of Moogerfoogers too and those sounds really interesting, like the Ring Modulator and Cluster Flux. The delay is beautiful.

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.

Credit: Rachael Pony Cassells

Credit: Rachael Pony Cassells

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. 

Helen Money

Helen Money

Helen Money is the musical nom de plume of cellist Alison Chesley. She plays her instrument with an unrivaled ferocity, and through her technique and an armada of effects pedals, she creates a wall of sound that’s both heavy and haunting.

She has toured extensively and collaborated with an incredible array of musicians, including Bob Mould, Shellac, Neurosis, Sleep, Russian Circles, Magma, Agalloch, and Earth. 

Her latest album Become Zero, released on Thrill Jockey Records, was written after the death of both of her parents. The eight tracks that make up the album are startling in their rawness, and captivating in their grace. She called on drummer Jason Roeder (Sleep, Neurosis), Rachel Grimes (Rachel’s) and co-producer Will Thomas to help realize the vision for the record.

Pedal Fuzz spoke with her at Moogfest 2018, where she not only performed a blistering set, but also led a workshop where she shared her story, and explained the technical details of her unique stage setup. The following excerpts have been condensed and edited.

Helen Money. Credit: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

Helen Money. Credit: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

Pedal Fuzz: I read that you were classically trained, and only listened to classical music until your early 20's. So what turned on your ear and made you want to go into the rock realm with what you were doing?

Helen Money: Well, my brother and my sister were both listening to a lot of rock music. And my brother kept playing stuff for me, but I never really got it. And then one day he dragged me into his room and he had Who's Next on his record player. I remember him dropping the needle, and I heard the music for the first time, and I thought, "Oh, I get why he loves this stuff!" Then that's all I wanted to do is listen to rock music for like the next 10 years.

PF: Do you think it was the visceral impact?

HM: Yeah, it was visceral, and epic, and very 'heart on your sleeve' you know? And just big. Those big guitars, the whole sound. It just all really spoke to me.

PF: So after that what did you get into? I guess that was kind of like a gateway drug into other music.

HM: Totally. I grew up in L.A., and had a friend who was hooked into this scene around this record store out there, and we would go see a lot of punk rock shows. We saw Minutemen a lot, and Meat Puppets, and we'd see Henry Rollins do poetry readings. So I was kind of in that scene. It was still loud, visceral, guitar-driven music.

PF: So when did that affect your playing and when did you want to start manipulating the natural sound of the cello?

HM: Well I never made the connection between playing my cello and playing music that I liked until I went to grad school. And I met a friend who was covering Bob Mould's Workbook. So he wanted a cellist to play with. And he was also doing his own stuff. So Jason Narducy and I got together (ed. note - as Jason & Alison, then Verbow). I was in grad school, I was going to get a doctorate in teaching cello somewhere. And we just started to play - we had no idea what we were doing. I just had a pickup on my cello and I had a little Peavey amp that sounded awful, but it was just the two of us playing as hard as we could. I had no idea I could play the music that I really liked. So once I realized I could, then that was just what I wanted to do.

PF: When did you start incorporating pedals? Do you remember the first pedal you got?

HM: Yeah I had a Rat distortion pedal, and then I had a digital delay. Then I tried a chorus, and I didn't like it. I didn't really like envelope filters. So I pretty much decided delays and distortion is where it was at for my instrument. Because of the nature of the cello,  it doesn't always sound good with certain guitar pedals. I kind of stuck to that and I've just experimented with different delays and distortions since then.

PF: Then you started looping.

HM: Right, and the way I do the looping is very structured. It's not the typical layering, and building a song horizontally. When I use the loopers it's more like "this is going to help me play this part of this song, this looper’s going to bring in this part." So that's kind of how I've always used them. They've helped me to just play solo and not have other members. Not that I don't want to,  but that's just kind of how it happened.

I have three Boss RC-30 Loop Stations actually that I play with. I'll run one of them direct to the PA system with drums or piano on it. So one moment during the song I'll kick that in, or I'll have noise on it and I'll kick that in. So it's like part of the whole sound. Then I'll have two loopers, with parts that comes in during the verse or chorus. So I'm playing along with them. None of those loopers go through the same channel as my cello, so I can't even layer over them. 

PF: Let's talk about your recording process, which has changed in the past couple of years. You've done lots of recording with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio - what was it like working in that studio?

HM: It was great. It's a beautiful building with great acoustics. And Steve's a great guy. The thing that's a challenge there, is that you're recording to tape. So you really have to focus on getting a performance from Point A to Point B, and not doing what Greg Norman calls 'a cloud of tracks' that you have to filter through. So that was a challenge and I really enjoyed that.

But then when I moved to L.A. briefly I met Will Thomas, a guy who's doing more kind of ambient stuff, and he was also an engineer. I decided with this record that I was just going to get the sounds that I wanted and worry about how I was going to perform it. So that was a totally different approach for me. It was all digital, but I really ended up loving how it sounded. I did record the drums in a regular studio, but otherwise it was just just me at at Will's studio on a computer.

The thing that was cool is Will does a lot of stuff with sequencers, and he's also got a modular synthesizer, so he would take sounds from my cello and treat them and then we'd make a background bed for them. It was really fun, we had like a little laboratory to experiment. It was really intimate and really fun. I still felt the pressure to perform well, but we could kind of have a little more fun and make up sounds.

Helen Money live at Motorco in Durham, NC. Credit: Stephanie Leathers/Moogfest

Helen Money live at Motorco in Durham, NC. Credit: Stephanie Leathers/Moogfest

PF: So when you translate those pieces live, does that present any new challenges, or do you restructure songs?

HM: I kind of just pare stuff down. There's a couple of songs where I've downloaded the drum track that my friend Jason Roeder played onto a looper. And so I kick that in at one point. I always worry it doesn't sound authentic, but I think it fits in with my overall sound ok. Also some sounds that Will created with my cello are loaded onto a looper, and I can bring those in. They kind of creep in and provide an ambience behind what I'm doing. So that's kind of how I managed translating the record to playing live.

PF: So the new record Become Zero is a deeply personal record. I'm curious in the writing of that - how do you translate emotions to your instrument? Are you thinking about something, then pick up the cello? Or is it more like you're playing, then threads start connecting?

HM: Well, when I write I look for a sound, and a sound will evoke a feeling in me. So I don't set out thinking, "I want to write a song about my dad, or my parents." I'll just start writing, and then something might remind me of them, so it's really more about looking for a sound. And for me that's often in my pedals, or maybe from the piano, and sometimes drums.

Helen Money's pedalboard. CREDIT: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

Helen Money's pedalboard. CREDIT: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

PF: What are some of the pedals that you're using now?

HM: For distortion I've got a Way Huge Swollen Pickle, which is a big fuzz pedal. I also have a Fulltone PlimSoul Overdrive, which has more of a boosty kind of deep sound. And I often use those together. I've got an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG that I like to use, and I've got two delays now - a Strymon Timeline delay and an Empress Superdelay.

PF: Do you use any extended technique when playing cello?

HM: Yeah, the one thing I started to do that I really like is playing with a guitar pick. So I can do a tremolo with the guitar pick on the cello, and then also just strumming with guitar pick is a really powerful sound.

PF: I played your music for my 14-year-old daughter, and she said, “She sounds like the Batman of the cello.”

HM: (Laughs) Batwoman!

PF: Yes, Batwoman! But it made me think - you could be doing anything with the instrument, but you’re steeped in minor, dense music. What is it about that kind of sound?

HM: Yeah I just like that dark, emotional stuff that takes you somewhere. I've always liked Shostakovich, Dvorak, Bach. I just like stuff that makes me feel something, and I just find it more interesting, the colors are more interesting than something that's happy. And the cello lends itself to that, it's kind of a dark instrument. 

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.